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!

 

weekend trip to Oxford

This post was written by my lovely husband David. 🙂 

Oxford (June 23rd – 25th)

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My birthday is June 23rd, a day that we were originally planning to spend either in London or en route to Germany – but sometime back in May Laura started planning a surprise birthday trip, and this morning (see pic!) I finally found out what it was. We made our way to the Marylebone Station (without my knowing exactly why) and had breakfast nearby, after which she handed me a large envelope that had been hidden in the back of our red binder.  Inside were train tickets to Oxford! There were also details of an Airbnb reservation, a list of pubs to choose from for dinner that night, and tickets for a walking tour of Oxford organized around places important to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (really got my nerdy heart racing!).

We caught our train, spotted a few sheep on the ride, and then hoofed it to our Airbnb (our favorite so far, largely owing to the presence of a dog named Tig).

 

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River boats on the Thames path (the river is called the Isis by Oxford residents – inside tip for you)

Some Googling from our room revealed that there was a trail called the Thames Path that passed our location just a few blocks away and led into the city along the river, so in the early evening we took a beautiful walk into Oxford to look for the pub I had chosen for dinner.

Along the way, though, we passed a restaurant with enough comfortable outdoor seating right next to the Thames that we abandoned our plan and ate there instead.

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View from the Head of the River restaurant, looking back along the Thames

 

During dinner Laura presented me with another birthday gift, a box of chocolates – a good gift in itself, and even better with the following quote on it: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years,” attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Laura found this hilarious, because of course Abraham Lincoln never said anything of the sort. I chuckled and wondered how long I should wait after dinner before stuffing the chocolates into my face.

Our Saturday in Oxford started slow, which suited us just fine: London had tired us out. The only planned activity for the day was the Tolkien- and Lewis-themed walking tour in the afternoon. This is a tour that runs once a month, people – and Laura discovered it and made sure we got spots. She’s good. Anyway, in the late morning we took another walk along the Thames, found the meeting place downtown, had lunch, and met our tour guide Alistair.

Alistair was exactly the kind of person you would expect to lead a tour like this: an elderly retired professor with a lovely accent who had himself attended Oxford decades ago and remembered, he said, the excitement back in the fifties when The Lord of the Rings was published. He showed us all around the city, starting with the pub where Tolkein and Lewis and their friends liked to meet on Thursdays (Thursday mornings, mind you) to drink beer and read each other whatever they were working on. The pub is called “The Eagle and Child,” or more commonly and irreverently, “The Bird and Baby.” Our favorite story of the tour came early on, just after visiting the pub. Alistair told us that C. S. Lewis (who went by “Jack” in honor of the family dog who had been hit by a car) and his brother, Warren, had had a very unhappy childhood after their mother died and their father moved the family from Ireland to England. To comfort each other the two boys used to tell each other made-up fantastical stories, hiding at home in a wardrobe – hence, a wardrobe serves as the door to a magical land in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

We stopped by the various colleges where Lewis and Tolkien studied and taught at, visited the University College Church where Lewis attended regularly and gave some of his theological lectures, and saw the small gated-off street where Tolkien retired late in life, having left Oxford to avoid fans knocking on his door and returning years later only when assured that his residence would be a secret.

After the tour we visited Christ Church college (the biggest and richest college) and then made our way back to the Eagle and Child for dinner. Our impression during the tour had been that it was a fairly dark, stuffy, crowded little pub, but when we returned for dinner we found a large, bright room at the back with an empty table for two. The food was great, the beer even better.

We slept like rocks that night and rose early the next day for our bus to the airport. We were already talking about how much we’d like to spend some extra time in England at the end of our trip – but for now, on to Germany.