Monday, August 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dad!

I have briefly returned to the UK, to celebrate my father's 65th birthday. I arrived in the UK on Friday at 21.45 BST, 2 hours later than scheduled. First the flight was delayed in Stockholm, then we faced further delays before finally landing at London Gatwick. We were so delayed that there was no-one at the gate in London to drive out the tunnel-link to the plane, so that we could all disembark. We had to wait while they found someone. I think my sister describes an event like this as being sent to "fail-jail".

My brother met me at the airport and drove us both back home. Dad was really surprised to see me as we had kept my trip a secret. Saturday was a nice day of chilling out at home, before we went out to dinner at a lovely oriental buffet, which had food from China, Malaysia and Thailand. Delicious, and very entertaining to see my father try to eat with chopsticks.

I brought a few tastes of Sweden home with me, but only a few as I didn't want to over do it and I'm still working out what the tastes of Sweden are! (No rude comments please.) In the end I decided on a large tube of Kalles Kaviar, two jars of ABBA Sill and an Elk Salami. No one's tried the salami yet... I think I may have to lead the way on that one. I get the feeling my family think it's a joke. Every time I explain to someone that I brought home Moose, they think I mean mousse.

Yesterday I baked a chicken and bacon pie for dinner. In the evening I went with my brother and sister to visit my aunt and uncle who live in the next village. We took a box of old photos and memoirs that my Grandma left behind when she died (about 15 years ago now I think) and went through them. My sister is taking some time to research the family tree, as a hobby rather than a lifetime commitment. It was really interesting to hear stories about people I never even knew existed, and to share memories of our childhood. We ended up staying until quite late, without noticing the time. I was so pleased to get to see my aunt and uncle (and both my cousins who were home) before going back to Sweden on Wednesday. I laughed so much as we recounted old memories and heard new stories. I laughed so hard I think I burned enough calories to earn an extra cinnamon-roll next time I have fika.

Today my brother, sister and I went out for lunch, followed by a trip to the cinema to see Toy Story 3D. For lunch I guessed it: Fish, Chips and Mushy Peas. Inspired by all the memory-sharing last night, I am going to delve into the family photo case this evening and dig out some memories and photos. Tomorrow I think I am going to one of the nearby cities to do a little shopping with my brother. Wednesday is the end of my stay, and I will be returning to Sweden via London Gatwick. I have a meeting for my new job on Friday 3rd, and will officially begin teaching on Saturday 4th September. Wish me luck!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kalles Kaviar, Crayfish Parties and Singing

I have developed a new addiction, to accompany my fika addiction. It is for a product named Kalles Kaviar (see pic). Kalles Kaviar is a swedish food product that is most commonly eaten on a hard-bread such as Ryvita. But I eat it whenever I can. I enjoy is most on soft bread with margarine and cheese. It has a very high salt content, which I think is why I crave it. It comes in a tube, and they don't last very long around me! I've never found anything like it in England, though I will be sure to look when I get back.

I made a trip to a big supermarket (PrisExtra) and while there I couldn't help but notice the difference in products. Many things are the same, as you would expect in the EU, but Sweden likes to preserve a lot of food, especially fish, so there's a lot of pickled food. There's also something called Surstromming which I have been told is a fermented fish. It comes in a can, and apparently once opened it can have a very strong effect on people. Not in a good way. I don't think I'll be trying that any time soon!
Sweden also has a big market for mushrooms, and there are lots of different types on sale. Much more choice than Sainsburys or Tescos, and all still reasonably priced. There's nothing special about them, and I'm assured they aren't magical...

Henrik and I went back to Alon, to spend a few more days in the sun, and to have a little romantic break from the city, just the two of us. It was really beautiful on the island, and there is nothing to distract you so it's a great place to just kick back and relax. In fact, Henrik and I barely spoke to eachother, as we sat in silence, deeply absorbed by our books. Total bliss! Talk about quality time alone together! We were joined at the end of the stay by Henrik's uncle and cousin, and Henrik's uncle had brought Crayfish with him. August is Crayfish season in Sweden, and they celebrate with Crayfish parties. This was not a Crayfish party, so-to-speak, more an introduction to Crayfish and Crayfish etiquette for me, incase I found myself at a Crayfish party in the near future. The following is an instruction on how to eat a Crayfish, and my reactions.

Step 1) Pick up your crayfish, turn it upside down, press your lips to its belly and suck. Seriously. Suck out all the juices. Mmmmm. (I thought they were kidding. I insisted that Henrik do it first.)

Step 2) Take your small crayfish knife and stab the crayfish behind the head, making a small hole. Now suck the juices through the hole. Yes that's right. The brain juices. The gut juices. (NB during step 1 and 2 it's compulsory to make as loud a slurping noise as possible. Apparently this isn't rude.)

Step 3) Pull off the head. Rip it off. Keep it as a trophy on the side of your plate so you can keep a tally of how many you have eaten. Take off the remaining top shell, if it didn't come off with the head. Pull the sides apart slightly to access the innards. (Don't eat the gills (the sides). I did. To be honest they looked the most edible so I took my chances. Bad idea. After eating it I checked with Henrik that it was OK to eat and he looked shocked. I thought I was going to die.)

Step 4) You guessed it. Suck out the remaining innards. Noises still compulsory.

Step 5) Pull off the crayfish tail. Use your hands and, if needed, the small crayfish knife, to remove the shell. Congratulations. You've reached the meatiest part. This is the part that makes it to all the pre-packed sandwiches on our UK high street. I've never tasted such good crayfish!

Step 6) Locate the claws. They'll be somewhere in the pile of discarded shell and carcass, and can be a variety of sizes. Pull them off, then one by one bite them to break the shell. It's best now to use the knife and dig out the claw meat. It's really a gamble as to whether there's anything worth eating inside, but if you do get something it's delicious.

Step 7) At this point you have officially eaten your crayfish. Celebrate by singing a song and drinking some Snaps. Congratulations! Now start again.

After my lesson in Crayfish 101, I felt prepared to face a crayfish party. My first was really very tame, as there were children present (Henrik's nephew and niece). We ate lots of crayfish, and I can tell you I had 10. I kept my trophy tally of course. I had to resist the urge to put the heads on my fingers and thumbs and make a crayfish puppet theatre. I didn't want to set a bad example to the children, though personally I think they would have loved it!

Let me tell you about Allsang Pa Skansen. It's a Swedish TV concert that airs every Monday and Tuesday during the Summer. The show is live and features swedish b-list celebrities singing their way through classic swedish songs, with audience participation. I found it...interesting. At first I really tried to like it, as I am trying to embrace swedish culture and, for want of a better phrase, 'fit-in'. But I soon learned that many of my new friends aren't keen on it either, despite its seeming popularity. So I breathed a sigh of relief and stopped trying so hard. However, the series had it's final show this week, rather like a swedish last night of the proms. Imagine my shock when their final song to end the entire season was none other than Land of Hope and Glory. I'm not overly patriotic in any sense, but I felt weird hearing it sung with swedish words, in celebration of their final show. It made me feel home sick. I will definitely be tuning in to the BBC Last Night of the Proms in September.

Finally, on Monday 16th, Henrik, his Mother and I went to an Opera concert in honour of Jussi Bjorling, the famous Swedish tenor (now deceased), at the Royal Castle in Stockholm. This was the first of a series of Summer concerts (the REAL Swedish Proms) and featured a wonderful line up of talented swedish opera singers and one italian guest (Mario Malagnini) who had a splendid voice. It was a long night, but it was a concert full of classics, with a fantastic orchestra under the baton of Mats Liljefors and the evening was divine. It made me want to practise. Lots. I have a lot of work to do!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sushi, Friends and Steak

One thing I've noticed about Stockholm is how many sushi restaurants/bars there are, and it didn't take me long to try one. I went to a sushi bar in Fridemsplan with Henrik, where I ordered a "small sushi" which turned out to be a tray of sushi (about 9 pieces, so not small at all, but I wasn't about to complain), miso soup and unlimited green tea. Fantastic! I will definitely be going back to that sushi bar.

This week I met two of Henrik's Stockholm friends, and we went for a late lunch followed immediately by fika. Henrik has been friends with these guys since they were at high school together, so it was great to see that they still hang out and to listen to them catch up a bit. They are really friendly, nice men and I hope we all hang out again. Lunch was at a chinese restaurant (I'm spotting a theme here...) where I had dumplings, and then fika was over the road at Wayne's Coffee, where I had a latte and a delicious piece of Daim cake.

Today we have just got home from meeting another of Henrik's friends who will actually be living near us in Malmö from September. We had fika (as I said earlier, I'm a total convert with an unhealthy addiction) and then after that Henrik and I went out for dinner at Jensen's BØfhus, where I had a Whisky Steak, which was delicious. We were hoping to go to a late showing of Inception, but we realised we missed the start of the film as we spent too much time eating! So we ran to a video rental store and got in moments before they were closing, with the plan of picking a film to watch at home. Now we are home and are just about to settle down and watch The Hangover. Good times!

Friday, August 6, 2010

New Job, Swedish Shops and Fika

Sorry for the delay between this post and the last, I've been keeping myself busy and trying not to spend too much time on the internet! I'll try to update more often from now on though. Thanks for checking back and keeping in touch, it's really nice to know people are reading. Feel free to leave a comment and say hello!

So, since my last post I made my way back to Stockholm. For the first 3 days (Monday - Wednesday) Henrik, his mother and I looked after and entertained his niece and nephew, who are at the delightful ages of 7 and 4. The language barrier proved to be no problem at all, as some how the children and I managed to understand each other, despite only speaking our native languages. Henrik's niece (7) actually helped me to learn some swedish, by teaching me to count to 10 and helping me to learn the names of animals. In Sweden it seems to be very fashionable to have children at the moment, and the country provides lots of things for children and families to do, so entertaining them was never going to be a problem.
On Monday we went to a play-area and park in the city centre, which was full of fun climbing frames, trampolines, climbing walls, a place to borrow hockey sticks, footballs, a cricket set, the list was endless! And everything was free. The place was packed and everyone was playing together.
Tuesday involved a trip to the aquarium, which was lots of fun for the kids. I was a little disturbed by the pirranha pool that didn't appear to have any safety nets, but I think that's the British "Health & Safety" routine that's been drilled into my skull. No child was about to climb over the side of the rope bridge and jump in, not without someone spotting them and stopping them from becoming pirranha food! Everything here is just much more relaxed, and I think that will take some getting used to.
Wednesday was lovely and warm, so we decided to prepare a picnic and take the kids to an outdoor swimming pool just outside of the main city, and have an afternoon of swimming and lunch. The pool was lovely, and not busy at all. We shared the whole space with just one or two other families. Swimming was a lot of fun, and eventually we settled down for the picnic. It soon became a disaster zone, however, as we were set upon by a colony of wasps. They were after our sandwiches and they weren't backing down. Henrik made it his mission to kill as many as possible, and succeeded by killing about 7. He set traps with cups of orange squash, hoping to lure the wasps away from the food and towards the drinks, only to fall in and drown. This tehnique worked for a while, and we covered the children with scarves and towels and they sat in this little makeshift den, while we passed in sandwiches for them to eat. But eventually the stress became too much and we gave up, packed up the picnic, ran for the car and finished the food at home.
On Tuesday and Wednesday evening I gave both the children a singing lesson while we waited for their parents to get home. It was so much fun getting them to sing (and not difficult at all, they loved singing and both had beautiful voices that could really hold the tune), and I taught them "One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive". I also learned a few swedish songs from their song book and we had lots of fun together picking songs and singing them at the top of our voices.

I also had a job interview on Tuesday, for the post of Singing Teacher in a new school in Malmö, where I will be living from September. The school is an International school so all teaching is in English, and it focuses on Musical Theatre for children aged 6-16. I was really excited about this job and meeting the principal (also english). We got on really well and she offered me the job, which was a cause for great celebration! I start on Saturday 4th September and I'm thrilled to have secured some level of employment already. I am now applying for various other teaching jobs and keeping my eye out for auditions too, that are close to Malmö or Copenhagen (a short commute from Malmö!). I've made friends with my new boss and we met up again in the last week and discussed the show we are going to put on this term with the school in Malmö. She also took me to an english butchers owned and run by an englishman and a welshman (Taylor and Jones). I bought some lincolnshire sausages to put in the freezer, and also bought some of their sausage rolls which are seriously the best I've ever tasted. I actually really enjoy swedish cuisine and the food here is so fresh and delicious, but it's great to know that if I ever feel homesick I can pop round to Taylor and Jones and buy a nice healthy sausage roll. They also sell branston pickle, Duchy Originals and cans of mushy peas, amongst other british things. I hope there is something like this in Malmö, though it's not the end of the world if there isn't, I'll just stock up on the sausage rolls and lincolnshire sausages before I go and stick them in the freezer!

Being in Stockholm still feels like a holiday for me, and I am anxious not to feel too settled as in September I have to move to another city again, and settle down there. But I am finding myself settling in to the swedish lifestyle and psyche. Things here are much more relaxed, it seems. Equality is very important between the sexes, and everyone is very laid-back. Looking round the shops, I've started to understand where everything is found, where you can buy certain things and the swedish equivalents to Tesco (ICA), Boots (Apoteket) and Wetherspoons (well...there doesn't seem to be anything like it, which is great!).
Take ICA, or any other supermarket in Sweden, for example. In Sweden it is illegal to sell alcohol in a supermarket, if the alcohol content exceeds 3.5%. This covers anything worth drinking. At first I thought this would be a HUGE inconvenience, and that I would probably just give up alcohol as a result. But then I discovered the Systembolaget, a shop dedicated entirely to alcohol. The choice is fantastic and the prices are low (still not as low as England, but I'm assured they are low for Sweden). This is a much better place to buy your alcohol, as you can dedicate an entire shopping trip to it, rather than just adding the wine in your trolley as an afterthought in Tesco.
The Apoteket (Boots equiv) is much like Boots, there is a prescriptions counter, you can ask for advice and you can purchase many of the same things. You won't see a make-up counter, however, or any home-dye hair kits, and you have to develop your photos somewhere else. The shelves are reserved for drugs, shampoo/hair-care, nail-care, baby-care, womens essentials, etc. The biggest culture shock for me came in the latter section. Women are able to purchase the morning-after pill by simply picking it up off the shelf. Hell, you can buy-in-bulk if you want to! This is a far cry from Britain's demand that women be interviewed first, have to share with a stranger the details of when their sexual encounter happened (e.g. how many hours ago), and why they need to use the morning-after pill. Cue red faces as women explain that they either a, were too drunk to remember to use a condom, b, the condom split as the result of some rather more active love-making, or c, well any other reason, I'm all out of ideas, but just use your imagination. The point is, in Britain a woman has to be 'spoken to' in some way, even if only by the friendliest health-care worker or pharmacist, before she can purchase the morning-after pill. In Sweden you just pick it up off the shelf and pay at the counter. No embarrassing questions, or frowning by the pharmacist, or feeling a need to explain why you had so many drinks last night.
I feel a need now to point out that I've never needed to get the morning after pill in the UK or in Sweden, and that my account is based only on what other people have told me, and what I understand from the NHS. But I am relieved to know that if I ever did need it I can just walk into the Apoteket and pick it up off the shelf, bury it with a bottle of shampoo and discreetly walk to the counter and pay, as opposed to walking into Boots, leaning over the pharmacy counter where other people are standing just a little bit too close, trying to whisper "I need the morning after pill", having to repeat myself a little louder, drawing more attention and stares, and being faced with the questions either over the counter, or, if I'm lucky, being led into a little side-room or cubicle (people still staring) to face the questions there in a more "private" setting, before being led back out, handed the box and then finally paying for the service. For me, it's a no-brainer!

Finally, I want to mention fika. Fika is a swedish necessity. It happens about twice a day, whether you are at work or at home. People stop for about 20 minutes and have coffee and a cinammon bun. Of course you can have what you want, but that's the traditional fika. It's very rude to continue working through fika, as it is important to socialise and relax together. I am very quickly becoming a firm believer in fika, and I think this is something I may continue to do for the rest of my life, whether I am in Sweden or somewhere else!