Pieces of Sweden

  

neighborhoods draped in traditional Christmas lights • strawberry cheesecake at Ikea • a stunning view of lake Vättern • well-dressed men • tacos on New Year’s Eve • so much snow upon landing at Stockholm Skavsta • my friend’s homemade apple cake with apricot jam • gravel on icy roads • free wi-fi on Swebus buses • total dark at 3pm • chicken tikka masala at a friend’s new Indian restaurant • skiing at night • a guy from Uzbekistan who spent sixteen years of his life studying German • orange chocolate ice cream • small sailboats near the pier at dusk • discussing Russian movies from the 70s • fika, fike, fika • two former flatmates now doing their PhDs • carrot cake at Wayne’s Coffee • Hej! • familiar streets filled with memories of a semester abroad and many visits since

My trip to Sweden was absolutely wonderful, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to ring in 2013. I hope your start into the new year was just as lovely!

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A merry little Christmas


I’ve been home for a while now, and it’s been (mostly) perfect. No matter how little I miss home when I’m not here and how few traditions or memories I connect with this place, Christmas always feels more like Christmas when I’m with my family at my parents’ house.

This & that
We had a single day of snow over the past couple of weeks so Christmas here most certainly was not white. It was rainy and warm. We spent Christmas Eve as we always do, though: setting up the tree and decorating it in classic red and white, doing a long walk at the widlife sanctuary in the (relative) cold at dusk, and then coming back to a warm and cozy home to exchange gifts and eat good food. Instead of lamb, which we usually eat on Christmas Eve, my dad made duck and deer this year (photos to come) which was delicious!

Over the holidays we also read in our old children’s Christmas books that our parents used to read to us throughout December when we were little. We had Glühwein and fresh mint tea. We met the extended family at restaurants to eat more and promise to see each other more regularly next year (which we never do). I tried the Toffee Nut Latte at Starbucks and decided it must be their best pretentious Christmas novelty drink yet. I spent many evenings playing cards with my mom.

Material Christmas
I got some lovely Christmas presents, some of which I had mentioned to “Santa”, some of which were a wonderful surprise. I got Stephen Fry’s book “Moab is My Washpot”. It’s his autobiography and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since I got obsessed with his television show “QI”. I also got a gift card to a bookstore, and a couple other gift cards. My mom gave me my favorite perfume (“Glow” by J.Lo) (don’t judge, it smells really fresh and light and soapy). And my brother, sweet guy that he is, somehow remembered that I mentioned this particular H&M sweater a couple months ago and got it for me. Oh, and San sent me a lovely handmade Christmas card that made me so happy! I love getting regular mail – thank you, San!

Meeting old friends
On Thursday I went to a breakfast meet-up at a small local café with a bunch of old girlfriends from high school. We don’t usually see each other during the year because we’re never in the same country, much less the same town. But we always meet on the day after the holidays (December 25 and 26 are Christmas holidays in Germany), when everyone is here to visit their families back in this little town that we came from. By now, our group has grown to include two husbands and a little baby girl who tag along, and it’s just- lovely. We don’t talk about the negative stuff; we skip right over all the everyday complexities of growing up and creating a life because we don’t see each other often enough to fill everyone in on the details. And so it’s nothing but old memories and jokes and banalities. Just the right thing after a Christmas spent with extended families who excel at asking exactly the wrong questions about How Your Year Has Been and Your Plans For The Future.

We did a short trip to Holland yesterday (is it odd that I mainly miss the Dutch supermarkets? I loved them most when I lived there, their selection and quality of food somehow is so much better) and hit the Christmas market again. I just made a last batch of Christmas cookies and will pack for my trip to Sweden later. Am trying really hard to enjoy all of this as much as possible!

If you celebrated, I hope your Christmas was wonderful!

Cinnamon desserts


Have been living the good life, and am working on a big holidays recap post that should be up tomorrow before I leave for Sweden on Sunday.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas (if you celebrate) & are otherwise doing lovely as well.

Photos show caramelized cinnamon pears and a vanilla cinnamon ice cream star, both of which I indulged in over the holidays. Christmas = All The Cinnamon!

Seafood dinner


My mom hosts a semi-fancy seafood dinner once a year, usually in October or November when it’s dark and cold early, and sitting inside indulging in a good meal with people you love is just the right thing to do. Think of it like a substitute Thanksgiving but with less gravy and more champagne. In recent years, what was originally a seafood dinner has morphed into a mussel feast of somewhat worrying proportions. If you can’t handle OD-ing on protein, do not attend, is all I’m saying. Or rather: know when to stop, do not OD in the first place. (This cautionary note is brought to you by my dad who had too many mussels one year and to this day is unwilling to speak openly about what happened after.)

In any case, it’s always a wonderful affair. My mom and I ordered and picked up 8 kg (about 18 lbs.) of mussels at a local seafood shop. We made some sauces and got baguette and German Pumpernickel, which I hate but apparently goes well with mussels. We had wine of course – well, my dad and grandma did. I did whiskey + coke along with my uncle; it’s our little tradition, no matter what kind of food is served. My aunt had also brought champagne because why not. The mussels, although not especially photogenic I’ll admit, taste delicious when cooked in a vegetable broth with tons of different herbs. My mom has her own recipe that she’s perfected and kept secret over the years. And like every year, it was a big success this year as well.

Have you ever tried mussels? Do you like seafood in general?

Too many words on grapes

Apparently, according to my dad, grapes are in season in Germany right now so we’ve been eating them like crazy. Breakfast wasn’t quite enough? Let’s have some grapes. Wouldn’t mind a small dessert after lunch? OH I’LL JUST EAT THESE GRAPES LIKE A BOSS. (I don’t know how to use “like a boss”. It’s awkward every time I do.) And how about something to snack on while we enjoy this football game on TV? Well, are there any grapes left? (We continue to have grapes left. We bought ALL OF THEM.) Seriously. These grapes, you guys. I always thought grapes are just about as bland as cucumbers because usually they are. It turns out, if you buy stuff the time of year it’s grown locally instead of being flown in from Morocco, it tastes NICE. Like- these grapes- they’re all big and plump and a light purple/blue-ish color (GO AWAY WITH YOUR INNUENDOS, CHILDREN) and so sweet. So sweet. With just the right amount of tartness. I didn’t eat anything but grapes until 8pm today, at which point my body was like “Are you kidding with this? STOP WITH THE GRAPES.” But no. There can never be enough grapes. There can be enough words on grapes, though. So: moving on.

I’m reading Ken Follett’s “Fall of Giants” which follows five interrelated families through the dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women’s suffrage. It is fantastic, you guys. It is a difficult read, yes, mostly because I tend to read at times when history and politics are somewhat indigestible to me (like right before bed or when my eyes are too tired to stare at Pinterest pins anymore) and when I started it, I felt the same way I felt about “War & Peace” which is: too many characters, too many similar names, too many places I don’t know, too many parallel story lines, JUST STOP. But of course “Fall of Giants” isn’t quite as challenging as the Tolstoy classic and I’m actually really enjoying it now that I’m past the first 100 pages. The book is part of a trilogy, the second part of which was released this fall and I’m already impatient about the paperback coming out.

What else. I mentioned eating grapes (DID I?) while watching football. Football is important in this house, especially international matches – even if they’re friendly matches that don’t technically matter in any way. Germany played Holland last night and we watched it and it was terrible, just absolutely terrible, and it ended 0:0 and JFC wasn’t that a waste of an evening. BUT Sweden played England at the same time and THEY DELIVERED. My glorious Swedes, you guys. All royal-like and handsome and cool/collected and KILLING THE BRITS. Heh. I followed live match updates on a Swedish newspaper’s website while my dad refused to change the channel to what was clearly a better game than Germany vs. Holland, and only understood a quarter of what was being said, except GOAL over and over and over again. Long story short: they turned a 1:2 into a 4:2 – the fourth goal, scored in overtime, being especially delicious. To top it off, this was the very first match in Stockholm’s brand new sports arena, which made the Swedish win even more meaningful.

So, grapes and Swedish football and WW1 novels. That’s all I got. I don’t know. What do you usually do on Wednesdays?

Stream of consciousness

I wake up at 4am, start my laptop and wait. Most polls have closed in the U.S. by now. Despite the 6-hour time difference to the American East coast, there must be some semblance of a projection out there, I think. There isn’t. Romney is ahead but not by much. None of the swing states have been called. I find livestreams of CNN and C-SPAN and NBC News online, mute them, and watch and wait. For a terrible 15 minutes I entertain the possibility that Americans may actually vote Romney into office, and I’m surprised that this turn of events never seriously occurred to me before. From over here in central Europe – from almost anywhere else in the world – the choice seems so devastatingly clear.

“Don’t forget”, my mom likes to say, “This is the same country who voted Bush in for a second term.” But it’s not the same country at all, is it. Too much has happened, and a younger generation is making their voices heard. It wasn’t that America in 2008 and it sure isn’t now. It’s past 7am when they announce that Obama has been re-elected. The First Family looks beautiful; his speech is disappointing, recycled, same old same old. Maybe I’ve just been watching too many rallies over the past few months. I close my eyes for another half an hour. I breathe a sigh of relief.

***

I sip my cappuccino and put on some mascara. I have yet another appointment at the social services agency. These are check-up meetings, usually, but this time I’m also finally turning in the paperwork of my welfare application. It’s not the happiest feeling. But it’s cold and windy and rainy outside – that fine November rain that seems to go on for weeks and creep into every crevice – and it’s 9am and rush hour no longer crowds the subways, and I’m just happy to be out in the real world. I love this weather. I love this city. In all its gray and dirty autumn sadness, I love it.

I hate Lana Del Rey’s dumb face plastered all over everything. It’s an H&M campaign. She needs to GTFO of town. Give us David Beckham back. Or, you know, someone who’s actually naturally beautiful and normal.

The guy at social services grins as our appointment is over. “I hope to never have to see you here again”, he says. He says that every time.

***

I dread having to come up with ideas for food. I sit at home for two hours, growing hungrier, Googling ideas, avoiding the issue. I finally walk to the grocery store across the street and roam the isles, and my stomach needs something but nothing looks good because everything has too much fat and too much sugar. No taste is good enough to justify its calories. I’m in this rut again, and I can’t get out. It makes me wish I would never have to deal with food at all. I end up buying a ready-made pasta thing; small portion, just 99 cents. Add hot water, stir, enjoy. I stand in my kitchen and I look at it, the plastic-y sheen on the sauce, and I can’t eat it. My body won’t benefit from processed food. I can’t remember why I bought it.

I start from scratch, and my stomach protests. I find spaghetti in our pantry, left-over pizza cheese and left-over mini tomatoes. I steal an onion from my roommate. I boil the pasta, cut everything up, pre-heat the oven, add olive oil and spices. The tomatoes bake for 35 minutes; 10 more once the cheese is added. It’s delicious. It’s late now.

***

I stop at the hair dresser to make an appointment. My short do needs a trim. The girl behind the counter is all hipster: ironic tshirt, big glasses, asymmetrical bob of straight black hair, cherry red lipstick, immaculate make-up. She speaks with the thick dialect of the Cologne region. It makes me smile.

Zucchinis are good for something, after all

Zucchinis are good for something, after all. And so is Pinterest. I never expected to actually go back and use one of the recipes I had pinned a hundred years ago but I did. And a zucchini recipe at that.

I should tell you right up top that you only need this if you are a crazy person like me who tries to cut as many calories and as much carbs from her diet as possible. If you are a normal person who can eat pasta without feeling like a failure, just proceed with your happy existence and don’t even bother. Except this did in fact turn out to be delicious!

Zucchini Pasta + Oven Roasted Tomatoes for 2
2 zucchinis
3 carrots
15 mini tomatoes or 6 regular ones
3 small onions
1 clove of garlic
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil

1. Slice up the carrots, halve or quarter the tomatoes, dice the onions, mince the garlic, and throw it all into a big casserole dish. Add seasoning and a generous amount of olive oil (everything should be well coated).

2. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200°C (400 F) for around 60 minutes. Keep checking in, and stir the mixture around a bit if necessary.

3. Cut the zucchinis in thin strips. Or julienne, as the pros say. (Or use a mandoline, if you’re even more of a pro.) Cook the strips in lightly salted water for about 5 minutes.

4. Then just act as if you had just cooked yourself spaghetti and a regular old pasta sauce, and enjoy!