My Top Ten Favorite Mountain Goats Songs

I took this photo in South Dakota in 2014 and I’m still proud of it

If you don’t yet listen to The Mountain Goats, you probably ought to. I have been a fan for several years and recently discovered an excellent YouTube playlist entitled Mountain Goats Long Ass Playlist and it is almost always playing while I’m doing clinical notes or other paperwork in my office.

The reasons for my deep love for this band are complex and difficult to articulate. But I think the summary is : John Darnielle (the singer/songwriter/center of the band) is a grown man who sings unflinchingly about past traumas and other difficult experiences in a matter-of-fact way that I find both deeply relatable and rare. I have not found this quality in other music, and it is this quality that I find almost painfully beautiful in Mountain Goats songs. John Darnielle writes beautiful and honest lyrics.

Anyway, my favorites :

(In no particular order) (But #7 MIGHT be my all-time favorite.) (Or #3.) (And #1 is sort of everyone’s favorite, for good reason.)

1. This Year

2. Love Love Love

3. You Were Cool

4. Woke Up New

5. Up The Wolves

6. Damn These Vampires

7. Never Quite Free

8. Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod

9. Dinu Lipatti’s Bones

10. San Bernardino

David and I just got tickets to see The Mountain Goats this September and I am VERY excited!

(And yes these are YouTube links. In my defense, some are music videos. But more broadly no I don’t use Spotify and I’m sure it’s super great but we’re just not compatible. I don’t know.)

January books

I really do mean to update this more regularly. I finished three books in January. 🙂

booksjan2019
I read The Winter of the Witch on eBook but the cover is stunning!

1. The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher

This is one of my mother-in-law’s most beloved books and she lent me her treasured copy in the fall. I waited until it was good and cold and began it on January 1st. What a pleasure it was to read! We trace a family through several generations in England. The descriptions are delicious, and although I made a wee bit of fun of the author for all the wooden scrubbed tables she mentions (do you all have any other kind of table over in England? seems unlikely), I also totally want a wooden scrubbed table and to be the kind of person who has half a roast chicken in the fridge at all times. I will be seeking more of her books in future when I want a good cozy novel to sink into, for sure.

2. The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

This was the third and final book in a fantasy series that I began in 2017. It was just released and I was SO excited. These books trace Vasya, a magically talented girl in medieval Russia. The books deal a lot with the meeting of folk traditions/pagan beliefs and Christianity — a topic I love to explore. They are also completely engrossing. I laughed with David about “fantasy book food,” a concept all of us who read fantasy are familiar with. Would I actually enjoy a stew of wild mushrooms, scented grasses, and pond fish cooked over a fire? Almost definitely not, but when I read about it in a fantasy novel I get mighty hungry. I definitely recommend these books to anyone who enjoys fantasy books, empowered girls, and the meeting place of magic and religion.

3. The Boy at the Door by Alex Dahl

My brother gave me this book for Christmas, in our great tradition of unwrapped books as gifts to each other. It is a psychological thriller (I think this is the right term, it’s hard to say) set in Norway. I could almost literally not put it down. David even snapped a photo of me reading it while drying my hair.* It’s hard to tell much about the book without risking giving it away, but it begins with a wealthy mother and interior designer who takes in a little boy from her daughter’s swim class. The book switches perspectives from Cecilia (the mother & interior designer) to Tobias (the little boy) and journal entries from Anni (who we learn more about as the book goes on). It is creepy and fascinating. (A note : there are some scenes with sexual violence, so it might not be the best choice if you’re looking to avoid those.)

I’m part-way through several books at work, including The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. So far I am really impressed with her work. She is a pediatrician who began incorporating her understanding of ACEs into her practice. I’ll write up a full review when I finish it!

Happy February reading, everyone! 🙂

* This isn’t the first time I’ve done this though. I hate drying my hair and often try to read while doing so. I’ve also been known to read while getting dressed, while cooking, and while walking (while reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis I walked straight into a huge cement block next to a construction site and went flying over it, getting identical scrapes in both shins and a bonus scrape on my chin! And no, I wasn’t a child at the time…or a teenager…or drunk. I was a graduate student and it was the middle of the day.

Life in the West

We moved to Idaho in June and have spent the summer alternating between settling in and traveling on weekends! We were able to head out to Washington two times to spend time with David’s family, and we also had the pleasure of hosting David’s sister & her husband, and later, David’s parents. We also spent a super fun weekend in Los Angeles for our friends’ wedding, so all in all, it’s been a pretty busy summer! Yesterday, we kicked off the fall season with a day-long Hogwarts Express Day celebration.

Life in Idaho has been a real adjustment, and I’m sure there’s plenty more adjusting to be done. But there are many lovely things about our life here : our apartment is in the most perfect location. Our next-door neighbor is super kind and helpful. My best friend Lindsey lives in town (!!!) so we get to hang out ALL THE TIME, which after years of always being in a long-distance friendship is pretty awesome. David is doing well at his new job. And I have access to bazillions of beautiful, hilly running trails. During summer I ran usually six days a week, but I’ve just begun training for a half-marathon in October, and I’m running three days a week and lifting weights three days (plus one rest day). I miss my trails, though, so I often add a long walk on lifting days. (Sometimes I add a long walk on running days, too.)

I’m working on navigating the counseling licensure system here, and in the meantime just housewife-ing to my best ability. Cooking, cleaning, you know. Recently, I’m most proud of my frozen bean-and-cheese burritos that David can take to work for lunch, crockpot steak fajitas, and the “sorting hat” cupcakes I baked for our party yesterday. I’ve also had plenty of time to read and get to know the local public library system.

 

moving again

When David & I moved in with my mom last summer before traveling abroad, we had a goal : we would enjoy time with my mother, dog, and hometown, and by the spring, we would move again.

Here we are in May and we just finished packing up our “moving pod.” Next week we will start our 2500 mile drive to our new home in Idaho. David got a great job out there in the data analysis field, so we’re headed west again!

Our time in New York has been so special to me. We’ve gotten to spend lots of quality time with my mother (and with Pip the Kerry Blue Terrier!), and being in my home environment has been so nourishing. I love my childhood house and I love the wood paths nearby, where I’ve run or walked daily. I still dream that someday we will settle in New England, but for now, this job opportunity for David was too good to pass up. We’ll enjoy being close to David’s family and my extended family and friends on the west coast, too.

We found a sweet little apartment with the help of my best friend Lindsey who lives in Idaho (another perk of moving!!), and we’ll be setting up house out there in early June. Maybe I’ll get back into writing a bit more often again (how often do I say that?). Lots on my mind lately : slow/sustainable fashion, baking, how to make a new place home…but lots to DO as well, like, you know, moving across the entire country.

 

books I’ve recently loved

I used to be (perhaps I did this three times?) in the habit of making monthly “what I’m into” posts — books, television, music, etc.  It was a clever idea, and one I didn’t keep up. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading habits, and I figured I’d share some of the best books I’ve read in the past year.

Fiction

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead : I read this early in 2017. It was a very challenging book, with many depictions of violence and suffering (as is appropriate for a book about slavery). The ‘magical realism’ element of the literal underground was cleverly done, I thought, and something about Whitehead’s writing of the protagonist, Cora, pushed me to really think about how I relate to characters in novels. The plot reminds one of the ways that the past returns even when we might think we are safe.

The Girl with the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf : This novel, about a young Muslim woman in Indiana, was captivating. I didn’t realize when I got it out from the library that it took place in Indianapolis and Bloomington, but the many location references, which were familiar to me, helped ground the book and added a level of interest.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King : I downloaded the first four of the many mysteries in this series onto my Kindle and read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice while in California to be with my beloved grandmother as she died, and then as I helped plan her funeral. It was highly enjoyable escapism, and although I still haven’t read the next three in the series, I am looking forward to them. I haven’t read a lot of mystery books, but I have read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Laurie King writes about a young woman apprenticed to Holmes. If you’re looking for something diverting that still feels intelligent and rich, this is definitely a good series to try.

The Emigrants Series by Vilhelm Moberg : When David and I were visiting his distant relatives in Sweden, this book series came up over and over. It seemed like everyone in Sweden had read these books, and they all insisted that I ought to read them. So, I dutifully downloaded the four-book saga to my Kindle and began to read. The Emigrants is about a Swedish family that travels to the United States in the 1850s to escape the famine and poverty in Sweden (more than a quarter of the population of Sweden emigrated in the 1850s – 1950s. The population of the country has still not recovered from this mass exodus). The books were written in the 1940s and 50s, and I was completely drawn in. They were pretty strange at times — there are a lot of stories within the story, some of which are quite bizarre — but I was deeply fond of the characters, specifically Kristina, the mother of the family that emigrates. The books follow them from childhood until the end of their lives, and I cried a lot as I finished the final book.

Non-Fiction

Amazing Grace : A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris : I read Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis while David and I were in Oxford, and I was really disappointed with it. I thought Lewis wasn’t particularly clever and felt distanced from him by his sexism. I’ve loved some of his other work (I love the Narnia series, and I really enjoyed an essay collection of his as well as The Screwtape Letters), but I’d had high hopes for Mere Christianity. After I finished it, I asked for recommendations on a Facebook group I belong to : intelligent yet readable theology, from a woman. And boy, did this book hit the spot. Norris is articulate and thoughtful, but never conceited or obnoxious in her writing. I share a lot of her thoughts and was convinced by her arguments in favor of seeking meaning within the religion of your own ancestors. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, and if you are a progressive, feminist Christian struggling to reconcile your modern views and the ancient, often “problematic” religion of your ancestors : check this out.

Stasiland by Anna Funder : My mother traveled in Germany and Eastern Europe last spring as a chaperone for a school trip and read this book while there. I borrowed it from her after David and I returned from Europe and it was fascinating. I never felt like I knew very much about East Germany and the Stasi, but Funder’s journalist eye provides facts and good stories within the context of her own story of living in East Berlin shortly after the fall of the wall. (If you read this book, pair it with the film Goodbye Lenin, a really excellent German film which, unlike most German films, had East Germans involved in production and shows a different “side” of East Germany).

Victoria The Queen by Julia Baird : I was interested in Queen Victoria after watching the first season of the PBS Masterpiece Theatre show, Victoria, and picked up this massive paperback when I saw it at Costco. I read it all fall and into the winter, finishing on December 31st. It’s magnificent! Baird is a journalist but also has a PhD in history, so she has the perfect blend of rigorous research and historical knowledge with captivating and intriguing writing style. I learned so much about Queen Victoria and also British history, Europe, and the industrial revolution. She really was a magnificent queen, and some of the popular imagination of her — that she disliked her children and was largely not involved in the politics of her country — are clearly disproven by Dr.Baird’s research.

The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto : My dear friend Lindsey gave this to me as a birthday gift. I love Winnie-the-Pooh, I loved the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, and I loved the tiny bit of hiking that David and I got to do in Southern England, so this was a perfect gift. I learned a lot about Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A.Milne, and Ashdown Forest (the “real” Hundred Acre Wood). It’s also just a beautiful book to look at — lots of photographs, clever page design, and handsome red cloth covers.


One exciting element of reading Victoria The Queen was realizing that I actually can read history books. I find history very interesting but have often felt intimidated by history books — and quite honestly, a lot of history books seem very dry and dull to me. However, after I finished this massive biography, it occurred to me that there must be a lot of other well-written, interesting books on history. I asked around and am now reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, which is about World War One, and finding it absolutely fascinating and quite engaging. It’s pretty exciting to feel like I have a “new genre” to explore.

What are your favorite books about history? Any I should add to my to-read list? 🙂

 

how things look right now

…because everyone seems to be asking, anyway.

Since David and I returned from our grand European tour, we’ve been living in my childhood home, with my mother and the family dog, Pip. While I know moving back in with your parents isn’t exactly on everyone’s late-twenties bucket list, it’s really been lovely. For one thing, I think something about losing a parent at a relatively young age (in my case, I was twenty when my dad died) shifts the way I think about my family. Even if most of the time we’re just doing regular stuff like watching TV together, going for a walk, or running errands, I really value my time with my mother.

Also, as any of you who know my in real life are already deeply aware, I am absolutely passionately obsessed with my dog, Pip. You know how some parents worry that they’ll finally cave and get a puppy, and then their kids will lose interest? Yeah, I’m not that kid. Pip is thirteen years old and I still think (know) that he is the greatest animal on the planet.

While we’re here, I’m doing a hodge-podge of home and personal projects while applying to jobs (no luck yet, but I’m not exactly rushing), and most importantly, David is working very hard to try to finish his doctoral dissertation. It is all that lies between him and his PhD, and y’all, it is a lot of work. He’s in his office most of the day and has Skype meetings with his advisor regularly. Living at home has allowed us the luxury of time : David has lots to focus on his work, and I have lots to take care of projects and decompress from the world’s most stressful job. I loved my time at the domestic violence shelter/rape crisis center/human trafficking service center but, I mean, as you can guess from the workplace, it was extremely high stress.

So here we are, living a calm and cozy life that feels a bit like a break from real life (but, I must always remind myself, is in fact a real life). I read a lot, I try to cook all the meals and keep the house tidy, and I daydream and worry far too much about what our future holds.

On that note, I’ve got to go tidy the family room and do the dishes. And perhaps have a cup of tea while I’m at it…

sprinkles biscotti

In December I was looking around for holiday treat ideas and remembered that I’d seen the idea of funfetti biscotti floating around Pinterest. I’ve never made biscotti, so rather than use one of those recipes I decided to return to the mother ship : King Arthur Flour. I’ve barely modified this recipe for Vanilla Biscotti to make it more ***fun*** and rainbow. They turned out amazingly & were sent out to family in holiday treat boxes. Sorry the photography is the literal worst, usually I have my husband help me but he was on a Skype call with his dissertation advisor and I’m impatient so I took the photos left-handed while my right hand did the baking things. (I am right-handed, as you can tell from the photos!) 

Also, fun idea : I did a random mix of sprinkles for a rainbow/funfetti effect, but you could do anything!! Red and green sprinkles for Christmas? Blue and yellow or white for Hanukkah? Red and blue for Fourth of July? Your friend’s fave color for a custom batch as a gift? SPRINKLES ARE AMAZING!!

And : this was a genuinely fun recipe to make. You get to do weird stuff, like pull it out halfway through and spritz it with water. It smells delicious. They traveled well. UGH I’m just so excited about SPRINKLES BISCOTTI. Tomorrow, BTW, is the first day of February. HAVE YOU CONSIDERED making these with RED AND PINK sprinkles?? VALENTINE’S DAY BISCOTTI? I’m just saying…

Ingredients
six tablespoons of unsalted butter (at room temperature)
two-thirds of a cup of white sugar
one-half a teaspoon of salt
two and half teaspoons of vanilla
one and a half teaspoons of baking powder
two large eggs
two cups of all-purpose flour
one-third of a cup of sprinkles*
(unusual equipment : a spray bottle full of room temperature water)

ingredients
my favorite kind of baking is all-my-ingredients-ready-to-go baking

Preheat your oven to 350* Fahrenheit. Line a large baking sheet with a silpat or some parchment paper.

Beat together the butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and baking powder until creamy.

Beat in eggs. At this point, the dough might look pretty funky — “curdled,” says King Arthur Flour — but do not panic.

On low speed, add the flour until it forms a smooth, sticky dough.

Plop the dough on the baking sheet. Divide into two equal lumps and shape each one into a log that is nine-and-a-half inches by two inches, and about three-quarters of an inch tall. Straighten the logs, and smooth the tops and sides with a wet spatula (just dip it in some water).

shaping into logs
I literally didn’t know my arm could look this hairy and formless, I swear I actually have quite lovely wrists. ANYWAY note the ruler? I used a regular ol’ ruler to shape them.

Bake for twenty-five minutes.

Now, here’s the fun part. Remove the baking sheet and spritz the logs — getting the sides as well as the top — lightly with the water. You want to do so lightly, but cover all the exposed bits of logs (AKA, don’t try to pick it up and spray the underside, leave that as is).

spritzspritz
hehe spritz spritz hehehe

Let it sit on the sheets for five minutes.

Use a serrated knife (in my case, a bread knife worked) to cut the logs crosswise into half-inch to three-quarter-inch slices. Be careful to keep the knife perpendicular to the baking sheet so that the thickness of each slice is even.

log to biscotti graduation
log-to-biscotti graduation ceremony

Lay the biscotti on their sides (now they’re biscotti! not logs! yay they graduated!!) and bake another twenty five to thirty minutes until very dry** and beginning to golden.

Remove to a rack to cool. Instagram those babies. Eat too many of them while packing treat boxes, so that you have to bake a second batch to have enough for the treat boxes. (Oops.) I haven’t tried dunking them in coffee, because I h a t e coffee and will never apologize for it, BUT I love people who love coffee and I bet they’re great dunked in coffee!!

* There are so many types of sprinkles! I had to look up sprinkles to figure out how to discuss this and I found a wonderful blog post titled Sprinkles 101 on the appropriately-named blog With Sprinkles On Top. Take a glance at that to catch up on your vocabulary before reading on. –Okay, you back? So, I have tried both quins and rainbow jimmies and they both work well. I do not think that sanding sugar would work quite as well, but I haven’t tried it. My personal favorite is quins. Do note that if you use quins, which are sometimes in fun shapes (ducks, trees, hearts, etc.), the shape will disappear as the sprinkle melts into the biscotti.

** Vague, right? I know. I texted my bosom friend, Lindsey, while I was baking these, and she was casually all like oh yeah I’ve made biscotti a bunch. I was like, WHAT how come you didn’t TELL me because sometimes I’m a bit unreasonable — but anyway — she told me she has fallen into the trap of overbaking because OMG, biscotti need to be DRY AS THE DESERT. In fact, your biscotti may still be a teensy bit moist in the centers when you take them out and that is A-OKAY, they will dry more as they cool. So don’t overbake your biscotti!! Thank you Lindsey for your BAKING WISDOM.

 

the end of one adventure

Well, it’s been a few months since we finished our trip and you may have noticed a lack of updates on our travels. We got so busy and involved in experiencing our trip that blog-writing fell by the wayside…so I’ll give a quick overview of our last few weeks of the trip.

After our wonderful time in Sweden, we spent about a week in Cologne, Germany. My good friend Peter lives in this city, and it was great to see his life there, experience the city, and meet his girlfriend. We also met up with our friend Matt, who had been in Berlin for a conference and came and spent a night at our AirBnB with us.

 You may have heard that the Kölner Dom is large : you have been misinformed. It’s impossibly large.

Germany was, as always, a fun opportunity to brush up on our German skills. We’re always rusty, but it’s always fun to practice.

We were good guests and ate all of the delicacy that Peter ordered for us in a restaurant one evening — Mettbrötchen. This consists of…raw ground pork on top of some bread, with raw chopped onions on top of it. It was a deeply challenging food to eat, but Peter and his girlfriend raved about how delicious and beloved this food is.

After another visit to Cipressa — documented in a previous post — we went back to the U.K. Our first stop was a London suburb where we stayed with an online friend of mine, Katharine, at her family home. Internet friends are not (always) serial killers, guys!! Katharine is super nice and not ONCE did she or her parents attempt to kill us. In fact, it was relaxing and fun and delightful to get to know Katharine “IRL,” meet her lovely parents, stay in their beautiful house, and explore their town. Said town happens to be the site of a, er, famous agricultural experiment. What famous agricultural experiment? Well, if you knew as much about the history of statistics as David did, you’d know. 😉

David and I dipped down to Alfriston, England, for a two-day trip. Why Alfriston? Well, we knew we wanted to spend some time in small-town/rural England, but we didn’t know where to go. So we spent one long evening in Cologne choosing. I set up a complex system involving each of us choosing three possibilities from a list, researching one another’s choices, and presenting the options before having a final vote. My goal was that this way, neither of us would feel bad that the town “we” wanted to visit won. In the end, we both felt guilty : David initially chose the town, but I researched it, so we both felt like we were getting our way while denying each other their choice. But we got over that pretty fast once we got to Alfriston and both fell head-over-heels for the town. We stayed in a 13th-century inn…

which provided hiking trail directions & sack lunches for folks wanting to explore the South Downs trail. There were two hike options : one was a 1.5 mile hike of the town, the other was a 13 mile hike to the ocean and back.

We took the 1.5 mile hike the evening we arrived, after visiting the Clergy House, the first property ever purchased by the National Trust. It dates back to around 1350! It was amazing to visit.IMG_3411

We took the other hike the following day. The long hike ended up being more like 15 miles because we occasionally strayed from the path, either on purpose or because we were confused.

And it…was…AMAZING! David had the map, and I had the directions, and together we followed this beautiful hike that took us up into the hills, through pastures of sheep and fields, into forests straight out of the Shire, through little towns, and to the Seven Sisters cliffs on the coast. The entire day was like a dream. We stopped for tea in the afternoon, and when we finally got back to our hotel in the evening, we had time to shower and head downstairs for dinner in the beautiful dining room of the inn. It was honestly one of the best days of the entire summer, and it’s in the short-list for best days of my life. We have a new dream of someday hiking the entire South Downs trail now!

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We returned to Katharine’s home and spent a few more days with her lovely family…and one day with ALL THINGS HARRY POTTER. We spent six hours at Leavesden Studios, where the Harry Potter films were created…but I could have spent days, literally. It was an incredible place to visit and we saw SO much cool behind-the-scenes stuff.

 

After this excellent finish to our visit to England, Katharine’s lovely dad drove us and Katharine to Cardiff, Wales. We spent two days there, exploring Torchwood landmarks, admiring the bay, visiting the Doctor Who Experience, and visiting the National Museum. Katharine hung out with us for part of the time before heading off on a camping trip with her friends. We are so grateful for her friendship and help!

Our last stop was DUBLIN, and we went hard. After three hours of sleep and an incredibly early flight from Cardiff, we literally went straight to the Guinness Storehouse and had a tour (complete with pints) at 11 AM. Our AirBnB in Dublin was beautiful and cozy, and we had a quiet evening in due to pouring rain.

Our final full day of the trip was packed…and amazing. We took a walking-tour of Dublin and learned a lot of history about Ireland. In the afternoon, we saw the Book of Kells, which was truly incredible. In the evening, we ate traditional Irish food and spent the evening in a pub listening to live music.

We got up early on the day of our flight home, in order to have time for fresh doughnuts and a visit to Christ Church Cathedral. 

It was hard to believe that our trip was coming to an end, but we enjoyed our last morning nonetheless, and left Ireland even more in love with the country and each other than we were when we’d entered it. Our long flight home passed over Greenland, which has been since added to our list of future trips. I’m so, so glad that we did this slightly crazy trip when we had the chance, and so, so grateful that we were able to do so.

DublinHapenneyBridge
just before leaving Dublin

Skåne, Sweden (and Copenhagen)

Another post written by my wonderful husband, David!

Here’s some backstory: in the late 1800’s, Sweden was desperately poor. Many children, particularly those who weren’t first-borns, could not hope for a good future in their home country. So, many left: about a quarter of Sweden’s population emigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This often divided families, and for family members who stayed behind, it was as though their émigré sons, daughters, brothers, or sisters had died. Most people in Sweden today know that they have some ancestors who emigrated, but not many are in touch with the American cousins descended from those ancestors. Many Swedes are curious about these cousins, though. There’s even a popular Swedish reality TV show in which Americans with Swedish roots compete to win trips to Sweden and find their long-lost relatives!

We’re lucky that we didn’t have to become reality TV stars to get in touch with my Swedish third- and fourth-cousins. My paternal great-great-grandfather was one of those younger sons who left Sweden in the late 19th century, in 1889 at the age of fifteen with his older brother. He was from the southernmost peninsula of Sweden, a region called Skåne (SKOH-nah). He eventually settled in Tekoa, Washington; his youngest daughter, Helena, was my great-great aunt. When Helena was little her father would tell her about the home he had left behind, a big house called Dalsjögården (DAHL-fwah-gor-don). When she grew up, Helena talked often about what she would do and whom she would visit “when I go to Sweden” – so much that her husband finally just said “Enough! We’re going!” and bought them tickets. Helena was able to get in touch with some of her cousins in Sweden and visit Dalsjögården; she even recognized some of the boulders and old roads in the forest nearby from her father’s descriptions. Years later, when my parents were planning a pre-parenthood trip to Europe, Helena insisted they look up “the Swedes” and visit them. After another twenty years, my folks took me and my sister there to visit, and now I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Laura to them…

On the way to Sweden, though, we spent a day in Copenhagen, and it doesn’t seem fair to leave that out of the story completely. The big event was a walking tour of the city by a free tour company called Sandeman’s – walking tours seem to be our preferred form of big-city excitement. And the Sandeman tour company is worth looking up in major European cities, the tours are excellent and, officially, free, although it’s considered polite to tip the guide $10-20 per person. We learned about the founding of Copenhagen by Bishop Absalon (who is often pictured carrying both a bishop’s staff and a sword), famous battles against the Swedes, the Danish language, the life of Hans Christian Andersen, and the Danish royal family (the queen, by the way, is known for having painted the illustrations in the Danish edition of the Lord of the Rings). One of our favorite stops of the day came just after the end of the tour, when we wandered to a lovely Anglican church called St. Alban’s out near the citadel and the statue of the little mermaid.  (Laura’s note : we also learned that Copenhagen burned to the ground twice. The second time they had tried to apply their lesson learned by installing a fancy water-pump and assigning fire watchers to watch from towers of churches and other tall buildings. Well, a fire watcher spotted the beginning of the second fire — and then they found that no one could find the key to the fancy water-pump, so the city burned down a second time anyway. Whoops.)

We also learned, though this was not part of the tour, that 7-11’s in Copenhagen have very good free Wi-Fi and surprisingly tasty chocolate croissants.

 

The next day we took an early train to Hässleholm, the Swedish city nearest to the small towns where my relatives live. Or rather, we tried to take a train to Hässleholm – it turned out that after we left on one train from Copenhagen we were supposed to transfer to a different train in Malmö, which we did not do and thus took a beautiful ride 40 miles out of our way along the wide sound separating Denmark and Sweden. Fortunately, Laura realized something was wrong and proved it to me with Google Maps just in time for us to backtrack and arrive in Hässleholm by 6. We then went to dinner at Birgita and Pelle’s beautiful home in the woods with Karin, Tore, and Hillevi. (Karin, Pelle, and Hillevi, for the record, are my third cousins once removed; they are descended from Martin’s sister Johanna, who stayed behind in Skåne). After that, Tore and Hillevi took us home to stay with them in Bjärnum (BYEHR-num).

Tore and Hillevi were two of the first Swedish relatives I ever met, because they have both visited my family in the U.S. several times. Tore is a member of a Swedish Lutheran big band called Röke Blås (ROKE-eh-blahs) that got its start in the town of Röke near Bjärnum – he plays the trumpet. That band has toured in the U.S. ten times over the past few decades, and some of the tours have brought them near enough to Washington that Tore and Hillevi made side-trips to see relatives there, including us. Hillevi has an encyclopedic knowledge of family history, and the first night that we stayed with them she shared some documents and bits of knowledge she had recently obtained about the history of her side of the family, the side that stayed behind in Sweden when Martin and his brother emigrated in 1889. We stayed up a little while talking about family history; she and Tore both recommended a famous series called The Emigrants (Vilhelm Moberg) that tells the story of several Swedish families in North America. (Laura’s note : Ingrid, Linnéa, and Johannes recommended this series as well so I bought the eBooks. It is now several weeks later and I am nearly through book three. They’re fantastic!)

The next morning we met another member of the family: Hillevi and Tore’s well-behaved robot lawnmower, which we saw trundling around outside while we were eating breakfast.

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Roban the Robot Lawnmower

The day was quite full: we visited Dalsjögården (the old family home where Martin lived and Helena visited), took a walk around the lake nearby, met Hillevi and Tore’s daughter Emma and her husband Lasse for lunch, went out for waffles with Bengt, Viveka, and Hans, and attended a string quintet concert in a very old church near Hillevi’s hometown.

The next day we met moose. It turns out that this is a popular thing to do in Southern Sweden: not far from Bjärnum is a place called “Älgsafari,” where tourists (many of them German) come to take a train ride through the woods to say hello to a dozen very tame, very beautiful, moose.

After that we had fika (similar to afternoon tea) with the family of Greta, another one of Hillevi and Tore’s daughters. Then we went back to Bjärnum to rest for an hour or two before the big event of the evening, a barbecue at the home of another set of cousins, the Ivarssons: Ingrid, Stellan, Johannes (who was staying there with his wife Linnéa), and Erik (though Erik was not home for the summer).

The Ivarssons live by a lake called Humlesjö (HOOM-leh-fwah – the name translates to “hops lake,” as in the flower used to flavor fancy beers). Their home is a restored farmouse, painted Swedish red, with a back patio that makes it very convenient for parties. They had been hard at work all day preparing food, the centerpiece being a delicious platter of grilled meats: pork, lamb, steak, and… moose (it looked tasty, but we didn’t have any – too soon!). Since we were staying with the Ivarssons for the next two nights, we didn’t leave when the party was over, but sat up and talked with them for an hour or two until past midnight. The main topic of conversation was the Swedish welfare system, which is much sturdier than the American one and makes us a bit envious. It’s not perfect, and people do take advantage of it, but it seems to serve them well.

The next morning (not too early) we went for a swim in the lake, had lunch, and then stayed behind while the Ivarssons went to the graduation party of Stellan’s niece. While they were out, Laura and I took a walk around the lake and generally relaxed until they returned after dinner. In the evening, before we were all driven in by mosquitoes, we played a stick-throwing lawn game called Kubb. Laura’s team won, but only because the mosquitoes helped by guiding their sticks through the air – I saw them, I swear.

(Laura’s note : David is just bitter, and my team was just better.)

The next morning, our last full day in Sweden, Laura and I rode with Johannes and Linnéa back to Helsingborg (HEL-sing-bor-yuh), where they live. Before going to their apartment, we stopped at the Museum of Failure downtown – a tiny one-room museum whose director is, according to Johannes, a “PR genius” because he managed to get the museum written up in so many big newspapers and magazines. The museum is dedicated to products, especially tech products, that failed spectacularly, many in the last couple of decades. Some of them were familiar to us, like Laser discs and Segways. Others were bizarre. Seeing them gives you the same feeling as seeing depictions of the future in old science fiction movies: electric face-rejuvenation masks, hula chairs, and all the rest were part of imaginary futures dreamed up by the unlucky (or dishonest) entrepreneurs who hoped to make money from them. Before you leave the museum, there’s a place where you’re supposed to write down and post your own favorite personal failure. We didn’t write any down, but we read a few of the ones in English; one of our favorites was, “I asked a one-legged man why he was limping.” Oops!

We went to Johannes and Linnea’s apartment, and Linnéa and Laura cooked an excellent lasagna for our last dinner in Sweden. The next morning we toured Helsingborg with Johannes for a couple of hours before our train to the Copenhagen airport. We miss you, Skåne!