Traditions

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Open-air entertainment

Written by Chaz on 21 August 2012

The next morning, we met some of Erik’s friends at the natural history museum near Stockholm University, where I studied during my first visit to Sweden. We spent a few hours exploring the museum and had the “day’s menu” lunch in its cafeteria. Having had enough of the museum, we took the subway back downtown to Östermalmstorg, known for its food hall, which I also visited during my last stay in Stockholm. Erik and I stopped for a fika there.

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We walked from the food hall to the spårvagn, a trolley that connects downtown Stockholm to Djurgården, the lush island that holds the open-air museum of Skansen. As we had done a year before, we were planning to attend the evening’s broadcast of “Allsång på Skansen,” a nationally televised singalong, held on eight Tuesdays in the summer and hosted for a second year by Måns Zelmerlöw, who got famous after he was on the Swedish version of American Idol. The show, which features a mixture of traditional Swedish songs and more modern songs performed by each week’s guests, is a perfect example of something that’s culturally ubiquitous in Sweden but absolutely unknown elsewhere — in other words, world-famous in Sweden. I was especially excited to see the show again because among the guests were Markus Krunegård, one of the artists I’ve gotten to know from listening to Swedish radio at my desk — part of my strategy to keep my Swedish up; the Original Band, an ABBA tribute featuring members of the original backup band; and Miss Li, another Swedish artist.

Our trip on the spårvagn took us past the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, which was hosting a stage performance version of Ingmar Bergman’s famous “Fanny and Alexander.”

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After we bought admission tickets to Stockholm, Erik and I had a bit of time before the broadcast’s rehearsal, so we walked around the museum a bit. The museum is a combination of traditional Swedish architecture and a zoo of Nordic animals.

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The Nordic animals were much more present than on any of my previous visits to Skansen, and we saw reindeer, brown bears, red foxes, lynx, and buffalo.

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Heading back to the Skansen stage, we met Karin, a friend of Erik’s from high school, and a few Japanese exchange students, and found a place to watch the Allsång rehearsal.

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We got a few korvar, Swedish hot dogs which are vastly superior to their American counterparts, for dinner after the rehearsal, and hurried back to claim our spot. The show was fantastic, and we had a great view of the action. By this point in my visit, I had already figured out with delight that my Swedish was much, much better than it had been a year prior, so it was fun to be able to follow along with the show much more.

IMG_6627Above, Måns Zelmerlöw, the show’s host. Below, the Original Band perform “Dancing Queen.”
IMG_6642IMG_6638Above: Miss Li, and the crowd at Skansen. Below: A celebration of fifty years of the Svensktoppen list of hit music, and Markus Krunegård.

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We retired from a great evening at Skansen to a pub downtown for a few drinks before heading home. After sleeping late again the next day, we were re-energized and headed back downtown for my last full day in Stockholm. I spent a bit exploring some of the stores in the central shopping district, including the trendy new Weekday.

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Erik and I had an early dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant near Odenplan called Tang Long Pho that, despite being written up in the newspaper, was just mediocre. We took the tunnelbana down to Zinkensdamm, on Södermalm, and walked up to Skinnarviksberget, a rock outcropping that overlooks the lake Mälaren over to Kungsholmen and Gamla Stan. Erik’s friend Koppen met us again and we watched the sun set. Even though the weather wasn’t great, we were far from the only people who wanted to enjoy the view of the city.

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We retreated shortly after sunset to Koppen’s and not long thereafter to Spånga. Stockholm had once again been very good to me.

What I’m thankful for

Written by Chaz on 8 January 2012

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. The family, the food, the fun — I really like the ritual of it all, and I especially like that, unlike most other holidays, there’s an actual reason for the celebration that people remember and care about. I love the energy of people gathering from all over the country to spend the holiday together.

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One of my only hesitations about studying abroad in the fall was missing Thanksgiving in the U.S., but since there were many more reasons not to go in the spring, I did it anyway. My friends Gene and Joanna ended up coming to visit me in Stockholm for the Thanksgiving week. Along with some of my friends from my program, we made a Thanksgiving dinner consisting of a small turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Stove Top stuffing that Gene and Joanna had to bring with them from Providence.

We cooked in the home of one of my friend’s host families. In Sweden, Thanksgiving is, of course, just another Thursday. So when my friend’s hosts got home from work, a feast was ready for them in their kitchen. We sat down at their dining room table and explained the tradition of going around the table for everyone to say what they’re thankful for. All of us had a lot to be thankful for that Thanksgiving, and I will never forget the experience of sharing the tradition of Thanksgiving with the Swedish family, my friends from abroad, and my friends from Brown.

This year, I spent Thanksgiving in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, with some of my family’s oldest friends. At this Thanksgiving, the tradition is for everyone to make one dish. My mother, who is a master chef, did more than her share, handling the turkey, gravy and stuffing. In response to popular demand from people who have had her turkey, she had written up a Thanksgiving memo that details the steps to prepare her recipe, starting the day before and going right up to the moment the food is served. So she was slaving away starting Wednesday evening when we arrived.

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On Thursday, my mother began to cook the turkey itself. After stuffing the turkey, buttering it, and covering it, it was ready for the oven.

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After a few hours, it was ready to come out. But this proved easier said than done.

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After the turkey was safely extricated, my mother turned her attention to the gravy. Using the roasting pan from the turkey, she added a few secret ingredients and began cooking it down.

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Meanwhile, all over the kitchen and even the house, others were working on pulling together their own contributions to the Thanksgiving dinner. I was on mashed potatoes duty, which is a pretty last-minute operation. As soon as the turkey came out of the oven, though, it was immediately filled with other dishes — rolls, sweet potatoes, green beans, brussel sprouts, spinach, pies and more.

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Before long, it was time to carve the turkey and assemble the various dishes for people to claim their first plates. In a matter of minutes, a shockingly large buffet materialized.

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Once dinner was on the table and served, it was time for firsts, seconds and thirds. My mother outdid herself again with the turkey, and everyone else’s dishes were delicious as well. I had to restrain myself from having more of the dinner to save room for pie.

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It was a wonderful holiday with terrific friends, family and food. Only eleven months until the next one!

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Arab influence

Written by Emmy on 3 November 2011

We began Saturday morning’s walk in a corner of the old city we had not seen the day before, Russafa, which is generally considered the Muslim neighborhood. The further south you travel in Spain, the stronger the Moorish influence is, in food, architecture and population composition. Second to Sagrada Familia, Spain’s most important sight is La Alhambra in Granada, a spectacular structure that was at different moments a church, a fortress and a mosque. Here in Russafa, the Moorish influence is a bit more subtle, but evident nonetheless.

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One of our first stops was obviously the market. Like in Barcelona, Valencian neighborhoods have their own small markets, reserving the central market for mayhem, tourists and special visits. The Mercat de Russafa was more manageable, but no less filled with delicious food.

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Sitting next to the fresh fruit at several stands were pumpkin halves, lightly browned and ready to be eaten. True to Toni and Marisa’s explanation, the people could not seem to get enough of the roasted pumpkin.

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We bought a slice of pumpkin of which Jessica raved so much that we bought two more, sat on the steps of a church and ate them with our fingers. The pumpkin in the market was far superior to the pumpkin at dinner; it tasted very fresh and had a natural sweetness.

We didn’t see much else open during our brief stay in Russafa. Spanish business hours are a fickle thing. Some stores open early and close for siesta, some stores open late and bypass nap time, some stores open in the afternoon and stay open for bar hoppers to take a peak. It’s really very hard to predict (and might have some bearing on the economic struggles of small Spanish towns). In the main part of the city, everything was open by 10 or 11 a.m., but in smaller neighborhoods, it seemed to be each man’s rules for himself.

We roamed the streets, walked into another big market and a few stores and then before we knew it, it was lunchtime. (I swear we did more than just eat on this trip; the photos I have just don’t reflect that.)

We dined al fresco at a restaurant highly praised by several guidebooks, El Rall. The restaurant is largely renowned for its paella, but we already had plans for a paella feast on Sunday, so decided to sample some of the other notable items instead.

When we sat down, we were greeted with do-it-yourself pan con tomate, proving that despite Catalunya’s claim over this item, it does exist elsewhere. We ordered coca, a paper-thin Valencian bread, topped with goat cheese, onions and zucchini. We also had roasted chicken. Our lunch was delicious, but looking around, it appeared that we were doing it all wrong. While we happily ate from our two plates, our patio-mates were on at least their third or fourth course. Perhaps they hadn’t pregamed with pumpkin.

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After lunch, Jessica returned to the hotel to get a little homework done. Blissfully responsibility free, I explored the back streets of the old quarter, wandering through little squares and pausing at a tiny cafe for a cortado. I saw a ton of signage for the protests scheduled for that night, part of the international response to Occupy Wall Street. There had been signs in Barcelona too for the coordinated international event.

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Jessica and I continued our perusal of the old quarter, still finding an odd number of places to be closed. Still, we were able to check out a few local hotspots as well as some rather quirky art galleries. We got lost several times, owing in large part to our very poor map, but discovered that even locals had only a sketchy sense of direction. One shopkeeper we asked for help had to pull out an atlas in order to assist us.

We finally landed at Plaça de Santa Catalina, a gathering spot for locals of all ages. One of the items Valencia is most well-known for is horchata, an icy cold drink different from the one of the same name found in Mexico. It looks like milk, but contains no dairy — perfect for me and my milk phobia! Valencian horchata is made from ground tigernuts, water and sugar.

Two of the most famous horchaterias sit in Santa Catalina, but only one was open, so our decision was easily made. We fought our way to a table — the place was packed, mostly with families — and ordered a horchata for me, an absurdly thick hot chocolate for Jessica and fartóns, a puff pastry traditionally dunked in the two drinks.

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Following our late afternoon sugar high, we returned to the hotel to detox and digest. After a long while, it was time to eat again.

We headed to a new neighborhood, up in the organized grid part of the city near where many of the university buildings are located. Valencia too calls their more modernized section the Eixample. Our restaurant of choice had been picked from the New York Times’ 36 Hours, ever the trusty resource. The restaurant, Balansiya, offered a range of Moorish foods; the restaurant’s name is how one would say Valencia in Arabic.

We started with hummus and babaganoush, two familiar-sounding favorites of the Liss family. They were a little different here — the hummus was thicker and chunkier, tasting intensely like its chickpea base, while the babagnoush had much more of a sesame taste than I’m used to. They were served with bread, as opposed to pita.

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IMG_7169For our main course, we ordered a chicken tagine, seasoned with almonds and saffron, and a pastel de pollo. The chicken cake, as it is literally translated, looked like a cinnamon-and-sugar coated pastry when it arrived, but once we cut into it, curried chicken and nuts emerged. Both dishes were very reminiscent of the food we ate on a family trip to Morocco a few years ago.

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The restaurant served no alcohol because of its Muslim ties, but our waiter did offer to put our names on a list at a nearby hopping club. After all our eating we were feeling a bit sluggish, so we declined. I ordered tea and watched as the waiter poured it from up high in traditional fashion. Even though we had turned down his invitation to go clubbing, he also gave us a complimentary sampling of house desserts.

The night was just starting for most young Spaniards as we left, but for us, it was bedtime.

Happy Columbus Day!

Written by Emmy on 25 October 2011

When I was abroad, we constantly had off from school for mysterious-sounding holidays. Like my friends back at Brown, we coincidentally had no class on Columbus Day (though on neither campus did we call it that). I assumed initially that our Spanish day off was for yet another Catholic occasion, but as it turned out, we too were celebrating Columbus Day! Just from a different perspective. Unlike the American holiday, the Spanish version is tied to a particular date and so it happened to fall on the Wednesday of our stay in Barcelona. The holiday had no major effect on us, save for a large number of school children everywhere reveling in their day off.

Having done a Gaudi warm-up the day before with his apartment buildings in L’Eixample, we were ready for Barcelona’s main attraction: Sagrada Familia. Sagrada Familia was intended to be Gaudi’s opus, a massive modern church for his beloved city. Construction began in 1883, but during the process Gaudi went bankrupt and died, leaving his church incomplete. Architects and historians have argued since about what the final product should look like, and though construction has been ongoing for the last decade, it is predicted that the church will not be finished until 2023. (The anticipated end date keeps getting pushed back. It’s like Barcelona’s version of the Second Avenue subway.)

Despite its cranes and scaffoldings, Sagrada Familia is the most visited site in Spain, and by 10 a.m. the line to enter stretched around the block. The inside is impressive, but the outside is really the must-see spectacle, so we walked around the block a few times, gazing up at the whimsical towers and controversial facades.

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From Sagrada Familia we walked south about 10 blocks to do a drive-by of the building I lived in while I was abroad. Residencia Onix is an apartment building for students — no Spanish universities have dorms like in the U.S. — and so our hallways were filled with Americans and Spaniards alike. CASB uses a different building for its students now, but to me, Onix was home.

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Just beyond Onix is one of the city’s landmarks and home to my once-upon-a-time Metro stop, the Arc de Triomf. Very similar in appearance to the Parisian arch, Barcelona’s version was built for the world exposition in 1888. As one of my books noted, the only triumph that the supposedly triumphant arch celebrated was an on-time completion.

The Arc sits at the top of one of the city’s biggest parks, Parc de la Ciutadella, home to my one-time attempt to learn to like running. Ciutadella was once the site of a military citadel — where it gets its name — but it now houses ample gardens and walking paths, a field of ping pong tables, Barcelona’s zoo and the Generalitat de Catalunya’s parliamentary building. At the center of the park is a massive fountain, decorated with traditional Roman chariots and fantastical water-spewing dragons, a testament to the mix of history and whimsy throughout the city.

Ciutadella is always crowded and was particularly so because of Wednesday’s holiday. Families lined the block to get into the zoo, runners in neon apparel filled the paths and mothers sat at the fountain-side cafe with strollers parked by the water.

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We continued south of Ciutadella to the beach. Normally by October, Barcelona’s beaches are empty, but with no school and persistent 90-degree weather, bathers lined the waterfront. On our walk to the Mediterranean, we passed teenagers socializing on the boardwalk, old men playing dominos and more publicly displayed modern art than on Brown’s campus.

IMG_6617IMG_6614IMG_6654IMG_6610Clockwise from top left: Frank Gehry’s “Fish,” which overlooks the water from between the city’s two skyscrapers, Hotel Arts and the Mapfre office building; Antoni Llena’s “David i Goliath,” which was built for the 1992 Olympics; Rebecca Horn’s “Homenatge a la Barceloneta,” which was built to memorialize the oceanfront shops and restaurants destroyed for Olympics construction.

The old men playing cards under the boardwalk looked like they had been coming to the beach to do the very same thing for decades. One player saw our cameras and yelled out, in Catalan, “Take pictures! No charge!”

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From the steamy beach, we walked up the Barceloneta boardwalk, a touristy strip lined with paella restaurants and parked cruise ships. Barcelona is an enormous port for passenger vessels bound for the Mediterranean’s waters; my entire flight from New York was filled with cruise passengers. The scenic beaches are broken up by industrial docks and vestiges from the 1992 Olympics, which makes parts of the waterfront less than ideal for sunbathing. Still, the mild waters provide great relief on a record-setting hot day.

We walked inland fron the shores to la Ribera, a neighborhood also known as the Born and renowned for its food and art. Both categories were on the agenda, but after our long sweeping walk, lunch would have to come first.

We paid a visit to El Xampaneyet, an example of the old world charm of tapas bars. Packed with people, the bar is a total free-for-all. You grab whatever table or inch of bar space that you can and just start pointing at food, all of which is displayed on top of the bar. We fought our way to a little table in the middle of the action and the food just started flowing: red peppers stuffed with tuna, spicy marinated olives, tortilla española, a traditional omelette made of potatoes and onions, pan con tomate, sundried tomatoes, manchego cheese and peppers stuffed with soft cheese. I washed down my tapas with a glass of cava, sparkling wine made in Spain.

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Lunch was delicious, but eating at El Xampanyet was as much about the experience as the food.

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After lunch, Jessica paid a visit to the Picasso museum, which is housed in a series of old houses down the street from El Xampanyet. I’ve seen the art in the native Barcelonian’s museum a few times before, so I decided to go for a walk around the Born instead.

I should have expected it because of the combination of siesta and holiday, but nearly everything was closed. But as I wove my way through the Born and circled several of the surrounding neighborhoods, it gave me a chance to people-watch and eavesdrop. Everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, but Catalan is the city’s lifeblood. After the Franco-era ban was lifted, locals returned to speaking their native tongue, and today, it is the language of choice among many young people. Catalan is a close relative of the other regional romance languages; as one of my friends once put it, Catalan was born the bastard child of Spanish and French, dropped on its head in an Italian hospital. It’s not quite as phonetic as Spanish, which makes the accent tricky, but when written, it bears many similarities.

Many people are critical of Barcelona as a study-abroad choice because of the almost secondary place of the Spanish language. But I disagree. All of my classes were conducted in Spanish and the castellano of most people in the city is fairly unaccented, as compared to people in Sevilla or South America. I had ample opportunities to practice my written and verbal comprehension of the language. Plus, as a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, I learned Catalan. My speaking abilities are atrocious, but I was shocked at what I had retained from a comprehension perspective, thus validating the placement of “conversational Catalan” as a skill on my resume.

Jessica and I reconnected and continued our walk around the city. Down the block from the Picasso Museum is one of the city’s more beautiful churches, Santa Maria del Mar. In contrast to the church’s Gothic style, a nearby modern sculpture commemorates those who fought for the Catalan constitution in 1714. (It’s hard to let go.)

We walked down to the water in time to see the sun beginning to set over Roy Lichtenstein’s “Barcelona Head,” a fun pop art sculpture that rises above the waterfront buildings. Down the block from the “Head” is a sculpture of the man of the day, Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spain, pointing out to the sea.

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For dinner we headed up to Gracia, the neighborhood north of L’Eixample. Gracia is quieter and more filled with locals than other parts of the city. The neighborhood is dotted with squares that are filled with bars and restaurants. One of its more well-known streets, Carrer Verdi, is tree-lined and closed to cars. The street is filled with young people, filtering in and out of restaurants of all different world cuisines.

We chose a Lebanese restaurant and sampled the muhammara, a dip made from red peppers and walnuts, a salad and musakaa, a dish of sauteed eggplant, pepper and chickpeas.

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Yet another delightful, delicious day.

Singing along

Written by Chaz on 1 September 2011

I began my last full day in Stockholm with the ultimate trip down memory lane: a return to my apartment in Sundbyberg, just outside Stockholm in the direction of Spånga. Erik and I took the tunnelbana to Duvbo, and despite having been up the station’s escalator hundreds of times, I was still impressed by its height and length.

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As two years prior, the front door of the apartment building was unlocked, so we went right in to the first landing and saw the door of my apartment. Having done just about enough creeping, we walked down to the center of Sundbyberg and hopped the pendeltåg into Stockholm.

I had two errands to take care of in Stockholm before starting the day’s touristing. First we stopped by the Stockholm tourist bureau to buy a map of the city’s ABBA tour, a gift for my friend Joanna. And second we stopped by an office building downtown to drop off a copy of my friend Vernie’s fantastic senior thesis for her Swedish host family.

IMG_3672In the last two years, Stockholm has added yet another means of public transportation: the spårvagn running from Sergels torg down to Djurgården. And in fact the spårvagn ended up coming in handy quite a few times during my visit. We hopped on at Sergels torg and rode all the way to the end of the line, Waldemarsudde, the former home of Prince Eugen. The prince, himself an artist, spent some of his life in Italy and brought back art, and his house is now a museum of his collection, temporary exhibitions, and the house and grounds itself. The weather was fantastic, and our walk down to the museum past the cruise ships, Baltic ferries and pleasure craft was spectacular.

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After exploring the museum and its grounds, we rode back up to the Djurgården ferry and headed over to Slussen. Once again, the views across to central Stockholm were fantastic.

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We walked from Slussen down to Fotografiska Museet, the photography museum, which is new since my time in Stockholm. The museum, perched right on the Baltic by the ferry terminals, was terrific. In particular, I really liked the exhibit of Liu Bolin, a Chinese photographer known as the invisible man because of his knack for painting himself right into a photograph.

We took the tunnelbana up to Odenplan to meet Erik’s friend Jasmin, and as it had begun to rain a bit, we made a beeline for dinner at Ramen Ki-Mama. Both Erik and Jasmin are in Stockholm University’s Japanese studies program, so it was only fitting. It was my first ramen since our ramen in Hong Kong, and I have to say, it compared very favorably. The near-natives approved too, which is worth something.

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After dinner, we headed back to Djurgården for a Swedish tradition: “Allsång på Skansen,” a one-hour singalong at Skansen, Stockholm’s outdoor museum, that features well-known Swedish musicians and is broadcast live on Swedish public television. The songs, all widely known in Sweden, are available in a little book, and the host says the number of the song they’re going to sing so that you can find it in your book. The TV broadcast also has the lyrics at the bottom of the screen, karaoke-style. The show had a new host this summer: Måns Zelmerlöw, a pop singer who rose to fame from Swedish Idol and Melodifestivalen. The show also had a “web host,” Anton Lundqvist, who, I was shocked to learn, is younger than I am.

We had seen the show on TV at Lögla, and since the show is free to attend after you’ve bought a ticket to Skansen, I thought it would be pretty cool to go. We arrived a few minutes before the show’s live broadcast began at eight, and immediately wished we had allowed more time.

IMG_3723The line to buy Skansen admission tickets.

But we did make it inside in time, and while our viewing spot wasn’t optimal, I had a pretty good view thanks to my height. I was really glad we went! There was a huge crowd, and lots of people had brought signs. It was also a beautiful evening — the rain held off — and the view from Skansen out over the city was great.

IMG_3768Above: Måns and Anton, and a whole lot of blond heads. Below: the crowd at Skansen and the view over the city.
IMG_3771IMG_3822IMG_3794IMG_3804Above: Erik, Jasmin and the Allsång lyric book; and Allsång‘s youngest, most excited fan. Below: Måns singing a Killers song after the broadcast ended, and an excited fan.
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Allsång was also interesting to me culturally. I can’t really imagine the U.S. having an equivalent, not least because there aren’t that many songs that the whole country shares as folk knowledge. Sweden is a small enough country that this kind of thing is possible. The show also reflects Swedes’ well-deserved pride in their country and its capital. The show always opens with a song called “Stockholm in my heart,” really a love song to Stockholm.

After the show ended around 9:30, there was still plenty of light, so we took a walk through the Nordic animals section of Skansen, checking out the foxes and the bears. Exhausted, we took the spårvagn back to the central station, where we parted ways with Jasmin and headed back to Spånga. Another wonderful, busy day in Stockholm.

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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.

Seafood by the seashore

Written by Emmy on 5 July 2011

Food plays a very large role in Singaporean culture. (What, have you not been able to tell thus far?) When locals want to do quality eating, they head to hawker centers. A hawker center (pronounced “hawka centah” in Singlish) is an open-air complex, filled with stalls and stalls, each peddling a different food product. The hawker center we visited on Tuesday night is called Lagoon and is right on the water. As a result, Lagoon is best known for its seafood dishes, which I was extremely excited to try.

We were joined again by Ivan, as well as his girlfriend Cindy, and George, another friend of Vernie’s from secondary school. Vernie had a couple food items that were non-negotiable for us to try, and so we ran around collecting them from different stalls. Her friends got really into our whole food quest and started to pick out items as well. Suddenly we had a very full table, filled with a whole array of delicious items.

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Since our primary mission was to eat seafood, we ordered a whole slew of items from the seafood stall Vernie’s dad had recommended. The first item, which turned out to be one of our favorites, was sambal stingray. The stingray, which tasted like a flaky white fish, was coated in a red curry and complimented by a light citrus sauce. It was spicy, but tangy, and almost a little reminiscent of some of the flavors of Thailand.

Next up was oyster eggs. This was probably my least favorite item on the table, but there was more than enough to eat on our heaping picnic table.

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The main event — and my favorite dish we ate while in Singapore — was chili crab, one of Singapore’s best-known entrees. Two crabs were served in a large bowl of chili sauce and we went at it. Though I have experience taking apart crustaceans, there is nothing like opening up a crab with chopsticks. Thankfully we also had crackers for opening the shell. The crab was served with soft rolls, which were meant to be dipped in the chili sauce once all the crab meat was gone.

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Other items included beef and chicken satay, served with a peanut sauce not entirely dissimilar from that in Thailand. (The Singaporean version was a bit thicker.) We also had a noodle dish called hokkien mee, thin noodles with egg and vegetables.

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We tried a few other items, but it quickly became too dark for a food photoshoot. One of them, popiah, was described to us as an uncooked spring roll. The outside tasted like a whole wheat wrap and the inside contained crab and several vegetables. There was also porridge, which I did not try.

Dinner at Lagoon had been pretty hyped beforehand, and it did not disappoint. The crab was just so good.

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The locals also suggested we try two pretty typical drinks: sugar cane juice and coconut juice. Neither was quite my style, but I can see how they would provide a good contrast to spicy food.

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Once we had finished stuffing our faces, we all got to know each other a little better. It was interesting to compare our educational systems and experiences and the different political systems we grew up under. What was most fascinating to me was the boys’ military experience. Singapore has a mandatory military service for all males, and so after junior college, Ivan and George both trained, were sorted into particular units and served for two years. They are both now in university, and as a result of their service, the boys are all two years older than the girls. (Vernie told us that this male-female age gap is meant to encourage marriage and breeding, a topic for another conversation.)

In a picture-perfect moment, as we were beginning to discuss the merits of mandatory military service, the Singaporean infantry marched past Lagoon along the water, chanting a tune that all the men present recognized.

The conversation began as one of whether or not the Singaporeans (and particularly those at our dinner table) think there should still be mandatory service. The short answer? Yes. While the boys may not personally love the experience — and many do not — it is still needed from a policy perspective.

Singapore is tiny. (The entire country can be circled in two hours, provided there’s not too much traffic.) And the countries that are just a stone throw’s distance away? Not the greatest of friends. Singapore, a small Chinese state, is surrounded by Indonesia and Malaysia, two large Muslim nations, and the political relationship between them has not always been friendly. Singapore has allies in high places, including the U.S., Australia, and England. Singaporean generals train in Israel. But Singapore is a tiny island, surrounded by potentially volatile enemies, and they need to be prepared.

It was an eye-opening conversation and the perfect end to a stomach-filling meal.

IMG_3570From left, Cindy, Ivan, Chaz, me, Vernie and George

Taking a steamboat to Singapore

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

A few months ago, when Emmy and I visited Vernie at Wesleyan, she suggested that we celebrate the Chinese New Year by having a traditional Singaporean steamboat, or hot pot, dinner. Always eager to try new food, we hastily agreed. So, with Vernie and our dear friend Max, who also just graduated from Wesleyan, we went up to an Asian grocery story in West Hartford and bought bags and bags of foods I had never seen before. We cooked them in an improvised pot of near-boiling soup, resulting in a bunch of delicious combinations. Once this trip was planned, Vernie told us she would show us the real deal in her home. It was definitely one of the things I was most excited for about our time in Singapore, and it didn’t disappoint.

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Before I saw the steamboat in action at Wesleyan, it was a bit hard to understand what exactly it was. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a few million words for you:

Vernie’s family was very generous to have put together such an amazing spread for us, and it turned out to be an even greater adventure than our first hot pot experience. One of the things that was most interesting about the steamboat was that, just like nearly every other food we had in Singapore, it lets its maker reflect their own heritage and preferences. In fact, each participant gets to choose which meats, fish and vegetables they would like to have, and then gets to decide how to flavor each bite.

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We enjoyed the steamboat with Vernie and her parents, and it was evident right away what a fun celebration the steamboat tradition could create. We sat around the table, each tossing different fresh foods into a flavorful boiling soup. After a few minutes, the cooked items started floating to the top, and we began picking them out, dipping them in our sauce of choice, and popping them into our mouths. Part of the fun was that there were so many different things in the soup, and we got to try all of them one by one, bite by bite.

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After we had been cooking all of the fresh ingredients in the soup for a while, Vernie encouraged us to begin spooning the soup from the boiling pot into our individual bowls. Though the soup was perfectly good, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the solid parts of the meal. In fact, in general, I found it hard in Singapore to get excited about the various soups that accompanied so many of the noodle dishes we had. Vernie said I was missing out, and maybe she’s right, but they were always so much more bland than what they were paired with. Maybe my palette just isn’t sensitive enough.

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Having such a nice meal in someone’s home made a very nice change from the many, many meals we’ve enjoyed in restaurants on our trip. It was even more special because of what an amazing meal it was and what a fun tradition it came from. Thank you to the Chia family!

Reflections on historical memory: Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

Much more so than Thailand, Vietnam seemed to wear its past on its sleeve. When you think about it, the country has had a series of particularly unfortunate circumstances, between the French and American interventions. It’s pretty easy to see how those historical circumstances could lead to a strong sense of collective nationalism, resulting in the communism that tore the country’s economy apart in the ’70s. Though the government has taken a China-like tact since then, liberalizing the economy while maintaining tight authoritarianism politically, the nation’s socialist identity was evident from the moment we got our visas, which proudly proclaimed that we were welcome to one visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (It’s also worth noting that Vietnam was the only country that required us to get a visa.)

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On our first morning in Hanoi, during our first walk through the city, we walked by a statue of Lenin on our way to a museum celebrating the great things Ho Chi Minh did for the nation, leaving there for a museum of party-approved Vietnamese art. Though we didn’t appear to have minders watching us, it was still a pretty surreal feeling. The most interesting part to me about all that is that the value system it reflects: above all else, communism — but above that, communist leaders. Sure, the nation Lenin was running didn’t turn out hugely successful, but at least everyone was equal. Well, except for Lenin, who was even more equal. It’s a different sort of truth. Uncle Ho did do great things for the country, in a certain sense. Vietnam was able to become an independent socialist nation, and if that’s your standard of evaluation, then he did an excellent job.

Similarly, at the Hanoi Hilton, the total denial that the Vietnamese soldiers did anything untoward to their American prisoners isn’t exactly doing the country’s reputation any favors. We haven’t forgotten that terrible atrocities were committed in that prison, even if the prisoners did leave alive, and lying about it is repugnant as well. I’m not exactly sure what they should say in their little museum, but perhaps that’s why you shouldn’t torture people. Much of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high-rise; maybe they should have demolished the whole thing.

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Unfortunately, the country, which is the world’s 13th most populous at 90 million, appears to have remained totally underdeveloped. As soon as we drove away from the airport when we arrived, we were surrounded by rice patties separated by dense jungle reminiscent of any Vietnam War movie. Hanoi sprung up out of nowhere, starting with a few ramshackle buildings and growing into the dense center of the city, which wasn’t all that much more finished.

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Interestingly, this apparently proud and defiant national identity didn’t seem to be reflected in the city’s restaurant scene. We found that the best, most authentic Vietnamese food was to be had on the streets, not in the city’s fine restaurants. Perhaps this is just because the nicest restaurants are funded by outside investors with the purpose of attracting outside tourists, but it didn’t suggest a culture of exalted national cuisine. In fact, I get that impression more from Vietnamese restaurants back home, which very much embrace the idea of bringing out the best from Vietnam.

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Our time in Vietnam was fascinating in a very different way than any of our previous stops. Hong Kong and Thailand are changing, even dramatically, but neither had quite the sense of truly being at a crossroads that I got in Hanoi. As I read the latest from each of the countries we visited, I’ll have a very different perspective on all of them after having been there, but I’m particularly intrigued about what lies in Vietnam’s future. In the meantime, I’ll have great memories of some delicious food.

To market, to market

Written by Emmy on 24 June 2011

My favorite thing to do in a new city is just to walk around. Observing the people, hearing the language and taking in all the sights and smells is a perfect way to get a sense of the the culture, the city and the people living in it. Throughout our trip, we have done quite a bit of walking. We have the blisters — and one pair of broken shoes — to prove it. But seeing the streets has been amazing, especially since many of them are covered in streetside markets.

We market-hopped extensively in Bangkok, and I was excited to see how the frenzied Thai streets looked up north. Our first visit was to Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market. The narrow alleyways packed with everything from raw meat to t-shirts to spools of ribbon were not dissimilar from many of the anonymous street markets we saw in Bangkok. Street signs are not so popular in Thailand. It was not uncommon for us to have no idea where we were, and though Chiang Mai and Warorot were more manageable than Bangkok, we would probably never have made it out of the maze of shops and tuk-tuks were it not for our trusty map.

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In Chiang Mai, the guidebooks all rave about the Night Bazaar. Every night, starting at about 6 p.m., merchants of every kind set up stalls inside a few freestanding buildings, as well as throughout the surrounding streets and alleyways. Hawking jewelry, scarves, housewares, food and every other possible item you could think of, they beckon to all passersby. Our hotel in Chiang Mai was just blocks from the Night Bazaar, and I had sort of assumed when we picked it that we would wind up walking through the market to go everywhere. As it turns out, the market was filled with more tourist junk than real items, and it was disorganized mayhem, not quite the organized chaos of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.

Nancy Chandler’s rendition of Chiang Mai’s night bazaar

On Sundays, everything is different. One of Chiang Mai’s most motorcycle-and-tuk-tuk-congested streets is shut down to traffic and from 4 p.m. until midnight, merchants line the sidewalks. The Sunday Walking Market, as it is known, is frequented by as many locals as tourists. Many of the stalls are staffed by representatives of retail stores, peddling their merchandise in a more visible arena. The stalls also seemed to have a more thematic organization, with jewelry in one place, pillows and posters down a particular side street, and Buddha statues down another. And of course, there’s a food court or two.

The market stretches for countless blocks and for several hours. After a little while, Chaz left to get a massage and I continued perusing the market stalls. This marked one of the first times on our trip we separated. In Bangkok, the logistics of relocating each other seemed too daunting. Even in smaller Chiang Mai, we had a very precise meeting place and contingency plan. That left me with over an hour to take in all that the colorful Walking Market had to offer.

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Walking through the market by myself, I observed an insane number of jewels and scarves. Like I learned in Hong Kong at the jade market, few items are what their sellers profess them to be. The jade is usually just green plastic and Thai silk is rarely more than shiny cotton. The mantra of “what you see is what you get” is an appropriate mindset for the marketplace. Though I picked up a shirt (discounted because I am “pretty lady”) and a Hello Kitty item or two, the focus of my market-going was less on shopping and more on seeing.

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The market was filled with performers, including an official stage with little Thai girls dressed in outfits remarkably similar to those I wore in my four-year-old tap-dancing performances. What was somewhat disturbing though were the young children playing musical instruments among the shops. These kids were working for tips, and it was hard to discern whether they had been put up to it by their parents and whether they would ever see the money. With all the fun and festivity of Thailand, it was at moments easy to forget the realities of the developing nation we were in, but these kids were a definite reminder.

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The other markets we visited in Chiang Mai were less official. Among them was the Eastern Fruits Festival, a series of temporary tents housing dragonfruit, durian and the other exotic specialties of the region. Because it was smack in the middle of the city, we cut through the festival to walk elsewhere during the daytime, when sellers were just setting up their produce, and at night, when traditional Thai dancers came out to shake their stuff.

One morning, as we paused in front of a pad thai saleswoman so I could discretely take her picture (it never gets old), a group of schoolgirls stopped us. Having been warned so many times about marketplace scams — and narrowly avoiding a couple of them — we had a pretty heightened level of skepticism about any natives who approached us, but the girls seemed totally innocent and authentic. Armed with a tape recorder and a list of questions, they told us that they were students of English and they wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of Chiang Mai, among other things. The whole encounter reminded me of an almost identical interview I participated in for English students in Barcelona. (Both times I told the natives I thought their food was delicious.) At the end of our Thai interview, the girls asked to take a picture with us and we agreed — as long as we could have our own copy too.

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Our final notable street encounter took place on the walk back to our hotel on our final night in Chiang Mai. A quiet nondescript street by day, the road linking our hotel to “downtown” Chiang Mai took a darker turn at night. Go-go bars lined the entire walk, and each seemed to be identical to the next: staffed by young Thai girls and frequented by older Western men. The whole thing was a little unsettling. But in the midst of the mayhem was a cute little stall that we passed most nights, advertising cheap, homemade wine by the glass. To his credit, Chaz suggested we stop there one of the first nights, but it wasn’t until the last night, when we were walking back to the hotel and noticed a young Western couple sipping their wine, that I finally agreed to stop.

The pair of Canadians was vacationing in Thailand before beginning the school year as teachers in Bangladesh. The girl, Kat, had taught for a year in Chiang Mai previously and used to visit the wine stall regularly. Run by a Thai couple, the stand offers strawberry, ginseng, lychee and longan wine, all of which are on the sweet side. We sampled three of the four flavors — the longan was my favorite — but Kat warned that the wines tend to vary from bottle to bottle.

The proprietors took our photo and took down our names, a tradition repeated with all of the stall’s customers. So once again, we decided it would be only appropriate to take away keepsake photos of our own.

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We also took away a keepsake bottle, but because of our concerns about continuing to travel with it, it had to be consumed.