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.