Thursday, October 19, 2006

We’ve been traveling a bit recently. David and Cathy just spent a lovely weekend in Milan, Italy, and the weekend before the whole family went to Legoland in Denmark to celebrate Akiva’s birthday. But before telling you about our recent adventures, let us take you back a few weeks ago when we took a trip much closer to home with our friends Boris and Görel and their kids Måns and Björn on a trip to Nimis.

What is Nimis? Is it a country, a book, a sculpture, a state of mind? It is actually all of these things.

About 20 years ago a Swedish artist named Lars Vilks started hammering pieces of driftwood together on a beach covered with ocean-smoothed rock boulders about an hour north of Lund. At first no one noticed, but as the towers and bridges grew larger, and visitors started to come through the adjacent nature preserve and down a steep cliff, neighbors and government officials started to complain. In the struggle to keep the creations of Nimis standing Lars Vilks started using time-honored artist guerilla tactics to save his art. He declared the growing acres of his artwork were an independent country named Ladonia (you can get a Ladonian passport on the internet). He also enlisted the artist Christo to register part of Nimis as a book that was protected by free speech laws, complete with ISBN numbers.

To get to Nimis, just drive, park and hike the Nimis highway – occasional yellow “N’s” painted on trees and rocks. Once there, the bridges and towers make for a great day of climbing for the kids and adventurous adults like Cathy and Boris. Or you can just sit on the big rocks and admire the ocean. As we were leaving Nimis we saw a large group of people headed down the Nimis highway carrying big pieces of driftwood. Leading the group was none other than the artist Vilks, still working hard at nation-building -- the coalition of the driftwood.
After leaving Nimis, Boris and Görel took us to a lighthouse that marks the most western point of Sweden and then we began a long search for an open restaurant for dinner – it was Sunday and believe it or not even pizza restaurants don’t open in western Sweden on Sunday. We ended up eating some flounder (and some pizza) at the only open restaurant in a 40 km radius.
Pizza is a popular fast food in Sweden. It’s pretty much like medium-sized American thin-crust pizza, with a couple of exceptions: the toppings you order may reflect local tastes (bacon and eggs anyone?), you always eat pizza with a knife and fork, pizza is always served with coleslaw (which they call Italian salad), and you are expected to order and eat the whole pizza by yourself.

As we were driving to and from Nimis we learned a little bit more about the regional differences that make life so interesting. As we headed north from Lund, lots more houses were built of wood rather than stone or brick – more trees. The color of the wooden houses used to indicate wealth and status. A local iron oxide produces a red stain that acts as a wood preservative. In former years, bright yellow houses had owners that could afford to paint them every year and poorer people lived in red-stained houses. And to this day it is a fact that all Swedes take excellent care of their houses, from Lund to Ballard.

Another sign of a well-loved house is one of Cathy’s favorite Swedish words – snickareglädje, or carpenter’s happiness. Snickareglädje is what Swedes call the little hearts and curlicue ornamentation on rooflines and balustrades.

It’s quite interesting to hear people in the southern part of Sweden (called Skåne) talk about the Danes, and vice versa: Skåne shifted hands from Denmark to Sweden many hundreds of years ago, and they each still tell quite different stories about the war. It’s also interesting to hear folks from Skäne talk about the snobby Stockholm people with nasal accents (sometimes called the “11’s” because of their area code), and the Stockholm folks talk about the hicks from Skäne with their broad potato farmer accents.

Cathy and Emma went on an historic tour, billed as a “ghost tour”, of the old part of Lund. They learned more about bloody battles between Swedes and Danes for control of the town, and about the crazy people who inhabited Lund over the centuries. They learned that when Lund University was created in 1666, it was essentially a small, walled village within Lund. The original university building still stands, and the top floor included a jail. Why? Because as its own municipality, the University had its own laws and legal system. In fact, the University even executed one student for killing another. While not as extreme, students could also be thrown in jail for the usual crimes and misdemeanors, as well as for cheating!

Emma’s school, Katedralskolan was founded in 1058 and probably has an equally barbaric history. But Katedralskolan recently had a day when all of the girls in Emma’s class dressed as Pippi Longstocking and all of the boys as another Astrid Lindgren character, Karlson on the Roof. Much silliness ensued, including footraces, apple bobbing, sliding in the mud and sliding into vats of flour. Our daughter carried on a proud family tradition and managed to be one of the messiest young people at the school by the end of the day.

The Swedes enjoy these odd but harmless games and ceremonies. Students always seem to be gathering on the lawn in, say, Santa Claus suits. Odd parties are also part of our cultural experience. An old southern Sweden tradition is to have a crayfish party in the fall. People are supposed to wear funny hats and bibs, drink a variety of schnapps and eat huge piles of small local crayfish. We were invited to a party at David’s department. Well, we were spared the funny hats, and the crayfish came mainly from China. David focused on eating the crayfish and Cathy helped sample the schnapps, aided by folks who said, “you just have to try this one that is flavored with juniper and cranberry.” We all sang lots of drinking songs, called snapsvisor with completely strange lyrics (you can dial the drinking song of the week at +46-8744-7075). Cathy really wants to learn a whole set of drinking songs. She promises never again to break the Swedish law of biking or riding a horse while intoxicated.

It is a time of seasons in Sweden. In addition to crayfish season it is mushroom season – mostly chanterelles are available now in the market – and local apples are coming ripe and delicious at the market. Cathy’s favorite apple variety is Rubinola but there are some beautiful new apple varieties every week. Soccer season ended with Akiva’s team having a perfect all-losses record except for the last game, which they tied. But Akiva had a great time and is now deciding between handball and basketball as his winter sport. It was also election season. The liberals lost for the first time in decades and many people in the academic and municipal world that Cathy and David travel in are trying to sense what this change to a more conservative party will mean to their lives and work.

It is the time of Jewish holidays. We celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Lund. Perhaps 20 men and twice as many women crowded into a small meeting room with an ark and four torahs. For some of the services we sat outside on the fire escape and simply listened in. The women had about a quarter of the space of the men – the services were held in Orthodox style with men and women separated. There was a minor revolt of the women to recover some sitting space, but the Orthodox men prevailed. There are some interesting synagogue dynamics here that we haven’t figured out. The torahs are interesting too. At least one has posts or rimonim that are chess pieces – we haven’t found out why yet.

And it is the season of culture and arts. It’s far too dark and wet and cold to stay outside – although this fall has been lovely so far.

Lund starts the fall art season with an event called Kulturnaten – Culture Night. All sorts of theaters, museums, galleries, bookstores and bakeries open their doors all day and all night and the city is filled with lovers of the arts. Some of our favorite Kulturnatten events were:
  • a group of professors who made themselves available for a few hours to anyone who wanted to try to “stump the experts”
  • a potter who had won many competitions throwing huge pots
  • a Kulture-latte with coconut and blueberries
  • a great museum called Kulturna that lit up its many traditional buildings by torchlight all over its park grounds
  • Cathy playing in a concert hall with a Swedish fiddle group she joined a few weeks previous
  • a midnight performance in an old cathedral of Bach and modern music played by the church organist and two saxophonists at midnight

It has also been birthday season here. We went to Måns birthday and ate sushi and homemade raspberry ice cream. For Akiva’s birthday we had a party with lots of friends and played some traditional birthday party games with donkey tails and treasure hunts. One family that we invited to Akiva’s birthday party has an American father. He told the kids (ages about three and five) that they were going to an American birthday party. When they asked what it would be like, one of the key differences he mentioned was that in contrast to Swedish birthday parties where cake or ice cream is served, it was likely (and indeed was true) that cake and ice cream would be served.

The Swedes seem to eat ice cream at a rate inconsistent with their physique. And many stores – supermarkets, video stores, convenience stores, toy stores, even a copy shop, etc – carry godis. Think “goodies” for both pronunciation and content. There are several dozen containers of various candies, etc., which you pick-and-choose and pay for by weight (some unique to Sweden such as gummy fried eggs and salty black licorice).

The day after Akiva’s birthday we went to Legoland for the weekend. We are big fans of Lego so we were excited to visit the place where it all began. We took the train and a bus a few hours south and east to Billund, Denmark, where Legoland is located. Cathy and Emma got a bit bored after a few hours because most of the rides and activities were geared to younger kids. But they enjoyed looking at the built models and spent some time building some of their own creations. Cathy and Emma ended up at the public pool across the street that had a great slide, a light therapy room, and a sauna heated to 240 degrees. Akiva and David spent many more hours at Legoland -- much cooler hours -- and especially liked the PowerBuilder ride. You get a programmable card on entry, and select the intensity of the ride along with seven movements chosen from a menu. A pair of people sit in a seat at the end of a huge robot arm -- then the staff inserts your card, and you get the ride of your choice! One other cool thing at the park is that you can buy Lego by the kilogram -- fill a bag in a room with dozens of bins of every kind of Lego you can imagine.

And we promised to tell you about Milan. It was a perfectly beautiful and vibrant city. We liked the bustle and activity of Italy and liked having a weekend alone. Again and again we were amazed by the great coffee and pastries offered in little places. The only major U.S. chain we saw with any frequency was MacDonalds -- and it is everywhere, including several right in the middle of the area around the Duomo (the major cathedral that is the center of sightseeing, commerce, and religion in Milan). We sampled 13 kinds of gelato (bet you didn't know McDonald's had so many flavors -- yeah, right! -- our favorite place was Three Gazelles): lemon, lime, hazelnut, tiramisu, cappucino, 3 kinds of chocolate (including one with hot pepper), strawberry, mango, soft fruits, and two we can't remember! We think we finished a liter of the house wine one night, too, but we can't remember that either! At least we didn't go bicycling after the wine!

This week, we nitpick the family. Next week Cathy goes to Oslo for a conference, and then the whole family goes to Portugal for the school break week around Halloween ("Week 44"). Until then.


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