Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mariefred for Midsummer

There's waking up on the wrong side of the bed, and there's waking up having fallen off the foot of the bed into a dustbin filled with dirty needles and feces. That's how I awoke. Disgusting? It was, but that's how I felt. Having traveled for about 21 hours (including airport time) and sleeping for almost none, I was awakened at the crack of god-knows-when to board a subway to a train to a steam train. The steam train was a tourist novelty that our half-English, half-Swedish friend insisted upon taking. It was located in a village miles from any bathrooms, convenience stores, and human life... save for a very angry old drag queen (I'm not making this up) who crept out of his house to yell at small childen, "Det ar min blommar!!" Apparently he had flowers, they were his personal flowers, and the Midsummer-dressed children wanted to pick them. He was not amused by this.

Between weary scowls and complaints as to taking every form of travel save the ever sturdy camel, our steam train finally arrived. I attempted to compensate for the lack of sleep on Simon's shoulder, finding myself jarred and my head wrecked against a wooden wall every two seconds. Lucky for me, I could hardly notice the pain of my travel worn head being pounded against hard surfaces because I was too busy recovering from the constant ear-piercing shriek of the train's whistle. Our friends couldn't be more amused, and I couldn't have been more ready to murder a group of people as then. Needless to say, I did not put my best foot forward. We finally stopped (THANK GOD), and ordered some traditional Midsummer dishes, all of which involved herring and some sort of mayonnaise. Apparently in Sweden all holidays, including Christmas, involve some sort of herring and some sort of mayonnaise. Together.

Having endured over 40 days as a vegan (and arguably anorexic) it was a fight to get me to eat it, but a joy to endure the fat suffering. I drank no less than 5 gallons of water realizing that in comparison to my Swedish friends, the relentless Texas heat had taught me to replenish my thirst continuously. Much to my dismay, our meal caused us to miss the ever-famous "SmåGrodorna" song, but my disappointment quickly dissipated with the arrival of our steam boat (yes, Simon's friends were really into steam travel this day). We leisurely ate and drank our way, salmon and punschrulle all the while, passing up island after island until we arrived home. Stockholm. It had been a sleepy, white-wine soaked day dotted with families and little girls donning flower wreaths in their hair. A good day. En glad midsommar.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Champagne Bar

I'm at least 7 floors above Slussen overlooking gay party-boats, edges of Gamla Stan, and the seemingly endless waters of a Swedish coast. Island by island, Södermalm is perhaps the best (or at least a personal favorite). Shortly after the aforementioned catastrophes of connections bouncing from Austin to Oslo to Stockholm, I was here at last . Simon had a special surprise for me, and after breathlessly climbing what seemed to an American as an endless number of stairs, we arrived.

It was white and simple, what little "embellishments" were mere accents to the plain charm of a quaint bar that opened up into what appeared to me as also a plain, simple, and quaint balcony. My first step outside of the door was welcomed by sea breeze, not sweet, not salty, but the inexplicable "langom" I kept hearing of. I wasn't overwhelmed with seagulls and wind, nor beaches, nor any hint at the aroma of fish. Just sweet, clean air gently tousling my travel-weary tresses and gently tugging at our cotton textiles. Simon was no longer at my side but I was too high (both in physical distance from the earth and also from the enjoyment of our view) that I hadn't noticed until he suddenly reappeared with two gently fizzing champagne flutes. Moet & Chandon (the French kind, the real stuff) seemed to dominate both this and, as I would soon discover, other bars all over Sweden. Studies prove that there are upwards of 10 million bubbles in each glass of champagne and each brushed the tip of my nose and soared to my head making me happier to bathe in the sunlight. Everyone around wore sunglasses and sandals, welcoming the brilliant rays (apparently a fleeting experience in Stockholm). I felt home, I felt happy. I hope we go back.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The actual journey.

I'm at the Oslo airport and within 10 minutes of arriving there I saw more fit people in an airport than I've seen in the past collective 10 years. I'm starving, and all around me people are drinking beer and white wine, artfully dissecting salad with both their knife and fork in that way Scandinavians tend to eat. I'm straight up fingers and forks in the states, even arm and sleeves when lacking a napkin (I did not just admit to that, did I)? I want a snack, and I'm still so proud of my new vegan stint that I can't bring myself to succumb to the delicate Norwegian salmon rolled out before my eyes at every turn. I go to one of those airport convenience shops, the one's with magazines, books, comedically (though unintentionally) horrible greeting cards, and refreshments. Combing through row after row of flavored sparkling water then landing on "Lemongrass," I can't help but notice a shop girl busily stocking children's meals next to me. These "kiddie packs" or "barn bags" if you will (barn means child) have an apple, veggie filled baguette, and even a stuffed animal inside.

I can't believe my eyes. I have come from the land of magical, Disney-princess in a cardboard box that is turning soggy from the grease of fries as a kid's meal! I look for the adult choices, tragically not springing for the 3" tall stuffed cow, and also not wanting to appear strange (not just yet anyhow) I take stock of the other options. I can choose from 2-packs of 3 different kinds of apples, fruit salad, actual salad, candy, or a bag proudly displaying the word “ROTTER!” It’s a bag of carrots, delicate, small, fresh, peeled carrots.

The obesity crisis in my part of the world seems to make a bit more sense given that if stranded back in any of these sorts of airport shops at Austin-Begrstrom or even Newark I’d have been given a wall of king-sized candy, Coke, and Us Weekly. Around me I realize that the answer may not be as clear cut and simple as I had originally thought. Healthy looking people are queuing up at the Pizza Hut kiosk and yes, they’re drinking Coke’s (save for the other half which is the beer-before-noon crowd, and my kind of people). So maybe it’s not that they make such great choices but at least have good choices? Case in point my “vegan” in flight meal from Austin to Newark was a cheeseburger, roll, and potato chips (obviously not vegan as requested and definitely not consumed by me). My actually vegan in-flight meal from Newark to Oslo was much better, but that’s just because they had a 110 calorie vegan cookie and $4 French champagne bottles for sale. In America do we make such bad choices because we are rarely afforded the opportunity to make good ones? All of this Scandi-praise aside, I must confess a few annoyances in my travels thus far. First, the screaming child who kept throwing her stickers at the English businessmen next to me and trying to climb over the seat on top of us (alternated by bouts of crying) did not sleep until the flight was over, then the lay out of the Oslo airport…. Rather, the signs saying “Flight #220 is at Gate: 41” (then 38, then 59, then 21, 56) even changing minutes prior to boarding. Trust me, in writing this, my laptop has been slammed shut and I’ve taken off running more than once after some Norwegian words were quietly muttered on an intercom and I noticed all of my fellow passengers were gone.

In closing? I've finally arrived. Seen a sports bar, a 'Champagne Bar' on the 7th floor of a familiar building, and my favorite Sodermalm fashion spot, "Monki." It's Midsommar in the morning and fresh reviews on this fabulous place:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day Before Departure

I'm leaving tomorrow, and my stomach dips with that top-of-the-roller-coaster anticipation that one gets before flights. The two monstrosities that erupted on my face last week have now been reduced to neon red marks above my lips as if bitten just below the nose. From a distance it would appear I'd recently recovered from cold sores, but in reality it is just a combination of acne and nerves. I still haven't completely packed and in an attempt to dodge the painful time and money which checking baggage involves, have chosen both a small suitcase and large, hideously brown shoulder bag I was given at work. So far the suitcase contains a power converter, underwear, and a large Jeffrey Campbell box containing these very shoes:

I know what you're thinking. "You're going to a country of cobblestone and contstant walking and you're bringing wooden platforms that resemble cement blocks used by the mob to sink bodies?" The answer is yes, and I suspect that cement blocks perhaps would be more conducive to forward motion. Realizing this potential blunder, and wanting to have someone talk me out of this great idea, I approached Simon, convinced he'd argue against me. "I know they take up my entire suitcase and I know they might hurt, but they make my legs so pretty!" He suprised me by saying that he understood, but to make sure I brought flats as well seeing as, "I have learned that when your feet hurt... I hurt too." I stopped to think about exactly what I was doing, not just mindlessly packing for what might make my American ass look smaller, but why I would so obviously choose to suffer?

After my usual hour in the gym this morning, I started to really question why I would want to pack those bulky heels and began realizing some of the cultural differences between American and Swedish women. Here I was slaving an hour of precious, all too little time in a confined space on some cardio machine so that I could put on delicate torture traps that would prohibit me from walking. Somewhere in Stockholm right now, there is a businesswoman in classic flats strolling a few kilometers to the subway and probably coming to same caloric impact as me. Lost in thought as I cycled downhill towards my office (I actually do have a more European approach to transportation than most in Texas), I pushed the thought further recalling a recent conversation with Simon in regards to my trip and my previous travels through Scandinavia.

"I like to go to the grocery stores and look at everything, trying to see what they have that we don't and vice versa. I like to try to see if that's the reason they're healthier than Americans." Simon replied, "What did you find?" I found that Europeans, Swedes in particular have a fair amount of vegetables and small-portioned frozen meats, cheap wines, and aisles and aisles of sweets whereas Americans, apart from the Whole Foods crowd which I am a card carry member of, go to big box stores where 24-packs of lunch portioned potato chips and oversized bags of popcorn dominate. The sweets, also occupying more aisles than they should, all shouting that they are 25% bigger and contain 1/3rd of the fat. It would appear to me that Swedes say, "Have a biscuit, a small one, but make sure it's a nice on and you enjoy it." Then leave it at that, and know better than to have another... and another... and another. The American approach seems to be, "Why pay $4 for a truffle when you get a box of reduced fat chocolate Swiss rolls with a few lower fat grams!" It's obvious to me that if I put the same effort into obtaining said, brilliant truffle that I am likely to eat that and stop and savor that bitch until the dark chocolate finally dissipates, unadulterated from my tongue. It's also apparent (speaking from experience here) that if left to my own devices with a "reduced calorie" box of anything, I'm unwrapping every individual wrapper until I'm left in a mess of crumbs, plastic, and shame headed right back to the gym to lose a few more hours of my that I didn't really have in the first place, not to mention hours that could have been devoted to actual enjoyment. In the typical fashion that anyone who's ever dealt with any sort of eating disorder deals with impending meals, I analyze, I stress, I estimate calories, and try to preemptively negate them with a run. Am I going about this the wrong? Is my American sensation for "More! More! More!" consuming time with consumption and the compensation of such? I want to find out, and try to take this trip slow. I want to eat a slice of prinecssatorte without going to and searching for a Gold's Gym later, while stil being able to zip up my pants. If the Swedes can do it? Why can't we?

Friday, June 18, 2010

So I had this food column in Austin once but,

I'm not your stereotypical Texan, and Simon isn't your classical Swede. His hair isn't blond, his eyes are not blue, and sadly for him I am by no means a cowgirl. I live in Austin, he lives in Stockholm, and though I seem to have grown quite (in)famous for my hedonistic enjoyment of food, wine, cocktails, and general indulgence here... I figured why not expand and taste what wonders what might lie over there? I have traveled and dined extensively, but never taken the time to write or even adequately explore the treats that stretch north of the usual American tourist latitudes of Berlin and Paris.

3 years ago, trip 1
It's been a long time since I've had my first taste of Sweden. It's been almost as long since I got my first taste of truly fine cuisine. I was a Swedophile long before a oenophile, and well? Now it's time to combine the two. To go back to Stockholm, a city I saw all too briefly just once but immediately loved, and try to grasp the true meaning of "Fika." Lounging on my dirty, carpeted apartment floor this morning idly chatting with Simon over Skype I asked him, "What is fika?" I knew the paper-answer which would be that it is to sit with loved one's and have coffee and maybe some sweet breads, cookies, or biscuits and talk in the afternoon. I had heard of it from other Swedish friends, and they all likened it to being as Swedish as little red houses, that strangely painted horse, and the Vikings. Fika is a true representation of the culture of Sweden, they say. It is hard to see how something so common as coffee and sweet morsels with family or friends (or as Simon tells me even co-workers in public offices) would be something one could attribute to a specific way of life, but I can tell there's something there and and I want to understand it. So I asked Simon a follow up question, "What makes 'fika' fika?" He paused and hmm'ed and with his usual cautious approach to words, "Fika is a gathering. It is collective. I used to not think of that way, but I read that in Sweden we are collective. We reach decisions over fika even. We want everyone in the group to have a say." Ah, those Nordic near-socialists... "Maybe fika is a coming together, perhaps?"

My eyes sparkled with their usual mischief and I replied, "I want to learn what fika is really about." So here I am. A few days shy of my flight to Stockholm. Sure, there's more to the tale, and my story with Simon and this trip is much more involved than a potential travel blog on the ways of life, restaurants, and overall dining in Sweden. For now, dear friends let me say that Sweden is more intricate, wonderful, and even beautiful than our American travel shows have thus far displayed. Case in point, my beloved Bourdain on "No Reservations." Since telling, or rather showing Simon this blog he has retracted his statement as "Mostly bullshit," but had no other answer to offer. Swedes think that fika is uniquely Swedish and impossible to explain in so many words which is not surprising for a culture not quite fond of ever using many words, or at least very slowly and carefully selecting the few they do. I guess it's up to me to find the right ones.

I leave in just 3 days, my stomach is already in knots and my decision to try out 30 days as a vegan (which has spilled into 35 days of a thus far indefinite period) has me questioning just how much or what I'm willing to try. I have to swallow my seemingly fadish American diet and/or beliefs and swallow the whole smorgasbord of princessatorte, lingonberry jam, pickled fish, potatoes, and even beer as well. Okay, so maybe me swallowing alcohol isn't too much of a sacrifice? Good thing I bought new running shoes today. Unless I want to look like a "fat American tourist" on sight, I'm going to need them.