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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.

From the PCH to the freeways of LA

Written by Emmy on 2 October 2011

We woke up in Pismo Beach on Thursday morning, packed up the tent and headed into “downtown” Pismo for a quick stop at Old West Cinnamon Rolls before hitting the road. The spot had been recommended by one of our books, so naturally we obliged and ordered one with pecans and one with almonds.

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Continuing our drive, we passed through Lompoc, where nearly three-quarters of the world’s flower seeds are grown, and drove by an enormous air force base. We drove through the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where we gave ourselves a self-guided tour. We parked in Santa Barbara and took a brief stroll along the city’s historic State Street. We considered taking a hike into the hills but the morning fog was still obscuring the view. So instead, we went to lunch.

We were far enough south to get authentic Mexican food and so we visited the acclaimed La Super-Rica Taqueria, a brightly colored but tiny restaurant on a street filled with tacos.

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Always eager to prove that we can, in fact, handle spice like the natives of any cuisine, we ordered a selection of authentic items from the menu and enjoyed them with a triad of homemade salsas. Chaz tried two different types of taco, while I sampled two less common items — chorizo super rica, a baked casserole meant to be wrapped in tortillas, and a spicy bean gordito.

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From Santa Barbara we drove to Ventura, where we stopped by the visitor center for the Channel Islands. Channel Islands National Park is, as the name suggests, in the middle of the ocean. Even though we couldn’t visit the actual park, Chaz still got a stamp in his national parks passport.

From Ventura, we continued down the coast on Highway 1. The scenery was still beautiful, though far less isolated than the hills we’d driven by the day before. We passed through Malibu and its oceanfront homes and eyeballed a few more beaches before turning off PCH in Santa Monica.

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From here we hopped from freeway to freeway. I have never seen so many highways in one place before, and they were all SO FILLED with cars.

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Back in an urban metropolis, we conducted a few errands. Chaz’s pillow was a casualty of our stay in the Bay Area, so we headed to IKEA in Burbank to pick up a new one. We visited the first ever Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, where Joe himself apparently shops. And then, because it’s hard to resist a giant supermarket, we strolled through the largest Whole Foods I have ever seen.

After another hour of freeway driving, we arrived at our friend Joanna’s house, where her parents graciously hosted us for the evening. We showered and did laundry, the simple luxuries of life, and had a delicious dinner of steak, quinoa, roasted peppers and fresh corn with the Wohlmuths. We ended dinner with fresh figs, which were incredible.

We unpacked and repacked Dorothy, filled her with gas and headed to bed early in order to prepare for our big drive the next morning.

An introduction to the sights and tastes of Singapore

Written by Emmy on 4 July 2011

Months ago, when we first began planning our trip to Singapore, Vernie created a very lengthy list of all of the foods we non-negotiably had to try while in her hometown. For a three day trip, it seemed like we would be eating nonstop. With four days, it was marginally more reasonable — as long as we stayed on mission. We also had quite a few sights to see. So starting on Sunday morning, we began crossing things off of our food and sights list with gusto.

We started the day by visiting a tall building to take in views of the city. You may note this quest to see cities from high up has been a trend throughout all of our travels. Up above the city, we could see everything from the Singapore Flyer (the ferris wheel) to the protected heritage buildings to the giant Marina Bay Sands casino, which looks like a spaceship taking off from the top of a building.

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The Singapore skyline is filled with apartment buildings that have a very distinct look. These are HDB flats — apartments subsidized by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board. The vast majority of Singaporeans live in these apartments, due to the astronomical cost of housing. You have to be married to apply for a subsidized HDB flat, and so many twenty-somethings get engaged in university in order to put themselves on the waiting list.

From our high-up perch, we could also see Malaysia: just a short car ride away!

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Once we had taken in the views and taken an inordinate number of photos, we went to try one of Vernie’s favorite foods and one of Singapore’s noted dishes: prawn noodle. Singaporean food is influenced by the many different ethnic groups who live on the island, including people originally from China, Malaysia and India. Culinary influences from all of China’s different provinces have left their mark on Singapore, as have generations of intermingling between the various groups. One of the popular types of food in Singapore is classified as Peranakan, a blend of Chinese and Malaysian influences.

Known in Chinese as hae mee, prawn noodle is one of these blend dishes, truly only found in Singapore.

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The noodles and prawns are served in a soup, which has a distinctly shrimp-like taste to it. Chili powder can be added to taste, along with fresh chilies for a serious extra dose of kick. We ate our noodles with lime juice, a popular local drink which provides a real contrast to the shrimp and the spice. Vernie and her parents showed us how to attack our soup like locals: you peel the shrimp with your fingers and chopsticks, throw the peel onto the table and then dip your shrimp in soy sauce and chilies.

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After finishing our delicious lunch — which also included an assortment of items, such as fish cakes, fish balls and fermented egg, to be dipped in a chili sauce — we began our walking tour of the city. We started on the aptly named Arab Street, which is filled with shops selling Persian rugs and reams and reams of fabric. In the center of the area is an old mosque and the palace that housed the Malaysian sultan when Singapore was unified with its neighbor. Briefly ruled by the British, Singapore has been completely independent since the 1960s.

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After a brief walk-through of Arab Street (mostly spent under a shop awning due to a flash thunderstorm, which thankfully ended almost as suddenly as it started), we headed for the MRT. Like in Hong Kong, the subway stations in Singapore seem to be connected to shopping mall after shopping mall. Something about having a 90-degree climate all year round must have inspired this building pattern, where “air con” is a necessity at all times. Inside the many malls and stations are massive food courts, with each stall peddling a particular item.

The first thing Vernie had us try was takoyaki, a traditionally Japanese snack. Takoyaki are little dough balls, baked and stuffed with everything from octopus to mushroom and cheese. Kind of like the Asian version of a crepe. Before being served, they are of course drizzled with chili (among other toppings).

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Another must try item was a curry puff. The stuffed puff tasted entirely different from the many versions we had tried in Thailand.

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And because aspects of the food court scene started to make us a little homesick, we tried some frozen yogurt. Before you begin taking wagers on how much weight we must have gained in Singapore, please note that all of these tiny snacks were split three ways. Our general rule on this food-driven voyage was, order everything and just take a bite. It was the only way we could have ever have hoped to accomplish all the items on our epicurean to-do list.

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Following our parade of snacks, we paid a visit to Orchard Road, the epitome of a shopping mecca. The street is packed with fancy mall after mall, each containing the highest price designer stores. It seems like each mall contains the same stores as the next, but each is packed with eager shoppers.

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We explored several fancy malls before heading to the basement of the newest and fanciest one, ION, to check out — what else — its food court. We made a beeline for a particular favorite stall of Vernie’s in order to cross another item of the eating list: beef noodle. In Singapore, noodle dishes are either served dry or as soup, and those that are served dry come with broth on the side. “Dry” is not necessarily the best description, since the noodles often come in a sauce. Beef noodle comes in a dark sauce, a heavier dish than those we ate in other parts of Asia.

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Following our epic eating afternoon, we went for a very very long walk.

Singapore is filled with construction sites, evidence of a rapidly expanding and developing city. The building projects are particularly evident on the coastline, where buildings, bridges and walkways have sprung up dramatically in recent years. In the midst of the new development is Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion, a giant statue of a half-mermaid half-lion who spits out water.

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IMG_0973We walked a giant loop before coming face to face with the rocketship-shaped Marina Bay Casino. The enormous building is home to a fancy shopping mall, Venice-like canals, a hotel and the largest casino I have ever seen. Singaporean residents have to pay $100 to enter the casino, but foreigners get in for free — the government’s not-so-subtle way of indicating that Singaporeans should keep their money and let the visitors fork it over. Vernie waited for us while we used our American passports to take a quick peak. They scanned them carefully as if we were going through customs in an airport.

Photos are not exactly permitted inside the casino, but it was a little too decadent not to capture on film. Plus we wanted to show our Singaporean hosts a glimpse of what’s on the inside. The photo at right shows about a quarter of the casino floor, which is ringed by a balcony filled with card table after card table.

We walked the perimeter of the casino and then left, showing our passports again in order to exit. We relocated Vernie, located the nearest MRT station and headed back to her apartment for a nice relaxing swim. It’s a very hard life.

NOTE: There’s going to be a whole lot of food discussed in the Singapore portion of our blog. We may have been instructed in school that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but the article about Singaporean cuisine provides a fantastic primer on all the things we ate, all the things we wished we could have eaten and the items we were happier not to eat at all.

The center of the action

Written by Chaz on 20 June 2011

On Tuesday, our last full day in Bangkok, having obtained a good map, we set out to explore the center of downtown: Siam Square and its surroundings. After breakfast at our hotel, we took the Skytrain to the Siam station, where the train’s two lines intersect, and descended to street level to explore the mazes of little shops and stalls selling every possible good, every day of the week. From one entrepreneur’s stand, we heard the unmistakable strains of Bad Romance, performed by someone significantly more mellow than its original artist. Six dollars later, we had a CD of fifty different American songs that had been smooth-jazzified by various Thai artists.

Before long, we grew hungry (it happens remarkably quickly here), and we made our way to a huge food market. It appeared to be Bangkok’s answer to Whole Foods’ prepared food section.

Though the food was slightly more expensive that some other food stalls we’ve had the pleasure of buying from, we ended up with an amazing lunch consisting of spicy glass noodles with pork, tom yum noodles in soup, what we believe was chicken and noodles in a basil chili sauce, and a delicious cranberry apple smoothie without spending ten dollars. We ate at a long row of tables that were busy enough to necessitate a vulture-like approach to finding seating. I was reminded of the tables at the center of the Reading Terminal Market in my beautiful hometown of Philadelphia.

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We began the afternoon by exploring Bangkok’s three upscale malls, which are conveniently located next to each other and connected by skywalks. Each is full of fancy, boutique shops and various Western brands, and each has its own branch of the iStudio chain, which looks and feels exactly like an Apple Store. After checking out fine clothes, chic decor, and table after table of random English books, we took a long, unpleasant walk through central Bangkok to the less upscale shopping centers. After a hot, crowded walk along a narrow sidewalk made even less passable by street vendor after street vendor, we arrived at Pratunam Market, the city’s wholesale clothing outlet, where hundreds of stalls were selling underwear, tuxedos, sequin suits and everything in between.

We crossed the street and headed to Pantip Plaza, the city’s technology mall. I’ve never seen anything like it: five floors of stores selling every conceivable technology item, each less trustworthy than the one before it. There were stores selling iPads that weren’t the right size, stores selling software in paper sleeves with the title written on in magic marker, and stores whose only items were cell phone cases in every color and design imaginable.

After cleaning up at our hotel, we ventured out again on the Skytrain to Lan Na Thai, reputed to be one of the city’s finest Thai restaurants. Named after the former northern Thai kingdom, the restaurant is part of a beautiful complex designed in traditional Thai architecture that also includes an Indian resturant, a Japanese restaurant and a spa. Our dinner, though in too dark a setting to produce beautiful photographs, was phenomenal. We started with a papaya salad and a delicious appetizer platter that included chicken wrapped in banana leaves, both new to us and very tasty. We moved on to stir-fried red snapper with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce and a chicken penang curry. Both were great.

We retired early, tired from our relatively busy day and ready to pack and travel to Chiang Mai on Wednesday.

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