December 7, 2013

An American Boards a Train in Sweden

Remember how in my last post I said I'd had some arguments in Swedish? At least one of those is a story worth telling. I boarded a Norrtåg train last Saturday night on my way into Umeå for church the next day. I rather enjoy taking the train. I had a car all to myself, my iPod was charged and ready to go, and I was settling in for forty-five minutes of pure contemplation. The conductor came by to check out my ticket. Since the train is never full, I've started just buying my ticket on board. It was the usual cost: 60 kronor, or about $9. I handed him my debit card. And there began the problem.

Here's a tip for any of you who plan on traveling to Sweden in the near or distant future: make sure your debit/credit cards have advanced chip technology in them. I'm not even sure exactly what the difference is, but the Swedes act utterly confounded when they see that my credit card just has one of those "old-fashioned" magnetic strips that you swipe through the machine. I am quite certain that I have said "Det finns inget chip" (There's no chip) more times than virtually any other phrase in Swedish, maybe short of hello. Maybe. I always have to explain this: to cashiers, to bus drivers, to train conductors, to people walking by on the street who can just sense that I'm the kind of person who has the old magnetic strips on my cards. Usually my only defense is, "Uh, I'm from the U.S.?" But are we seriously that far behind on the times?

The strangest thing about it, perhaps, is that there is always a way to swipe your card the tried-and-true way on the payment machines I've seen. But occasionally, the service people don't believe me and they ask for another form of payment. Sometimes I oblige, sometimes I just show them myself that my card isn't outdated by sliding it through the machine myself. The fact that this works is almost always met with surprise and suspicion, as though I have performed some voodoo magic to bypass the need for a chip. So on the train that night, it wasn't really shocking to me that the conductor was confused by my credit card or that he needed an explanation of why there was no chip and why that was actually okay.

He looked befuddled as he flipped my card back and forth, scanning it with his eyes for some sign of life.

"There's no chip," I ventured again, this time in English. He looked down at me more confused than ever. Okay, so English wasn't the way to go. I switched back to Swedish.

"There's no chip, but it's okay. It will still work."

"No, no," he kept insisting.

"Here, let me show you," I said, as I pointed towards his machine. He clutched it closer towards his body as though protecting it from my wanton attack.

"It won't work," he said over and over. "Do you have another form of payment?"

I showed him that my other card was just as archaic, apparently, and counted out my cash only to find that I was 10 kronor short.

"Since you can't pay, we will just bill you. There will be an extra fine of 50 kronor."

"Okay," I agreed, not entirely convinced that this was necessary but willing to do what I had to do to make this conversation end.

"What is your Swedish personal number?" he asked me.

"I don't have one."

At this point, I think I actually saw his head swell up in frustration and anger. "What do you mean you don't have one?"

"I'm from the States! I mean, I have a U.S. social security number..."

He was exasperated beyond belief that I had the audacity to be an American on his train with no Swedish personal number and no up-to-snuff bank cards to boot! I tried to explain again that I have taken that train dozens of times now along that very same route, that I have used that same card before, that he can just swipe it through his machine and everything will be okay, I promise.

"I don't care what you have done before, it doesn't work like that!" he kept saying to me, the aggression in his voice rising.

I could feel the frustration in my own voice. "Well, what do you want me to do?" 

We fought it out for a while before I decided to try and purchase a ticket online, where they don't care whether or not my card has a chip. The conductor walked away, promising to return to see if my little plan had worked. In the meantime, an old drunken guy meandered into my car and sat nearby. He reeked of beer and he kept shouting out to anyone who would listen that he needed to know how long the train would be stopped. He asked me a couple times to look it up on my computer.

I got online and tried to see how long our stop was. It was taking a while.

"Today, please!" the drunkard demanded.

"Sorry," I told him. "It takes me a while to look some things up because my computer doesn't have Swedish diacritical markings on it."

"Wait... why not?"

"Well, it's a U.S. keyboard."

He was thrilled to discover I was from the States, and I was thrilled that he hadn't been able to guess that earlier in the conversation. He asked which state I was from, what my name was, etc. The conductor came back and agreed to accept the ticket I had bought online for a train leaving the next morning (though, if memory serves correctly, he rolled his eyes). As if the night hadn't been rough enough on this guy because of my American shenanigans, he had to tell Drunkard that he wasn't allowed to have alcohol on the train. Drunkard explained that he had just been on a train that allowed him to drink his beer.

"I don't care what you have done before, it doesn't work like that!" the conductor said. I wonder if he practices saying that in the mirror every morning...

Anyway, a few hi-jinks later, including the drunken man's "pretending" to pour his beer down the bathroom sink so as to fool the conductor (didn't work), we were finally at our destination. I had talked with the old man for a good part of the trip. He was curious as to why I was in Sweden, what I'd studied, where I hoped to be in the future. Everyone asks me if I will be coming back. Yes, I say. Sometime. I just don't know when.

Why not right after Christmas?, they ask.

I usually stammer something about not having money or not being able to find a job here. Those seem like the reasons anyway. The old man had his own solution to that, though. "Come back, find a nice guy, marry him. That's how you do it!"

That easy, huh? Hopefully I can find someone with a chip in his credit card.

As we were ready to get off the train, the old man took my hand in his and kissed it. I wished him a nice evening. "It already has been," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I met you!"

I stepped off the train a bit disconcerted that I had lost out on my peaceful contemplation but feeling kind of magnificent and like, bad-to-the-bone that I had fought with that conductor guy in Swedish. Not to mention figuring out the secret of life from that somewhat disorderly old man, who later asked me (again) where I was from. It was probably just the beer talking, but I tried to convince myself that maybe my Swedish was just so good that he had to double-check my claims of being American.

Today I took the bus into 
Umeå instead. The payment machine wasn't working, so I didn't even have to explain my chip situation to anyone and the trip was free. We'll call that karma doing its magic.

December 5, 2013

Miles and Miles and Milestones

It seems as though nearly every time I am prompted to write a new blog entry, it is because I have come to some peaceful, warm little discovery that I am among people who care about me and that Sweden truly is a place I can call a second home. But if I were to be completely honest, my actual experience is more like an overwhelming rollercoaster of either feeling totally out of place and wanting nothing more than to board a plane home or, as many of you have read about several times, receiving gentle confirmations that I do belong here in my own small way—that there might be a cozy little corner of Sweden that feels just as close to my heart as all the other places I love most in the world.

Both kinds of feelings have deepened in intensity over the past week or two, and they have begun to volley back and forth within shorter periods of time. It feels like I spend half the day half-tempted to go find a sketchy clinic that will take one of my kidneys in exchange for the fortune it would cost to fly home early and the other half feeling overwhelmed with joy that I can be here at this moment in my life, learning Swedish (and plenty of other things that I didn't bargain for, for better or worse). Today was such a day. Some friends noticed that I haven't been acting like myself lately. One girl asked me after everyone else had left the lunch table if there was something I needed to talk about. I almost burst into tears even though all I could really manage to say was that I missed my family, that I have had a bit of trouble sleeping, and that I usually carry my stress in my stomach. And lately that means I have stomachaches all the time.

None of that seems so profound, so shattering. I have had harder trials in my life. But I had to fight tears when I was trying to explain myself to this friend and it was almost even harder keeping myself from crying as I briskly walked over to the school library. I guess I figured I would either a) be safe weeping among books or b) keep my cool as I remembered how much I love reading. (If that sounds nerdy to you, that's because it is.) But it worked. I held it together and stayed on campus to do some reading assignments. About an hour later, one of my teachers from allmän invited me to join the class for a meeting they were having. I have been mostly attending lectures with Expo lately, so I don't see a lot of the old allmän gang anymore. I felt kind of ashamed. The last thing I wanted to do was to explain why I have been gone, which happens to involve an embarrassing combination of being with Expo and staying-at-home-eating-chocolate-in-my-bed because I can't pull myself together for the day.

My fears were allayed as I entered the classroom and Maria handed me gingerbread cookies. Everyone was drinking from juice boxes (I picked pear, a flavor they use way more here than in the States) and laughing at a Freudian slip Tomas had made as he began explaining our assignment for the day. We have been split up into groups that represent countries in the United Nations. I am one of the delegates from Russia. When this project first started a few weeks ago, it seemed like I was the only person ever doing any work. I gave a spontaneous presentation in front of the class about a dense climate-change document we had read, I looked up facts about the food situation in Russia, I organized our group binder, and I spent way too long looking up words so as to understand a Swedish write-up about Russia's political positions. It was frustrating because I am not the one who actually needs this particular education, and yet I was the only one fulfilling the group responsibilities. I guess I can't talk now because I basically bailed on the class after that, so now we Russians find ourselves in a quandary. Our group leader dropped the class just today, I believe, and all the other group members feel too overwhelmed to carry on with the task of representing our country in the meeting next week.

In spite of my limitations, I was nominated to give the talk explaining Russia's positions to the rest of the class; I mean, uh, the UN. Everyone expressed confidence in my ability to do this. And I have to admit, folks, I have come a long way since arriving here. I have grown more comfortable making spontaneous (i.e. not-laboriously-thought-out-before-raising-my-hand) comments in class, I can understand and participate in lunch-table conversation, I've given prayers and testimonies and even a talk in church, I can ask for help and directions without fear that I won't understand the answer given, I can talk on the phone with Swedes (that used to terrify me), and I've even had some arguments in Swedish now. That's a milestone. When the Expo class first returned after their seven-week internships, many remarked that my speech was quicker, more natural, and I was using more advanced vocabulary. I think I actually did a victory jump in the air upon receiving this news. My time and tears and turmoil have not been for naught!

So things are here-and-there. Up and down. 'Round and 'round. But I have found that traveling is kind of like that. You grow in miles. You are pulled out of not only your comfort zone but almost all your reference points. You are not yourself in relation to the familiar things: parents, siblings, long-time friends, familiar streets. It's like being alone with yourself in a sense. There is an element of discovery in that, a sense of wonder. Sometimes the peace I find in it is all-consuming. Other times, it just feels like loneliness wrapped in prettier packaging. But I'm trying to learn, or maybe just remember, that unexpected lovelinesses come out of loneliness. I wouldn't ever ask for some of the heartaches I've had here, but I likewise wouldn't have dared to dream of such rich blessings as the ones I've received since my arrival in late August.

Some nights I fall asleep while my thoughts spindle out into a long, unfinished prayer of gratitude.

December 1, 2013


There are few better ways to wrap up the first of December than to sit on your bed balancing a plate of cinnamon toast on your knees, sipping on hot chocolate, and listening to Christmas music. Come to think of it, there are few better ways to spend a weekend than the way I spent mine. Life post-Swedesgiving has been good to me. Let me tell you 'bout it.

A few weeks ago, a little committee decided that it would be a good idea to have some light entertainment during our Friday lunches on campus. One of my teachers asked me last week if I would be willing to be the inaugural act and play some jazz piano. It's funny because in Provo, pianists are a dime a dozen, especially if you're looking at my talent bracket. But here, everyone thinks it's such a treat that I can play. (Unfortunately, they also erroneously believe that I can just whip out anything I'm handed on the spot, which has been a problem more than once.) Luckily for me, I had some sheet music for the occasion and I agreed to the gig. I figured it would be really casual and like, no one would be listening anyway. But when I got to the cafeteria, Kurt, one of the groundskeepers, was carefully wiring a full-sized keyboard so that it would play through the speakers all around the room. There were two crooked little music stands shoved as closely as possible to the front of the keyboard (though not quite close enough, I came to find). Kurt seemed quite specific that I was to play thirty minutes of music starting at quarter to the hour. 

Lunch that day was especially exquisite. There was homemade bread, a nice cheese selection, pears, and then some kind of vegetarian cabbage soup that was warm and tasty. I was hesitant to leave my food to go be the center of attention, but fortunately most everyone just kept carrying on with their conversations while I played. Hopefully they didn't notice that I played a couple songs twice (guess a thirty-minute set is longer than I thought). Or that I kept playing the wrong notes. Or that my sheet music fell down like, three times. Or that the keyboard was originally set to a "Stage" sound setting that nearly blew out the speakers. Or that I had the hardest time keeping an even volume the entire rest of the set. The flaws left me wanting to sneak back to my table for more cheese and pears afterwards without fanfare, but one of the lunch ladies insisted that I come forward for applause and a series of gifts: a jacket, hat, and key-chain with the school logo on them. Even though I most certainly didn't deserve such enthusiasm, it felt really great to realize that I was among people who appreciated me in spite of my mistakes. I guess that's probably been the case all along.

Friday also happened to be the day when the groundskeepers set up lights in all of our windows and even a little electric Advent candelabra in the common room at my dorm. One of the things I've learned in my time here is that Swedes seem to be keenly aware of how the atmosphere of a given room or space affects our well-being. People are constantly lighting candles to make things "cozy," including in the cafeteria. Our classroom has been designed a certain way to make it inviting and conducive to learning. And obviously, my little piano performance was basically engineered to give everyone warm fuzzies while they were enjoying lunch. This attention to our personal environments has already been beneficial to me, but I can only imagine how much greater it's going to be now that the Christmas season is here. I've heard that the Swedes really know how to celebrate Christmas. So far, so good. A+, Sweden.

My friends Agnes and Lova invited me to go with them into Umeå to see Gravity at the movie theater on Friday night. My great discovery of the evening was that here, you don't have to sneak candy and treats into the cinema! You can just bring along whatever you want! Merry Christmas to me! Merry Christmas to everyone! We stopped at a convenience store on the way and I bought a full bag of cheese popcorn, a Dr. Pepper, and a pretty huge bag of candy with absolutely no shame, no blame, no remorse, and no fear that the items would later be confiscated if I didn't hide them in an oversized purse. That's what I call freedom.

Oh, and the movie was pretty good. Next time you see me, remind me not to go on that dangerous space mission I've been planning. Unless George Clooney is there.

Saturday was perfectly lazy and wonderful. I watched a nice film, did some cleaning, and ate Swedesgiving leftovers. (Holiday tip of the day: never underestimate a good glass of cranberry juice.) I'll be honest: historically, I've never particularly cared for Saturdays. As a kid, they actually used to scare me because they seemed so empty and void of a reassuring routine. That feeling followed me even into my college years. It was probably grad school that really helped me to befriend Saturdays and to truly welcome their possibilities. But I have to say, they are the best here. I can't explain it, but I'm always filled with this happy wonder about my quiet, modest life when Saturdays roll around here in Vindeln. It's a time for planning, for daydreaming. And for disinfecting my sink.

Some people like to go on about how Christ was actually born in April and Christmas as we know it is actually appropriated from a pagan holiday... blah blah blah. But you know what I think? Christmas needs to happen in December. We're getting cold and we're getting tired and the year has worn on, and then the Christmas season drifts in to give us warmth, light, peace, comfort, and the hope for new beginnings. 

Today is First Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Camilla was telling me today that Advent helps her prepare for the Christmas season and to feel as though she's celebrating the entire month. Obviously, count me in. Our church choir sang a traditional Swedish hymn called "Hosianna" to begin Sacrament Meeting. It also happened to be fast and testimony day. Without much forethought, I stood up to express my gratitude for everything the church members here have done for me. I wouldn't even be able to attend the Sunday meetings if it weren't for their generosity in offering to pick me up from the train station, allowing me to stay in their homes overnight (there are no Sunday morning trains), and giving me the honor of breaking bread with them after church while I wait for the train back to Vindeln. It has been a deep and rich blessing to get to know these families and to feel of their love these past few months. My heart is so full. Especially now as I rejoice in the gift of my family, even when they're far away, and of all the people who choose to be my family in the meantime. Even better that there's hot chocolate the whole way through. Swedes actually call it "warm chocolate," which seems extra cozy and holiday-esque. Is there really a better word than warm and everything it represents?

November 29, 2013


It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say I've been spending the last few weeks of my life dedicated to convincing all my friends here that Thanksgiving is like, a big deal. The Swedes don't really have a comparable holiday. Christmas is really important to them, of course, and probably next up is Midsummer. But missing out on a Midsummer holiday with your family is maybe about as disheartening as being away for the 4th of July in the States: sad, but it can be overlooked. Missing Thanksgiving, however, feels more like I'm stuffing my childhood with garlic and regret, burning it in the oven, and tossing it out into a snowbank. (I'm sure someone has done that to a turkey, right?)

Speaking of turkeys, can't find any here. It's hard to say if that's because they don't eat very much turkey in Sweden (that's probably true; when do Americans eat turkey besides on Thanksgiving?) or because I'm in a tiny one-reindeer town with two small grocery stores. Either way, I reconciled myself to buying a full roasting chicken for the occasion and calling it good. Canned cranberry also proved difficult to track down, so I thought I might replace that with lingonberries, a classic Swedish side that is relatively similar. But instead, clever girl that I am, I ended up throwing some dried cranberries into the stuffing. As most of you know by now, pumpkin is also out of the running. But whatever, I think I lose a million American points because I don't like pie anyway. I figured I'd be happier making an apple crisp.

The next bump in the road was discovering that NBC doesn't do any online streaming of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade online. (!!!) Turns out you actually do have to watch it on cable television. In America. There is an "Earthcam" on Times Square that streams the footage without commentary, but a visit to their website only yielded the disheartening announcement that the parade wasn't coming through Times Square this year. The Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade does do a live stream with announcers... but seriously, the Philly parade is also known as the "6abc/Dunkin Donuts" parade. That just sounds like disappointment waiting to happen. I tuned in for like, two minutes to the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, but I'm guessing I was probably the only one.

My Thanksgiving morning started off with with doing what any red-blooded American would do in my situation: skipping school. Not only that, but I stayed holed up in my room watching the Season 2 finale of AMC's The Killing. Nothin' like a good crime to get me in the holiday spirit. I made a guest appearance at the cafeteria for an early lunch of vegetarian lasagna. A couple of my friends remembered to wish me a happy Thanksgiving, which was sweet. Afterwards, I consulted my list of open tabs on the computer to see what ingredients I would need for dinner and made what turned out to be a rather dangerous trek to the grocery store. Snow came to Vindeln a couple weeks ago, but the temperatures haven't been stable, so everything has turned into really slick ice with a layer of meltyslush on the top. In other words, I didn't stand a chance.

I almost-fell probably half a dozen times before I'd even gone half the way. The real fall finally happened just after I'd crossed the street near the pharmacy. I'm pretty sure a car stopped to make sure I was okay (and/or laugh at me) before moving on. But in spite of the dangers, it was nice to take a little winter walk alone. It was about 2:00pm, which means I got to witness the sunset that was happening right at that time. We now have only about five hours of daylight, and those hours are narrowing every day until the winter solstice. 

My first stop was to Coop, a huge chain of co-op grocery stores in Sweden, where I found most of what I needed. Minus sweet potatoes. What the heck? My family is more fond of the traditional mashed potatoes, but I think any holiday dinner I'm in charge of needs to feature sweet potatoes. It's just who I am, guys. So I trudged over to ICA, the other grocery store in town, with a backpack and two grocery bags full of Thanksgiving fare. I was able to find sweet potatoes there, along with some fresher fennel than what had been available at Coop. I headed home on the slick ice, this time bogged down by all of my dinner supplies. It reminded me of the many times I made treacherous walks across BYU campus with a precarious stack of books almost as tall as I am. Though there were a number of near-misses, I managed to make it back to the dorm without any embarrassing spills.

I did most of the cooking by myself to the soundtrack of my "Best Christmas Ever" playlist on Spotify. Jenny came to keep me company and Linus did his usual chore of peeling potatoes. (I have to admit, I hope I always have someone in my life who is willing to do that thankless task for me.) On the menu was a roasted chicken stuffed with lemon, garlic, and fresh thyme (recipe here), mashed sweet potatoes with honey and cinnamon, green beans sauteed with bacon, and an apple-cranberry stuffing (recipe here). I bought a fancy champagney soda for the occasion (they have a lot of those here) and we lit candles all around the living room before sitting down to the meal.

I started off with a prayer in Swedish, then Jenny and Linus both took turns listing three things they were grateful for. To be honest, it was about as close to perfect as you can ask a Thanksgiving-away-from-home to be. We played some classy old jazz music in the background (playlist here) and enjoyed the bounty that was ours. Philip joined us for a Skype chat, and later Agnes and Lova came to the party. Everyone seemed to love the food, though they were all completely mystified as to what stuffing was and hesitant to try it. Come to find, it's kind of hard to explain why mashing up bread with melted butter and sundry vegetables and herbs would actually be delicious. But it is! It is!

My friends were sweet enough to do clean-up duty. I was too bushed to make any dessert, so we enjoyed some gingerbread cookies and milk that I had bought as back-up. We started watching "While You Were Sleeping" all together before my family called on Skype. And what a much-needed blessing it was to see their faces, hear their voices, and remember the pandemonium of a Wilson family Thanksgiving. My Swedish friends got to say hi to some of my relatives, and I think it was then that they realized how big a family holiday Thanksgiving really is. I was beginning to realize it even more deeply myself. I stayed up past midnight having a much-needed catch-up session with my sister Sarah and afterwards fell asleep more happy and exhausted than I've been in a while.

Today, I'm grateful that Swedesgiving wasn't a total disasternot even closeand that I seem to always find people to celebrate (and celebrate with) where'er I roam.

The bird

Me and the bird

Linus (unawares) with the other dinner accoutrements

Lova and Agnes

Jenny and me

November 26, 2013


I used to be one of those people, too.

And I'm going to throw out a random guessI mean, uh, a really accurate and informed statisticthat at least 87.24% of you are one of those people.

You know the ones.

They are always bemoaning on Facebook that radio stations have started playing Christmas songs in early November. They'll complain to anyone who will listen about how Wal-Mart has prematurely started selling tinsel at the front of the store. Don't even get them started on the TV commercials! Filled with righteous indignation, these people demand that holiday cheer be like a good little boy and eat his Thanksgiving vegetables first. Speaking of Thanksgiving, we haven't even celebrated it yet! they protest.

I know the signs because I have been there. I, too, used to wait until the glory of the Friday-after to indulge in my holiday music of choice. (We won't talk about how, for most of my teenage years, that may or may not have been 'N Sync's Christmas album.) In that moment, I'd feel as though I were winning some sort of exquisite prize for holding out until "the time was right," like a virtuous bride on her wedding night. I wouldn't dream of playing those cheery songs about snow and caroling and peace and joy and love any earlier because... well, Christmas has to just calm down and and wait its turn! Right?

Don't believe me? I totally made this #holidayproblems meme last year.

C'mon, guys. This shtick is getting old. When we do this, we aren't protecting the sanctity of Christmas. We are just being Grinches. (And, for those of you paying close attention, that means you're breaking your own rules by being a Christmas Grinch before Christmas is "supposed to be" underway... I digress.) You're outta your gourd! (See that? I just made a Thanksgiving pun.) 

Don't get me wrong, I agree that it's obnoxious to see holiday commercialism crop up months in advance. But at this point, we are well into November and I am still seeing the debates raging on my Facebook newsfeed. Folks, there is no need for this. First of all, as a friend of mine pointed out, Thanksgiving is on the latest possible day it can be this year. There are other years when pulling out the Christmas music on, say, the 25th would be absolutely legitimate by the naysayers' standards. So surely you can't blame those of us whose hearts are getting ahead of us. A month is barely enough time to properly celebrate, especially for those working or in school (which is mostly everyone). And lest we forget, we're celebrating something of the utmost importance—something that has no temporal bounds. My Dad used to request that our church congregation sing "Joy to the World" even in the summer months. He did that at least once, anyway, and it left an impression on me. It wasn't a gimmicky "Christmas in July" stunt; it was an earnest reminder that we always have joy in the world because of the Savior. There is no way to start that celebration too early.

I got to thinking about this for a few reasons. First of all, the Swedes don't observe Thanksgiving, so they don't have that marker as to when it becomes "appropriate" to move onto Christmas. I'm guessing this makes some of them more liberal in their standards ("Pull out the Bing Crosby jams in October for all I care!"), while others may wait a bit longer, thinking December is a good signal that the time has come. More than that, I have spent a lot of time explaining Thanksgiving to my Swedish friends and defending its significance both as a tradition and as something extremely meaningful to many Americans. Maybe that's when it began to occur to me that Thanksgiving actually creates an even greater incentive to start my celebration as soon as possible. To me, Thanksgiving and Christmas are more or less inseparable. It's hard for me to have one without the other.

November 2006. That was the one and only year up until now that I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving with my family, and I remember feeling a more than a bit traumatized. I know I cried that day. It's hard to say if I'll cry again this year. Not ruling it out. I'll admit it has been harder for me to feel genuine gratitude lately. I know I'm in a beautiful place. I know my family is safe and sound for now, and perhaps that should be enough. But I have had some recent disappointments. I have felt lonely. I have wondered when I'll feel like myself again. I have been longing for the warmth of my childhood home. It's harder than I thought it would be to be far away.

In the depth of my despair (i.e. yesterday), I got a little nudge from a friend to indulge in listening to a playlist of mine on Spotify aptly entitled "The Best Christmas Ever." But but but but but. Thanksgiving! I thought. I have to wait! Just a few more days... 

Somethingprobably a sugar plum fairytold me to ignore the part of me that's so devoted to delaying my Christmas cheer. And you know what? I pressed "play." And Ella Fitzgerald started singing to me about sleigh rides, Frank Sinatra about jingle bells. And I lit a bunch of holiday candles around my room. And I swear on Santa's beard that I am not exaggerating when I say: in that moment, I felt happier than I have in a while. And grateful.

I don't think Thanksgiving would be nearly as meaningful to me if we celebrated it in March or May or August. I think it's amazing that it takes place just as we are ushering in the Christmas season. And if the two happen to overlap a little, all the better. Maybe Thanksgiving is just what we need to strengthen our resolve to be grateful before we all turn to a celebration of life and love and grace, the free gifts we've all been given.

It's okay if you still want to wait until Friday before letting some crooner tell you that Santa Claus is coming to town. But don't be a Scrooge if the rest of us are a bit more eager. We're not forgetting Thanksgiving. We're probably just trying to grow our hearts a couple sizes in anticipation of all that is to come.

November 20, 2013

Staff Picks Shelf: Fall 2013

Remember last year when I posted my first "Staff Picks" selection? The idea was to curate a miniature collection of book, film, and music recommendations based on a theme, such as the season/my mood (they're often connected). At the time, I was relishing a perfect fall day of leaves and sweaters and overcast skies—in other words, so many things I love about this bless'd earth. I love the idea of curating: of assembling things you love, things that have influenced you or even made you who you are somehow, things that are simply beautiful, and gathering them up into a little patchwork. There is something so joyous in that. So satisfying. I could probably sustain this entire blog with lists of art and songs and poetry, photographs and recipes and snippets that color my world every day. But for now, another autumn collection as we drift into the last remnants of the season.

The snow has already come to Vindeln. I lit some holiday candles earlier and they are emanating a warm, sweet glow in my bedroom. The Swedes don't have Thanksgiving to signal to them an appropriate time to start celebrating Christmas. On this November day, though, my heart is still trailing behind in an autumn breeze.

1. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Just take my word on this one; it's got autumn sensibilities laced all throughout. Need I say more than this: boys at boarding school playing football, except our young hero, who is more inclined to the thrill of poetry. "There was a cold night smell in the chapel. But it was a holy smell. It was not like the smell of the old peasants who knelt at the back of the chapel at Sunday mass. That was a smell of air and rain and turf and corduroy. But they were very holy peasants. They breathed behind him on his neck and sighed as they prayed. They lived in Clane, a fellow said: there were little cottages there and he had seen a woman standing at the half-door of a cottage with a child in her arms as the cars had come past from Sallins. It would be lovely to sleep for one night in that cottage before the fire of smoking turf, in the dark lit by the fire, in the warm dark, breathing the smell of the peasants, air and rain and turf and corduroy."

2. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver

In case you missed the memo, I have been obsessed with Mary Oliver for the past year or so. There is pretty much no season, no occasion, no mood that isn't doesn't pair well with this rich poetry. Oliver believes deeply in paying attention to grace and beauty and tragedy and tenderness. Her poem "In Blackwater Woods" is particularly autumnal and happens to be one of my first and forever favorites from her collection. "Look, the trees / are turning / their own bodies / into pillars / of light, / are giving off the rich / fragrance of cinnamon / and fullfillment,"

3. Frankenstein

I read this for the first time a couple months ago, albeit in simplified Swedish. But the Gothic sensibilities and the obvious ties to Halloween make this much more fun to read in October than any other time of the year, I'm wagering. Also, did you know this novel is officially subtitled "or, The Modern Prometheus"? That's kind of cool. Basic message: this novel is more awesome than all the lame ways we've appropriated Frankenstein in pop culture. Plus, I was delighted to see that it's written as a frame narrative in epistolary form. (What can I say? I'm a sucker for letters.)

4. Dan in Real Life (2007)

I'm pretty sure this film-still tells the whole story. Thanksgiving-esque weekend family reunion in Rhode Island, the trees are changing color, everyone is donned in cozy sweaters playing American football and being about as charming as your heart will be able to stand. I really do adore the vibe of this movie. And it doesn't hurt that most of the soundtrack is Sondre Lerche music.

5. Liberal Arts (2012)

It was my dear friend Jamie who recommended I watch this movie last year, bless her heart. Once I finally did, I realized it was so much my-life-in-a-nutshell at that point. First of all, we should probably put my crush on Josh Radnor out on the table. He just seems like a really genuine guy trying to pursue really genuine projects in his career. Radnor wrote, direct, and starred in this film in true Woody Allen style, and almost with as much wit. Most of the action takes place on a college campus (how much more "fall" can you get? I mean, look at those leaves on the DVD cover!), aside from when the protagonists are writing letters to each other (which is always an insta-win with me). It's a film about nostalgia, about growing up, about "moving on," whatever that means. And it's a nice shout-out to people majoring in the humanities (#represent). Sooo... what's not to like? 

Oh, and Zac Efron has a minor role in the cast as this kind of Zen, tree-hugging little philosopher. You'll get a kick out of that.

6. The Cider House Rules (1999)

Confession: I haven't seen the entire movie. But I started watching it a couple nights ago when I was having trouble sleeping and drifted into an autumnal slumber. It has just that fall feeling. Apple orchards. Orphans. A place called St. Cloud's, Maine. The charm of those kind of ambiguously mid-20th century costumes. Not to mention, the theme song of the film was later re-appropriated by the Pure Michigan campaign for its commercials and... all I have to say is, tears.

7. "Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England" (8tracks mix)

“Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England” from ellejolene on 8tracks Radio.

Speaking of all those gorgeous autumnal films, I made a playlist of instrumental soundtrack music from some of my favorites, including the aforementioned Cider House Rules/Pure Michigan tune that is sure to send you spiraling into nostalgia. You're welcome.

8. Moonrise Kingdom, soundtrack

The movie, which made my list of 2012 favorites, is more summery. But the soundtrack, featuring a variety of musical styles (including Benjamin Britten, Alexandre Desplat, Hank Williams, and Francoise Hardy), is surprisingly coherent and perfectly suited to your November afternoons of quiet reflection.

9. My One and Only Thrill, Melody Gardot

This is one of my go-to albums when I want that smoky, film noir aesthetic (which is more often than you'd think). Melody's jazz vocals and tasteful arrangements are also especially exquisite on a rainy day, especially the miniature set she has near the end of the album on tracks 8-10: "The Rain," "My One and Only Thrill," and "Deep Within the Corners of My Mind." I promise your next drizzly walk/drive/bus ride/afternoon of languishing on your bed will be transformed by these songs.

10. Blue, Joni Mitchell

To be honest, it's taken me a while to get on the Joni Mitchell bandwagon. But the day has come. Her signature blend of folky music and heartache is undeniably "autumn." Highlights on this album: "Little Green" (listened to it on a train ride through northern Sweden at sunset in September and there was no better song for that moment), "Blue," "River" (which is kind of a standard Christmas song now, and all for the better), "A Case of You" (umm, obviously), and "The Last Time I Saw Richard."

Even if it's already snowing where you are, most of these make nice transitions into early winter. Have a cozy morning/afternoon/evening, where'er you may be. And while you're thinking about it, make a Staff Picks list of your own! It's pretty much really fun. Feel free to leave a comment if you have an autumnal (or otherwise) literature, film, or music recommendation. 

October 8, 2013

It grows and grows, our home sweet home

I'm sprawled on my bed listening to Pink Martini's new album, Get Happy. And I am pretty happy in spite of the fact that I'm learning the hard way that "the common cold" is no more glamorous in Sweden than it is back home. It is one of those colds that likes to mix things up, toss you a couple new symptoms or nuanced versions of older symptoms each day. Saturday it was a sore throat. Sunday brought on a stomachache and more of the sleepy-headachey thing. Monday invited nasal congestion to the party, a symptom that continues to plague me today. Sick days have their own little pleasures, though. The view outside my bedroom window is gorgeously autumnal, and I get to cuddle up in a hoodie and let my thoughts drift in and out of sleep all afternoon. Linus told me that when he came to get me for lunch there was a "map of Louisiana" on my face. That's how you know you've had the best kind of nap: when your pillow makes maps across your cheeks.

Since becoming sick, I have continuously been taking cocktails of Zicam, Dayquil, and pain killers. All of my Swedish friends keep acting as though my "American stash" of medical supplies includes drugs of the most rare and exquisite kind. I haven't done enough research at the local apotek to know if it's true. But somehow I only managed to bring four Nyquil pills along, so I'm not taking any chances with that; I'm saving them, the way I often do with two-dollar bills, for a "special occasion." (What such an occasion might be, I'm not sure. I'll keep you apprised.) I didn't have the foresight to bring any Abreva, though, so I need to figure out how to say "cold sore" in Swedish and make a trip to the store later if I can muster the strength.

This past week has been like a see-saw of emotional highs and lows. Some of my deepest frustrations and humiliations surfaced (and at times when I least expected them), but woven throughout the challenging days were beautiful moments of peace and contentment. On Thursday, I was invited to go with the Expo class to Åke's house, a typical Västerbottensgård. Any anxiety I had felt that morning melted away into three (maybe four) slices of warm, fresh, homemade bread with butter, jam, and local cheese. Note to self: learn to make bread. And jam. And local cheese. Åke and his wife were gracious and kind to us.

Linda and Maria-Pia enjoying said bread

Tinkering with the gnome collection

Of course, I was particularly interested in Åke's book collection, which was quite extensive. I have a habit of wandering over to people's bookshelves, no matter where I am. You learn things about people not only by what they read but what the bookcase looks like, where it is, how the books are shelved and arranged. As for Åke, he reads a lot. And he seems to cherish his books. They were like stacks of bricks, not just furnishing the house but building it in a way. Sustaining it.

He let me borrow a Swedish novel by a local author. Clocking in at nearly 300 pages, I will be lucky to finish it before I leave, given my current reading pace in Swedish. I did finish the abridged translation of Frankenstein last week, but I guess we'll soon learn if I'm ready for the big leagues.

One of the most peaceful moments of the day was flipping through a gorgeous picture book that Åke handed to me. I was sitting on the couch with Kattis, listening to the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel drifting in from the adjacent room. It reminded me of the first time I came to Sweden. Three summers ago. I was sitting in the backseat of a car headed to Dalarna for the weekend. We passed thick forests spotted with blueberries. S&G's song "America" came up on my iPod and tears pricked at my eyes, not so much because I missed home, but because I realized that Sweden was home for so many. And it felt a bit like home to me, too, even then. When "America" started playing at Åke's house, I felt much the same. Home, as we all learn at one point or another, is a feeling.

And it might feel a bit like cuddling on the couch with dear friends and watching Gilbert Grape on a Friday night. 

Or perhaps it's the swish of autumn leaves on your way to buy groceries.

Home might be lentil soup with baguettes fresh from the oven.

+ these beautiful folks

And it's definitely tickling someone just long enough to make them laugh their gorgeous laugh but not long enough to make them hate you. A delicate calculation, to be sure.

The temps are back in the 50s Fahrenheit. And I feel warmer.

October 1, 2013

In a world without pumpkins

Despite everything there is to love about Sweden, early on I learned the sad truth that Swedes don't take autumn nearly as seriously as Americans do. Add to that the fact that most Americans don't take autumn as seriously as I do and you might begin to understand the level of my disappointment. What is the point of September if not to begin indulging in pumpkin-flavored treats galore, all washed down with fresh apple cider? (Hot or cold, I'm not picky.) And can anyone really say they've lived until they've inexplicably sat on a bale of hay in the back of a tractor, eating a fresh cinnamon doughnut in brisk October night air? (I'm not sure why cake doughnuts are autumnal, but is it even worth questioning?) Maybe I'll forgive the Swedes for ignoring the whole bobbing-for-apples deal, but speaking of which: aren't we supposed to be rejoicing every moment at the fact that myriad varieties of apples are now in season and ready to be dipped in caramel-and-even-nuts-if-that's-your-thing? 

They don't do Halloween here, from what I hear. No jack-o-lanterns. And not only is there no Pumpkin Smash Jamba Juice, pumpkin bagels at Einstein's, pumpkin cheesecake (Olive Garden, you are a god-send), pumpkin cream cheese, or pumpkin ice cream to speak of, it seems nigh unto impossible to even find Libby's pumpkin puree in a can so as to make my own pumpkin chocolate chip cookies or pumpkin bread. When I asked Miranda about Sweden's relationship to pumpkin on my second day in the country (because yes, I was already thinking about it back in August), she just looked bemused. "Umm... I guess you can find pumpkins. Yeah, we have them here. Why do you ask?"

That, unfortunately, was all I needed to hear. I knew I would have to surrender the opportunity to celebrate autumn in all its glory with my usual vigor and vim. I simply just wouldn't have the resources.

One nice thing, I suppose, is that the leaves still got the memo to change color here. And they are so lovely. Also, it got colder faster than it does in the U.S., particularly in Utah, so I didn't have to deal with that pesky Indian summer business. But I'm also worried that winter is nigh on our doorstep, at the ready to steal autumn away from us prematurely. We had the first snow of the season last week, though it didn't stick, and I am pretty sure that in addition to being Nap/Yet-Lag Girl, I am fast becoming the-American-who-can't-handle-the-weather-here because I'm always moseying around with warmer sweaters and jackets than anyone else and still shivering. It has been in the 30s/40s Fahrenheit for the past week or so, which isn't horrible, but cold enough to be unanticipated by my body in late September. Plus, I think seeing the temperature in Celsius every day (for example, it's 7 degrees right now) plays a mind trick so that everything seems hopelessly colder.

But seriously, these trees (which are more vibrantly colored now, a couple weeks after I took this photo). And the gorgeous overcast skies that northern Sweden seems to favor. 
Count me in.

I finally decided to take matters into my own hands yesterday and go out to buy the supplies to at least make an apple crisp. I have already enjoyed the seasonal deliciousness of apple crisp twice with church members on Sunday afternoons. They refer to it as "apple pie," but I figure it's not worth arguing semantics when the only autumnal flavor currently available to my desperate palate is at stake. Even though I am no stranger to the kitchen thanks to my heightened interest in cooking the past few years, I had yet to really buy anything substantial for my pantry here. My scholarship covers meals in the cafeteria all week, and most weekends I'm in Umeå visiting church member families who feed me (and all too well). Thus, my need for anything beyond pasta, toast, and let's-face-it-delicious-Ballerina-cookies in my pantry was rather minimal. So it really was kind of an adventure to go and invest in flour, sugar, butter, and salt. It made my stay here feel more settled in. More permanent. Like I'm letting my heart take root.

As we were assembling the ingredients back in the kitchen in Roma (my dorm building), Linus seemed skeptical. "Are you sure we need this much...?" seemed to be the question of the night. Even if he didn't voice it out loud, I could tell he was thinking it. But as I dropped a huge block of butter into the bowl, I just smiled at him and said, "Trust me. It's the American way."

Proof positive that there is no such thing as too much butter? Beatrice, Linus, and I managed to almost finish off the entire Pyrex dish by ourselves last night while watching Amélie. (Okay, Linus watched the film. Bea and I stuffed our faces with dessert and slept. But even still, may I add that that is the second French-movie-with-Swedish-subtitles of my trip? I am beginning to feel truly international.)

Today I'm finishing off the last of the apple crisp in my room. The radiator by my bed is turned on high. I'm wearing my favorite sweater and smiling to myself with a certain conviction that I really have made a home for myself here. Even if it's pumpkin-less.

September 23, 2013

You are more

Studying literature for the past seven years (/my whole life) has yielded more beautiful things than there is space or time to tell. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But I have to admit that something ugly has grown inside me as a result: it's the feeling (and I can't shake it) that my personal worth is somehow inextricably tied up into how well I express myself. You're so eloquent, people tell me. The way you speak is beautiful. To those who have said so, thank you. You are too kind. And insofar as you're right, it's probably because I read all the time. I learn from the best. I figure if I can inspire anyone half as much as Whitman or Rilke or Mary Oliver have inspired me, I will have far exceeded my own expectations of what I have to offer the world.

But what happens when I don't have that anymore? What happens when my pretty words are replaced with the silence of uncertainty and "um"s and mispronunciations?

Well, I'll tell you. I start feeling pretty low about myself. Is it possible to be a good student when the only things you can say all class period are "I don't know," "I'm not sure," "I can't"? Not to mention, how could anyone possibly want to be friends with someone who might not be able to understand their stories or offer witty/kind/inspiring commentary? I love stories. I love talking. Back home, that's like, my thing. That's how I connect. That's where I thrive. But even my friends here who speak English to me (and all of them do at one point or another) seem more at ease with each other in their native Swedish. More intimate. And who could blame them?

I was feeling nervous and fidgety after my second day in Expo class last week. We had been discussing the nuances of antisemitism. Even when I understood enough of what was happening to have a relevant question to pose or comment to make, there was no way I had the words in Swedish for any of my thoughts. That is no lie and no exaggeration. By the end of class, I was exhausted and embarrassed and hoping more than anything that I hadn't offended the instructors with my radio silence and, worse, my actual refusal to speak when invited to do so by other classmates on a couple occasions. I decided to approach Åke after the lecture to apologize. I felt that bad about it.

After saying sorry about my silence, I somehow ended up explaining to him how impossible it is to show my personality in Swedish. I think my initial goal in bringing that up was to explain why it's maybe-probably-sort-of-possibly(?) okay that Beatrice always talks to me in English (something that has come under the disapproval of Åke and one Christian Borén). Even though it doesn't help my Swedish one bit, I'm glad that Bea communicates with me på engelska. I mean, someone around here has to know that I'm smart and have things to contribute, right? It's frustrating to feel like what's inside of you is being stifled by the difficulty (or even impossibility) of expression.

But what Åke said in return meant more to me than he probably knew.

We can see who you are, he responded. You are more than what you say.

I walked back to my room after that conversation and cried. I couldn't tell if it was because I was relieved to hear what Åke told me or because, deep down, I knew there was a huge part of me that would not be able to accept it. How am I more than what I say?

As is the theme of my life lately, I can't promise I know precisely what else he said, but I'll venture some guesses.

I am also what I do.

I am also how I treat others.

I am also my kindness.

I am also my smile. 

A friend of mine gave me some advice early on in my trip. He said I shouldn't let my thinking-about-how-to-say-this face be squinty or pained. He told me to smile. I'm still learning the value of smiling, and doing it generously. Maybe the most important take-home message here is that I am not only more than what I say; I'm more than what I can't say.

So to any of you who also feel burdened by all those things you can't say, all those things you can't do, or all the ways you perceive you don't measure up, I feel impressed to tell you this much (and I mean it ever-so-much):

You are more than what limits you.

You are the smell of apple pie baking on a Sunday afternoon. You are the arms that reach out to hug when someone looks lonely. You are the warmth of an over-sized sweater. You are the trees changing color with the season. You are that magnificent sunset I saw on the train. Or maybe you're the rain. You are the sweetest smile. Yours are the eyes that flicker in the candlelight. You are the song I play over and over. You are the most beautiful language. You are a river. You are a prayer.

You are more.

September 17, 2013

A language worth learning

Turns out my name is really hard to pronounce in Swedish. It just doesn't work. The Swedes have the same problem as Americans and almost always think it's Michelle at first. Even with my actual name confirmed (once, twice, thrice sometimes: "Rachel. RA-shell. RiCH-elle? RIchhhelle? RichELLE. RichELLE), for some reason they always ask me if it's French. I've taken to saying yes. Due to this ongoing pronunciation challenge, some of my friends at school have started calling me Kjell (pronounced "shell"). That's actually a name here in Sweden. Granted, it's a man's name, but... I'm already the bizarre American. Why not add in some gender confusion fun?

I suppose the fact that people seem to care about saying my name correctly (and/or christening me with endearing Swedish alternatives) means I'm making friends, little by little. There are so many lovely girls here in particular. Lova is a vegan and so beautiful (I'm not sure if she knows it). Her name in Swedish means "to promise." Agnes is as sweet and patient as can be. Katarina speaks marvelous English in a really charming South African accent. She has encouraged me again and again to join the Expo class because she's convinced I'm smart enough. Beatrice makes me laugh the most. I only see Linda in the matsal (cafeteria) here and there, but she has been a huge supporter of my blog and my ability to actually learn Swedish. Jennie just told me yesterday not to feel stupid if I don't understand things; just ask. She likes to bake and work out. I could afford to be better at both.

Come to think of it, I could probably use some improvement in the asking-for-help part, too. It's really hard to admit that I don't understand what's going on around me. Since when has that ever been a problem in my life? And not to mention, since when am I the shy and silent type? My family and friends probably wouldn't even recognize me here. I can go an entire meal without saying a single word. It's hard to be assertive (or even present) in conversations when you are always reaching for a word you may never find. And that's only if I even understand enough of what other people are saying to contribute in the first place. I realize this is my own issue and no fault of the kind and generous people around me, but it's really hard going into every single day knowing that it will be riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings.

Being forced into my own sort of quietude has produced its own little miracles, though. One afternoon last week during lunch, one of my friends smiled at me from across the table (subtly, of course, as is his way) and it was like we had a whole conversation. I felt so much happier about that than I would have if I had my normal arsenal of words at my disposal. Body language is a language worth learning, too. It is a precious, precious thing.

There is a boy here who is always on the edge of a smile. He tends to quietly observe what is going on around him with an energy that seems eager to burst forth. It's always teetering. On the brink. That sweet, happy energy. When he does smile, it's magic. I've noticed this about a number of Swedes, actually. Many are reticent to laugh too loudly. In our entire class roster of about fifteen, I am the only student who is showing my teeth in my school picture.

The Swedes. Their smiles are generally modest, but it's heaven when, at long last, the radiance can't help but break through.