Stockholm Archipelago

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Long days of summer

Written by Chaz on 16 September 2012

IMG_6947After sleeping late yet again, I woke up to another breakfast of a Swedish sandwich and coffee and sat out reading for a bit. Torbjörn and I then set out on bicycles to the nearby town of Bergshamra, where there is a small grocery store, to pick up some food. It was a gorgeous day for a ride, and our route took us through a farm, down to the water to a marina and into town.

I learned at the ICA grocery store in Bergshamra that you can order alcohol that is otherwise only sold at Systembolaget and have it sent to a rural grocery store, so that alcohol is available in places too sparsely populated for a Systembolaget store. I guess that’s more convenient, and it just goes to show the level of dedication to keeping the monopoly and making it workable.

Arriving home, we walked down to the beach for a quick dip in the Baltic under the broad blue sky.

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After swimming, I sat out on the porch and shelled shrimp for dinner before making some more headway in my book. Dinner was pasta with shrimp, salad, and white wine, followed by a dessert of rhubarb pie with vanilla sauce and ice cream, and of course coffee.

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The light was so nice after dinner that we did a quick photo shoot to remember the trip by, and then, still not wanting to go inside, we took a very long walk down to another bay, where the sun’s last rays were especially beautiful.

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We woke relatively early on Sunday and immediately headed for the dock, where an early swim was especially cold and thus very quick. We cleaned up and had a very relaxing breakfast all together on the porch, with smörgåsar with spicy tomato-ginger marmalade, cereal, filmjölk, coffee, and orange juice.

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Anna, Karin and Nils had to return to Stockholm that afternoon, so we made a trip of taking them to the bus in Norrtälje. We walked around town a little bit and looked in at Akeba, a neat furniture and home goods store.

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We had a fika at Tre Praliner, where we had actually eaten three years earlier when my mother visited Sweden. We sat out on the deck with kanelbullar, chokladbollar and coffee.

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IMG_7034After our fika, we drove over to the bus station with more than enough time for their bus to Stockholm, and sure enough, as we walked up to the platform with 15 minutes to spare, the bus was pulling up. But as we chatted and said a long goodbye, the bus pulled away! It turned out that the buses actually leave for Stockholm every 15 minutes, so we had been looking at the bus before theirs. Another bus came along shortly, we repeated our goodbyes, and they were on their way.

Erik, Torbjörn and I drove over to Coop, the grocery store, where we recycled various things into several bins: plastic, metal, paper, colored glass and uncolored glass. A large sign proclaimed that light bulbs could not be recycled there, and believe it or not, we actually did have a light bulb to recycle. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Portlandia, one of our favorite showsthis scene, to be specific.

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After yet another grocery self-scanning experience, we drove back to Lögla, where we had a relaxing afternoon, reading on the porch and taking a long swim at the beach. We began making dinner, for which we had big ambitions.

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Round one of dinner, a salmon vegetable stir-fry with rice, was excellent, and very attractive in the cooking process.

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Round two came a bit later: chorizo with korvbröd, senap (Swedish mustard), ketchup, rostadlök (the Swedish fried onions), grilled halloumi, and beer. It was excellent in a very different way from the stir-fry.

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After dinner, we took one last long walk around Lögla. Throughout the trip, I had been remarking on how much the Stockholm archipelago reminded me of Maine, my favorite place in the world, and how my Swedish family ought to come visit us there. As we looked over the water at the sunset, Torbjörn turned me and said with a knowing smile, “Very Maine, right?”

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The next morning, we woke up very early and set off for Arlanda airport, where I said goodbye to Torbjörn and Erik, pledging that we would see each other again very soon. As I made my way through airport check-in, and security, and into the departure lounge, speaking Swedish at every step, I realized how far my Swedish language skills had come, and how much further even they had developed on my 10-day trip — not just in vocabulary or grammar but also in just feeling comfortable using it. I picked up a Stockholm newspaper in the airport, which appropriately enough contained a story about Providence. I also seized the opportunity to have one last Swedish breakfast.

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My flight took me through Amsterdam, where I saw a Lego model of the Amsterdam airport and enjoyed one of my favorite beers in its homeland.

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Yet another wonderful time in Sweden. The next one can’t come soon enough.

Exploring the countryside

Written by Chaz on 23 August 2012

We rose relatively earlier on my first day back in Lögla, having planned to make a trip to Linnés Hammarby, a botanical garden that was once the summer home of Carl Linneaus. Linneaus is the mastermind behind the modern system of categorizing plants and animals. It was another beautiful day in the Swedish countryside, and I felt a bit like the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” as the wide-open sunny landscape rolled by outside.

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We arrived at Linnés Hammarby and signed up for a tour of his house before walking around a bit on the grounds. There was a vegetable garden and a pasture of horses and sheep. Interestingly, the symbol shown on the sign below, also engraved on the command key of millions of Macintosh keyboards, originated in Sweden. The command key originally featured only the Apple logo, but Steve Jobs felt that was an overuse of the company’s logo. Its replacement is a Scandinavian symbol for a tourist attraction, and Apple designer Susan Kare found it in a symbol dictionary and decided to adopt it. The symbol thus took on a life of its own.

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We returned to Linneaus’ house, where we were led through its rooms by a very well-intentioned tour guide whose English left something to be desired. I think I could have understood her better had she spoken Swedish. After our tour into the Sweden of a few hundred years ago, we were ready, of course, for a fika. We returned to the cafe at the garden’s entrance, and were soon enjoying a platter of sweets: a chokladboll, or chocolate ball; a monster-sized kanelbulle that reminded all present of Cafe Saturnus; carrot cake; and a nut tart. And coffee all around.

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After our tasty stop, we took a walk through Linneaus’ own garden, filled with the many flowers that he so carefully categorized. The grounds were beautiful, and Anna suggested making a visit an annual tradition.

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Leaving the garden, we drove to the nearby city of Uppsala, home of Sweden’s oldest university, founded in 1477 and considered one of the best in Europe. Even though we had just had a fika, we beelined to Ofvandahls konditori for lunch. In spite of their extremely tempting pastry case, we all ordered baguette sandwiches — a few of salami and Brie and others of ham and cheese — and of course more coffee.

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We took a stroll through old Uppsala, and a guy from Denver picked me out of our group to ask me directions, hesitatingly asking me if I spoke English. I guess my cover was blown. It was especially amusing since he could have just asked any Swede, all of whom speak English nearly as well as I do.

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We walked up to the university library and stopped in at the exhibit of the Silver Bible, Sweden’s most valuable book and one of the best remaining examples of the ancient Gothic language. As we entered the exhibit, I realized it actually wasn’t my first time there. I had visited with my mother during my first visit to Sweden.

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After visiting the library, we returned to the car and set off in the direction of the archipelago, stopping along the way for groceries. We had a simple but wonderful dinner of korvar, the Swedish hot dogs, complete with fresh onions, peppers, roasted onions (very popular on korvar) and the delicious Swedish strong mustard. Though it wasn’t fancy, the meal was great, and at this point in the trip, the simple pleasure of another meal outside under the evening sun with my family was perfect.

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Nils, who had stayed behind in Stockholm to work, arrived after dinner on a bus, and we had a delicious strawberry cake (and coffee) once he got there. We sat around talking for a while over dessert, nearly entirely in Swedish.

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Anna had discovered that the only rebroadcast on Swedish public television of the Allsång performance we had attended was at 2:45 in the morning, so in order to see whether we had actually been shown on the broadcast, we dutifully stayed up to watch. We passed the time by playing cards — I tried to teach spades, but didn’t get very far — until the film “Little Children” came on SVT. After half-heartedly following the extremely creepy film, the Allsång broadcast finally began, and thanks to the fairly distinctive pattern of the shirt I had worn, I spotted myself not once but three times. (You can see the episode for yourself on SVT’s website.)

Tired beyond words but delighted to have become a Swedish television star, I headed off to bed shortly afterwards.

Back to nature

Written by Chaz on 22 August 2012

The following day, with four full days remaining to my time in Sweden, Karin, Erik and I rose early and took the pendeltåg to the tunnelbana to the Roslagsbanan to a bus. In no time flat, we were back in Lögla at my family’s summer house. And after quickly packing up a picnic, we hopped in the boat and sped over to the national park of Ängsö, which we had also visited the previous year.

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We had lunch shortly after we arrived: delicious, light sandwiches of ham, potatoes and Dijon mustard in tortillas, along with kanelbullar and coffee. We sat out in the lovely sun, took a quick swim in the frigid water and spent a while just relaxing. I was in the middle of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and was completely enthralled (we joked that he should be Swedish with a name like that), and the shore of the national park was the perfect place to read.

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After a while, we took a long walk around the island of Ängsö, spotting the cows for which the park is known. The island had been farmed for many years before it became a national park, at which it became entirely protected. But it soon became overgrown, and authorities realized that the farming was actually necessary to create the beauty the park had been designed to protect.

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After a bit more reading and another kanelbulle, it was time for the short boat ride back to the mainland.

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The grill was fired up shortly after we got home, and before long, the table was set and yet another fantastic meal was ready. There’s something about eating dinner under the incredible evening sun that makes it that much tastier. We had steak, halloumi cheese (very popular in Sweden, and really yummy), tzatziki sauce, potatoes and a salad.

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For dessert, we had a freshly-baked rhubarb pie — naturally, accompanied by coffee. After making a bit more progress on The Devil in the White City, it was time for bed.

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Sweden once again

Written by Chaz on 9 August 2012

Nearly three years ago, I was leaving to spend a semester studying abroad in Stockholm. It was awesome. And so about a year ago, I was again leaving for Stockholm to spend a week with my contact family and reacquaint myself with the country I missed so much. I returned from that trip with renewed affection for the place. So it was only logical that, when it came time to plan my first real vacation from work, I decided to return to Stockholm. This time I wasn’t as curious to see whether it would be as wonderful as I remembered it in my head — I was pretty sure it would be — so I was just looking forward to relaxing, seeing my family, enjoying the sun and having time off away from work.

I arrived at the Stockholm airport early on a Saturday morning after an easy flight from Boston through Amsterdam, where immigration and security couldn’t have been more efficient. My Swedish family picked me up and before long we were on the way to their summer house in Lögla. We made a quick stop along the way in Rimbo to pick up some groceries, and after a little breakfast at home during which I remembered how delicious Swedish cheese is, we took a walk by the shore.

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Though I knew I shouldn’t for jet lag’s sake, I was dying to take a nap, so I closed my eyes for a bit. When I woke up, a major blueberry pie operation was underway, so I jumped in to help pick the stems off a ton of freshly picked berries.

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Shortly afterward we sat down to a delicious dinner of salmon, potatoes, and salad, followed up by the blueberry pie, fresh from the oven. Over dessert, we discussed the difference between kanelbullar, the famous Swedish cinnamon rolls, and other kinds of pastry bollar. Boll, which is the word used for such treats as chokladbollar (chocolate balls), translates to ball, but bulle, the root of kanelbulle, doesn’t really have a direct translation. And the large sugar that goes on kanelbullar, known as “pearl sugar” in Swedish, is barely known in America. This led to Nils imitating a Swede trying to buy pearl sugar with half-English in an American grocery store: “I am a foreigner and I need sugar for my balls!”

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After dinner, we took a walk down to the dock to enjoy the late Swedish sun.

IMG_6276IMG_6277IMG_6279Left to right: Torbjörn, Nils, Karin, Anna and Erik.

When we got home, it was time for “Grattis kronprinsessan!“, literally “Congratulations, crown princess!”, a television show that airs every July 14 to celebrate the birthday of Victoria, the crown princess and next queen of Sweden. The show featured performances from several well-known Swedish musicians and raised money for the princess’ fund, which benefits sick children. It was, to say the least, incredibly Swedish.

IMG_0013By the end of the show, I was already falling asleep again, and even though I was in bed by 10, I slept until nearly one the next day. Clearly I was not only jet-lagged but also a bit behind on sleep. After a light breakfast and an afternoon relaxing and reading, we had a dinner of herring and gravlax and packed up to drive into Spånga, outside Stockholm. We stopped along the way to pick up some groceries at Coop, which was an exceptionally Swedish experience. We loaded specially made baskets onto a specially made double-decker cart and proceeded to scan each item we chose with a handheld scanner that automatically totaled our purchase at the register.

Arriving home, Erik, Karin and I walked to the pendeltåg, the commuter rail, to head downtown and walk around a bit, since we still had a few hours of light. We alighted at Karlberg station and walked down to the path along Karlbergskanalen, strolling down towards Stadshuset, the city hall where the Nobel banquet is held.

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Turning east, we continued onto past the Swedish parliament onto the island of Gamla Stan, up to the picturesque Stortorget at its center.

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Walking down through Slussen, we headed up to Monteliusvägen, a walking path that has incredible views across Lake Mälaren to Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Norrmalm. The city looked radiant in the late evening sun.

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We returned to Spånga via a pendeltåg station on Södermalm that I never knew existed, after a very warm welcome back to Stockholm.

Saying goodbye

Written by Chaz on 5 September 2011

I slept late on my second to last day in Sweden, and after I packed my things, we headed back to Lögla for one last gasp in the country. After the trip, and stopping at the grocery store, it was of course time for a fika. Anna had made kardemumabullar, like cinnamon rolls but with the flavor of cardamom instead of cinnamon, and sockerkakor, which we know as pound cake. They were both amazing, and it was wonderful to be back in the tranquility of the Swedish countryside.

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After one more dip in the Baltic, it was before long time for dinner: beef, halloumi again, potatoes, salad and green beans.

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After watching a rerun of the previous night’s Allsång to see if we had gotten ourselves on television — unfortunately, we had not — and looking at amazing photos from my family’s spring trip to Iceland, it was time to head to bed for my last night in Sweden.

I rose early on my last day in Sweden, determined to squeeze every last drop out of my remaining time, and we went for a long walk around the shore, ending with a swim.

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Even my last meal in Sweden was remarkable. It’s very traditional in Sweden to use a cheese slicer, the sort that scrapes off a thin slice, all the time. In fact, it was originally a Nordic invention. I had a fried egg and some sliced Swedish cheese on toast. Delicious.

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I packed up my things and we left for Stockholm’s Arlanda airport with plenty of time to spare. But when we walked into the airport, prepared for an emotional goodbye, I was hit with an entirely different emotion. The departures board grimly informed me that my KLM flight to Amsterdam had been cancelled, and it was immediately clear that there was no other flight to Amsterdam that would get me there in time for my connecting flight to the U.S.

Naturally, the ticketing office was using the kölapp system, the much more efficient alternative to lines that is only used at supermarket delis in the U.S. but is nearly universal in Sweden. (You take a little piece of paper with a number and wait for it to appear on a screen.) The numbers were being called at a glacial pace, so I bid farewell to my family, assuring them that the airline would have to do something for me.

Luckily, thanks to earning “elite” status after our trip to Asia and a trip earlier this year, I was able to take a priority kölapp slip and got rebooked after only about an hour onto Air France flights through Paris. The KLM agent even gave me a coupon for 100 Swedish crowns worth of food in the airport. And so, before too long, I was rushing for my flight, which turned out to be wearing a nice retro paint scheme.

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Before my trip, I was very curious to see my reaction to my second time in Sweden. Over the last two years, I’ve really built up Sweden in my head: wonderful people, wonderful scenery, wonderful culture, and so forth. And I wondered how much of that had a basis in reality, and how much was just me romanticizing my time abroad. I’m happy to report that Sweden, on second visit, was just as wonderful as I remembered. And I was especially surprised and pleased to realize how much progress I’ve made with the language. Even though I still have tons more work to do, I feel much more like learning Swedish is an achievable goal.

The moral of the story, of course, is that I really need to figure out a way to get back there for another extended period. Ten days just wasn’t nearly enough.

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More country sun

Written by Chaz on 30 August 2011

After my first wonderful day exploring the archipelago’s natural offerings, I spent my second full day in Sweden in the big city. Well, sort of. Norrtälje — population 17,200 — is the biggest town in the northern archipelago region, and it comes alive in the summer with tourists and locals on vacation.

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After walking around a bit and checking out some adorable little shops, it was of course time for a fika, so we stopped in at the Cafe Landkrabban for coffee, some beautiful little sandwiches and a sweet or two.

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Fortified, we took a walk along the river that runs through the center of the town to look at a public art installation called “Konst i ån,” or literally, “art in the stream.” Eleven pieces of art had been designed to be shown right in the river, and each was weirder than the one before it.

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Lest there ever be a break in the food tour nature of my travels, we headed home for a delicious dinner of grilled pork and halloumi cheese, accompanied by potatoes, salad and green beans. Coincidentally, I was first introduced to halloumi in Sweden, when my friend Ellen bought some at our supermarket in Stockholm and fried it up on the stove. Apparently it has since become quite trendy in Sweden, no doubt thanks to Ellen and me.

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After dinner, Erik, Karin and I took a walk along the shore to watch the sunset. It must have been close to 11 o’clock, but it was still plenty light out and the sun had yet to dip below the horizon.

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After some more reading and relaxing, I headed off to bed, excited to return to Stockholm the next day.

Enjoying the Baltic coast

Written by Chaz on 23 July 2011

My time at my Swedish family’s summer house at Lögla couldn’t have been more relaxing. On Thursday, my first full day in Sweden, we took their boat for a short trip to the Ängsö national park — but first, we had to get some gas for the boat and food for our lunch. At the grocery store, I was reminded of the feeling I used to have while food shopping in Stockholm: Even their grocery stores are ridiculously Swedish. From the Tetra Paks of milk (their design, created in Sweden, makes shipping milk more environmentally friendly) to the case of herring and other canned fish products, it’s very clear that you’re not in the U.S. anymore.

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And much like in Thailand, Sweden’s road signs are also pretty distinctive.

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Once we had everything packed and ready to go, we headed out in the boat for the short trip across an inlet of the Baltic Sea to Ängsö, one of Sweden’s smallest and oldest national parks. Our destination was a rocky outcropping facing the afternoon sun.

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After a swim and some relaxation in the sun, we grilled a delicious lunch of sausages (korvar) and followed it up with roasted marshmellows.

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After lunch, we took a walk around the island. Part of the national park is meadow, and to maintain the meadow, cows are kept on the island.

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The national park was beautiful, and it made a perfect getaway. We spent most of the day there, enjoying the sun and water. I can’t remember the last time I had such an incredibly relaxing day.

We followed our walk with a fika — coffee and a snack — before packing up the boat and heading back to Lögla. Though the sun had begun to lower in the sky, hours of daylight still remained. During the Swedish summer, the sun doesn’t set in a hurry.

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Our return trip went smoothly, and before too long, we were back at home, ready for dinner. The Isakssons had planned a very traditional Swedish meal: herring, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, accompanied by aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor.

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I really enjoyed the herring, which means I’ve fully completed my odyssey from someone who didn’t eat seafood at all to someone who loves it. In Sweden, herring is eaten with dill and gräddfil, which is sort of like sour cream but is a little lighter. We also chased the aquavit with “light” beer, which is the only kind that can be sold in grocery stores. Unlike American light beer, it isn’t any healthier, but rather it’s limited to 3.5 percent alcohol.

Of course, no Swedish drinking experience is complete without a few drinking songs. And so I did my best to heartily accompany a few songs from a little book of Swedish drinking songs.

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After dinner, I helped make a blueberry pie of blueberries picked right in Lögla and oatmeal crumbles on top. We finished the meal with the pie, served with vanilla sauce, and tea and coffee.

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After some more reading and relaxing, I headed to bed, beyond satisfied.

Back in the north

Written by Chaz on 10 July 2011

Ah, Sweden.

My trip so far has been the perfect counterpoint to our month in Asia: calm, quiet and relaxing. I have lots of great things to say about our trip, but those three adjectives do not come to mind immediately.

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IMG_2784The flight over the Atlantic seemed ridiculously short compared to our flights to and from Asia. I had watched part of a movie and slept a little bit, and hey, we were getting ready to land. After a confusing trip through the Paris airport, I found myself in a glass pavilion that closely resembled an airport terminal designed for Lilliputians. I grabbed a quick bite to eat — goat cream cheese, mountain sausage, and salad on a baguette — and made my way onto the flight to Stockholm. I slept for most of the flight, missed my chance to have coffee and thus arrived in Sweden a little out of sorts. But I quickly recovered when I was reminded of the real reason I studied abroad here.

ABBA, living legends

My contact family met me at the airport and whisked me through the Swedish countryside to their summer cottage in Lögla, nestled in Stockholm’s pride and joy, its skärgård, or archipelago. Hundreds of small islands protected the city for centuries, and today they make Stockholmers’ favorite vacation spot. Anna, my contact mother, said she doesn’t like to go abroad for vacation during the summer because Sweden is just so nice at this time of year. Their summer house is a perfect getaway: only an hour from the city, but it feels like a different world entirely.

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I jumped right back into Swedish traditions with a fika, or coffee break. Fika is coffee and a little snack — in this case, cheese and bread to make smörgåsar, Swedish open-faced sandwiches, and a delicious variant on the traditional kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon rolls. The coffee made me a real human again, and the little snack made me a real Swede again.

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After a quick swim in the Baltic Sea (it’s not cold, it’s refreshing!), we had a great dinner of beef and vegetables straight from the grill, plus young Swedish potatoes and a fresh salad. Before I knew it, it was nine o’clock, but the light hadn’t diminished at all, thanks to Sweden’s northern location. As we sat in their yard, enjoying our food and conversation, I felt like I was in a place very near to paradise.

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We followed dinner with a homemade pie made of blueberries, freshly picked from right near their house, and crumbled oatmeal dough on top, followed by a healthy dollop of vanilla sauce. It was fantastic. Enough has been said about the importance of ingredients on this blog, but truly, they make or break a dish.

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After some more conversation, reading and relaxing, I finally headed up to bed after midnight, at which point it still wasn’t completely dark. During the summer, it never gets pitch black dark in Sweden. It gets to the darkest part of twilight around eleven, and then the darkest part of sunrise by two, and everything starts all over again.

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I slept like a baby thanks to the Isakssons’ terrific hospitality, dreaming of midnight sun and pickled herring.