Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dawdling in Dalarna

Since Thursday, we've come to know the depth and breadth of Swedish hospitality while staying Laurel's relatives in Mora, a small town in the Dalarna region. The blood line goes impressively far back in time: Laurel's great great grandmother, Brita, had a brother through whom our Swedish relatives descended. Like 150 years ago. And we're being treated as kindly and generously as if we were first cousins. Gunnar, Ingritt, Daniel, Andreas, Anna, and Lynnea graciously welcomed us into their lives even after we passed the 3-days-makes-stinking-visitors mark! It's pretty cool to know that we have Swedish friends, no, Swedish family we can stay in touch with so we don't have to depend on Jon Stewart to keep us updated on the country...

The food has been spectacularly tasty. I've at times been tempted to change my three favorite food items (tortillas, Tillamook cheese, and avocados) to rye crisp, white Swedish cheese, and butter. Butter is an amazing, amazing invention, as is kavelgris, a type of thin bread with a pita-like texture but sweeter and spiced subtly with anise and fennel. I've found out that moose meat is pretty darn good, and that schapps goes well with nubbesallad, a mix of hard boiled egg, pickled herring, dill, lemon peel, and creme fraiche.

Most fortunately, we visited the area, which is known for retaining its traditional heritage, during one of the biggest festivals of the year: midsummer. Every year on the Friday closest to June 25 (I think) the whole country takes the day off, and in Dalarna, most folks jump in traditional dress and walk to the town square for dancing and the raising of a maypole. Most unfortunately, it started raining during the start of the dancing, so merrymaking didn't last as long as normal. But, we still got to see the maypole-raising process, which would have made any engineer proud. The pole measured more than 50 feet long and took 10 people to carry to its stand. Then, over the next ten minutes, about 30 villagers lifted the pole foot by foot using tree-length support beams. Decorated with pine needle wreaths, the pole stands securely in the middle of village squares all over Sweden until next year's festival: an ancient and public act of gratitude for summer's warmth and long hours of sunlight.
Sweden reminds us a lot of Minnesota but with better health care.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Couple Slices of Sweden

After a week in Boston for a Fund for Theological Education conference, Laurel and I are in Sweden visiting some of her distant relatives alongside her Uncle Randy, from not-so-distant Los Angeles. I continue lacking profundity in reflecting on all we've done or seen in the past month, but in the mean time, I'd like to call your attention to two Swedish items.

The first, on the right, is a picture of last night's dinner: the tastiest potato pancake I've ever had, crowned with thick slices of bacon and soon to be dazzled by tart lingonberries. It doesn't get much better than this.

Second, while wandering through Stockholm we happened upon the 12 o'clock changing of the guard ceremony at the Royal Palace, and I must say there is something alluring about a country that puts this much effort into the event.

This isn't about relieving a soldier or two for a while. This is more like changing a company of soldiers, and they bring in a marching band, and they've got these great silver-and-gold spiked helmets. They look like they're having a great time with it. And they don't look like they have much else going on.

As if to confirm, the commander got on the mike and along with describing the ceremony in Swedish and English, he also recommended we check out the Royal Gift Shop. As far as I can tell, Sweden hasn't yet joined NATO. They're busy, okay?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Monkey Ate My Poncho

We just waved goodbye to my mom, dad, and sister after a 10-day visit to southern Spain and Portugal. Seven hundred years of Moorish (Islamic) rule in the region left a fascinating mark that remains startingly relevant today. I hope to share more soon as I process it all.

Our day trip to the rock of Gibraltar proved easier to digest. In the eighteenth century War of the Spanish Succession, Spain granted the infamous rocky northern gateway of the Mediterranean to Great Britain, only to quickly regret the decision. The UK has held on tenaciously since to the mile-long, 1400-foot high chunk of limestone from the top of which can be seen two oceans and two continents. It's definitely the best view around, and it comes with monkeys! About 200 Barbary Macaques live on the top of the rock, and tradition has it that as long as the primates remain, so will the British. That explains why the local government feeds them, besides their oh-so-cute-and-novel attractiveness to tourists.

Signs all around the viewpoint state very clearly that we're not supposed to feed the monkeys. No problem. We just wanted to take pictures with them. They're photogenic little buggers, seeming to enjoy the attention and posing with studied aloofness. I snapped some shots, then started listening to the audioguide from the highest point in the area while two monkeys dozed on the guard rails. The introductory video again warns of impending doom and a 500-euro fine if you feed the monkeys, and that they've been known to steal food from tourists' backpacks. Whatever, I thought. I'm smarter than a monkey. Besides, these two nearby couldn't have looked more bored and disinterested.

I realized I felt a bit cold for the first time in days, so I slipped off one strap of my backpack, slid it in front of me, and pulled out a windbreaker while listening to the audioguide's history section. Then I set the pack on the ground so I could pull the jacket over my head, but as I let go of the strap I see out of the corner of my eye a monkey three feet away and closing in fast. Realizing he'd been spotted he lunged for the open backpack in the half second I spent in shock. He yanked out my plastic poncho, apparently thinking there was food inside of it, while I wondered if I should try to start a pulling contest with a monkey. Fortunately, he moved a foot away to munch through the balled up layers of plastic, giving me a more comfortable space to slide the pack away...

...right into the next monkey, which had also been "sleeping" just moments before. This guy hit the jackpot, because beneath my poncho was an orange that he snagged with ease (and I swear a snicker, but I was feeling pretty paranoid at this point).

Smart enough now to know I needed to pick up my backpack before some other monkey parachuted in from goodness knows where, I look up to see dozens of wide-eyed tourists watching me -- but mostly filming me for their family videos. I quickly hid in a corner to nurse my monkey-bitten ego. Trust me, it doesn't feel good to be outwitted by an evolutionary antecedent. (And it brought back that painful memory of being beaten in chess by a 6-year old I was babysitting while at Stanford...)

The mastermind of the one-two monkey punch got little for his efforts but a mouthful of plastic, which he spit out and waited in consternation for his buddy to share some orange with him. But the co-conspirator selfishly wolfed down just about the whole thing and left quite a mess of peels behind. While I'm usually good about picking up trash, particularly my own, something in me refused to pick up the rest of the orange. Apparently, the monkeys are smart, so they should learn how a trash can works.

As we walked over to St. Michael's Cave, immortalized in Homer as the entrance to the Underworld, we soon watch in disbelief as monkeys jump onto unsuspecting tourists' backs to try to open their bags, while others climbed on cars and hung on to the side windows even after the cars started driving. That would have been helpful information about 15 minutes earlier. So take it from me: never turn your back on a sleeping monkey!