I am back in Minnesota (and have been for a few months now). Several of you have commented that you miss reading my blog posts, so I thought I’d share with you a guest post I wrote for a Colorado-based literacy organization: CCIRA.
Please do not feel pressure to read it — and, full disclosure, it has NOTHING to do with Sweden. I just thought I’d pass it along to those interested.
In some ways, our time here has flown by. We value the experiences we’ve gained and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But we’re ready to be home, too. So, so ready.
We have crammed a lot into the last few days: I went to Sigtuna (the oldest city in Sweden!), we both made one last trip to Stockholm, visited Gamla Uppsala (the “old town” where the Viking burial mounds are located), and scurried around our favorite places in Uppsala.
I really should be packing and cleaning but writing and reminiscing is much more fun, isn’t it? Besides, when is writing ever better than when done as a procrastination tool? (Kidding.) In the interest of my growing to-do list, however, I’ll have to compromise and give just a short, brief, photo-heavy overview of our final days in Sweden:
This small town dates back to the 10th century! It’s famed as having the oldest main street in Sweden. Just north of Stockholm, it’s situated on a body of water that connects with the Baltic. There are old ruins, quaint shops, and lovely boardwalk along the water. I also — naturally — stumbled upon a little bookshop filled with postcards, books, and treasures.
Alex and I had a friend visiting from home so we took him into Stockholm for a day. It was fun being in the city one last time: walking through Gamla Stan, touring the Vasa museum, eating at a Viking restaurant. (No joke: The waitstaff was dressed as vikings and we ate our food with a mini pitchfork. When we entered, the hostess blew into a horn and announced that the “brethren from Minnesota” had arrived.)
I can hardly believe we’d gone months without visiting “Old Uppsala.” Gamla Uppsala was the original site of the city — now about three miles outside present-day Uppsala. According to tradition, Gamla Uppsala was really Atlantis. (Who would’ve thought!?)
Today, a museum explains its history and significance. The Viking burial mounds still tower in the field, originally thought to house the nordic gods Odin, Thor, and Freyr.
What would a last hurrah be without visiting some of our favorite places in Uppsala? We went to Café Linné (my favorite writing and fika spot), walked along the river, said goodbye to the University, strolled through the cathedral, and visited the English Bookshop. So many great memories in this Swedish town.
I have such mixed emotions about leaving Sweden. It really was the opportunity of a lifetime we had hoped for. I believe both Alex and I have grown and matured in ways different than if we’d stayed in Minnesota. And that’s always a good thing.
Think of us tomorrow as we make our journey back over the Atlantic!
P.S. Some of you have asked for more Minnesota vs. Sweden comparisons. Here are a few:
Police officers wear neon vests so they can be easily spotted and identified. They do not carry guns.
The notorious children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is called Charlotte and Friends in Sweden (which I personally think is a terrible title).
Buses that run in the city are painted green and ones that go outside of or between cities are yellow.
I don’t know the logistics of this, but basically nature belongs to everyone in the country. So, for example, if you see a delicious-looking apple on a tree you can go ahead and pick it regardless of whose property the tree is on. Same goes for camping: you can literally pitch a tent anywhere for a short period of time.
The Swedish language is very song-like and happy-sounding. People are quite expressive and often remark “ah-ha” when listening to someone speak.
Swedes are very creative (or perhaps just have a good sense of humor) when naming things. One of my favorite words in Swedish, for example, is strawberry. The Swedish word is jordgubbe which literally translates to “dirt man.” (Why!? I want to know why!) Also, their translation of vegetables is literally “green things.” Hilarious!
As our time in Sweden draws to a rapid close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it’s been like to live in a foreign country. There are some obvious differences (the language, transportation, healthcare system, age of cities and buildings, etc.) but there are more subtle ones, too — differences that someone visiting for a shorter period of time may not pick up on. So, this post is dedicated to the more subtle differences between Sweden and Minnesota. Curious? Read on:
Swedes rarely hold their phone up to their face when talking on the phone. Instead, they keep their phone in a pocket and speak using their headphones. It was a bit unnerving at first when people would be walking down the street, seemingly talking to themselves. (It didn’t take long to realize they were talking on the phone).
Swedes drive on the right side of the road but walk wherever they please. This one has taken me awhile to get used to: Swedes don’t walk on the right side of the sidewalk. In Minnesota, people generally always stay on one side of the sidewalk or side of a hallway — especially if someone is approaching you from the other direction. Here, though, people walk wherever they please. I asked a local about it once and she was confused by my question: “Why would we walk on the right side? We just walk.”
All baby strollers are designed for the baby to face the person pushing it. In the US, most strollers have the child facing forward. Here, the baby looks up at the person pushing it.
It is equally common to see men pushing strollers or caring for children as it is women.
If you need a bag at a store, they charge you for it. It’s not a lot, but it has encouraged me to think about brining my own bag wherever I go.
They recycle EVERYTHING. Literally. According to the Swedish Institute, “less than one per cent [sic] of Sweden’s household waste ends up in the rubbish dump.” What this means in a practical manner is that we have numerous bins for recycling under the sink and have to separate it all out in the recycling room at our apartment complex. There’s a bin for compost, plastic, metal, clear glass, colored glass, paper, and newspaper. Anything that doesn’t fit in one of those categories goes into the “burnable” section. I was recently awarded a grant by my school district to teach my first graders about the environment and better implement a recycling program at my school (all inspired by my stay in Sweden, of course).
Dinner typically lasts 2+ hours. Alex and I quickly realized we need to slow down when we go out to eat. It wasn’t unusual for us to arrive after a nearby table but leave before they had even gotten their bill!
The words “entre” and “main course” are not synonymous! Every once in awhile we’d have difficulty communicating, even in English. This is the perfect example: Apparently, everywhere except the U.S. uses the word “entre” to describe food given before the main meal (like an appetizer). Imagine my confusion, then, when a waitress asked me if I wanted what I’d ordered as an “entre” or “main course”! I simply replied “yes,” she looked at me like I was nuts, and repeated the question (ha!). We finally figured out the misunderstanding and now I know the difference!
Restaurants do not cut pizza into slices. If you order pizza at a restaurant or for delivery, it will be presented whole. That’s right — it’s not cut up at all. They don’t provide you a pizza wheel, either. Instead, you’re supposed to cut your own pizza with a fork and knife as you eat it. Bizarre. It’s typically eaten with a fork instead of your hands, too.
If you order a gin and tonic, you will be given the two separately. Instead of mixing your gin and tonic for you, bartenders will give you a glass with ice and gin and a separate bottle for you to add your own tonic water.
There’s no such thing as nachos. Believe me, I’ve looked.
Swedes love their sweets! The candy aisle at the grocery store is ridiculous! There are dozens of different kinds of candy, almost all presented in those clear bins with scoops so people can determine how much they want. The craziest part? The aisle almost always has one person in it. (And not just kids — adults love love love their sweets!)
Swedes can down their coffee like nobody else. I’ve written about fika before (a coffee break with loved ones) but it’s hard to describe how integral this practice truly is to Swedish culture. I’ve been asked to fika numerous times and am always amazed by how full coffee shops are in Sweden. The most surprising part about their coffee habits, though, is how late in the day people drink their coffee. I once went to fika at 3:00 with someone 70 years old. She had not one but two cups of coffee before our time was done! (And I didn’t even want to order anything with caffeine that time of day!) Also, there is no such thing as decaf coffee in Sweden. It doesn’t exist.
Waiters and waitresses have portable credit card machines. When you’re ready to pay at a restaurant, they come to you and run your card right at the table.
Waiters and waitresses do not bother you once you’ve received your food. Unlike in the U.S, they will not come check on you or ask if everything’s okay. Similarly, you need to grab their attention if you want to order your next course or ask for the bill. At cafes or bars, you pay as soon as you order your drink, then are able to stay as long as you please.
Sweden is trying to be the first country to get rid of paper money. You almost certainly need a credit card to live in Sweden. I have only used cash a couple of times total over the course of five months.
The streets and sidewalks are unbelievably clean. It’s rare to see any sort of trash on the ground. A friend said he hears a street sweep go by every single morning.
They don’t salt their roads. The climate in Uppsala is similar to that in Minnesota. Roads and sidewalks get icy but the Swedes do not ice the roads or sidewalks. Instead, they put small rocks and pebbles over everything! It doesn’t melt the ice, but it does make it easier to walk!
It’s safe to walk outside alone after dark. This one has taken me a long time to get used to. Back home, I never walk alone after dark. (So sad, I know.) Here, though, it’s completely normal and safe to do so. The sun sets so early here (at the winter solstice it was setting around 2:45pm) that darkness is part of normal life. I asked a girl my age if it was safe for me to be out alone and she said, “Well, yeah! As long as you don’t go through a dark park or something, you’re perfectly fine.” She then remarked how hard it was to believe I couldn’t do that back home. *Sigh*
The buses are quiet, clean, and orderly. And the drivers are friendly! Both Alex and I have seen bus drivers stop for people running to catch them. Once on the bus, everyone is very quiet the drivers are friendly. I mentioned this to a local once and she replied, “Why wouldn’t they be friendly? It’s a very respectable job — they get people where they need to go.”
Shops close early. Most stores close around 5:00pm. It was a bit of an adjustment at first but now we see it likely contributes to the Swedes’ reputation of having a healthy work-life balance.
Swedes are quite blunt. You know the saying “Minnesota nice”? Well, in my experience, that’s not really a thing here. Swedes are not rude or disrespectful. That said, they don’t sugarcoat anything either. One time I shared some bad news with a friend and she replied, “Well, s*** happens!” I cannot imagine someone responding like that back home!
They don’t cover their mouths when theycough. I have not been able to figure this out one. Seriously, when adults cough — not just kids! — they just cough into the open air. It is very rare for me to see someone cough into their elbow or cover it in any way. I don’t get it.
A lot of people smoke and use snus. This is a bit perplexing to me since overall Swedes are so much healthier than Americans. They eat better food and exercise more by biking and walking yet many people (especially young people!) smoke and use snus.
The bookstores are definitely lacking in the picturebook department. There are very few picturebooks in any store. Most picturebooks are translations of US bestsellers but, even still, there is a really slim selection. I’m excited to get back to Minnesota where there are seemingly endless offerings.
Is there anything else you’re wondering about Swedish life? I’d be happy to address any questions or expand on something I’ve already written about!
All in all, transitioning to life in Sweden went very smoothly. It’s overwhelmingly similar to Minnesota and was easy to adjust to. I’m so glad we were able to have this experience.
Today I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop and writing. Then, it’s back to packing and cleaning! Just a few more days, friends!
Yes, I know that’s Spanish, not Swedish, but Alex and I just returned from the most amazing trip to Tenerife!
Tenerife is one of the Canary Islands, located off the western coast of Africa. If you haven’t heard of it, take a peek on a map. It’s a popular winter destination for Europeans (particularly those from the UK). After spending several days there, Alex and I can see why: It is stunning.
We chose the location based upon the likelihood of finding warmth and sunshine but were pleasantly surprised by the island’s diverse landscape and culture. In the course of several days, we drove all around the island. Here are the highlights:
After landing, we rented a car (yes, I drove a car for the first time in five months!) and headed north to San Cristóbal de La Laguna. It was once the island’s capital and is currently the third-largest city in Tenerife. We stayed in the old town and were impressed by the narrow, cobblestoned streets, colorful buildings, and towering palm trees.
We quickly realized that most people spoke little English, so my Spanish was put to the test! There actually were very few tourists in La Laguna, which we liked. Whenever possible, we prefer going to spots locals frequent to get a better idea of what a place is truly like.
After spending some time in La Laguna, we were told that the people celebrate Los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) on January 5th. From what we understand, it’s another Christmas celebration (closely linked with Epiphany). We really had no idea there would be such a big celebration when we booked our trip! Christmas decorations were still up and there was a massive, never-ending parade. Confetti and candy wrappers littered the streets and parties lasted late into the night. There was so much energy and excitement; it was a very different Christmas display than what we experienced in Sweden.
Playa de Las Teresitas
After leaving La Laguna, we drove to an impressive overlook. One of the more famous views in Tenerife, Las Teresitas is a man-made beach with sand brought in from the Sahara Desert (all other beaches are black-sand). The view was beautiful but — even better than that — the sun felt amazing.
Playa de Benijo
From there, we continued on a harrowing drive through the mountains to Playa de Benijo. Have you ever been on a white-knuckle drive? This was by far the most stressful drive I’ve ever done. Steep switchbacks, sheer cliffs, no guardrails, an impossibly narrow roadway — this drive had it all. My trusty co-pilot (er, husband) navigated the route and encouraged me the entire way. ♥
We finally came to our destination: Benijo. Alex had a restaurant in mind that he wanted to try but we both laughed when we saw how dilapidated it looked. Ignoring the curbside appearance, we enjoyed seafood paella and amazing views of the coast.
After lunch we trekked down the winding stairs to the beach. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks was both deafening and beautiful. I felt so small.
The next stop on our stay was in a town called Los Gigantes — a city nestled right next to massive (gigantic) cliffs. This town had many more tourists than La Laguna but we loved it all the same. (Did I mention that we never came across other Americans the entire trip? Shocking!)
I’ll remember Los Gigantes for its black-sand beach, cliffs, and sunsets. I read and wrote outside for hours on our hotel balcony. Such a delight!
Our final adventure of the trip was another harrowing drive through the mountains — this time to a small village called Masca. There are only about 90 inhabitants in Masca, which is not surprising considering how isolated it is. Nestled in the mountains, the village is picturesque. Alex and I sat out on a patio enjoying tapas and freshly squeezed lemonade. It was so quiet and peaceful. Truly, the only sounds we heard were from the birds flying nearby.
Honestly, this trip was exactly what Alex and I needed. We didn’t realize how much we missed the warmth and sunshine until we were back in it. We loved adventuring and exploring this exotic island together. If you ever have the opportunity, we highly recommend Tenerife!
We have just one week left in Sweden now (!!). I’m sure we’ll be spending the days cleaning and packing but I’m also hoping to squeeze in a bit more of Swedish life. That said, Alex and I are both ready to return to Minnesota. There was something strange about returning to Uppsala after Tenerife — we both felt like we should be going to Minnesota instead. One week and that will happen. We can’t wait.
What a wonderful whirlwind the last few weeks have been:
My parents and sister visited from Minnesota
We took a train up to Mora, Sweden
We ate our first julbord (traditional Swedish Christmas smörgåsbord) at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm
We traveled to Tallinn, Estonia
We meandered through two different outdoor Christmas markets
We heard two concerts: the Stockholm- and Tallinn symphony
We watched Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) — a strange Swedish Christmas Eve tradition
We had fika almost every day
We celebrated Christmas at the Cathedral
Alex and I hosted our first Christmas meal
And — of course! — enjoyed the time together
As you can see, we did way too many things to adequately cover in a blog post! Instead, I’ll highlight a few.
My dad grew up in Mora, Minnesota so my parents, sister, and I carved out a day to visit its namesake in Sweden. (Poor Alex was prepping for his final exam!) Known for the Vasaloppet ski race and Dala horse, Mora was just as I imagined: small, quaint, and covered in snow.
For me, a highlight was the train ride up to Mora. Every tree, branch, and twig was covered in snow. It almost looked too perfect to be real — like we were traveling to the North Pole instead of the middle of Sweden.
Once off the train, we wandered the quiet streets and in and out of local shops. Like Mora, MN, a bell tower, statue of a skier, and painted Dala horse were prominent parts of the town.
It was definitely a fun day trip. I mean really — how many people can say they’ve been to both Moras!?
Almost immediately after deciding we’d move to Sweden, I began Googling “Swedish Christmas.” Photos of markets filled my screen: tall trees, red booths, bulbs glowing overhead. Let me just say, the Google photos are nothing compared to seeing it in real life.
Sweet smells filled the air as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Burl Ives piped through loud speakers. It felt as though we’d stepped right into a Christmas calendar. Simply magical.
Tallinn is a medieval city in Estonia. My family and I visited several years ago while taking a Baltic cruise and were all thrilled to return at Christmastime. It was brutally cold during the day, but the city still holds an unbeatable charm. In the course of just a couple days we went to the Christmas market, ate pig and pelmeni, attended a concert, discovered an unmarked, local pub, climbed to the city’s best overlook, and sat by a crackling fire. So much fun!
It likely goes without saying that my favorite day of the visit was Christmas Eve. I love anything and everything Christmas-related, so having my family with celebrating in Sweden was extra special. We walked to the cathedral in the morning for their nativity play and were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with sunshine:
The nativity play was all in Swedish but none of us minded. We were too enthralled with the adorable children donning angel wings!
After church we had a fika, walked around, watched Kalle Anka (so weird!), opened gifts, and had a meal of Swedish meatballs (what else!?). Had you told me this time last year that the first time Alex and I would be hosting Christmas dinner would be from Sweden, I would have rolled my eyes and laughed. We enjoyed hosting, though, and hope to do it again soon!
At the end of the evening, we bundled up and headed outside for the cathedral’s midnight mass — a misnomer because 1) the service was at 11, not midnight and 2) the church is Lutheran, not Catholic.
I loved everything about the service. People crammed into the pews, candles flickered from the chandeliers, and decorated trees towered, tall as statues, at the front of the sanctuary. Everything was in Swedish, but the five of us followed along just fine. We sang familiar hymns, marrying the recognizable tunes with strange, foreign words. After an hour, we left feeling energized and happy.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation! O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation! All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near, Join me in glad adoration.
It’s impossible to think back on 2018 without feeling grateful. This time last year we didn’t have even the slightest inkling that most of our year would be spent in Sweden. The year has been full of risks, adventures, mistakes, love, laughter, grace, and hope. As always, I value the people in my life who encourage and support us. Thank you.
Alex and I will be ringing in the New Year by cooking a meal together and then going out with the Swedes. I’m not sure if they’ll count down to midnight or kiss those they love — are those just US traditions? — or perhaps do something completely different. I’ll be sure to report back.
Yes, there have been flurries and flakes before, but now — finally — the snow is covering the ground.
I love the first snowfall; it truly is one of my favorite days of the year. I’d been watching the forecast for days and was thrilled to see we were expected to get 1 – 3 inches overnight. It started before I fell asleep, so I kept peering out our apartment windows at the streetlights. Is there anything more magical than snow falling under the golden light of a street lamp?
This morning I went on my annual first-snow walk. It was glorious.
As I was out for my stroll, an old woman rode by on her bicycle with a wide smile on her face and a wrapped gift in her basket. It’s moments like this that make me realize how much I will miss Sweden.
I’m hoping for many more snowy days in our future. For now, I’m just crossing my fingers it will stick around so we can have a white Christmas. My family is on their way and I cannot wait to show them a wintry Uppsala!
Last night I had a front row seat to a centuries-old tradition. Let me try to take you there:
I was hit by a wall of energy as I walked through the massive, wooden doors of Uppsala’s cathedral. People held up their phones, trying to capture the space with its vaulted ceilings, golden pulpit, and brightly-lit Christmas trees. A small ping of panic lodged itself in my chest as I realized people were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in every single pew. Unsure of where I would ever fit, I walked down the long aisle. Finally, I found a lone chair in the very back of the sanctuary. I couldn’t even see the cathedral doors from my seat, but that didn’t matter — at least I had a seat (and a clear view of the trees!).
The lights dimmed and a hush washed over the room. A nearby woman let out a little squeal and grabbed her partner’s arm. Then, the bells began to sing: loud, strong, powerful. The lights continued to dim until they went completely dark. The only light came from the trees to my right and a spotlight on the stained glass above the organ.
After the last ring of bells, silence filled the space. I sat with hundreds of strangers, anxiously anticipating whatever came next. Then, a woman’s voice sliced the silence. I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. More and more voices joined in, all singing the infamous Sankta Lucia song. Although I couldn’t see anything, it was clear from the growing volume that members of the choir kept streaming into the sanctuary.
The choir sang several songs at the back: O Come, O Come Emmanuel and Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming were, of course, favorites. Then the group made their way down the long aisle — led by St. Lucia, donning candles on top of her head! — and resettled in the middle of the sanctuary. The adults left the group and only the girls’ choir remained. Their voices were so pure. While the choir was certainly closer, I still couldn’t see the girls’ faces. Candlelight traced their silhouettes, matching the song with an angelic appearance.
Much to my delight, the adults returned for their portion of the concert and stood right before me: my last-row seat turned into the first-row. They performed a song I had sung once before: O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen. I was surprised to find myself singing along to the alto part in my head — years after I’d first learned it. That’s a powerful thing about music, isn’t it? Sharing the same song across decades, countries, continents, occasions. As the song climaxed I found myself overcome with tears. How could I — just Emily — possibly be sitting in Sweden while listening to one of the most beautiful choral pieces ever written being performed by candlelight? Wow.
The girls rejoined the adults, keeping their candles steady as they shuffled into place. Their long robes, red sashes, crowns of pine, and slippered feet glided across the stone cathedral floor. Silent Night — in Swedish! — floated heavenward as tears streamed down my face. (Anyone who knows me well knows I cannot make it through a candlelit singing of Silent Night without crying. Call it one of my many quirks.)
To end the evening, the choir sang Sankta Lucia one last time:
Night walks with a heavy step Round yard and hearth, As the sun departs from earth, Shadows are brooding. There in our dark house, Walking with lit candles, Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Night walks grand, yet silent, Now hear its gentle wings, In every room so hushed, Whispering like wings. Look, at our threshold stands, White-clad with light in her hair, Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Darkness shall take flight soon, From earth’s valleys. So she speaks Wonderful words to us: A new day will rise again From the rosy sky… Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Finally, the choirs walked down the long aisle, retreating back to the cathedral’s wooden doors — taking the light from their candles with them. After the last note’s echo disappeared into darkness, applause erupted. Lights shimmered back on and everyone wore a smile across their face, replete with happiness.
What a night. A night of light, of song, of hope. A night I will not soon forget.