Monday, December 16, 2013

Long lost Swedish relatives

Where do I begin? There is so much I want to say. Get ready for a couple of really long posts. All of my life my mom has talked about the old country and how we still have relatives in Sweden with a farm that has been in the family since the mid-1800's. She has carried on Swedish Christmas traditions and taught us the tiny bit of Swedish that her mother taught her. Somehow it was always very magical, almost mythical, to me and I had vague, far-away dreams of someday going there and meeting them. When we decided to go to Scandinavia, I took out our family history book and looked for a way to contact them. I found my answer in the first pages of the email address for my distant cousin Bertil. I composed an email and fired it off into the abyss. I received a notification that this address was no longer valid. Disappointed, I dug deeper with Google and eventually found a match in Stockholm that looked like it could be him. I gathered my thoughts and picked up the phone. A foreign voice answered and after asking if he spoke English, I introduced myself and how I came to know of him. He was surprised and excited to hear from a long lost relative on the phone. We exchanged email addresses and made plans from there. He put me in touch with Beret who owns the family farm in Västbyn, but lives in nearby Östersund. Beret made big plans for us and arranged meetings with relatives over the course of a weekend. And this is how we found ourselves in northern Sweden.

Words cannot express my gratitude to my new found Swedish family. Upon learning that a strange relative was coming to visit from the US, they opened up their hearts and homes to my family and I. The amount of kindness and generosity that they shared with us was so overwhelming and touching. Bertil's sister (my second-cousin, once-removed), Anita, invited us to stay in her home and when we arrived Friday evening in Östersund, she borrowed her ex-husband's car to greet us with hugs at the train station and bring us to her home where we would spend the next four nights. In her cozy apartment we worked on dinner together as we began to get to know each other. We sat down around the kitchen table and shared the first of many meals together, moose tacos, Swedish style. Late in the evening, her daughter Maria took the time to walk over to meet us even though she had just finished a long work week. We were so happy she did.

The next morning, after Jason made egg pancakes, Beret, showed up at the door with grand plans for the day! We piled into her car and headed towards the family farm where my great-grandmother Märit was born and raised. Along the way she showed me the house where my great-grandfather Eric was born and grew up. She showed us the school he attended, the store where they shopped and the mill where they ground their flour. She showed us the Good Templar house that my great-great-grandfather Anders built and then the family farm in the village of Västbyn. I can't really describe what it feels like to return to where my family comes from other than that it was deeply meaningful and magical to drive up under gently falling snow to the family farm. It looks the same as it did in all the old photos I had seen. It was a lot to take in. At the farm, Beret's sister Bodil was waiting for us. She had lunch and warm glögg waiting for us. Beret showed us through the farmhouse where she and Bodil were born and raised. The farm had remained unchanged from the 1850s until her parents renovated in 1958, adding running water, indoor bathrooms, a modern kitchen and electricity. Beret remembers lugging buckets of water into the house and going out into the cold to use the outhouse. After wandering through the farm house that has been home to four generations of my family, we sat down at the table for more conversation, sipped glögg, ate lunch, ginger cookies and homemade saffron rolls. The light began to fade so we bundled up and headed out into the snow for the outdoor tour before sunset at 2:30. Beret showed us the summer home where the family spent summers and had their baking stove. She showed us a small cabin they had moved onto the land that she calls her museum, where she keeps antiques and treasures she has found from around the farm. We saw an old hand-scythe with the initials MAD which was either my great-grandmother's or her sister's. We saw old chairs that have been there since the farm was bought in the mid 1850's. While we were outside Bodil was busy in the kitchen, preparing a wonderful dinner. When we got back, delicious smells greeted us from the kitchen and Bodil handed us big wool socks knitted by her grandma to put on our cold feet. As we waited for dinner, Beret and Bodil pulled out old family documents. They showed us the original document for the purchase of the farm and documents that laid out how the new generation planned to take care of the old generation including how many pounds of potatoes, flour and provisions they would buy each year to make sure that their parents were comfortable. We looked at old photos. The boys made a fire and Aaron snuggled with the gnome, Tomté, who lives in barns to make sure that animals are treated correctly, otherwise causing mischief. Finally we sat down to the meal Bodil had prepared. We ate the most amazing moose stew from meat her husband had hunted topped with lingonberries she had picked and frozen, boiled potatoes from her own garden, Swedish meatballs and homemade organic beer that Beret's husband Torsten had brewed. The food was delicious and the conversation lively. When Beret asked if I knew any Swedish I repeated a Swedish nursery rhyme that my mom had taught all my siblings and I, and I had taught my own boys. Beret and Bodil's eyes lit up! This game is something my family in Sweden still plays with their babies. It was such a cool discovery to find that this nursery rhyme, split by half a world, a language barrier and three generations, was finally reunited here at the farm. The fire and evening wound down, and we headed back to Beret's house where we met her daughter, Kristina, and her husband, Torsten. She showed us a Swedish TV show where U.S. descendants of Swedish emigrants compete to be reunited with their families. It was remarkable how similar the stories were to ours and how important these stories are to the Swedish people. After a long day, Beret returned us to Anita's and we all collapsed into bed around midnight.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thanksgiving in Sweden

We spent our Thanksgiving riding a train from Copenhagen to Uppsala, a small city located just north of Stockholm. When we arrived, we had some confusion about how to get to our hostel and the restaurant where we had dinner reservations. After a bit of bumbling we were late for our reservations so we gave up and hopped into a taxi. We rolled into the fishy smelling restaurant, piled our luggage in a corner and took our seats. We ordered a fishy appetizer plate followed by delicious fishy entrees. We all left full, happy and fishy....Thanksgiving, Swedish style.

Oh...and we visited the biggest cathedral in Sweden while we were there....

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Saturday, December 7, 2013


We arrived in bustling Copenhagen exhausted and with each member of our family in various stages of sickness. We were ready to take a break from the fast pace of our trip and hang out a little while. We checked into our comfy, Indonesian-style hotel Sunday and Jason left on a plane for Brussels Monday morning to attend meetings. The boys and I took this opportunity to rest and recover a bit. After a lazy and delicious organic breakfast we spent the entire day playing games, drinking tea and relaxing. The next day I coaxed my coughing kids out of the hotel to explore the city streets and visit the Rosenburg Castle built by King Christian IV in the 1600's as a summer residence. We got there twenty minutes before closing time for the main castle (luckily the treasury was open for another two hours), bought our tickets and rushed up to the throne room. Boy oh boy, do kings know how to spend money! I still can't get over the opulence of the way royalty lived. We then wandered through the rooms of the treasury where we saw chests made out of amber, sailing ships of ivory, and gold, gold, gold. Jason arrived home late that evening and the next day we set out through the streets to find Nyhaven, a colorful, old waterfront that reminded us of Bergen. Along the way the boys were delighted to stumble upon game stores and the mothership Lego store.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Viking Graveyard

After our early morning arrival in Aalborg, we spent the the rest of the day exploring the quaint town. Wandering through its pretty little streets, we stumbled upon a Christmas market where we bought yummy treats to eat and saw the real Santa Claus walking through the streets. The following day was the day we had been waiting for....we would visit the much anticipated Viking graveyard, Lindholm Høje. Some Vikings didn't bury their dead, they placed stones in the shape of ship for a man and the shape of a circle for a woman. They then laid wood over the stones, placed the body on top surrounded by small possessions and then lit it all on fire. Afterwards they would place dirt over the top. Perched picturesquely atop a green hilltop, Lindholm Høje is home to nearly 700 graves from the Iron Age and Viking Age preserved by sand drifts that had covered them for hundreds of years. In the cold, dark morning air, we wandered through the hauntingly mysterious landscape between Viking graves with our imaginations and inner-Vikings awake and alive on the resting ground of the ancient dead.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ferry to Denmark

We left Bergen on a huge, overnight ferry to Denmark. The ferry was very cruise-ship-esque and we enjoyed watching the Norwegian islands pass by in the little bit of daylight we had left, warm in our comfy seats...a really, quite different experience than the sailboat. After the sunset, we watched as the normally staid Norwegians let loose as they set out on vacation and then enjoyed a Christmas buffet where Aaron helped himself to a big serving of lutefisk. Back in our cabin we tossed and turned through the night and then pulled our tired selves out of our bunks at the 6am wake-up call. By 7:15 we had piled onto a bus destined for Aalborg, Denmark surrounded by inebriated Norwegians who sang on and on while they passed a bottle of hard alcohol around. I have to say that it was really strange to watch people drinking so early in the morning, but the sunrise over the Danish countryside was quite lovely.

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Monday, December 2, 2013


Bergen is a beautiful seaside town with an impossibly picturesque and wobbly waterfront. It served as Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries thanks to wealth accumulated from oodles of dried cod flooding in from the north and its membership in the Hanseatic League that distributed the cod all over Europe. The colorful wharf, the Bryggen, survives from the 1700's only due to a strict enforcement of fire-free living quarters brought on by the city's experience with ten horrific fires in the past. Candles and fires were only allowed in a separate building behind the larger warehouses and living spaces. The men would warm themselves and cook in these assembly rooms before heading back to their lightless, frigid rooms. We spent our time in Bergen wandering through the creaky quarters of the medieval Bryggen. Built on the burnt remains of wooden buildings from the past, the walls lean at crazy angles and wooden planks moaned under our feet. We expected the walls to collapse at any moment. In the depths of the narrow alleyways, we stumbled upon a Viking store. We checked out its Viking weaponry, helmets and clothing. When we struck up a conversation with the owner, I couldn't help but to ask if he knew our Viking taxi driver. He did. Apparently Georg is famous in Norway and even has a Viking doll that was made in his likeness. We took a break to eat some lunch at a lovely cafe where a Portuguese barista brought back all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings for the Portuguese people. We spent an afternoon checking out a 13th century fortress left over from Bergen's days as capital. We checked out the Hanseatic Museum where we saw the well preserved and still frigid living quarters from the 1700's, including authentic 100 year old dried cod. We ate an amazing dinner within the back alleyways of the Bryggen where the cobbled floor sloped downward and the building positively reeked of magical medieval atmosphere. And cod. Here we ordered a wide array of Norwegian Christmas dishes including roasted reindeer (sorry Santa), smoked salmon, meatballs and lutefisk wrapped in lefsa. We were all surprised that we liked the lutefisk and ordered more. For dessert we ate krumkaka (a traditional Christmas cookie in Norway and beloved memory from my childhood) with cream and berries.

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