29 June 2008

Friday night in Stockholm

These past couple days were my first weekend here that wasn't a major holiday, so I was a bit curious to find out what Stockholmers do for the helg. It turns out one popular thing to do is go cruising. No, not that kind of cruising (although I'm sure that happens too -- I just wouldn't know about it). I mean the old-fashioned, American Graffiti style cruising. It appears car culture is alive and well in Stockholm. As evening fell on Friday, the street I live on came alive to the sound of car horns and squealing tires as a parade of classic, American cars cruised up and down the street.

I was a bit surprised to see people driving their American muscle cars from the 50s-70s with no apparent purpose in a country where gas costs ~$9 a gallon. That said, there were as many or more people parked on the side of the street and chatting by their cars than there were people actually driving them. I'm not really into muscle cars, but I did get a certain feeling of nostalgia for the good ol' U.S. of A.

There were a few things that stood out as unfamiliar, though. First, none of the cars had their stereos turned up very loud, and those that did were most likely to be playing some sort of rock. I didn't hear a single thump of hip hop. Also, the crowd had a decidedly middle-aged bent to it. It was definitely more Hot August Nights than Sideshow.

My personal favorite car? A big grocery getter station wagon from the 70s painted jet black with flames on the hood. It had some glittery stickers below one of the back windows that said "Remember the 70s". Hell Yeah! Actually, I was only four when the seventies ended, so I don't really remember them, but ... Hell Yeah!

Here are a couple non-scientifically collected statistics about the Friday night cruise on Sveavägen:

Approximate number of classic cars cruising up and down the street: 40
Approximate number of classic cars parked on the side of the street: 50
Number of trunk-rattling jams heard: 0
Number of songs that sounded suspiciously like "Doctor Doctor" by U.F.O.: 2
Number of Volvos squealing tires when leaving a stoplight: 1
Number of horns playing "La Cucaracha": 2

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25 June 2008

At home he feels like a tourist

Last weekend I decided to take a break from work -- I'd been working for two days, after all :-) -- and took some time to play tourist. Saturday morning I grabbed my camera, some snacks (I can't afford to buy lunch in this town), and a guide book and headed toward downtown via some scenic side streets. Below is a picture of Johannes Kyrka (Johann's Church) and one of the aforementioned, scenic side streets.

I then passed through the city center, which was relatively quiet because it was a holiday. Saturday was Midsummer's Day, which is one of the biggest holidays on the Swedish calendar, reflecting the fact that Swedes are still in touch with their pagan past. Because of the holiday, a lot of shops were closed. Midsummer is a three-day weekend where Stockholm basically empties out as most people head to their houses in the country. Good luck buying a replacement fuse on the Thursday before Midsummer in Stockholm (long story)!

One of the first stops on any tourist's itinerary in Stockholm is the Gamla Stan, or old town. It's the site of the original village and still has much of its medieval feel (with the possible exception of the ice cream shops). For those of you unfamiliar with Stockholm's geography, the city center and my neighborhood are on the mainland, while most of the rest of Stockholm sprawls across a number of islands in the brackish inlet between the Baltic and a large lake (called Lake Malären). The Gamla Stan sits on one such island, just south of the city center. It's connected to the mainland by a handful of bridges, one of which passes through the center of the Swedish Parliament.

While there are a couple specific destinations on Gamla Stan, like the royal palace (Sweden still has a king and queen -- how quaint!), the main attraction for me was wandering through the narrow, cobblestone streets.

In my perambulations, I also wandered onto a small, adjoining island that once housed a few noble manors, but is now home to a church and some government offices. The centerpiece of this island is the statue of Birger Jarl, the founder of Stockholm. Any city founded by someone named Jarl (pronounced Yarrrl, or at least that's how I think it ought to be pronounced) has my respect.

In spite of my best intentions of getting an early start, my internal clock was still a little wonky from residual jet lag (for fans of William Gibson, my soul still hadn't completely caught up) and the fact that it never gets completely dark at night here in June. While I had hoped to beat the tourists, they quickly caught up to me, and after a couple hours it was clearly time to move on. Fortunately, most of the visitors seem to cram onto one street in Gamla Stan. You know the type of street I'm talking about because every tourist zone has one. It's lined with overpriced restaurants, gift shops (in this case selling trolls and Swedish flags), and ice cream shops. But by noon, the spillover into the adjacent streets was getting to feel a bit crowded, so I headed south to the island of Södermalm (literally "Southern Island").

Södermalm is allegedly the hip and up-and-coming part of Stockholm. You know the story: working class neighborhood gets "discovered" by artists and hipsters. As much as I aspire to be opposed to gentrification, it sounded like just the type of neighborhood I'd want to "discover" as well. Before I explored all of its hip offerings, though, I needed a snack that was more substantial than the cheese and crackers I'd packed. To the rescue came fried herring from a streetside cart. One of my favorite culinary explorations in any new country is street food. In part this is for practical reasons: I'm usually on a budget when I travel and street food is cheaper than restaurant food. Nevertheless, I think you can get a pretty good window into a country's food from what you can buy from a sidewalk kiosk. I walked up to a kiosk in a square on the north end of Södermalm and ordered the fried herring on a cracker. You probably know the type of cracker; they sell them in the US under the Wasa brand and they look almost excessively healthy. Anne and I call them "adult" crackers. Anyway, the herring was lightly breaded, fried, and placed on one of these crackers. It was then topped with marinated cucumbers, parsley, and red onion. It was heavenly, and only cost ~$5 US (a steal in this town where beer costs $10 a pint).

After my fishy snack, I headed to a cliffside walkway along the north of the island that overlooked much of central Stockholm. In the photo below, the black steeple toward the right is of Riddarholmskyrkan on the island where Birger Jarl stands watch. In the background is central Stockholm. As you can see, the city has a relatively low skyline. It reminds me a bit of Paris in terms of its density (lots of 6-8 story buildings), although it has a smaller population; it's about the size of San Francisco. The cranes toward the center of the frame suggest that Stockholm might be prepared to start growing up, but for now most of the high rises are in the suburbs. On the left of the frame, the blocky, brick building is Stockholm's city hall. (If you want to see a more complete panorama, you can check out my Flickr photostream, where I've set up a Stockholm album).

After enjoying the view, I headed to central Söder (as the hip locals call it, at least that's what my guide book says). Alas, almost all of the stores on the central shopping strip were closed for the holiday. There were still quite a few people out on the street (looking hip), even though none of the stores were open. At the southern end of the shopping district, the street opened into a big square adjacent to a bustling intersection. Here more shops were open, and I was able to get an (overpriced) espresso and some delicious (if also overpriced) carrot cake.

After my snack, I hopped on the tunnelbana (metro) and rode back to my place. Riding the metro is right up there with street food on my list of priorities in a new city (I'm a bit of a public transit geek), and this was my first opportunity to do so since I'd arrived -- it's actually faster to walk to the university than to take the metro because of the way the routes are laid out. Anne and I were in New York the weekend before I came to Sweden, and I can only describe that city's subway as dank and decrepit. The Stockholm metro provided a perhaps predictable (given Americans' perceptions of Scandinavian tidiness) contrast.

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Kan du talar Svenska?

Can you speak Swedish? You may be surprised at how much you can understand, given the similar German roots of English and Swedish. Take for example, this sign promoting a magazine article hyping the Sex and the City movie (which opened here last weekend).

The sign says "Läs Charlottas intervju med SJP från Sex and the City." Translated, this says "Read Charlottas interview with SJP from Sex and the City." (I love the use of "SJP" as well.)

But just when you start to gain some degree of confidence in your recognition of cognates, you pick up a newspaper and are completely lost. Well, at least I was when I bought one a couple days ago. So the two languages aren't very similar after all. I took a couple semesters of Swedish when I was at Berkeley, and I would say I picked it up even faster than I did Spanish. That said, I've lost quite a bit in the interim, and it's been a challenge regaining it. I did the completely nerdy thing of bringing the flash cards from my Swedish class, and although I haven't been too diligent with them, my review of verbs the other night was quite helpful.

Unfortunately, the blessing and the curse of living in a country where nearly everyone speaks English is that as soon as I show a lack of comprehension, the person will switch to English and there goes my ability to learn by immersion. Even the Palestinian proprietor of the cafe where I'm typing this switched to English on me (and then proceeded to tell me how terrible the politics are in the US -- I can't say I disagreed). So I've still got three weeks here, and my goal is to be able to get to the point where the person on the other side of the counter doesn't automatically switch to English as soon as I open my mouth. The colleague I'm working with is Danish, and he says it even happens to him, so I'm not overly optimistic, but I'll do my best.

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23 June 2008

Swedish snack

My favorite way to embrace another culture is through the food. With that in mind, I prepared myself what was (to my mind) a very Swedish snack when I came home from work the other day. It started with a piece of whole-grain flatbread. The Swedes have a wide variety of bread-like products, many of which fall somewhere between cracker and bread. The one in the picture is made from rye flour and has a consistency somewhat akin to a thick, slightly stale, pita. I topped it with some butter and jam (lingonberry, of course).

And what better way to top off a very Swedish snack than with a piece of cheese and milk from a box.

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20 June 2008


I've again wound up in Europe during a major international soccer tournament. Last time it was the 2002 World Cup when I was in England. This time it's the European Cup. This one doesn't get nearly the coverage in the U.S. that the World Cup does, so you may not have been following it. I was pretty excited to be here during the tournament because Sweden had qualified, and I remembered how nuts people were in England during the World Cup. Now, the Swedes don't really do "nuts", and they've been decidedly more reserved. Perhaps for good reason: their team didn't make it past the group stage after laying a turd of a game against Russia the other day.

Just like the last time I was in Europe in June, the NBA finals were also going on. And just like last time, there is absolutely no coverage of them. I happened to see that the Celtics mauled the Lakers in the final game, although the coverage was limited to a skimpy box score on the last page of the sports section in yesterday's paper. Which just goes to show, no matter how small the world gets, Europeans just can't be bothered to care about our sports.

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19 June 2008

Hej från Sverige

Hello from Sweden! It's been a while since I've blogged, and I've done quite a bit in the interim, including finishing my first year at Green Mountain, buying a house, and flying to Stockholm to work for a month. Sadly, that means I haven't had any time to blog. I realize that may have caused some of you to question my priorities, but I have to do what I have to do.

The first year of teaching wrapped up pretty well. It was a lot of work. I had naively hoped that the final year of writing my dissertation would be the hardest I ever have to work again. Turns out I was wrong. But in spite of the workload of preparing six new classes, two with labs, I had a really good time. It only really dragged once the spring semester was finally over and I still had a grant to write and some research orders to make, which I didn't finish until a couple days before I left.

As for the house, it's ~150 year old house in the village, about a 5 minute walk from work. It's a pretty ideal location, and we got it for what I'd like to think was a decent price (and lower than just about anywhere we could have moved -- or at least would have wanted to.) The downside is it needs a fair bit of work, although most of it is cosmetic, and it's definitely livable. We were even able to accommodate for a weekend a couple weeks ago.

The previous owner really had a thing for flowery wallpaper, though, so we have our work cut out for us. The biggest project so far has been to replace the floor in the laundry room. I don't have much experience with construction but luckily it mostly required me to hone my destruction skills. I'm going to try not to turn this blog into "The Mark and Anne's remodel" blog, so I'll leave it at that for now, but you can anticipate some pictures in the future.

Last weekend, Anne and I headed down to New York to visit Larry and Camila. I was flying out of JFK, and it seemed like a perfect excuse to visit them, which we haven't done since we moved to the east coast. We had a great time. It was my first trip to New York and Anne's first since she was nine. I felt like we saw a lot even though we never left Manhattan. It was also cool to discover that, by driving to Albany and then taking the train, it's just about as far as Boston.

I arrived in Stockholm Tuesday afternoon, staying with Per and Martine (colleagues from Berkeley that I'll be working with while I'm here) last night. Yesterday I moved into the apartment I'm subletting for the month. It's a pretty ideal location, only a short walk from the city center and not too far from the University where I'll have an office. I'll have more to write once I settle in and start exploring a bit more. For now, I leave you with a photo from the terrace of my apartment. It's looking across the courtyard toward Sveavägen, a main north/south street in central Stockholm.

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