Tuesday, January 09, 2007

God Nyår! Good New Year!

Note: we have more pictures than usual, including a set at the very
end of the entry. A number of the pictures are dark (it is, after all, the middle of winter here in the far north) -- but if you click on them you'll see the larger versions that are generally much brighter than the thumbnails.

Our family pyromaniacs prepared for New Year’s Eve by shooting off fireworks – available at various stands and video stores throughout Lund. It is one of the times when the usually staid Swedes let loose, blowing up everything all over town from sparklers to bottle rockets to whole boxes of fireworks fired off with a single match. While most of Swedes let loose – loosened with a little alcohol – Emma’s friends at their alcohol-free teen party mostly watched Emma, Akiva and Cathy have a blast.

We asked Emma to wake up early so we could leave on New Year’s morning for a family trip to Stockholm. The train took a bit over four hours, and we checked into a funky hotel – an easy walk from the central train station – in the late afternoon. After a little rest we headed out to look for dinner. Many places were closed on the January 1 holiday, but we ended up in a Chinese/Japanese restaurant with a buffet. All of us except Cathy had the buffet, while she ordered from the regular menu. The waitress strictly explained that Cathy’s order did not include the buffet ice cream. Cathy nibbled an egg roll or two from our buffet plates. But when she took a taste of the ice cream, the waitress came running over and said, “The ice cream is not included for you!” What a challenge! We were stared at the rest of the time, making it tricky for Cathy to sample the hazelnut, licorice and Dumie (a local candy bar) ice cream.

The next day we walked through the center of city to a public ice skating rink. Usually many of the local parks have ice-skating rinks but because it is an extraordinarily warm winter, only one rink in the center of town was open. Usually there is also ice-skating on the rivers that surround Stockholm, but they haven’t frozen this winter, at least not yet. We rented skates and joined the crowd that included toddlers, the elderly, hockey skaters, figure skaters, Swedes, Americans, South Americans, wobbly skaters, and more. Guess which we were. After skating, we walked along the water to see the Vasa, a 17th century ship (commissioned by the King of Sweden) that sank in the Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage. The Vasa was salvaged in the 1960’s with help from the current King of Sweden. Now there is a huge museum with the Vasa – the largest museum artifact ever recovered – as its centerpiece.

While the kids ate in the hotel room and made sure that Swedish television is as bad as U.S. television – it’s so bad, in fact, that much of it *is* American TV – Cathy and David strolled in the moonlight through the city center and across a bridge to the old city (Gamla Stan). Many of the small alleys of Gamla Stan reminded us of another old city, Jerusalem. We ended up going two stories down into a cavern that held an Irish bar, complete with Irish music played by a guy from the Bay Area. The German and Dutch beer we drank fortified us for the walk back towards our hotel (across a different bridge) and our search for food. The center city was really dead by 9 p.m. Even restaurants with signs that said they were open until 10 p.m. were closed by 9:30 p.m. But thank goodness for Irish bars – we found another one near our hotel and ate the traditional Irish lasagna and chips. On the way home we passed the “Wat Pho Center” – and we are still wondering Wat that Center is Pho.

On our last day in Stockholm, we visited the Centralbadet, or Central Bath, a spa right across from our hotel. In fact its proximity to the baths is one of the reasons we chose our hotel – that and the fact we could get rooms for us and the kids at a good price. We all splashed in the thermal bath and hot tub for a while. Cathy and David sweated through the sauna – the men’s’ changing room had a sign warning that inappropriate actions in the sauna could lead to being banned permanently; the women’s room did not have a similar sign, so Cathy tried to be inappropriate. Hmmm… Cathy had a hot rock massage and got her eyebrows done in the spa. Her eyebrow worker had studied intensively for a year and was now authorized to do almost anything related to taking hair off of any and all body parts – making David extremely leery of going back to the spa anytime in the future. Emma had a facial, but couldn’t schedule the manicure she wanted (even though she tried to schedule it days earlier). While Cathy and Emma were being beautified, David and Akiva ran a few errands. The most important errand was Akiva demonstrating his finely-tuned ability to leap over the many stone lions that defined the pedestrian mall in front of our hotel and the spa.

The next day, after putting the kids on the train back to Lund, Cathy and David headed north. Far north. We took the train to Kiruna, which is about 67.5 degrees north latitude, a couple of hundred kilometers above the Arctic Circle. We took the overnight train, leaving at 5PM and arriving the next morning at 10:30 a.m. – fresh and relaxed largely due to our sleeping car. We were directly behind the locomotive engine, though, and there was some kind of strobe light from it – perhaps it was to scare the moose away, in case they got through the moose fence that protected much of the track. The strobe also let us see the landscape changing from city, to fields, to snow-covered forests many hours north of Stockholm. We were provided with little cartons of water from Lappland in our deluxe private cabin, and we could have had reindeer stew or a jerky mixed from elk, deer and reindeer in the bistro car – but we stuck with the bread, cheese, Murphy’s Stout, and chocolate we brought along, and enjoyed our quiet private cabin for reading, sleeping, and moose scouting.

Many people on the train had skis – indeed, there were special storage rooms for the skis, although these rooms weren’t big enough, and occasionally we had to step over piles of skis that were laid across the walkways between cars. This winter people to travel far from Stockholm to ski and a number of international ski events in February may need to be cancelled at resorts usually now inundated by snow.

Kiruna – the city’s name means ptarmigan (a kind of ground bird) in the local Sami language – is the major municipality of Lappland, with a population of about 20,000. Iron mining is Kiruna’s major industry, and the huge iron mountain looms over the town. It’s a small town, and of course everybody speaks wonderful English. It didn’t feel that Lappish to us – no Lapp dances, for instance. In preparation for the trip, Cathy had painted her boots with a design of the Sami flag, which was only in evidence on tourist schlock. The church is the main tourist site – it was voted the most beautiful public building in Sweden about five years ago. There are actually two church buildings side-by-side – one with a steeple shaped as a Sami tent, and the other more modern. We couldn’t enter the first, since it was locked, and we didn’t enter the second, as there was a funeral service ongoing.

Kiruna was covered with snow, with accumulations of maybe 6-12 inches, and significantly higher drifts. The snow showed the usual signs of the many dogs we saw being walked, but luckily there were containers marked Hund Latrin (dog toilets) along the paths as well – although we never saw a dog avail itself of the facilities. Big rectangular ice blocks – about 1 x 1 x 2 meters – were sprinkled around Kiruna as decorations, some of them plain, some of them carved a bit, some lit with colored lights. There was, to our American eyes at least, a noticeable lack of SUVs and pick-up trucks – most vehicles were regular sedans and station wagons, Volvos and Saabs, but even an occasional Ford. All vehicles however had mega fog lights to deal with the snow and darkness. People got around in other ways too, such as the postman riding a bicycle with snow tires and old ladies using push sleds instead of walkers. Cathy tried to get some videos of these ladies, but they were too fast for her to shoot. Anyway, we weren’t sure they were in season.

But reindeer are in season. Buying reindeer meat is usually harder than buying moose meat in Sweden (which you can even find in the supermarkets in Lund); but the supermarket in Kiruna was well-stocked with reindeer steaks and other delicacies. But there weren’t mooseburgers at the McDonald’s – indeed, we saw no sign of McDonald’s or any other American-based chain in Kiruna.

Most of the stores closed quite early, perhaps at 3 p.m. We aren’t entirely sure if this was because the week after New Year’s is still a holiday, or because it gets completely dark around 2 p.m. at this time of year. (The official times of sunrise and sunset for “Week 1” in Kiruna are: rise at 8:48 a.m., at the peak at 10:54 a.m., set at 12:36 p.m., with twilight (whatever that is) officially at 2:42 p.m.) Even the library and the restaurant at the bus station closed early. But there was a souvenir shop open where we found big reindeer horn key chains for the kids, a moose call for Emma, and a moose cigarette lighter for Akiva (he’s starting a collection).

Ice sculpture sweeper, hot lingonberry juice maker, musher, ice carving teacher, surviving-the-night at -5 degrees Centigrade lecturer, vodka drink mixer, wedding photographer, ice cup carver, ice block mover, inside hallway shoveler, fire door installer, ice suite designer, reindeer skin seller, reindeer-stuffed grouse with angelica butter chef, electrician – if you can fill these jobs, or most any other job at your usual large hotel, wedding and conference center, and you enjoy the cold and dark, and you’re (at least) bilingual, then you can probably get work at the IceHotel (www.icehotel.com). We took the local bus from Kiruna, about a 30 minute ride, opting out of the dogsled transportation option.

The location is flat but spectacular, right on the Torne River, where the ice blocks are harvested from. The river is totally frozen at this time of year, allowing visitors to take dogsled runs to an island for coffee – the Swedes do love their fika, coffee breaks – made in the traditional Sami way. The river is also a major winter corridor for sleds, snowmobiles, and for walking. Cathy heard a man (who she thinks is one the IceHotel owners) talking about how he lived right across the river and walks the several hundred meters to and fro every day – presumably only in winter. The weather was quite mild for this time of year at the Arctic Circle, dropping to perhaps -11 degrees Centigrade. The musher – who knows his huskies and wanted to know details about the breed of the University of Washington Husky dog – said he loved this weather. After living in Finland, Norway and Sweden for many decades, he is tired of the -30 below weather.

The IceHotel has many normal buildings – the reception area, restaurant, some warm cabins for wimps, the ice hanger (where they store and carve much of the ice), a warm area with lockers and bathrooms for people staying in the “cold accommodation”, the saunas, etc. But the Ice Hotel itself is ice – 99.8% ice, according to hotel literature. The other 0.2% must include the electrical system, the fire exit signs (!!!), a few reindeer skin doors with antlers for doorknobs, the wool curtains that are the “doors” to the sleeping rooms, and the wood slats and wool blanket and reindeer skins that form the ice beds. Those reindeer skins didn’t look that warm, but we later learned that we would have a sleeping bag to place on them at night.

After checking in, we were shown to the warm area and given a cardkey to our private walk-in locker. We took a tour of the IceHotel, looking at each suite, the ice carvings (including a tribute to Linnaeus, that was vexing the sculptor who was into her third week of what she had thought was a two week project), and the IceBar. There were quite a few people wandering about, since the ice rooms are open to public perusal (for a fee) until 6 p.m. So while waiting for people to stop wandering into our suite, we went for a drink at the Absolut ® IceBar.

The first drink – almost everything is a fancy mix of Absolut vodka with various kinds of juices, many of them local – costs about $15 and comes along with your very own ice cup. Refills are $3 or so less, since you can reuse your ice cup. We just ate our cups. The bar has music playing, ice chairs with reindeer skins for sitting around, and they are planning on hooking it up via big screens and Web-cams with other IceBar locations that have opened in Stockholm, London, Tokyo, Milan, and Copenhagen, with more to come. (Absolut uses those 1 x 1 x 2 meter blocks of ice that we saw in Kiruna, each weighing perhaps 2500 pounds, for various promotions – including shipping a number of them to an event in Saudi Arabia. Absolut also ships over ten thousand ice cups a month from the IceHotel to the other IceBar locations.)

The IceHotel has ice carvings everywhere – a cat, a bear, Happy New Year signs, wedding announcements, abstract designs, huge ice chairs, an ice chandelier, etc. – but the rooms themselves were the most spectacular, ranging from simple to elaborate, using similar rooms with very different results. The hotel itself is a huge igloo built from rammed snow and those big blocks of ice. Artists from all over the world are chosen to design the suites, which this year include a sunken Persian garden, a Zen center, and a British sitting room complete with sofa, arm chairs, and fireplace carved from ice. There is a relatively uninspired ice chapel, too, but several couples were married there that day, and were wandering around with their wedding party, wedding photographer, bouquets, all in their tuxedo and bridal dress finery.

We stayed in a room designed by a German artist, Michael Jermann, called Flowing Edge. It was an elegant, austere room that worked effectively in the dusky, blue-green light that permeated the whole hotel.

We met people visiting from everywhere – Brits and Scandinavians were the most common, but there were also Eastern Europeans, French, Chinese, Japanese, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians, and surely more. It was hard to distinguish among people because almost everybody dressed in the green-and-black snowsuits, gloves, boots and hats provided by the IceHotel. We survived easily just with an extra layer or two we’d brought along. David’s beard and red sweatshirt caused several kids on the trip to ask if he was a tomte (elf). He needs to learn enough Swedish to make a snappy response rather than wiggling his eyeglasses.

Cathy had been told by someone that dinner at the IceHotel was the best meal she had ever eaten. Maybe that’s true, if you are from Sweden. It was certainly an interesting local menu including reindeer, ptarmigan, arctic char, roe, and lingonberry this and that. Food was all beautifully presented in a nouveau style, with some of the food served on ice dishes. And it was the best reindeer we’ve ever eaten. The mousse was good, too. We washed it all down with a nice vintage with an excellent red nose. On the way to our room, we searched for the Northern Lights, which had been spotted the previous evening. Alas, there was a beautiful full moon, but no aurora.

After dinner we were ready for a (n)ice sleep. David had attended a session in the afternoon on “how to survive the night in the IceHotel” while Cathy took a sauna. David told Cathy that she had to sleep naked and she believed him. Actually, you do keep warmest if you wear at most one layer (to allow body heat to warm the sleeping bag). Other directions included to sleep in a hat, not to wash or shave before bed (to keep the pores closed), to go the 100 meters from the warm area (with the bathrooms and lockers) to the bed in your sleeping clothes (okay, Cathy wore some clothes) and to take almost nothing else. We took books, mobile phone and a water bottle, which surprisingly didn’t freeze overnight. The Ice Hotel provides sleeping sheets and sleeping bags, and we were told to bring our sleeping bag only when ready to sleep, to keep it warm until just before diving in for the night.

We chose a double sleeping bag instead of two single ones, and David gave off enough body heat for two. It must have been what Cathy was wearing. Going to the bathroom at night wasn’t so bad because of the retained heat, and Cathy found the warm area busy at 2 a.m., with staff, other people peeing, all fully clothed. We left a wake-up call for 11 a.m. with coffee, but were instead awoken by a jolly Scandinavian staff member at 7:45 a.m. with a thermos of hot lingonberry juice. Hot lingonberry juice seems to be the drink offered at all times at all events at the IceHotel. It must have some properties we don’t know about. We’ll let you know if we start growing hair on our chest. Cathy slept in for another hour before heading to breakfast – this was much nicer than snowshoeing in the dark, another thought that had briefly passed through our minds.

If you weren’t interested in snowshoeing, dogsledding, or tracking down moose, there wasn’t that much to do (other than the sauna, the IceBar, the restaurant, and the gift shop). Cathy took a class in ice carving, which was taught in the ice hanger by an old man who had lived all his life in Kiruna. David walked to another coffee shop about 1km away – and walked back on the frozen river.

We had booked another overnight train with a sleeper cabin for the 21-hour trip back to Lund (with a change in Stockholm at lunchtime). And returned to our (relatively) warm, sunny city, refreshed by an incomparable winter experience.

En trevlig nyår!


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