Thursday, March 27, 2008

Preparing for Christmas in Sweden



Lighting up the Darkness


The darkness of midwinter settles in damply and drearily in the South of Sweden. What little stretch of daylight is available might be covered with gray sky or a misty gray dampness. When the sky turns a deep winter blue and the sun comes out, the winds are especially icy. Swedes call it “miserable weather” and plan holidays for warmer, sunny places like Italy and Spain. They don’t leave, however, until they have enjoyed seeing the first lights of advent lit throughout the cities and towns.

In early November, cranes and cherry pickers blocked walkways and streets for the purpose of stringing thousands of Christmas lights around Malmö city (as well as the neighboring towns), across walking roads and major in-roads. The tiny lights appeared as mysterious dots against gray skies promising something wonderful on frighteningly windy days when the sky turned blue.


By U.S. Thanksgiving time, tents popped up in town centers, on weekends, selling hand crafted goods. More complicated arrays of light strings swooped down and across everything in anticipation of outdoor chorus concerts, tiny carousel’s, and the many shoppers who would pass by. Thousands of candles lit park pathways and front stoops of shops and restaurants. By the first Sunday of advent, in the blowing rain and gray curtains of darkness, a message of light swelled up from the ground and lifted ones eyes as high as the uppermost windows of the many-windowed apartment buildings. More than a month of preparation led to beautifully lit cobbled streets as well as new and ancient buildings. Within most, if not each, of the windows in a house, high-rise, office building, church or storefront, stood the distinct seven candled, tiered Christmas lamp, lighting up the winter (not one of my photos of such a phenomena turned out, consider yourself warned).



From my point of view, before the flu hit me for three weeks, during Christmas and after, the people of Scandinavia (Finland, Denmark, Sweden and probably Norway, too) committed to keeping their lamps lit between 3:30 pm to 10 am from Advent through Epiphany or 20 days beyond Christmas. It didn’t matter how cold the wind, I was drawn to walking the streets or peering out our rental house windows to see how the comforting lights were displayed. Some people used the traditional lamps, some used more modern facsimiles in typical sleek Swedish design, but all celebrated the lights of Christmas.


In Höllviken, special light displays graced the centers of rotaries (or round abouts) on the main streets. Few people displayed lighted crèches or Santa’s on the outside walls or yards of their homes. One house down the street had a fancy lit entry way complete with chandelier and complementary swags of lights to each corner--all formed with Christmas light strings. There were lights along walkways and candles flickering deep inside the houses as well as at the doorsteps. One hardly noticed the darkness for the touch of human warmth displayed in so many windows. Even the narrow sea passage between Denmark and Sweden was alight with the Oresund Bridge, the red and green guiding lights for the big ships, and the huge ferries strung with more lights than usual. There were lights for the trees and bushes, too, so that gardens stood out in the darkness. When I say that trees were lit, I mean that oftentimes someone had taken the time to outline nearly every branch of the tree within their own yards.


Christmas Trees

We hardly saw Christmas trees. They didn’t even appear for sale (in rows leaning against a fence board, usually tightly wrapped) until well into December. The tradition is to put the tree up on Christmas Eve and leave it up for twenty days after. Nevertheless, by December 14th, or so, we set up a tree to enliven our home. Phil found a perfect Noble Fir (illegal to cut in Idaho!) and bought one string of lights. When I asked why he purchased only one string of lights, he said that the one string cost $20. Wow! We enjoyed what light we had. Our decorations were either home-made or those I had been collecting on our travels since we left Idaho.


Before I was sick, I purchased some of those large paper stars you can hang from the ceiling. We rigged up a little lamp to go inside one and enjoyed the other two hanging from curtain rods in the living room. Mostly, we enjoyed the lights in other people’s windows.


In fact, the consistency of each day’s lighting of the lamps became a comfort to me. Here, where I could not understand the language, I understood light and the commitment of these kind people to light up the darkness. There was more to this, however. It seemed to me that these people relished the time of darkness; relished the coziness of lighting more candles and situating other decorative points of light. This was illustrated to me by a man who had lived his whole life in Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle. He said, "People ask me how I can stand the darkness of winter, but I wouldn't trade it for any other time of year!


I tried to buy one of the seven candled lamps at a discount (they often cost between $20 and $100). However, the customer representatives told me that the lamps are so popular that they sell them back to the wholesaler for full value at the end of the season, which is more profitable than discounting them. Sigh. I bought a five candle, cheap lamp and before Christmas time was over a bulb had burnt out such that no other bulb on the stand lit. Furthermore, Phil tells me the light will be difficult to use in the U.S. because of the difference in electrical cords and such (don’t ask me to explain this, I can’t).


Foteviken

The Viking Museum/Community (during the summer, they live on the premises) had a one-day sale during Christmas. This Viking fort is just down the road from our little town. We enjoyed seeing the people dressed as Vikings (clothes they wear on a regular basis), watching the leather-worker, the iron smiths, the lady dying wool, as well as purchasing things made of cow horns, nails and leather. The only other time to visit the Viking Museum is in the summer, so we were fortunate they had this one other day in the year to visit. Hunter and I enjoyed ourselves as much as we could, but we both had fevers, the cold air was brutal on our lungs, and Hunter kept asking if we could go home. He does, however, enjoy the hand-made wooden sword we bought during that time.


Christmas Shopping

Phil took us to down town Malmö to go Christmas shopping just before we left for Turku, Finland. It was great fun to wander down the streets and visit the makeshift store fronts for the purchase of hand-made goods. I found a few gifts for prices far below what I could find inside the big shopping centers. No matter what, though, Hunter and I just couldn’t shop as long as we might because our strength was so low. It was good to be out among the festivities and to see Hunter’s eyes dance in the toy store. The city was beautiful, especially reflected in the canals throughout the downtown area.


Christmas Music

The greatest percentage of music heard in shopping centers and piped onto the streets was from American Christmas classics and favorites. A few Swedish songs played intermittently. We thought this pretty interesting. Most radio stations we found, in Southern Sweden, as well as into Stockholm, played Christmas songs in English, too. Have you ever heard the song, “We believe in Santa now that Grandma was run over by a reindeer last year?” Those are not the exact words, but it’s sung in country twang and is one of the strangest Christmas songs I’ve ever heard. I heard it for the first time in Sweden.


December 21st

On December 21st, (“In the Bleak Midwinter” rang in my head) we packed the car full of gifts and luggage for a road trip to Stockholm where we stayed the night before lining up to drive our car onto a Silja (means seal) Line Ferry to Turku, Finland. The drive was too long, grey, rainy and dark to be of much interest. However, while Phil and Hunter napped, I was able to drive through some lake country that was just high enough to enjoy cooler temperatures and humidity to frost the trees and fields. Such beauty was a highlight to me on such a long drive.


Lyungby

One particularly interesting stop was at Ljungby. Phil didn’t want to drive all the way into the town for easy entry back on the freeway. So we had two choices, McDonald’s or a restaurang (as they spell it) within a Volvo industrial building. I had in mind some nostalgically, traditionally “country Swedish” food, which I figured would mean pressing in closer to town. But, no, Phil turned toward that industrial parking lot.

A double-trailer, eighteen-wheeler was backing into an impossibly narrow section of the same building about where one might hope to park for the restaurant. I asked Phil to pull up to a man in a yellow safety suit so I could ask, “Do you speak English?”

Came the typical reply, “Little.”

“Is the restaurant for normal people or workers only?” I asked.

“Normal people can eat.”

“Is it good?” I motioned with a thumbs up.

“Is very good,” the man said with a smile, returning a thumbs-up.

Phil drove in circles in the huge parking lot to find a space. He kept wanting to park in front of one of those semi-truck entrances. We finally parked parallel to some work vans and a flatbed truck.

“It’s a truck stop, alright,” Phil said, peering at a long row of eighteen-wheelers. No one wearing civilian clothes got out of normal passenger cars toward the restaurant.

We entered the building into a long, stark stairway up to a tiny cafeteria--so tiny we had trouble standing at the tray/ordering counter and not knocking the dirty tray rack over. Phil peered at the menu a long time, trying to decipher it. He finally ordered a hamburger each for himself and Hunter. I asked for the special, which the woman behind the counter told me was “schnitzel” (something I remembered singing in “My Favorite Things” but had never actually tried).

Then, we walked two steps to a table. No sooner had we turned from the counter and I realized it must not be normal for a woman to eat in this restaurant. All eyes followed me and our little family. Phil got a big kick out of this, coming to the same conclusion. Even when he went up to retrieve our orders, I was being observed by every eye in the place. I chose to divert my attention to Hunter, who had felt cooped up in the back seat for too long and enjoyed some attention. Somehow, I made him laugh his wonderful little laugh for a good, long time and everyone in the place smiled, too. When Phil sat down with us again, everyman turned back to his food.

The fact that we spoke English was probably another curiosity.

Hands down, my schnitzel with fried potato slices and steamed broccoli was the best of all. Phil wished he had purchased it for himself, but Hunter downed half of his hamburger (which was the widest burger I had ever seen) without the smallest complaint.

We went the opposite way from the stairs, out of the cafeteria, toward the restrooms for a pit stop. In the stall, Hunter asked me, “Mommy, why do we choose to do bad?”

“Do you mean yourself?” I asked to gain some time answering this question.

“No, I mean everybody,” Hunter said, really wanting to know.

Hoo boy, what a question in such a place! I thought. And I answered the best I could, hoping to revisit both the question and better answers later in the day. How does one explain the sin-nature to a child except that by his question, he had already observed it?

We left that tiny cafeteria, with its seven candeled tiered lights in each of three windows, next to red geraniums and tiny palm trees (Don't ask me. Swedes have a thing about palm trees). It took us 8 hours to drive what was supposed to take only 5 ½ hours from Höllviken to Stockholm.

Stockholm
Tired of driving, we had pizza near the hotel, then let Hunter enjoy the children's play room while we checked our e-mail. Later, from our hotel room we enjoyed watching the big ferries come and go, bedecked with strings of lights. We could see a little Christmas tree stand set up in the parking lot, below. Hundreds of apartment windows in the distance confirmed the Swedish commitment to make festive this long midwinter darkness.


[NOTE: I am told that, originally, Swedes used hand-carved four-candle stands for these lights--one candle for each Sunday in Advent, lighting the candles in order each week. Somehow, the hand-hewn stands with real candles have been replaced with electric, seven light stands which people light from the first Sunday of Advent until nearly the end of January.]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

March: Like a Snowy Lamb on a Sea-Breezy Day?



The last two days have been beautifully sunny! A bit cold, but sunny. The surprising thing has been that we will enjoy a pure starry sky with complement of the rounding moon before we sleep, then, in the morning, there has been snow on the ground. Yesterday there was more snow than I had seen the whole time we were here and not all of it was melted by the time we went to bed. (photo of unpruned Filia trees--a very strong symbol of Skane--the Southern part of Sweden)

At the same time, wildflowers of snowdrop, a bluebell-like flower, a yellow star, and crocus bravely endure the wind and the chill, sometimes peeking up from the snow, and the daffodils outside my writing window continue to swell nearly into bloom.

Yesterday morning, Hunter drug his feet when the Nanny wanted to take him to a nearby sledding hill. By the time he was finally willing, the only thing he was able to do was go “sand sledding” which sounds very difficult, to me. (photo: crocus and snowdrop)

Last night, while Phil was busy working on taxes (like many of you, I’m sure), Hunter and I occupied ourselves by going to the grocery store to get ingredients for Easter dinners (we’re invited to three, so far). Afterward, the moon invited me to visit a beach near the Barnsten Museum (where they showcase all kinds of Amber). We drove down a narrow dirt road riddled with puddle-filled potholes until we faced the sea. (photo: trembling daffodils)

The beach was built up with what a friend calls “cabbage soup:” mounds upon mounds of sea grass, tiny shells and other underwater delicacies. Because neither of us had our wading boots on, we had to stay rather close to the car and not approach the water. The sea was a deep dark blue mass only slightly highlighted by the moon (not like one might see it reflected on a still lake) and the outline of the shore a contrasting deep black. We could hear the slight lapping of waves, much more calm than it often is, and sense the peace of being out at night beyond teenagers and cars. The Orion constellation was immediately above us. There was very little snow remaining on the ground, if any. Hunter soon wanted back in the car, as the night spooked him.

By morning, though, the windows were bright upon our waking, reflecting the early morning sun off of the furtive snow fallen in the night. Now that it is a few moments past noon, it would be difficult to guess that the snow was ever here, except between rows on the plowed fields at the edge of the Höllviken harbor. (photo: snow on fields)

This has been Scandinavia’s warmest winter in at least 100 years. Strangely, however, March has been at or below freezing more than it has been throughout the winter months! We are having to put off one of our little whirlwind tours because of the cold and the rain. (photos: snow at the beach and view of the little beach houses)

I’ve heard from home that Easter feels like it is arriving before the winter has completely flown and tried to settle into spring. Such is the case, here, too.

So, let me be so bold as to finally write about Christmas time in Sweden in the next post. I will write more about Easter after we have been through the complete “season” which goes until the Sunday after Easter, in Sweden. (photo: snow blown pruned Filia trees along a tiny country road)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sweden's Ice Hotel, Jukkasjärvi


The small town of Jukkasjärvi is a few miles from Kiruna. Kiruna is one of the fastest growing towns in Sweden due to an Iron Ore mine. Ramona, the beautiful, short red-head wearing a reindeer pelt poncho and mittens, also our guide on the transport bus from the Kiruna airport, told us that Kiruna's town center is scheduled to be moved as a great amount of the ore is immediately beneath the town. She said this move was to be completed in about four years ( I believe--don't quote me on this).

The airport was so cute that I couldn't resist taking a photo of it. It seemed everything we passed on the outskirts of Kiruna was painted in the particular color of red.
Phil and I were completely smitten by the snowy landscape and dry, cold climate before we stepped off of the airplane. We enjoyed watching the trees go by and seeing similar things--even a space station--as we would see in Fairbanks, Alaska. We felt like we were home!

But we were headed for the Ice Hotel, a popular and well known place to go for an exotic vacation. The average stay is usually two nights, which we planned to do, as well.

One of the key features of the landscape is the Torne river. This river is a mode of transport, the water supply and the ice supply for the Ice Hotel and all of the Absolut Icebars available even as far as Tokyo (yes, the ice is actually transported).

Here is a photo of some dog sledding on the river.


We had the opportunity to go dogsledding. This photo is taken where we stopped for coffee and cinnamon buns within a teepee. Hunter enjoyed a much needed nap on the way back. It was perfect, too, because we were nestled into each other as a family and he was cozy as could be.
Our first day in Jukkasjärvi the sky was exceptionally clear and sunny. This is a photo, just before sunset, of the entrance to the Ice Hotel ice rooms, Absolut bar and amazing ice artwork. The double doors are covered in reindeer hides. The handles are reindeer antlers.

This is a photo of the main road into Jukkasjärvi on a snowy evening at dinner time. We were headed to The Old Homestead restaurant for dinner. We discovered it to be much too ritzy for four year olds...
Ice, snice (combination of ice and snow), and snow are the main ingredients used to build the Ice Hotel. This photo gives you a view of the sidewalls and how much the snow has compressed and compacted since it was built in November (this is Ice Hotel number 18--they let it melt in April and May, right back into the river, and build it back up again each November with the ice blocks they harvested from the river in March).



The Ice Hotel provides outer winter gear for its guests. This is a group of people wearing their winter gear on the way to some kind of adventure--maybe to see moose or reindeer or go snowmobiling.

The free outer winter gear was a selling point for me because the Ice Hotel in Finland charges extra for these things, which is inconvenient for travelers who don't usually have such things on hand.

The Ice Hotel Restaurant was classy, efficient and fluid enough to handle every kind of person without being stuffy. It was there we enjoyed our included breakfasts and a wonderful lunch buffet. Even Hunter could find food for his own palette. I enjoyed visiting with a woman from London over the toaster, one morning, as she fretted over those who attempted to retrieve their fresh-baked bread with knives and forks after toasting.

There are 10 design suites and 20 art suites at the Ice Hotel. I realize, now, that I don't know the difference enough to tell you if this is a design suite or an art suite. But I can (and am obligated to) tell you that the title of this room is "Operation Blade: Sci-fi and fantasy," by Ben Rousseau and Jai Drew of England. Hunter especially liked this room. The blue thing in the foreground is a large desk, as if it were a control panel desk in a space ship complete with a large bench.






Once inside the Ice Hotel entrance, a reception desk is to your right, a model of a room sits on an ice pillar to your right just before the entrance to the ice bar, then two electric sliding glass doors part for you. It is breathtaking to enter this amazing space of sculpture leading down a long corridor toward light filtering through outer blocks of ice off of the Torne River. This was a popular space for professional wedding photographs. We passed quite a few photo sessions on our way in and out of the ice room corridors which jutted out from this inspiring space filled by Lena Kriström Kulin's work, titled "Mellanrum: Mind the Gap." For more information about the artwork and artists and more details, visit The Ice Hotel site.

The first night we stayed in "warm accomodations." It was a cute chalet with beds for four. It was incredibly warm and mostly comfortable. Immensely more comfortable than an ice room, that is for sure!

Here are photos from the second night, when we slept in a family ice room. The bed is a wooden platform covered with an egg shell mattress and reindeer hides. Your belongings are stored in lockers to which you have the key. You are also provided these bright blue mummy sleeping bags with an inner liner. There is actually a tour titled, "How to survive the night in an ice room." The room is usually no colder than 22 degrees Farenheit.
We slept well. A lot of it is mental--once tiredness takes over, you and your warm self (because you have followed the advice given on the web site and worn thermals and fleece) sleep just fine. The beds are quite firm, so if you prefer something softer and warmer, this is not your experience. Hunter has jumped out of his sleeping bag after a good night's sleep, here, and is not freezing to death, yet. Very soon, I had him in his outer gear (which had been in the room all night, was cold, but soon warmed up with him) and he was singing and ready to run around. Phil said he has spent colder nights at Elk Camp than this experience.


Part of the instructions are to wear your sleeping bag into the reception to turn them in. This couple is doing so. They look cute wearing thermals and heaving their heavy sleeping bags back to the reception desk, I think.

Phil and I carried our sleeping bags under our arms. It must have been easier to wrap them around you than try what we did. Too often Phil and I do things the hard way...




When you stay in the ice rooms, you shower in a room much like an open gym restroom with exposed showers and benches lining the room for dressing. This is no private experience. Off to the side is a hot sauna (a Scandinavian experience not to be missed) and an ice sauna out the door. Unfortunately, I didn't discover the ice sauna until minutes before we had to leave (see pic, below). I regret not trying the hot to cold sauna experience. That would have been an experience, for sure!













The main reception, just off of the road from Kiruna to Juddasjärvi, is a practical space which includes check-in for your stay or simply a tour, as well as the ICEHOTEL Adventure group where you can sign up for any number of interesting adventures and a Lounge. Displayed on the ice wall outside are some of the sculptures from the ice sculpture class with Sweden-residing French artist, Patrick Dallard.Here I am with a sculpture I attempted. You wouldn't believe how readily the ice responded to the chisel and how easily one could carve a desired thing. I chose to make a hole into my block of ice and attempt to create a hand reaching through the ice. This worked great except that I could make no natural finger bends with a straight chisel, nor could I create rounded ends for the fingers. All in all, though, it was great fun and I'd love to try it again! Though this class went on for three hours, I only had one hour because one of our adventures was only available during this class.

The photo below is from the bus window while we waited to be shuttled to the airport. You can see the entrance to the ice portion, the curio shop on the left, one chalet to the right and the fenced deck to the Main Reception in the foreground. The canvas you see is stretched over the top of a small wagon which is connected to a four-wheeler for transporting luggage. It snowed two of the days we were there, including this day, thus the water on the window.

A family with three young boys had also stayed at the Ice Hotel the same nights we had. However, it was not until we were on the bus leaving the hotel that the boys were able to visit. This ended up being a God-send because the boys played the guessing game on the bus and built lego structures together while we waited at the airport. Without those boys, Hunter would have been difficult to deal with (which he had been on and off during our stay)!

Really, there is so much more. We took the Northern Lights Snowmobile tour the first night we arrived. Because it was night, I didn't even attempt to take my camera. Phil and Hunter were on a snowmobile near the end of the line of snowmobiles and I rode on the back of the tour guide's mobile because I felt uncertain about driving the thing for four hours.

Included in this deal was dinner. The tour started at 7 pm and we had no idea when dinner would be. After stopping several times to observe the Northern lights beautifully displayed in a starry, sliver moonlit sky and bumping over snowmobile washboard for what seemed hours, we finally ended up at a Sami hut for dinner. This was well after 9 pm. I had not dressed properly (because I kept sweating in my gear during the day), so I was especially glad to warm up with the rest of our group around the fire. Hunter ate his Sami round, flat bread and Salmon sandwich without complaining because he was so hungry (and cold). Our guide had a warm fire going in the middle of the round hut, a moose soup simmering over the burner and "cheese rolls" for dipping in the hot soup (they were like cheese burritos, but with Sami bread). We enjoyed warm blueberry coffee cake and hot tea or coffee for dessert.

Afterward, I felt the need to use the outhouse, which was a two door set-up with homourous heart-shaped windows in each door. The seat was a bit higher than I could easily reach and the step stool not much help. The hook-latch was bent such that I could not force the hook into the eye to lock it. Mind you, I had to go badly, and there was a lot of gear to remove in this small, unlocked space. I sat down on a wet seat, to boot, and wished there were some way to simply hover over these silly things. I attempted to step down from the seat, my full body suit down to my knees, etc., but my snowy boots slipped on the step stool and bumped against the door that I had not been able to latch. Of course the door flew open, banging loudly against the other door. I had to attempt a quick door-grab and one-pull dressing dance at the same time, but the arm of my snowsuit caught between the frame and the door at the floor. Since I'm no longer a skinny rail, I got to open and re-open the door until I could get my coat out from under the door in my not quite dressed state. Yesserree, I had my own personal Northern Exposure experience right there in Northern Sweden.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lund, Sweden: Giving it a Second Chance

(more photos and a movie will be posted later)


Rainy Day Blues

Nevermind the rain. It’s become a cliché to mention how hard the wind blows. Adhere to the Swedish ideal that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Layer and persevere.

Such were the conversations Phil and I had together before heading only an hour away to Lund, our second attempt at seeing this town.

Nearly every encounter with a Swede, curious about where we are from and how long we will visit Sweden, we are informed that our stay is during the most miserable weather, “But don’t write about that!” they tell me. No, they want me to write about the lure of the sea, of the good days and places, that is, if they don’t already know that I love Sweden! We are no longer put off by the weather.

That said, we climbed in the car last Friday afternoon, after thunder, lightening and rain the night before. The weather news mentioned more rain with a bit of sun so we packed for rain and hoped for sun.

We made reservations for three in an old STF train, though only a hostel, called STF Tårget
(see trainhostel.com) and made sure to help Hunter anticipate the fun of the train rather than his now quick response that he doesn’t want to go anywhere.

It was great fun to check in, find the sleeping car (past the office car, the game room car, the WC car) and our stacked bunks 1 – 3 in a lineup of similar sleeper rooms. We bumped each other and our heads getting our own bedding on each of the bunks and found the many hooks and high-up shallow shelves useful for keeping the clutter out from under and around our feet. (I was secretly pleased to get the highest bunk, providing the excuse to climb up and down the wall-mounted ladder.

Hunter, completely enamored, ran the length of the train to discover every room and available activity. He found the ping pong table, the hockey game that is more involved than foozeball, the dining car with the board games and reclining train seats. He could tell me which doors led to the showers and the toilets and what genders. He didn’t mind that people were coming down the narrow hallways when he went barreling through, nearly plastering other guests to the walls to avoid him. But this is Sweden, after all, and people just smile at rambunctious children. Some older elementary-aged boys were especially helpful with Hunter, sometimes including him in their games.

Supper in the Dining Car

We were finally able to corral Hunter when we took our sack-dinner to the dining car. Hunter had requested that we bring hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, apples and chips. That’s what we ate while the woman at the next table ate buttered tortillas and cheese, another family made a full-fledged spaghetti dinner, the smell wafting through the diner, and two college-aged kids ate yogurt and cornflakes while watching their portable DVD players and doing grotesques in yarn and cross-stitch.

The dining car was divided into a third kitchen, a third tables and chairs, and a third were the old train seats facing the front of the train toward a corner bookshelf of books and games and a small color television on a low stand. Eventually, many of the guests who dined at the tables wandered into the television area. After Hunter was finished snarfing his food, however, he wanted to play board games with us. This meant that he had to walk in front of those watching television to get a game, play it with me or his dad (it never takes long for a game of Chinese Checkers for two), then need to get another game, higher up and impossible to reach, etc., etc. After several such runs to the game area, one of the helpful boys started bringing games to us so Hunter might not disturb the television watching so often. This worked for a few minutes.

We finally decided to relieve people of our son and wander back to our room. Hunter was a fly in a tiny box there, too, so I offered to play ping pong with him. He couldn’t hit the ball, but rather kept making his paddle hit the table flatly (and loudly) on the table. I told him to go get his dad. Phil joined us for some good vollies while Hunter was the side-guard (go-fer). This was enough to keep us all occupied until just before bed-time.

Sleep. Yes, nice idea. Hunter fell into wonderland first, then Phil, just before two drunk, giggly, loud and screaming girls entered the sleeping car. Since our room was at the entrance to this car, they often stood immediately outside of our room to make their noises, have urgent discussions, drop their shoes, squeal off in one direction or another only to return to do it all over again. They often ran up and down the hall, making it feel like this parked train was actually clacking down the tracks (until two AM). By the sound of Phil and Hunter’s even breathing, I knew they got some great sleep before I was ever able to nod off.

It rained on the metal roof above me all night.

Saturday Morning

On my way to the WC car, a young gentleman wrapped in a large towel, wearing also a t-shirt and flip-flops, held the entrance door open for me. Though I was bleary-eyed, I realized we hadn’t come prepared for footwear in the shower—a must at youth hostels. We skipped showering.

At least we caught breakfast just a few minutes before closing. It was the usual fare, yogurt, cereal, milk, cheese, vegetables, and tiny bowls of fruit and seeds (I mean tiny, and these were part of the buffet). We managed just fine. The dining car bustled even more than it had the night before.

Hunter and I played that hockey game on the way back to the room. It took us awhile to get the hang of where the levers were for each player and what each player could reach. I’m sure we were noisy. Before we were done, Miss Giggles and Miss Squealer appeared. Since they had missed breakfast, they sucked on more beer and used the wrong restrooms, so that upon realization, they were back to more screaming, laughing and running down the halls back to their room.

Not Such a Good Idea

I packed up the room so Phil and Hunter could take everything out to the car. While they were gone, I decided to lean out our room window (first climb the fold-up stationary chair, then kneel on the sturdy little shelf-table, then pull the spring-loaded window down to half-way (as far as it would go) and try to lean out for a long-shot of the train. There are signs throughout the train urging people to shake their sheets (we had brought our own) out the window and a great black and white photo of a man doing so, his sheet waving neatly in the wind. There is no way I could have done such a feat and it was becoming obvious that a photo from such a precarious position was not working well, either. So, I decided it was time to quit this non-sense and get down. Only, my right foot missed the chair and my left shin took the brunt of what became an ugly fall from the edge of the table. My body swerved and caught, at rib-level, the middle bunk. Bruises appeared immediately and I was suddenly not in the mood for a walking tour around Lund. No one saw me, so I got out my handy arnica cream and it helped, though the place was still tender and purple. I hadn’t realized (besides feeling it) I had a nasty bruise at my side until Phil came in the room to make sure we hadn’t left anything, and he saw it. At least he was sympathetic.

That settled it, there was nothing more for me to do in the train and we had a town to see. I handed in the front door key after getting permission to leave our car parked in the lot all day (free parking is difficult to find in Lund). But, because we handed in our key, we couldn’t get to the nice platform leading to the path that went alongside the hostel and over the train station next door. We decided to scale a small, but well-worn, mud-slide in a berm. Phil was up first, but Hunter slid down, catching himself in the crotch of a tree, but barely. I leapt up the hill to push Hunter up and felt like a cartoon character in fast-foot mode. My camera kept swinging and trying to hit the dirt in front of me.

Hunter’s little friend, David, lives in Lund. We had made arrangements for David’s dad to meet us at the train station so we could simply walk from there. I had read about a great big children’s play area and hoped to end up where the boys could play. Before we had cleared the length of the hostel, however, and we only had a few minutes before David and his dad would be waiting, it started to rain. And I mean rain.

Meeting at the Train Station

Phil decided to go back to the car for our umbrellas. I was grateful for his willingness and steered Hunter toward the covered overpass, bicycles whirring past us on all sides. We waited for what seemed an awfully long time. When Phil appeared at the end of the overpass, he handed me the umbrella and we rushed to the other side and down the escalator to meet David, whose dad was already calling us to see where we were. Phil had an awful lot of trouble getting to his cell phone.

At one point, I was mortified to discover that my hand was completely covered in mud. I couldn’t figure out what I had touched. What was worse was that every time I moved the umbrella to the other hand to get cleaned up, the other hand and my coat sleeves would get muddy. It wasn’t until David’s dad reached out to shake my hand that I saw the end of my umbrella was simply caked with mud. I looked at Phil as if to question just why he would hand me a muddy umbrella without telling me, and there he stood, befuddled, one whole side of his body completely covered in mud.

“Did you fall?” I asked.

“Yes!” he declared, agitated that it had taken me so long to sympathize.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I had no idea!”

“Well,” he huffed, sweeping his long arm along the side of his body, “I thought you would notice!” Leave it to a man to require so much mind-reading.

I hadn’t noticed, and I was miffed that he wouldn’t announce that my umbrella handle was caked with mud before putting the stuff right into my unsuspecting hand. Don’t laugh! It’s not funny. Furthermore, we were in Lund where there were hardly any restrooms for the public except what required 5 kronor, of which we had not even one because Phil needed to find an ATM. Kleenex merely balled up and shredded when I tried to wipe off with it.

The boys chased around in circles, after David’s dad left us in this state, and we poured over my rain-wet map and the one on a kiosk by the bus stop. We were still exchanging pithy remarks when the boys asked where we were going and complained that they were getting wet. Wet, indeed, and we can’t even use the umbrella for getting completely filthy.

The Cathedral Museum

I decided I could get us to the first point of interest and took off in a huff. What an irritating day. Even the boys’ happy banter made me crazy. But we eventually found the ruins of an old cathedral under an Espresso café. There, I was able to rid myself of my now muddy coat and walk around in out of the rain to try to get some composure. There was no one else down there, so I didn’t even bother with telling the boys to be quiet or stop running. They were especially taken by the “oldest set of bones” skeleton lying in the casket at the end of the display.

Someone needed a bathroom and I didn’t have the foggiest idea where we would find one without someone having an accident when Phil suddenly emerged from a side door, smiling. He had found the unmarked room and had been able to wash a good portion of the mud off of his pants. Boy, was I in there in a flash, washing my hands and grateful there was a good pile of paper towels. I scrubbed the end of my umbrella and tried to scrub the muddy places off of my coat. After everyone had used the restroom to ease their comfort, we ascended the stairs and filed out into the rain as new people.

The Botanical Garden

Yummy smells wafted through the streets as we walked toward our next place, the acclaimed Botanical Garden. It was there I hoped we would find the playground and a cozy café for lunch. The boys and I walked past all the yummy smells, ahead of Phil while he got money. Again, it took Phil so long that we stopped on the outer edge of the farmer’s market to wait. Hunter chased a flock of pigeons and David watched in envy (but he did not feel it worthy of his good behavior to do. The rain stopped often enough to give us a little reprieve. When Phil finally caught up with us, he admitted that he’d had his glasses tightened (oh, did I neglect to tell you that his lens had fallen out that morning, too?)

It was not much of a walk to the park, but we soon discovered that there wasn’t much to see, either. It was gloomy with rain (read: mud) and the lack of very many blooming things or even greenery at all. The rain was soaking us, again, and we had passed a schoolyard so that the boys didn’t care how wonderful another playground was supposed to be, they wanted to play on that one, then get some lunch.

They played half-heartedly in the rain, got cold and wanted to eat. Not at a café, either. They had in mind hot-dogs and NOW. We wandered the streets back toward the Cathedral in the hopes that we might catch the hymn-playing clock that sounded at exactly noon and three. By the time we found it again, it was five-after-noon. The boys were practically crying with hunger. It took us no time to fall in line at a hot-dog cart and stand in the downtown square eating hotdogs and slurping apple juice. Phil was smug that he’d fed so many with so little. But David started shivering, and I mean shivering! So we finished our dogs and David talked us into ducking into the cathedral long enough to warm up a little, even if the clock wouldn’t chime.

While we were in there, we looked again in the crypt to find the place the Giant Finn was buried. Still couldn’t find him and the clerk was absent from the reception desk for finding out (all the guidebooks talk about this Giant’s bones). I was able to scan a whole brochure on the crypt and the Giant and never found anything more out, but didn’t have to spend the 10 kronor, either, because I returned the brochure unscathed.

Conditori Lundagård

Phil had promised he would take us to the Conditori Lundagård for a nice treat where we could sit down. David jumped up and down as we waited for our number to be called (take a number anywhere you go in Sweden). He ordered the biggest pastry in the pastry window. Then, as we were finding two little tables and four chairs, David and Hunter discovered the toys in the coat closet. That was it for Hunter. He needed no such thing as a treat, he just wanted to play. Finally, there was something in a building to redeem the miserable day! Hearing Hunter and David speak in English (David speaks English and Swedish), attracted a tiny little girl who was astounded to hear her own language among children. Come to find out, her mother had been a professor in Virginia in The States, though they now lived in Lund. Phil and I enjoyed our pastries in peace while the boys played with cars, tripping the people coming and going with their pastries and coats.

By the time we had finished our pastries, it was time to walk back over the train station and to our car to take David home in time to attend a birthday party. I begged Phil to find a better way to the car than the mudslide and he expertly led us into an empty schoolyard to the car with no mishaps. Except, according to David, for one: Hunter whizzed in the bushes at the school yard. David came running to tell me, as if a major sin had been committed. When I realized school was out for the day and the windows were not apartment windows, I let it slide. Afterall, where would we find another bathroom?

The Fire Safety Inspector

Just before the school yard, a man stopped us saying, “I hear you speaking English. Where are you from?” He also complemented Hunter on his beautiful singing though he "couldn't quite make it out." (Neither can we, most of the time)

We exchanged friendly conversation and he asked me to include him in this story. His name was Håkan. Though he was originally from Stockholm where he liked it better, his work as a fire safety inspector had taken him to Lund and he had never left, even after retirement, because it was “a great effort” to move back to Stockholm. He was a friendly chap and I wish we could have spoken longer, but we had all that whizzing and tattling going on, so we needed to get going.

You might not want to read this part

On the way to David’s house, I was hit by a monstrous stomach ache that would soon explode. Fortunately, we attend church with David’s folks, so they let me use the bathroom. David rushed off to the birthday party and I said my goodbye-see-you-tomorrows and was off so we could finally “do”the rest of Lund without an extra boy who didn’t really want to be with Hunter, anyway. Truth be told, none of us were in the mood to continue walking aimlessly around this rainy town, but we were determined not to come a third time until it was at least late spring!

The stomach that wanted to explode did not quiet. No sooner had we found parking, I was in need of another WC. St. Peter’s Cathedral, by which we parked, was locked (the guidebook said it held regular tours, but not this day, obviously). We walked to the other Cathedral. No restrooms there, either. The 5 kronor WC was nearby, but it required a 5 and I only had the 20 Phil gave me.

The Medieval Clock in the Cathedral

The wind whipped up and it started to pour. Umbrellas turned inside-out and it was nearly three o’clock. We went in to join nearly a hundred people sitting in pews facing backward from the front of the church but placed in front of the Medieval Clock, waiting eight more minutes to hear the wondrous sound and see the wondrous sights. Several nationalities and languages were represented in those pews. We weren’t the only ones touring Lund on a bad-weather day. It was obvious we had all read our guidebooks, too, and were dutifully awaiting the one great event in the city (ask the locals about it, and they don’t know anything about it). I know this to be true because after the little wooden doors opened and the wise men, the shepherd and a few other key people circled Mary and the Baby to the tune of “Christ is Born Today,” the little doors closed with a slight bang and it was all over. Two seconds of silence and the whole group of us laughed because it was such a silly, small thing for what it is written up to be.

Business is Business

No one at the bus stop next to the 5 kronor WC had change for a twenty, but they looked worried that I might snatch their wallets, anyway. I didn’t believe a one of them, and said so under my breath (even a trip to the Cathedral did not make me repentant for breathing such things). I shoved my 20 kronor in my pocket and marched up the street to where we’d had our pastries. In I walked, straight back to the empty WC, no charge for kund (customers) and saved myself a twenty (not quite four dollars) on the premise that I’d been a customer just an hour before.

Feeling much better, I was able to meet Phil and Hunter where they searched for the next museum we wanted to see. Many places were closed or soon closing. We were glad to discover that the Museum of Sketches would still be open awhile and was very near our car. This was truly the ONE PLACE I wanted to see, more than all the fool stuff in the second oldest town in Sweden. And boy, was it worth it!

The Museum of Sketches

This, we decided, would be the last attempt at trying to see anything. We were tired and rain-weary.

Inside the museum, our eyes nearly popped out of our back-extended heads. Paintings and sculptures, mounted from floor to very high ceiling, demanded attention, each one with the original corresponding sketches--“inventions” of the art. The sketches were on napkins, ads, newsprint paper, old letterhead, paper bags, etc and the art was fantastic. Many of the sculpture mock-ups and moulds were there, too. Believe it or not, even Hunter was smitten by this place. He enjoyed finding the art to go with the sketch and how often the first sketches looked like his own doodlings. We recognized the first sketches, paintings and mock-ups of the dome mosaic in the Lund Cathedral. I recognized a first sculpture of one I'd seen in Helsinki, Finland, five years earlier, of a mother holding her baby up. Forgive me if I can’t drop names. I’m terrible with names. All in all we were pleased and gawking.

If we go back to Lund, I’m going to the Museum of Sketches again when I’m less frustrated and more awake.

There were other cultural and art museums we missed because they closed by four pm or seemed to be closed that day. We really will have to drive back to Lund a third time just to finally see what is important—the art!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Poetry, Fiction, Non-Fiction: Book Reviews since January

I've renewed these books from the Malmö City Library so that I could tell you about them, but it has come to my realization that I read the due date incorrectly (you can't rely on the order of date, month, year, I guess), they want my money. Before I cough up the money, however, I will do a quick review so you can check them out for yourself or save yourself the trouble, whichever works.

**POETRY**

"The Star-Apple Kingdom," by Derek Walcott, 1980, ed. Jonathan Cape, Britain
.
Yes, I know it is old, but that's the only poetry available in English at dear old Malmö Stadsbibliotek.

Walcott is a strange favorite of mine. His content is often too brash for me, but his descriptions are nearly perfect and his verbs are worth re-using because they are so different than the ordinary.

My suspicion is that this book is on the shelves in Sweden because it is in most ways about the sea. Since Sweden is surrounded on three sides by the sea. Sometimes the poems seem to be written from right here, where I'm currently living, overlooking the Baltic Sea.

Thus the favorite poem in this book is titled, "The Sea is History." Wow! Does this poem blow the socks off.

"Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

"First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,

"the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the s***, the moaning:

"Exodus.
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mosaics
mantled by the benediction of the shark's shadow,

"that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor"

and that is probably more of an exerpt than I should share. He continues with great historical leaps, surprising connections and conclusive leap-words. All credit due to the artist! I have his collected works at home and miss flipping it open to random places to behold his sense of wording and timing.

"The Wild Iris," by Louise Glück, 1992, Carcanet Press Limited, England.

Back when Louise was Poet Laureate of the U.S., I read what pieces of hers were available and highlighted on the internet. Who am I to say this? Nobody: I was not in the least bit impressed. But I hadn't read a whole book of hers, so decided (in the midst of so little available poetry) to give her another try.

I'm glad I did. The poems in this book appear to be from the perspective of flowers and trees. The garden plays a huge role, but the voice/narrator is difficult to place. Nevertheless, the feeling of trying to figure out where the voice is coming from is profoundly effective as a mode for transferring ideas previously attributed to overbearing deities or overly opinionated poets. Flowers are not overbearing. Their position of frailty, humility and vulnerability give them an amazing power.

"A New Path to the Waterfall: Last Poems," by Raymond Carver, 1989, Collins Carvill, Britain.

I've known Raymond Carver for his short stories--vivid, masterful. But I'd never known a single poem. Not only that, but the idea of these poems being his last intrigued me. Sure enough, according to another poet I admire, Tess Gallagher (who knew they were intimate?), these were his last poems before he died. I didn't even know he was dead. Mourn, now, if you didn't already know.

It is important to note that these poems were Carver's last. They feel like a flood of memories needing to be sifted. But who, among those who attempt poetry, does not relate to such things raising their heads at the very moment one sits down to write? This book is a heftier volume of "last words" and as satisfying for the curious.

The following poem is fairly vivid for half of the world's population:

My Wife, by Rayond Carver

My wife has disappeared along with her clothes.
She left behind two nylon stockings, and
a hairbrush overlooked behind the bed.
I should like to call your attention
to these shapely nylons, and to the strong
dark hair caught in the bristles of the brush.
I drop the nylons into the garbage sack; the brush
I'll keep and use. It is only the bed
that seems strange and impossible to account for.

Makes your stomach churn...

"Everyman's Poetry," Thomas Hardy, 1998, Orien Publishing Group, London.

We can be sure that Thomas Hardy was no longer living in 1998. However, his works live on.

I admit, I did not read this whole book (normally I read a book of poetry like a child devours a bag of candy). This is of great sadness to me now that I must take it back and pay my dues. But reading a whole string of Hardy's poems is much like eating too rich a chocolate. It's a little too pure. One must take small bites. I'll have to taste of his poetry more, later.

Here's an example:

A Necessitarian's Epitaph

A world I did not wish to enter
Took me and poised me on my centre,
Made me grimace, and foot, and prance,
As cats on hot bricks have to dance
Strange jigs to keep them from the floor,
Till they sink down and feel no more.

or another:

Christmas: 1924

'Peace on earth!' was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison gas.



"When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," by Ray Bradbury, 1975, Fletcher & Son Ltd, Norwich.

Who knew that Ray Bradbury wrote poems? Of course, we know Farenheit 451 and several other short stories. He even wrote a great writing book, "Zen and the Art of Writing." But poetry?

Sure enough, here is a strangely titled book full of extra long, rhyming poetry. It's cumbersome in many ways, but shows his understanding of forms, of good rhymes and, in many ways, apt wording. In some ways it is a little too sentimental and, in others, too prone to physical concerns.

You should read, "The Boys Across the Street are Driving My Young Daughter Mad," his Darwin series and, yes, why not try plodding through "When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," and see if one can make sense of it.

I didn't make it through this whole book, either, but it was playful and artful and might one day win a space on my bookshelf, if only for the novelty, if I can find it for a dime or a quarter.

"Quantum Lyrics: {poems}," by A. Van Jordan, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc, New York.

I've never before heard of this poet (which would be the case for probably 80% of the poets out there; so many to know, so little time). It was the title that grabbed me, especially the layering of the word lyrics in the place of physics. I'm also secretly interested in science, but don't tell my old science teachers who gave me F's on tests.

There are poems related to race with wonderfully fun twists, to love, a whole section devoted to Einstein and his loves, and poems on scientific lectures and other things of interest, including comic book super heros. It would be difficult to highlight just one poem. I couldn't read them fast enough.

Note for Tumblewords: There's a poem in there called "Fractals" and the title fits the poem well.

Here, I'll lift out a few stanza's of "Remembrance:"

"Yesterday, today and tomorrow
string together a necklace of Wednesdays.
I go weeks like this:

where Friday nights spin
into a myth
I no longer believe,

where the words, getting over, italicize
into a mere idea.
I wake up some mornings..."

The poem gains speed, gets better, eventually drops into the profundity of the mundane.

If you can find this book, check it out!

"Nordic Poetry Festival New York Anthology," eds. Kajsa Leander and Ernst Malmsten, 1993, Sweden.

I picked this book off of the shelf to get a sense of poets from the area I'm spying on these last few months. Especially fun is that these poems are translated from Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish, Sami, Faroese and Greenlandic. If only I could understand these poems in their own languages! And if only I could find a more current anthology!

This poem, by Krsten Hammann, Denmark, hit close to home (excuse the female slant):

"I'm So Sick of my Body

I'm so sick of my body
I must educate it
and order it about
and speak harshly
Suddenly it drinks from the wrong bottle
or gasps for air in an infected room
When we have been to the park
it just stays there on the bench
and I have to go back and fetch it
In all respects it is childish and unreasonable
I'm most ashamed of it

What a nuisance it is
to see it flail about and act up
Then it's food
FOOD, it wants food!
or warmth, sleep
much too expensive and long showers
romantic moments
it spends hours
pretending to procreate
and then it's the heart
it begins to sigh
it is broken
somebody of no consequence has trampled on it
how boring it is
and still I feel a certain concern
it is so bloody and banal
it doesn't know what to do with itself
that worries me
it just grows older and older
and prone to stumbling" translated from the Danish by Per K. Brask

I like Hanne Bramness's lines in "Stockholm Days." Here are a few (she translated her own Norwegian into English. We can be sure the words are those the author desired):

"The city rises

smoke from ice holes
swans on heavy wings

a January day lifts
from the fjord in front of us"


Gösta Ågren's poem "Europe's Cathedrals" reminds me of what we see in every big and small town we pass through. Here are a few of his lines (translated from the Swedish by David McDuff, but the poet is Finnish):

"They are the Middle Ages' vast
radio sets, tuned
to a station that without
cease transmits silence.
The message is that there is
a message, something so simple
words cannot explain. It
needs cathedrals. But..."

Of course there were many more interesting poets and ways of thinking. It was difficult to keep from categorizing (i.e. oh, so that's how the Finnish/Danish/Sami/etc. think/write/speak). I am grateful for old books with old poems found on shelves in different cities, states, countries, for the windows they provide for sights into different mental landscapes.

**FICTION**

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," by Kurt Vonnegut, 1998, Delta Publishing, New York.

My daughters read this book in High School, so I decided to see for myself about Kurt Vonnegut's style of writing. I'm told his style changes from book to book.

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," is written in a conversational tone, easy reading, random section breaks (sometimes in the middle of a scene or dialogue), good suspension of belief--even past the last page, if that's possible--and the ability to play with ones brain.

For those of you who have read the book, I really liked questionably insane Elliot, about whom the book is written, through the eyes of a certain Norman Mushari, who seems to quietly enter and exit the scene. The ending was surprising but satisfying in a fiendish way.

**NON-FICTION**

"Collected Essays, Vol. 2," by
Virginia Woolf, 1966, The Hogarth Press, London.

My experience with Virginia Woolf is her historical novel, "To The Lighthouse," given to me by my maternal grandfather when I was a youth. It launched me from simple romances to books of greater interest. Grandpa Brown was right when he said I'd like it.

I don't believe I've read anything of hers, since, unless maybe a short story, or two. So, I decided to chance reading some of her essays. Unfortunately, these essays don't have the personal interest of, say, Montaigne or C.K. Chesterton, but they are very approachable. They are more commentary on literary forms of writing and criticism. Considering the fact that most of these essays on Fiction, Reading, Women in Fiction and more, I was astounded to follow her so well and to be delighted that she was careful to throw in vivid images to keep the reader from falling asleep in theoretical academics.

Unfortunately, I read a few essays, but didn't get through them all in the time before I must take the book back, but I will likely revisit this book again, if not to own it myself. It is quite useful to the writer as well as the avid reader.


The time approaches for me to drive to the city to take these books back. Besides, my son is now home from preschool and is bored with my writing instead of doing something with him. He's gone to thumbing through his own library books, but would very much enjoy a trip to the bigger library where there are playthings as well as more books to look at, so off we go.

Thanks for reading!



















Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Easter-instead-of-Christmas Greeting

[I've sent this letter out to my friends and family as one would at Christmastime, but one of my friends, a blogger friend, too, requested I put it here for the whole world to see. Yipes! ]


February 29, 2008

Dear Friends and Family, near and far,

No doubt you wonder where we are. Not Hayden or Idaho or even The States, we tell you now, a few months late, but to Sweden, southwestward, near a point in a straight. We call Hull-vee-kin (spelled Höllviken) our home, though Phil works in Malmö, as a call from overseas launched Phil’s consulting business right-then-and-there-o.

No sooner had we landed in Copenhagen and crossed the big bridge, than we played house and worked and missed home, just a smidge, (believe that, and I’ll sell you a fine flying ‘fridge), than we were whisked over Germany, Austria and the heart of the world (or maybe the edge?) to Israel where tropics and sunshine, conflict and Biblical history converge. (Phil worked long days with a company called Crow, while Hunter and I played in sand as white as your snow.)

The first day in Sweden we attended a church, sang songs in our language and found friends, end of church-search. We now have friends from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast and Brazil, from Kansas and Sweden and Denmark, it’s swell! Hunter’s friend, David, dark as he is light, two years older, knowing wrong from right, helped ease the change from home to the land of extreme light.

Hunter was three when we took flight, but turned four in Stockholm, to his delight. He had marzipan cake, in his fav’d color, green, and spetkaka of Skåne, neither of which tasted quite right to a boy who’s more fond of the cakes in The States.

It was there, in Stockholm, three days after our tour of Jerusalem, we met up with friends who call Finland their home. They arrived via ferry, having crossed the Baltic sea, and walked us down streets where to find wieners, hand-crafts and candy, where museums boasted the ages-- so much to see: sunken ships of determined kings, Pippi, Pettson, Jonathan, Karlsson, Emil and other nonsensical things. Hours before our friends had to go, they invited us to spend Christmas in Turku. They stood in short lines for a very long time, making arrangements for us and our car to take Silja Lines for a fraction the cost of Scandinavian Airlines.

From there we said good-bye, hejdåg, see you soon, and spent a cold, rainy day in the beautiful city of Stockholm ‘til noon, when it was time to take subways, busses and planes back to Copenhagen and the train back to Malmö again. A bus took us back home where Juliene felt fever pain. It was then Juliene realized she was sicker than sick with a flu of a kind that happened to stick and Phil lamented bringing his wife and son (also grown sick) to a place where he wanted to work and have fun.

Two weeks Phil worked, coming home every night to his family, who coughed non-stop from dawn through the night, and each day grew darker, only a few hours of light, until the shortest day when he packed the family up to drive north to Stockholm, again, and to the ferry that would carry us seven to seven, from Sweden to Finland. Hunter enjoyed the children’s play floor, while his parents were wowed by the Swedish archipelago, thousands of small islands with lit up homes, only one or more. Just how did those residents go to the store?

Christmas was grand because we had friends who warmed our hearts with new traditions and generous love, with an artsy apartment, food in the fridge, presents under the tree and chocolate galore, the chance to cut a tree at their cottage and so much more.

Things have been much better, as you can see from my blog (www.bewondered.blogspot.com), since we have met more friends and neighbors, walked the beaches and traveled a lot. What do we do with the money Phil earns? We scrimp and we save, eat the food and fill the car (where the money quickly burns), so we can take off on Fridays, after Phil is off work, and see something more of places where windmills and wind turbines turn.

Because of all this, travel and illness, I write this letter not at Christmas but today, on leap day, in two thousand and eight, in anticipation of the earliest Easter to appear on this date before two thousand, two hundred twenty eight, when at last it will happen again, fifty-five leap years from now; what a wait! In Sweden, Easter is about springtime and art, of stones, of Vikings, of wars of the heart, herring, amber, Sámi and ice, of peace and taxes, where do I start? It is to you I wish an Easter in Christ, because of whom so many still fight, and who does not lay long buried under for so many thousands of years, but who is risen, that’s right!, and lives in our hearts to give us new life!

I’m off to get Hunter from preschool and Phil from his work, so we can rush off to old places where secrets lurk and clerks are open to tell us each quirk.

Happy Leap Year, Easter and more years to come, from our home to your home, may we see each other soon!

Love,

Phil the Humble Genius, Juliene the Adventurous and Hunter the Humorous