Sunday, December 31, 2006

It was definitely a headline that got our attention: “21 omhändertagna efter sushiblockad” or “21 arrested in a sushi blockade”. What in the name of raw fish is a sushi blockade? A way to protest the depletion of deep sea fisheries? Illegal seaweed imports? A xenophobic gang war? It turns out the blockade was an organized union action – a local sushi restaurant owner had injured a sushi chef in a fistfight in England. Sounds fishy to us. We had made sushi just the week before with our friends as part of a birthday present for their 12 year old son. We found Japanese rice, soy sauce, and of course raw fish, but sushi seaweed, the nori wrappers, are expensive and of poor quality in Sweden. Luckily, we’d brought some unblockaded nori with us from Seattle and had a wonderful sushi party.

December marked a number of other exciting Swedish events. The Nobel prizes were awarded, the first Swedish astronaut went into space, and the winter holiday season started. Oh, and Cathy turned 50 and celebrated by going to an old-fashioned amusement park in Copenhagen called Tivoli. She managed to spend enough kronor to play enough times to beat the house record for the arcade game Wack-a-Gator.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? There’s no bell, so I had to knock.

OK, OK, as Americans we know a little more about the Nobel prizes than this, but we were unaware of the national pride the Swedish people take in the prizes and the ceremonies. Cathy, David and Akiva went to a lecture at Lund University about the history of the Nobel Prize. The main speaker had personal experience serving on the committee that selects the prizewinners in Physics. He shared some details about Alfred Nobel, in particular that he was unusual as he was a scientist, a manufacturer and a businessman – he patented dynamite, based on his development of a way to control the detonation of nitroglycerine. Nobel expected his dynamite would be used exclusively for engineering and was depressed that the product was used so much by the military. Nobel never married, and left his fortune to fund five prizes that he described in a handwritten, one-page will. The Physics and Chemistry prizes are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Physiology or Medicine is awarded by the Karolinska Institute, Literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy, and the best-known prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, is awarded by a committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. (The Economics Prize is treated similarly to the others, but was created in Nobel’s honor by a Swedish bank years after his death.) The process for selection takes nearly an entire year and is shrouded in secrecy – which Swedes are very good at (don’t play poker with them!). The prize selection process sounds a lot like other intense academic processes (such as granting tenure), with committee members soliciting nominations, making formal and informal inquiries, reading a ton of articles and letters of recommendation, and – most of all – holding lots of meetings. The archives from the selection process are made public 50 years after the awards, for those of you who are interested in gaming the process :-).

Following the presentation by the Royal Swedish Academy member, a woman who seemed to have attended quite a few award ceremonies talked about the social events that are traditional every December 10th – the date of Nobel’s death – when Stockholm hosts the prize ceremonies. (The Peace Prize, following the dictates of Nobel’s will, is decided on and awarded in Oslo a little earlier because Norway used to be a part of Sweden.) It turns out last month Cathy had been in meetings both at the city hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, and the city hall in Stockholm where the other prizes are given out. The awardees are hosted at a number of formal and informal meals, give formal and informal presentations, hobnob with selected students, faculties, King Carl XVI Gustaf and other royalty, and attend formal dances (that become less formal after the royalty leaves). There are special Nobel prize menus (you can buy the book, we didn’t), and special Nobel crystal, china and silverware (that you can also buy if you’re so inclined). Since the weather in December in Stockholm is often unpleasant, there are complicated logistics involved in transporting formally-dressed people between locations. Perhaps if the ceremonies were held on Nobel’s birth date, October 21, better weather would be more common. If you ever want to see the award banquets and events more closely, many are broadcast on December 10 on Swedish TV, and some are archived on the Nobel Foundation’s website. Or you can simply win one and take us along, of course.

Akiva enjoyed the Nobel lectures, since his school focused on the prizes for the better part of a week. On the Friday before the Saturday ceremony, he and his classmates heard student lectures (three in Swedish, one in French), learned proper table manners, had a special lunch, and danced the waltz with one another (after dance lessons from one of the teachers). Akiva looked marvelous in his jacket and tie, as did the other students dressed in their Nobel best.

Swedes spent more of December looking up into the night sky than usual. Why? Because they might see Christer Fuglesang, the first Swedish astronaut, who flew on the most recent Space Shuttle mission. Before his mission, Fuglesang was better known for holding the national record for Maximum Time Aloft for a Frisbee. During the mission, he kept a Frisbee aloft inside the shuttle for a world’s record 20 seconds (that’s 20 seconds, when converted to metric time) – breaking the existing 16.72 second record set by Don Cain. But, as one record keeper noted, “Don’t world records have to be set on the world?” In any case, Mr. Fuglesang, which means “birdsong”, has returned safely to earth and might just try to set a new record before he flies south for the winter.

Cathy and David experienced first-hand the Swedish medical system. Both got flu shots, Cathy visited the dentist and David took a trip to the emergency room. The flu shots, as in the US, were about $20 each at a drop-in clinic. Cathy chipped a tooth and David had some chest pains (that turned out to be nothing) and so went to dentist and ER, respectively. Good thing we didn't get our doctors confused! We entered the medical world, as we do with almost all Swedish encounters, by taking a number (and soon after giving our personnummer). We were both blown away by the speed, hi-tech equipment, competence, cleanliness and cost of our encounters. Cathy paid $25 for a tooth repair and David around $45 for an ER visit that included blood tests, an EKG, and free coffee. We were very impressed – not because all of the medical personnel who dealt with us were fluent in English, since that’s becoming old hat – but by their friendly professionalism. Everyone – doctors, nurses, technicians – shook our hands, and seemed relaxed and highly competent, which put us at ease. The hospital David went to has the reputation of being one of the best in Sweden, perhaps in the world. Both the dentist and the ER are close enough for us to walk to in under 10 minutes and we were both treated (including lab tests) in under 2 hours. Take that to your HMO. But they still can’t help us with Akiva’s lice, now into their 3rd month.

Sweden is about 75% Lutheran although, like in the U.S., only a small percentage of those folks are active in their religion. There are fewer Jews in Sweden – indeed, in Scandinavia – than there are in Seattle, and Seattle has a much smaller population of Jews than, say, the Northeast of the U.S. So we were once again interested to see how the December holidays would be away from home.

The first event in the winter lineup in Sweden is Lucia, a very beautiful Swedish/pagan/Christian holiday. The holiday honors St. Lucia’s name day on December 13, but traces its roots back to ancient times and involves lots of candles, children in white robes, and pure young singing voices welcoming the light that will inevitably follow the long darkness. The main ceremony is a procession of children carrying candles, singing “Santa Lucia” (like the Venetian gondoliers but with lyrics that talk about light – ljus, that sounds a lot like Lucia – and darkness). The girl chosen to be Lucia leads the procession in and out of the ceremony, wearing a red sash and a headdress of a half-dozen lit candles and standing perfectly still as the rest of the children sing their traditional songs. Although younger children have been known to use electric “candles”, the more significant ceremonies in churches have youths with real candles. And yes, there are a few anxious parents standing by with buckets of water, too. We had front row seats at the main ceremony in the main cathedral, and the ceremony was really quite magical with the immense church and the children lit only by candlelight. Cathy actually saw four, count 'em, four, performances of the ceremony: two in churches where children of friends performed, one at Akiva's school (he was a tomte, or little elf) and one at her Swedish language school. While lovely, perhaps one or two would be sufficient next time! (Apparently the Nobel prize winners are woken up with a Lucia procession in their Stockholm hotels, often with no prior warning.)

In contrast to Lucia, Hanukah has eight – or nine if you count the Shamash (the “watchman”) or even 44 if you count all the candles for all the nights! Of course, with such a small Jewish community here, we had to shave down some Swedish holiday candles to fit in our menorah. Hanukah is the festival of lights – light is a consistent theme of winter holidays, for sure. It is also a festival of oil, remembering the miracle when one day’s worth of oil lit the light in the temple for eight days. So it was lots of grating and frying of potatoes (which are easy to get here :-) for latkes (potato pancakes)! Yummy!!!!!! We hosted a Hanukah party for some of our friends, complete with latkes, sufganiot (fried doughnuts), lighting candles, and playing dreydl. Most, perhaps all, of the guests had never seen Hanukah before, which made it great fun – although there were many fewer voices than usual joining in while Cathy fiddled some traditional Hanukah tunes. Cathy and the kids also tried to go to the Lund synagogue for their holiday party but, because they were a few minutes late, got locked out. We keep forgetting how important it is to be on time! And, observing one other important Jewish holiday tradition on Christmas Day, Cathy, Emma, and two of Emma’s friends went to the theater to see a movie – Borat.

The family also went to the main cathedral for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Lund is well-known for its vocalists and choruses and the performance of Handel’s Messiah is supposed to be the cultural event of the Lund musical season. Indeed the soloists and choirs were marvelous, the huge cathedral was packed, and the candle-lit ambiance appropriately moving. Even the kids and David stayed awake for the whole performance, although, like many winter performances in Sweden, it ended by 7 p.m. The exception to early performances (remember, there are only 7 hours of daylight!) was a midnight mass on Christmas eve that Cathy attended, complete with a Swedish choir attempting gospel songs.

During the holidays we hosted a party for the Cathy’s Swedish for Foreigners class as an end-of-term celebration. This is a wonderfully eclectic group, most of them with Swedish partners (many of whom joined the party). We counted something like 13 different languages spoken by the group including Swedish, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Croatian, Russian, and more. Emma and a friend at school are building a list of how to say “parsnip” in different languages, so she was very happy flitting around with a parsnip and a pad of paper in hand. Several of the Swedish partners are from Lund, and they wanted to know how we got “the best apartment in Lund,” which is indeed true, as well as the town’s best palsternacka, or parsnip.

Christmas in Lund is a relatively quiet holiday with minimally decorated trees and lights. On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, Swedes light an advent candle. And beginning on Lucia, every house, every store window, even in every library window people place a lamp with seven electric candles. The lights are especially nice – almost every window in town has a holder with these seven simple lights in an upward-pointing “V”. There are literally thousands of these around. Small tea-lights are placed on every horizontal surface – at the gym cafeteria, the library, all the coffee shops. We ourselves are on our 3rd bag of tea-lights already but we passed on getting Lucia-lights or a Christmas tree.

There are a few other decorations in town – the churches are flanked by massive evergreen trees with plain white lights -- but there is none of the flashy, neon-like lighting that you often see in the U.S. It’s simple, beautiful and in many ways more celebratory thi way.
Although a few hardy souls go off and cut their own Christmas trees, most go to the town squares to buy them. We saw many folks walking home with their trees tied to the back of their bicycles, and we even saw one or two trees balanced on a baby stroller (complete with baby) being pushed home for Christmas. The ornaments we saw were mostly handmade, or even home-baked (cookies), and again more simple and more satisfying than we usually see. Swedes do buy gifts for each other for the holidays, but again the operative word is lagom, moderation. Emma’s gang of seven did a small gift exchange with each kid responsible for buying one gift. Presents seem to be small and practical. Stores in the center of Lund remained open until their usual 6 p.m. and didn’t add extra holiday hours with the exception of the big toy store that opened on Sunday from 12 to 4. (Similar to the hours at ToysRUs in the US, right) This is in part because of strong labor laws but also because Swedes have decided not to be a 24/7 society.

The biggest day of the Yule season isn’t Christmas Day, but rather Christmas Eve. The celebrations really begin (after a big meal, of course) at 3 p.m. that day, with a longstanding Swedish tradition: Kalle Anke. The entire country stops, turns on one of the national broadcast TV stations, and watches an hour-long set of Kalle Anke (Donald Duck) and other Disney cartoons. Some are dubbed, some are subtitled, some are both. The same cartoons – most of which are quite old – are shown year-to-year, with at most a small variation, so most Swedes can (and often do) join in with Donald and Pluto and Snow White and Ferdinand the Bull and all the others. There seems to be little known about how this tradition started, but it’s still going very strong after over forty years! As much as we enjoyed the Disney hour, Akiva was also taken with some pretty bizarre shows before and after the program including a sit-com of the Christmas celebration of two families that accidentally mixed up gifts and gave the grandma a dildo that she thought was the hand mixer she wanted. This was not on cable, but on one of the two major Swedish national broadcast channels. Take that Janet Jackson.

There are a few other Swedish Christmas customs we should mention, most having to do with food and drink. People drink. They drink Jul beer, schnapps, a mulled wine with almonds and raisins called glögg, and a Pepsi-like drink called julmust. People bake saffron raisin buns called Lussekatter (Lucia cats), eat saffron buns specially made for Lucia, and bake pepperknakker (ginger snap) cookies for both Christmas tree ornaments and just to eat. Akiva got a pepperknakker cookie in the shape of a pig with his name on it at Kultura, the local history museum. He also made pepperknakker cookies at our friend’s house in the shape of motorcycles and cats, and our young friend Måns made a model of the Eiffel Tower out of pepperknakkers.

There are also lots of julbords, parties with an overabundance of food and drink. Emma seems to be going to or bringing friends over for an endless stream of holiday parties, our Brazilian friend Eduardo, who works at a local hotel, is exhausted with overtime work catering nightly company julbords. We went to a lovely after-Christmas dinner with our friends Boris and Görel -- complete with traditional herring and schnapps -- and their kids, Cathy went to a musical Christmas party with her fiddle group, and Cathy and Akiva even went with our vegetarian friends to the Hare Krishna Govinda’s restaurant for their elaborate vegan Jul feast.

New Year’s is celebrated with yet more parties and fireworks, fyrverkeri, that some of our family is looking forward to. And on a particular day, we think it is January 13, all Swedes take down their trees and Lucia lights and get back to work.

The holidays didn’t feel especially like the winter we’d been expecting. We brought warm gloves, and purchased boots and jackets, but Sweden – indeed all of Europe – is in the middle of the warmest winter in the past thousand years or so. Advertisements in the paper for winter holidays include ski holiday getaways on the Copenhagen to Seattle flight to enjoy the bountiful snow in the Cascades. The Alps are made of slush this year. Akiva and Cathy went ice-skating at the local rink to at least get a sensation of cold. (They thought the large sponsorship billboard at the ice-hockey rink for the local dentist was especially amusing, given that hockey players frequently need oral surgery.)

Cathy decided not to go to Greece this winter since it has been so sunny and warm in Sweden and she has been reading far too many articles on global warming and the carbon cost of air travel. It has been sunny and close to 50 degrees in Lund around Christmas, so we'll all take the train to Stockholm on New Year’s Day and then later in the week David and Cathy will go -- by train -- to an ice hotel ( above the Arctic Circle to celebrate Cathy’s recent 50th birthday and David’s January 1 birthday too. We’ll write about our adventures in the north as we travel 17 hours south, back to Lund on the train.

P.S. Akiva is writing a “family newsletter” that we will be providing sometime soon (we hope).

P.P.S. Emma would like to write but needs your questions to respond to – so go ahead and ask her about school, shopping, cheese, Swedish boys, and anything else you think of.