Sunday, September 17, 2006

We went to Cirkus Maximum. Colorful signs sprang up all over the city, shouting that, for one night only, under the big tent, the circus is coming to town! And just like in the old days, the circus pulled onto the city’s big soccer field and unloaded their trucks and trailers. Caravans with elephants, horses, and camels were visible behind the chain link fence, and dozens of circus folks erected a giant red and yellow tent. Odd-looking people sat on the porches of their trailers, ignoring our uninteresting lives. The circus had some amazing Chinese gymnasts, and most exciting for Akiva, offered rides on a camel. A two-hump Bactrian camel to be precise. We asked Akiva what the humps felt like. “What do you think,” he said, “they felt like a big lumps of fat.” The boy is not a romantic.

Akiva also learned his first Swedish swear word on his school playground. “Sheet” is just what you think it means. Swedish is apparently a lousy language to swear in so Swedes use English or Finnish when they have something choice to convey.

We finally have a Swedish bank account. The key thing was to get access to their Internet bill-pay system, so we can pay our mobile phone bills and such without a surcharge. Because David failed in several attempts at installing the software by following the Swedish instructions, he had to return to the bank to get a new PIN code (which required an extra trip because a passport was appropriate ID while a Washington State driver’s license was not). We can now pay our bills online, and we have kroner-denominated debit cards, which are used extensively in Sweden.

The national and local elections are on September 17th. Voting takes place over a period of weeks, apparently. The line in the library the Thursday before the election was very long. There have been debates on TV, articles in the international press, and quite a lot of discussion at lunch. Everyone we’ve talked to (including the teenagers!) listens to the debates and is knowledgeable about the issues. To learn about candidates, you can actually go and talk to them in the town square. The square is full of political activity with little kiosks holding literature, buttons, and candidates from at least 10 parties. Some parties sponsor concerts and we’ve walked past the square with brass bands and singers singing “When I’m 64” in Swedish. Of course we’ve seen the familiar sight of signs advocating candidates being marked up with curly moustaches and red clown noses. The right-wing bloc is slightly favored to win control of government; but don’t be confused, since the Swedish right-wing bloc is to the left of the blue states in the U.S. You kids at home might want to become commies: part of the communist party platform is “no homework and no tests” Policies like this are set at the national level in Sweden. (We think we learned that the original communist party is now called the “red” party – not to be confused with a red state, and the new communist party has a somewhat different platform.)

Cathy is taking Swedish language classes several mornings a week at an immigration center south of Lund called Komvux. Along with language she is learning about Swedish laws and customs, habits and favorite foods. She has learned that there are at least 10 specific words for various types of coats, which has her worried that we are due for a long cold winter. Swedish society seems very focused on successfully integrating a whole lot of different cultures. Cathy’s Swedish class has, in addition to one other American, people from Brazil, South Africa, Romania, Thailand, Iraq, Vietnam, Uruguay, England, Peru, Russia, Australia, El Salvador, China, Libya, and Iran. Certainly not representatives of the coalition of the willing but all are people with interesting life stories.

Emma and Cathy have been going to flea markets and second hand stores (Akiva wanted to know if there were third hand stores). Everything is extremely expensive – we didn’t pack much because we thought it would be easy to get what we needed here. For the most part that is true, but costs for food and material goods have both a 25% value added tax and reflect the very high cost of transportation (gas is about $8/gallon here). Some of Cathy and Emma’s favorite purchases are not very practical, and include an Allan doll in a box, advertised as “a good friend of Ken” and a massage moose.

Cathy has been interviewing lots of people involved with sustainable cities. One of the people she talked to was an expert in biogas production who works at the Lund University in Helsingborg. He told Cathy that companies who sold polluted land were responsible for cleaning it up if they had added pollution any time after 1969. Even if the land had been sold several times, the original polluter would need to pay for clean-up if they had polluted after 1969. “Why 1969,” Cathy wanted to know. “It is obvious,” the professor said, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962 and translated not long after, so of course the companies should have known by 1969 how to take care of their land after that.” Note to Exxon and George Bush, please re-read your copy of Silent Spring.

Cathy, Emma and Akiva went to the Malmö music festival that is a little like Seattle’s Folklife or Bumbershoot festivals except that there are many fewer acts, and fewer activities, but spread over many acres and many more days. They asked at the information booth which group to see and were told not to miss the Electric Banana. The outdoor Electric Banana concert was packed with people of all ages. The musicians were projected on large video screen, and included a full orchestra, a chorus in pink flamingo suits, and the lead musicians dressed in yellow banana costumes. The group sang folksy music with hand and body gestures that everyone in the audience seemed to know and move along with.

We took a brief 3-day vacation to the Bohuslän coast, the bit of Swedish coastline that faces west, just before joining up with Norway. It’s a spectacular coastline, very rocky and picturesque. Cathy wanted most of all to see a famous area of petroglyphs in and around the town of Tanum. The petroglyphs were made between 3000 and 2500 years ago, and were carved into granite outcroppings high up in the beech forests and spread over many square miles. When many of the carvings were made, the sea was much closer and many carvings showed boats and sea life. There was a Unesco World Heritage museum in Tanum, located next to a particularly dense set of carvings. Cathy saw a photo of a carving in a book in the museum and wanted to find out where it was. She asked a man behind a desk, and it turned out he was Lasse Bengtsson, the curator of the museum, and he had written the book she was looking at. He drew a complicated map down some winding roads, through a forest, past an abandoned farm and over a hedge. We all had an adventurous walk through the woods and think we found the carving Cathy had seen in the book. We certainly saw lots of big animal scat, although no big animals.

We had a great time on the coast. We stayed at nice youth hostels in Grebbestad and Hamburgö, and visited the town of Smögen. Grebbestad has a small Chinese restaurant that is owned the Johannson family and serves chickey bits. Hamburgö is a small island across from Hamburgsund, with a 24-hour car/bike/passenger ferry that takes just a minute or two each way and is powered using an underwater cable. The towns were beautiful, and still had some traditional fishing industry, but were definitely well on the road to becoming summer tourist areas. Smögen had one of the most spectacular locations we’ve ever seen for a mini-golf course.

A horse tried to eat Akiva's bike seat. Akiva and Cathy went on a bike trip around Lund with our friends Görel and Måns. Görel collects maps and one of her maps was of many of Lund's city parks. We stopped at some community gardens called kolonitradgard. They are more like little summer homes than your typical p-patch, with beautiful small houses with little kitchens and bedrooms – although people aren’t supposed to live in them. There are about 1000 of these community plots in Lund (again, for a city of less than 100,000). We looked but did not find a bygglekplats, a child-built playground. These were popular in the 1980s but, not surprisingly, are hard to maintain and many have closed. We’ll let you know if we find any child-built playgrounds.

The park map Görel had for our bike trip was an orienteering map that showed little fragments of park objects – the toe of a statue, the window in a building – that you were supposed to find in the park. It was a great incentive to get young boys to bike 20 or more miles around city parks. On trips with Görel, we always learn new and useful facts about Sweden. It turns out that it is OK to gather any fruit in the forest but not nuts which are to be left for the foraging pigs. We didn’t run into any pigs, but one of the parks had horses. When Akiva left his bike to look for the park object, a horse decided Akiva’s bicycle seat was quite tasty – or maybe just salty. Akiva biked home on a nibbled seat that had been mostly cleared of horse slobber. We may go geocaching next time.

We are biking a lot. On a typical day, David or Cathy bike with Akiva about a mile and a half to his school, and then we bike a mile or two to work. We bike to the grocery store, to dinner parties, to soccer practice, and to gym classes. We -- and half of Lund, of all ages -- biked home in the dark after Cirkus Maximum, as is common. It is great having bike lanes and bike traffic lights, and drivers who actually yield to bikes.

It is pretty hard to find Jewish culture and religion in Scandinavia.

There is an Orthodox synagogue in Copenhagen, and a Chabad house in Malmö but there are fewer Jews among the 9 million Scandinavians than there are in Seattle. Cathy has been researching places for the family to go, especially for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that starts September 23 and Yom Kippur, the following week. Last Saturday Cathy went to a bat mitzvah in the only "progressive" congregation in the region, Shir Hatzafon in eastern Copenhagen. It was such a big deal to have a bat mitzvah in Copenhagen that the poor girl’s coming of age was reported in the paper and a news camera came to the kiddush lunch after the ceremony. The “progressive” rabbi flies in once a month from England and the service ended by blessing the queen of Denmark.

The Jewish group of Lund has been meeting for just two years. A Chabad rabbi travels to Lund to lead most of the services so the group has to run in orthodox style but the members seem less than orthodox. Cathy talked to the group's treasurer for a long time. He said the most active group meets weekly to sing songs in "Jiddish" and he also said he was negotiating with neighbors to use their walls (and trying to explain) in order to build a sukkah. This outdoor festival house built yearly for the Sukkot holiday may well be the first built in Lund in at least the last 60 years or so. Cathy learned how to say the Jewish Shema prayer in Danish which we will use to wish many of our friends a healthy, happy new year: Hør Israel! Den Almægtige er vor Gud, Den Almægtige er én.