Monday, February 01, 2016

Crazy Start to 2016

It's been a while. But, that's life. So, here I am again, documenting what I've been up to so that I can remember later, or at least so that my family can have written proof I exist while I've been unable to keep in touch as well as I should while being busier than ever.

January started off dead, with few things to do other than work, and few friends to see, as many were away on vacation. We stayed home this year, celebrating the holidays ourselves. I won't lie, this is not one of the highlights of expat life -- it's quite frustrating to have to choose between a nice, quiet Christmas at home or traveling thousands of miles to have the traditional Christmas with the full extended family. Both are nice, but the sting of missing the big family parties is made a lot worse by the day-after Facebook feed full of pictures of kids another year older, family traditions, and other things that are taken for granted by many.

I made a point to arrange gatherings with friends during this time, recognizing that I'd probably want to feel as with "family" as is possible around those days. We are surrounded by a small group of great friends here, and I'm exceptionally thankful for that. And over the last half year or so, I've found that I quite like hosting events, which is now possible given that we have a much bigger apartment with a nice, big dining room table. So during the holidays, we held a few really nice dinners. And then throughout January, the same.

After the holidays were over, things resumed at full speed. From the start, I knew January would be a crazy to just get through and get everything done, and I think I managed all right. It was one of those "When it rains, it pours" times. On days when I had a huge from-home workload, I also had agreed to dinner with friends. On days when I had extra late skating practice, I also had no choice but to be up and out early the next day. It was one thing after another, but really, I wouldn't have changed it. I had a lot of fun, met some new people, caught up with friends, traveled a bit, and learned a lot.

In the middle of the month, I went with our older team out to a competition in Gothenburg, just as I did last year. It was a blast, yet again, made especially fun because this particular competition is a large, international one with teams from countries all over the world, so I got a chance to cheer for Team USA in addition to our own and sit near Americans as we spent longggg days in the stands, which felt quite nostalgic. I didn't go all-out, but wasn't going to hide the team spirit either:

(The back of my jacket has the name of our skating club in nice, huge letters, so I considered this fairly supporting both sides.)

A funny moment from the competition: given that there were so many international teams around the rink, I thought, "This is great, I can speak English and no one will think I'm a lazy expat, just that I'm a visiting foreigner." And so, I walked up to the counter to order my lunch, only to find that the person taking my order didn't speak English (which is exceptionally rare in Sweden). It seems the universe really wants to force that one on me. At the least, I think the woman was surprised that the American trying to order in English was able to switch to Swedish. So, I'll take what I can get.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about this weekend spent at the rink was that, after just about three years here now, being in a competition rink is becoming like it was in the US again. Walking around for a few minutes results in bumping into a handful of friends and/or hearing, "Hey Jamie!" from somewhere, which is something I missed without even realizing it.

As I always have, I took lots of videos at the competition, which are all online here, for those interested. My favorite programs were Skyliner's Junior Free and Nova's Junior Short. As I'll be coaching a team that competes next year, these videos and what we were able to see that weekend felt all the more important, as preparing a team for that level of competition within the next year feels quite daunting at times.


So January was a bit crazy, and February looks to be about the same. I have my normal schedule for the next 11 days, which I've attempted to keep free to too many extra activities, and then am off with Anita to Kiruna (and Lofoten and wherever else we drive) for 5 days. After that, I'm home for about a week and then off to Gothenburg again for a weekend skating competition.

In March, I have a weeklong trip to Boston, and then the week after, another weekend away at a skating competition, but this time in Copenhagen, and for ice dance, rather than synchro (which, though I have an undying love of synchro, I am exceptionally excited for).

So far, April holds a very fun five days in Budapest for the synchro world championships with some of my best friends from all over (USA, Estonia, and of course Sweden), and then a fun week after that with the American friend, who will be coming back to Stockholm with me. A few days after that, we have a synchro seminar, which, quite thankfully after all this craziness, will be here in Stockholm.

After unintentionally taking last year off from most travel, this year is so far shaping up to be the exact opposite, and though it's a bit of a balancing act at times, I'm loving it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Things to Remember

A few pictures of things lately:

Finding Luna sleeping on the welcome mat in the middle of the night
And catching her looking guilty just after she knocked over my thank you card
Skaters before their pig-themed practice
Asked to create a practice word problem and didn't realize until confusion ensued that, given that I don't drive here, I still think in imperial units for driving-related measurements.
And this gorgeous sunset view from our balcony.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Recap, Volume II

Okay, so let's see where I left off...

Soon after the last stuff mentioned in my previous post, we wrapped up the skating season for the year. This was both very good and a little sad. Sad to say "bye" to everyone for the summer, but good in that we had a few great events the last couple weeks – most importantly, a handful of my skaters took their first Swedish national test, Fri Grund (for U.S. skaters, they took the equivalent of Pre-Preliminary Free Skate, mixed with some MIF elements as well – here is a video of a skater taking it from another club in Sweden). I think that I was more nervous for their testing than for myself, back when I took my own. They were all so excited, and could all do the moves required, but then, who knows if something will cause them to have an off performance when it counts... When they each asked me if they'd pass, I repeated the same thing, "I know you can pass because I have seen you do these elements a thousand times, and so I've seen your best attempts. The judges will only see you this time, so I can't make any promises, I can only tell you to try show them your best."

For this first test, everyone passed! This one was an extra big deal because it's the test that allows them to no longer skate with helmets on (Swedes keep the helmets a lot longer than Americans, and as a coach watching them constantly fall, I am 100% good with this). One of the skaters I've coached the most over the last year yanked hers off the second she skated away, excited to come tell me the obvious results and my heart just melted. Seeing them work hard for months for this and having it pay off is better than I can even say.

The next week, we had a small club competition in which a bunch of my skaters had cute little solo programs we tossed together for them a few weeks prior (their first-ever solo programs) and then they competed in groups, one skater from each different test level through the club – four groups total, I think. They had a blast and it was fun to see them each choose their own music and make a program that was each their own.

My skaters, watching one of the older groups compete

And one more skating-related (kind of) picture that I love from earlier in the summer: a grad party at one of the home of another of the coaches. The weirdo on the left in this photo was both celebrating her birthday this day and preparing to leave us for the foreseeable future, so we made it as fun as possible, while still being quite sad to see her go. It was a fun afternoon and a wacky evening that I won't soon forget.

I'm not sure what song was playing at this point, but I'm sure this pose fit whatever was being sung...

Up next: The end of the school year. Another end with some more fun. For our fun last day, the girls and I walked over Stockholm's amusement park, Gröna Lund, and I happily obliged them by trying out each and every ride they requested – as long as they didn't make me do the falling one (think Tower of Terror – I just hate that feeling way too much). We had a blast and I laughed the whole day when the girls complained they were "melting," as it was 24C (75F) out.

Soon after that: Midsommar. As usual, this was a night full of games, food, drinking, music, sun and of course, some rain. With my husband away on business in Taiwan at the time, I took the bus up to a town named Rimbo to join with one of my favorite friends (who I don't see nearly enough), Brenda, and her sambo for a really fun Midsommar day/evening/morning.

Above are photos from the line to get on the bus towards Rimbo and then the first plate of the bunch of delicious meals we had. Below, the view around 1:00am, as it got a bit colder, so we cozied up to the fire and continued on.

At one point, Brenda disappeared. In between conversations, I sent her a text, wondering where she was, and got a quick reply that she was taking a power nap and I was free to join. I declined, as I was sure I'd fall asleep for the night if I did, and she re-joined us 30 minutes later, fully refreshed until we all finally called it around 5-6am and collapsed onto wherever we were sleeping. (For me, this was a small mattress I dragged into the cottage's entryway, along with some blankets and a pillow. Being so exhausted, I slept ridiculously well.) We all stumbled out of bed later around 11am, I think, and started to clean up the house, the yard, and whatever else we could find. Then, we had breakfast on the dock, cleaned up a bit more, and everyone headed off home. The bus and subway rides home were hilariously quiet, full of very hungover, mostly unshowered people, looking forward to their own beds.

Soon after Midsommar, my husband returned to Stockholm from Taiwan for about 40 hours, we washed all his clothes, restocked anything needed, and then he was off to Hawaii for another work trip. I hadn't really been looking forward to all his traveling this summer, as it meant a lot of evenings with only the cats to talk to (unless I made plans with friends each night), but then was invited to return to the summer house of the family I nanny for, which was super.

Instead of flying, this year I took the train and given my new job, utilized the wifi and 4 hours of travel time to work the whole way across Sweden. I was a bit concerned going into the trip about finding enough time to work while I was there, but that ended up being no problem at all, as I spent most mornings and late evenings in their guest cabin, tethered to my iPhone, getting all I needed done.

Found on my bed, upon arrival :)
After arriving, we stopped by the grocery store and I picked up this year's new foods for the family to try. Last year, we had s'mores and American pancakes. This year, I went with creamsicle floats (no root beer to be easily found here, so that was the second best choice) and Kraft macaroni and cheese (original, of course). After much skepticism and disbelief from the kids that they could be good, the creamsicles were a huge hit.

The first taste!
The weather was quite good the whole time I was there, getting increasingly warm as well. We played games, the kids had some activities, but mostly, we hung out, enjoyed nature and relaxed. Well, I relaxed... Swedes are unable to not partake in home improvement projects while "vacationing" so there was also wallpapering and power-washing going nearby most of the time, too.

Games and more games
As is usually the case when either sleeping somewhere new or just generally being someplace where I don't want to oversleep, I was up very early most mornings and after doing as much work as I had, I tried to force myself back to sleep or watch something on my laptop. Before leaving home, I'd copied the fifth season of Gilmore Girls onto the computer, so I watched that.

Morning view – photo from my phone that I took to send to a fellow fan for a laugh
And then we had a big dinner. One of my favorite aspect of a trip like this is partaking in traditional things. I think that most Americans wouldn't think much of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, burgers on the 4th or deviled eggs on Easter, but these small things, the way they're prepared, and the family style that comes with them is a really great thing to be able to experience anew here.

Their cooking is always good, but this meal was especially so, and I discovered my love of Swedish shrimp with caviar inside. It took a moment to get the hang of how to eat them (similar to learning to break apart a lobster, which most New Englanders probably learn before age 10), but after that was tackled, I had plenty.

A side note: I extra appreciate these kinds of things because more than once now, they've taught me (or I've observed) small things that later on, save me from embarrassing situations with locals I am a bit less comfortable and familiar with. Checking off the "How to eat shrimp like a Swede" item on my list was a relief.

Nearly finished!

After four days with them, it was time to head home. I both wished it wasn't so short, and wanted to get back to make sure all was well with the cats. It was, again, a really lovely trip and it's nice to have some time to catch up with the parents, know them a bit better, and have conversations that aren't rushed as we say our farewells most evenings as they arrive home and I head out. They're such a great family, I am very thankful that things happened to fall into place as they did.

The next few days after I arrived home were beautiful and I spent most mornings reading and working on the balcony with the cats. My husband arrived home from Hawaii and then took vacation time until his next trip (Athens) a couple weeks later. Rather than going anywhere for a vacation of our own, mostly just enjoyed time home together and around the city, seeing as how he had two major international trips in the last month and another slightly smaller one yet to come.

View from a bench as we ate gyros in Medborgarplatsen one evening
And last on my list of Things to Mention About the Summer for this post, this fun evening:

As a birthday gift for the girl on the far left, Anita, we all pitched in and rented not a party bus, but a little party boat, to drive us around the Stockholm archipelago while we partied the night away. It was a blast. The group that went was so very fun. Mostly Austrians, some Germans, and a handful of others from a bunch of different places. As I left the house to meet everyone downtown for our pickup from Strandbryggan that evening, I realized I'd neglected to eat dinner ahead of time. Not my best choice, given the amount of drinking that'd been predicted. But, when we arrived and boarded the boat, a big bag of sandwich wraps (chicken or salmon) along with candy, cups, drinks and more came out of nowhere from the woman who coordinated it all. So to start, we all chose our preferred wrap flavor and had a quick dinner – I really can't thank her enough for having planned it all so well.

We had a such a fun time. The music, a mix of bad 90s, traditional Austrian songs, and bad Swedish pop was a never-ending source of laughter. I took a handful of not-so-great-quality videos and strung them together here, for my memories and your comedic pleasure. We rode all through the archipelago, saw all kinds of beautiful sights, had perfect weather, made a couple of restroom stops, and then headed back to hang out for a bit longer at Strandbryggan, as the sun started to set around 11:00pm.

Okay, now we're caught up to August – until next time!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Recap, Volume I

So it's been a while, to say the least! Really though, this blog has transitioned from a daily (or even weekly) thing to a monthly or so place for me to write down all the things I both want to remember and share with the friends and family I don't get to see nearly as much as I'd like. So, I went back through my calendar today and made a list of the fun and important things that have happened in the last few months, to write now before the summer is over, the crazy fall season begins, and I completely forget.

The cats, loving the summer sun on the catproof balcony
Starting from the furthest back major event -- my mom came for a visit! This was a blast and I'm so happy we scheduled it just right so that she could attend our year end skating show (I know how much she must miss sitting around in freezing rinks these days), meet a bunch of the people who are important in my life these days, and explore both Stockholm and a bit outside the city. The last time she came was about a month after we'd moved to Sweden and jeez, I still had no idea which way was up. This time, I was able to take her to my favorite places, introduce her to people, and translate as needed. So very much more enjoyable!

A portion of our skating school kids, waiting to head out for the show! (My skaters are the ones dressed like hyenas.)

Melina and I – an awesome coach and friend who, as this picture shows, always keeps us laughing

Quite soon after that, Anita and I were off to Tallinn for a weekend. Over the winter, I'd found tickets on the boat roundtrip for the two of us for 800kr (less than $100) on Groupon and grabbed them for us. I then set a Kayak app alert on my phone to monitor for cheap flights because really, one way on the boat is enough for me. So, when one that was within range appeared, we bought those too. This had us departing Stockholm on a Friday evening, arriving in Tallinn at 10am Saturday morning, and then (instead of leaving back on the boat that night), departing Tallinn's airport on Sunday evening. That extra day and night was well worth it. We managed to cram in a bunch -- a night out, video games, and lunch with Eva's parents, which is always something I really enjoy.

Don't fail to notice the American treat picked up in Stockholm for the Doritos-loving Estonians!
Walking around Old Town at night
An interesting little section of Tallinn's airport... a library?
And then I spotted the explanation -- how awesome!

And then we boarded my smallest commercial flight thus far. As we walked to the plane, and realized what we were getting into, we started to laugh. Behind us was a still-drunk bachelor party group of Swedes that could barely handle it. I sat in the second to last row at the back of the plane, and this was my view:

No one on board could stop from laughing. I think everyone was nearly in tears by the time the pilot squeezed down the aisle and asked the Swedes to please keep it down, explaining that the ruckus behavior could be bothersome to those around them. Upon hearing that, one of the boys behind us leaned over the seat and asked if we were bothered (being 2 of the 5 people on the plane not involved in their celebrations), to which we replied no way, and to have fun. So they did. It was the usual quick, 45 minute flight -- a little bumpier than normal in the small plane, but made up for it by how silly the whole thing was. I don't think the pilot spoke Swedish (or at least the guys from the bachelor party assumed he didn't) and so there were a lot of very funny jokes echoing throughout the cabin the whole time.

Thankfully, I managed to get a picture of our tiny toy plane as we disembarked in Stockholm. Everyone had one last laugh when the checked luggage cart came around to get the 10 suitcases under the plane and those whose bags were about to be taken off for the luggage carousel inside simply asked, "Can't we just take them ourselves now?" and so they did.

The lovely Kungsträdgården cherry blossoms and crafts with the kids

Soon after this trip, life got a bit crazy for a while. Just before that trip, I was hired by a British/South African small business looking for someone to manage everything to do with their online presence, essentially. From website updates, graphic design work to managing their social media outreach, I slowly started to take over from my predecessors. It was quite stressful at times, getting back into the swing of things and as I was doing so all remotely, trying to figure things out for myself rather than bothering my boss with too many questions along the way. It's been 5 months now, the dust has settled, and I am still surprised I managed to land such a great position working for some really awesome people. Most thankful of all (as my similarly-aged expat friends can attest), the pay is in US Dollars and so, even if the Swedish Krona fluctuates (as it has, big time, in the last year), my income is stable in terms of the student loan bills I pay to the US each month (as fun as that is).

This reminds me of another non-travel real life event that happened around that time: my husband and I had to renew our permits to live and work in Sweden for another two years, which we did, and were granted permission to stay. It wasn't expected to go poorly or be rejected, but with somethings so important as getting thrown out of the country, it was a small worry in the back of my mind until complete.

On the day we had to go in to leave our fingerprints and pictures for our renewed IDs, I booked the appointment well ahead of when I had to pickup the youngest of the kids I nanny for (I had no idea how long it could take and pictured an American DMV-style situation). Of course, we arrived a couple minutes early, were seen immediately, and were out of there before our actual booking time even began. So then I had way too much time before getting to work and not quite enough time to go home first. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day out, and so I went and sat at the Karlaplan fountain for an hour or so. While there, I listened to music and having spent enough time that day already on the subway catching up on social media and whatnot on my phone, I was generally bored. A while after being there, some white shirts caught my eye and I looked up to see two, young Mormon missionaries walking around, trying to get someone to talk to them. Knowing they had a 95% chance of being American, I debated waving them over and chatting with them simply for a way to pass time time for a bit... but then I realized I could be getting into a lot more than I wanted if they weren't willing to chat without trying to preach, so I did the Swedish thing and remained completely antisocial.

Okay, I think that's enough for one post – to be continued in the next!