Thursday, January 13, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonderland (part 2)

After a whirlwind day and a half in Copenhagen we woke up ready to head to Sweden.  As you might remember, my boss is Swedish, and when she found out we would be passing by her town on our way to Stockholm, she asked us to stop off for one day and see the Swedish countryside and spend the night at her parents' house with her.  We graciously accepted, excited to see how the Swedes live and for me, happy to learn more about my boss, who is like a friend to me here.

After quite a mishap with printing the tickets, we luckily had the email receipt and were able to board the train and around 11am arrived in Växjö, a Swedish town of about 80,000 people.  Erika's smiling face was waiting for us when we got off the train and with limited daylight we quickly put our suitcases in a locker and set off to see the town.  The city originally was just a marketplace, and the name originates from this past - väg (road) and sjö (lake), meaning road over the lake, to get to this market that now is Växjö.  In the south of Sweden in an area known as the Lake District, the town sits next to a small lake that was of course covered with first ice then snow.  First stop on our quick tour was Stora Nygatan, which means Main Street in Swedish.  Again, the colorful buildings were prominent, and at the end of the wide pedestrian street stood a two-spired Lutheran church.  From outside, the church hails to the past, with orangy-red bricks and the bright green towers, but inside we were surprised to find a very modern interior.  Being in the area of the country called The Kingdom of Crystal, the pulpit was made from all glass and the church was adorned with glass sculptures.  Even the lights were modern, with chandliers that looked like they were straight from Ikea (which is also Swedish).  The only remaining memory from the 18th century original church is the organ. 
Next on the quick tour we passed the House of Emigrants.  In the early 19th century, with a famine due to failed farming, one-fifth of the Swedish population moved across the Atlantic to the USA.  The majority of these people were from this area.  The peasants left mostly from Gothenberg (a couple hours drive West) and most never came back (like you will hear about with my Grammy's family later in the blog!).  At this museum, you can search for family members who left Sweden and where they journeyed to.  Sort of like Ellis Island but the opposite, right there in this small Swedish town.

After passing more painted cottages, we headed to the car to head to Hovmantorp, the small villlage where Erika is from.  First though, we stopped by the Systembolaget - the Swedish liquor store chain.  State-run, these liquor stores were set up to do two things: cut alcohol-consumption and to make people think about how much they drink.  A few generations back, many Swedes drank alcohol in excess, so the new system makes that quite different.  Difficult to find, Systembolagets are illegal to advertise and require that when you enter you take a number.  While waiting in line (which we were told could be an hour on a regular Friday afternoon after work), you then get to the window and select the alcohol you would like to buy from a display case.  Because it is such a hassle to buy alcohol, we read that moonshine is quite common in the country.

 In the Volvo (would a Swede drive anything else) I was estatic that it had seat warmers so that my legs and bum got nice and toasty after the the brisk walk.  Forty minutes from Växjö, we realized we had forgotten our luggage in the locker at the train station but decided to leave it for a few hours longer and take advantage of what lasted of daylight to see the town.  When Erika pulled into her driveway, the last on the left of a picturesque culdesac, Joseba and I were both immediatley impressed.  A mix of wood and warm bricks, the house was built when the neighborhood was created in the 70's.  Upon entering we took off our snowy boots and Erika's mother already had slippers waiting for us.  With rich wood floors, slippers were perfect to skate around the house.  The living room had floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of travel books, history books, novels - everything you could ask for, comfy couches and the best, a fireplace with a roaring fire.  With smiles on thier faces, Erika's parents greeted us and her mom already had a welcome snack ready.  We sat in the wooden house, nice and warm, and ate cinnamon heart-shaped cookies topped with cheese and jam and drank glogg, the holiday drink of the country.  If you press HERE you will find a recipe with American measurements.  A warm, spiced wine, it made us forget about the freezing temperatures and snow-covered yard we could see through the large windows. 
Hanging in the main window was an advent star, a colored star with multiple points that is lit from the inside with a little bulb.  Meant to signify the glowing star of Bethlehem on a dark night, the stars hung in atleast one window of the majority of the houses we passed.  What was in every window of every house was the glowing candelabra.  On December 13th, Swedes celebrate St. Lucia's Day with a candle-lit parade which finishes with everyone putting up a set of candles in thier windows.  Dedicated to the Italian martyr who brought food to the sick, this day is when Swedes really get excited about the holiday season and every house looks more festive with the shining candles beaming out the windows.
Since the daylight is short, her parents happily spoke with us about Basque Country (they have visited thier daughter many many times) but soon we were rushed back to the car to head down to the local lake.  For the first time in my life, I walked on a frozen lake!  It was unreal, to see the ice and know that you are in fact, walking on water.  With a gorgeous sunset beginning to take shape, the vast lake stretched out before us, and since it was blanketed in snow, more seemed like a stretching field.

Back with the seatwarmers, we headed to the actually Kingdom of Glass to see glass-blowing up close and personal.  The intrest in beautiful glass peices was first sparked by King Gustav Vasa when he visited Italy.  He came back and immediatley started a glass factory in Sweden, but it soon moved to this area because the dense forest provided all the fuel the ovens needed.  In 1742 the glass factory was set up and called Kosta. 
If you know glass, that name might ring a bell from the famous Kosta Boda brand.  This is the factory that we visited and that which impressed us.  We first walked into the workshop that they have set up for visitors to view the start-to-finish process of making a glass piece.  From a clump to the heat to the shaping to the finishing, we watched the men (in shorts!) make wine glasses with shots of blue in the stems.  Erika excitedly told us that these glasses were being made because they became famous when Samantha on Sex and the City had them and they appeared in the movie and were being sold as collector's items. With the glass being fired at about 2000ºF, it was a drastic change to step back outside and head over to the galleries where some of the fanciest glass art ever is on display.  Categorized by glass artist, opaque bowls with elaborate swirls sat on the shelves next to etched glass pieces of faces. 

The most impressive however was the Christmas Table dinner room.  Since we had just seen Christmas Tables in Copenhagen, I was surprised to come across something similar, but detailed and special in a different way.  The large table was brimming with food, all carefully hand crafted with glass.  From the fried eggs and plump sausages to the ornate wine glasses and the perfect grapes, the dinner table looked fit for a King!  While you could buy pieces from the table, I couldn't fathom up a reason that I might need a glass fish (it even had glitter so it looked like it had scales) or a Christmas ham (glass knife included) for my home.  Where we did find some good use for our money was in the shops that they have on site.  Browsing through endless aisles of glass, it was tempting not to buy the whole store.  We managed a short break in between shopping for a snack - we ordered pancakes with jam and whip cream along with a Nygårda - a special cola that is only made for the Christmas season.  Insanely sweet, I was happy to later wash it down with a coffee when we finished shopping and headed to the recently opened Glass Hotel.  With everything possible made out of glass, the whole hotel is up for sale.  Like that vase?  How about that plate?  It's all yours for a price.  Not just a lodging facility, this high-classy (and high-glassy) hotel offers rooms designed by Kosta Boda's most prized glass artists and instead of just being a hotel its also a showroom. 

At one end of the hotel there was also a hotel bar - again, with as much glass as possible.  From our bar stools to the floor to the table centerpieces and art decorating the walls, it just felt icy being insde.  While I was thouroughly impressed with the ice bar, I can surely say I think atleast one person was more mesmerized by Kosta Boda - Hillary Clinton.  Turns out, as one of her Secretary of State duties, she elected Kosta Boda crystal be placed in all American embassies around the world! 

After our crystal heaven visit we heading BACK to Växjö to pick up our backs and since we were in town for the second time, her sister to join us for dinner.  Back at the house, Erika's parents served us up a dinner for the history books.  Starting with a plate of fresh salmon, baby shrimps, bread and a tasty sauce, we checked 'fresh seafood' off the must-try in Sweden checklist.  This yummy cool starter was served with a soft white wine from France.  Next round of food was amazing - moose meat (that Erika's dad shot himself), potatoes (boiled just like Grammy and Mom make them), cooked carrots and...drumroll please...gravy!  It may seem crazy to you, but in Basque Country gravy is unknown territory, so to smother my potatoes with a rich gravy was honestly an amazing Christmas present for me.  While the gravy impressed Joseba, he was more in love with the moose.  So in love he was, that he ate about 5 helpings about it.  I imagine any boy who takes 5 helpings of food is any mother's dream, so it was no surprise Erika's mother was beaming.  Accompanying the meat were two Italian reds - one from the north of Italy and one from the middle.  Seeing that Erika's parents like dabbling in wine, we were happy we had brought them a bottle from La Rioja (the wine region in Spain).  After stuffing ourlselves to the brim, Erika's family decided it was time to do some Swedish roots investigating and suggested I call Grammy to learn more about her Swedish past.

Happy to call her, we rang her up, and I am sure she was quite surprised to see a Swedish phone number pop up on her caller ID.  She answered and was thrilled to hear we were calling from Sweden!  I explained to her that Erika's family was very interested in her family past and that possibly her family might have even been from the area I was in at that moment!  Grammy got out her papers and told Erika the names of the family members she had written down.  Turns out her grandmother came from Sweden and left from Gothenburg (a town only about two hours from where I was!).  With the full names, Erika said that since Joseba and I couldn't stay an extra day, she would investigate Grammy's family at the Emigrant House we passed earlier.  After family discussion, Grammy then told Erika some Swedish foods that I should try but sadly during our whole trip, we didn't see any of them!  Erika told me that they were homemade foods and that finding them in cafés and shops would be difficult.  In the end, we had to hang up because God only knows how much a Sweden-USA phone call costs, but Erika told me that Grammy told her she was very happy I was able to spend some time in Sweden and with Erika's caring family.  Later Erika told me she got a bit teary-eyed talking to Grammy, which I must say I did too.  Talking to your Grammy across the Atlantic while she is in your hometown and while you are in her home country is kind of a moving moment!

After so much geneology work, we all sat in the living room and I showed the family where exactly I was from.  Can you believe that Kelso, WA was in the atlas they had?!  Impressive!  Then, Joseba showed them where exactly was Orio - although it wasn't in the atlas - on one of the many maps of Basque Country they had.  Erika's parents made a good effort to visit her atleast once a year, and in doing so have come to know the Basque Country like the back on thier hands!

Before pie, we went on a brisk walk in the cold night, where only the candelabras and advent stars shone from the windows and the streets were covered with packed snow.  Pretending we worked off some of the calories of our delicious dinner, we decided we had earned ourselves some dessert!  A homemade bluberry pie, with hand-picked berries from the forest behind the house, we could only manage small pieces topped with cream because we were so full.

We marched upstairs to tuck ourselves into bed, and Erika's mom showed us up to the room.  Erika's old bedroom to be exact.  Of course the window donned a candelabra and under it, two little wooden figures - which Erika's mom told us were Joseba and I and were for us to take home to always remember Hovmantorp.  With visions of moose dancing in our heads we slept soundly til morning when we were again filled with even more food.  No Wheaties boxes were to be seen, but it was a real breakfast of champions - with white bread, Swedish bread (which is somewhat hard and brown and grainy), cheeses, meat slices, berry yogurt (from a milk carton shaped container), granola (which seems to be called museli on this entire continent, even here in Spain), and leftover Christmas ham served with a spicy mustard.  If I hadn't still been so full from the dinner the night before, I would have eaten more!

After such a short stay in town, we were sad to have to leave the warm and cozy home but alas boarded the train to Stockholm to begin the second leg of our Swedish adventure, but incredibly happy we could see the small town life and how ´real Swedish people´ live.


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