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!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Summer Kick-Off

This past Thursday was the first "it feels like summer!" day for me. It was not warm by any means, but it was beautiful and filled with friends. Here's a summary of how Summer, Day 1 went:

(Prelude) Wednesday: Get a text from a friend and fellow coach from the skating club asking if I'd like to meet for fika on Thursday. Of course, sounds great to me! The weather should be great and I'm always up for something nice like that, especially with her and even more so because with summer being upon us, I no longer see her weekly at the rink as a given, and that's a bummer. But, there's one catch -- I had, as far back as I knew of its existence, planned to go to a concert that night at Gröna Lund, their first concert of the summer, and one of my favorite artists of all time, Veronica Maggio. (At only 240kr [$30] for their full season pass to all their concerts, there was no way I'd miss it). So, while she had no interest in attending the concert, thankfully she was nice enough to agree to meet at a place across the street from the park so I could keep an eye on the line to get in (they close after they meet max capacity) and still meet up.

Thursday: Worked from home most of the morning / afternoon (hired a month ago for a work-from-home web management type job that I am loving, which I have failed to write about thus far, someday!). Wrapped up around 4:00pm and caught the subway to Slussen. There, I automatically went towards the area where all the buses go to Nacka...because that's the only thing I do at Slussen 99% of my trips through there lately. Realizing I had no reason to go that way, I started to turn around when I heard, "Jamie!" and saw another of the coaches from the rink, Emma, taking her headphones out to greet me. She was also on her way to the concert (getting there earlier to get tickets ahead of time), so we walked together to the Djurgårdsfärjan, along the way, meeting up with the friends she was meeting for the concert, as well as the other friend/coach who I was meeting, and then took the ferry over.

After a quick ride, we parted ways -- us going for fika and she and friends for their tickets. After a nice snack, some drinks and swapping stories of comical high school events back when we graduated (graduation season is so public here, it keeps coming up), I thought maybe we should check out how bad the queue was starting to look... and it was not promising. Fearing for my ability to enter (missed one entry by about 20 people last year, never again!), we parted ways and I got in line, which went way faster than expected, as I was one of the only people in line to have pre-purchased a season pass ahead of time. So I got in, found a decent place to stand, and hung out for a few until the friend I actually intended to meet at the concert, Anita, arrived. We had some laughs about how everyone there looked the same. (It seems really hard not to for them, but I think it's cute and miss it once away these days.)

The concert itself was a blast. Veronica Maggio was as good live as anything else I've heard. I tried to enjoy it firsthand as much as possible, but also had to snag some videos to remember the best parts by. I've strung them all together here:

It was so cool to see and hear her sing live. When we first found out we were moving to Sweden, a bit over two years ago now, she and Petra Marklund were the two first artists I found through Google, in an attempt to start becoming familiar with the sound of the language. While it sounded like nothing back then, I slowly started to pick out words and these days, it always catches me off guard to come across one of her songs I haven't heard in a long time, as I suddenly hear words and phrases, not just the noises I used to hear back when I first discovered it.

When the concert finished, it became a zoo of course. I only hope that if there was a fire in that place, they have a lot more doors to throw open than the one or two they had at the end of the concert. It's not looking good otherwise. Though, Anita pointed out that it does have one boarder on the water, so that's ever so slightly promising.

My first thought for getting home was not the ferry we came across from Slussen on. While that was the fastest during a low-crowd level, it definitely would not be now. But then there appeared to be no line, so I left Anita to check it out... only to bump into yet another coach, Ronja, from the rink (really, there are only six of us, so it doesn't make sense that we should bump into each other everywhere, except for the fact that we apparently have very similar interests). Ronja and the friend she was with said the ferry was not coming back for at least 20 more minutes and they were going to walk to T-Centralen, likely meet up with some others along the way, and suggested I join. So, I texted Anita to stall on her walk home and join us as well instead. We had a great walk through Djurgården, down Strandvägen and through downtown to the subway. Nicely enough, Ronja lives south of the city as well, so we all hopped on the same train together, chatted some more, though mostly just enjoyed a laugh at all the goofs around us, and parted ways at their stop, as I continued on to mine.

Such a fun night, unexpectedly full of friends -- a perfect start to the summer!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Weekend in The Netherlands

After hoping to for much of my life (since first reading Anne Frank's diary and Googling to see what I could learn about this city), this past weekend I was able to visit Amsterdam. It was a such a great weekend, and so wonderful to see a city that had always interested me for myself. For the most part, other than the basic layout and look of the city, I had very little knowledge of what it would be like, and hadn't really heard impressions from anyone either.

So here's what I found: Amsterdam is incredibly beautiful, full of historic and amazing buildings, but (at least its downtown area) is also full of people that would make living in the city intolerable for me. I just kept thinking as we walked around that this city was so gorgeous, with such an awesome feel to it, but flooded by tourists. I had previously disliked this aspect of Stockholm at times, but seeing how Amsterdam was during just a random weekend in March makes me realize that even at its peak touristy time in July, Stockholm can't even hold a candle to this level of annoying tourism. I suppose it's a combination of less people and -- how should I say it -- less odious hobbies. Nevertheless, walking around such a gorgeous city with so much going on was fascinating no matter which street we turned down or where we went. That was most definitely the best aspect -- there was always something new to find around each corner.

When we arrived on Friday, the weather was absolutely perfect. The sky had barely a few clouds, it was warm (for March), and after leaving the airport, I headed for the hotel -- but not before an awkward Uber cab ride.

When I got in the car, the driver asked me where I was from (which is always a strange question these days, because I have come from Sweden but am not what someone would expect from Sweden, and he could hear it in my English). So I explained and told him I was American. I asked him if he'd lived here all his life, and he answered that it'd only been five years. I could work with that though, so I asked if he had any personal favorite suggestions for things we should check out while here, but he wasn't from Amsterdam, only drove there and didn't know. To break the awkward silence, I asked him how learning Dutch has gone for him, and we laughed about both learning new languages in this part of the world and how annoying it can be. I was relieved to have the conversation back on a nice track. So then I asked where he was from and why he moved there... The answer? He was from Afghanistan and was able to claim asylum for his move. Being American, it was one of those, "Oh... great... I'm going to just hop out this window now..." moments. It wasn't the first time this has happened and won't be the last. I tried not to let it affect the way I spoke and told him Afghanistan has always looked like an incredibly beautiful place and that I'd really like to visit there someday (I debated specifying my wishes to see Kurdistan, but stayed away, in case he wasn't a fan, I didn't need to worsen the situation.) And his reply was not what I'd hoped for either, as he said, "Well, I wouldn't go anytime soon. It's terrible there, with so much war." I don't remember where the conversation went after that, but I thanked him for the ride as I left and gave him a high rating through the Uber app, hopefully helping to get more business in the future.

After dropping stuff off at our hotel, we headed out to get some lunch, happening upon a Spanish-run cafe where we had a delicious meal of a bagel with cream cheese, mozzarella sticks and a panini (all things we haven't previously seen much of in Stockholm and had to have, given the chance), we continued on our way to the sight I'd most wanted to see, Anne Frank's House. As we hadn't been able to pre-buy tickets to get in and hoped that a Friday afternoon would mean a slightly shorter line to get in, and while the line was quite long and wrapped around the block, it moved quickly enough and we were in after a 30-45 minute wait.

Left: the building as seen in Anne's time (source) // Right: my photo from this past weekend
The museum was very well done. While I was disappointed at first that photos were not allowed inside, I quickly understood why. It was quite a somber walk through. And while it was fascinating to see, each realization of "this is the room where she slept ... ate ... wrote" was followed by also realizing how it all ended. Of everything, I would have to say that two moments stand out the most -- first, climbing up the stairs that Anne and those hiding had done, which I'd read about so many times, past the bookshelf, up into the attic. They were so narrow, we nearly fell. Second was seeing a newspaper clipping at the end of the museum -- an ad placed by her father, Otto, once the war was over and he'd returned to Amsterdam, searching for his scattered family, with their names, where they'd gone, and his current phone number. It's hard to imagine just how painful this wait must have been, so much unknown. Next to the newspaper clipping was a letter Otto had received from a friend of Anne's sister, asking if he had heard back from Margot, and if so, to please get in touch.

After leaving the museum, I snapped this picture, of the view as seen from Anne's house at sunset:
Unfortunately, missing at this point is the tree Anne often mentioned enjoying to watch.

After that, we walked around town quite a bit. The canals were seemingly endless, occurring almost every other block or so, with both normal and house boats everywhere. One thing that stood out to me most was the way many cars were parked along it, barely allowing the driver to step out of the car without falling into the water, as there are often no railings on the side. (This idea of falling into a canal was in the back of my mind all weekend, and I'm relieved to say, I never even came close to tripping in.)

As we walked further and the sun began to set, we entered some new areas and saw some more unusual things (for us, at least). Last fall, I'd read about the issues with unsuspecting tourists dying after taking a different substance than what they'd expected, it was interesting to see the notices about it in person as well -- and they were hard to miss, as they were everywhere. White posters (as shown on right below) as well as electronic signs flashing warnings were all over the city. I was most impressed by the text in the back box on the white poster below though, which reads: "You will not be arrested for using drugs in Amsterdam. Call 112 for medical assistance and ambulance. While you wait, keep the victim awake by walking or pinching the shoulder muscle." I think this attitude would surprise most Americans, but it's so phenomenal to see their commitment to public safety, realizing that many people are sadly too afraid to call for help in a serious emergency, fearful of subsequent punishments as well.

And so our walking around and observing the sights continued. The street above (and at bottom left) was one of my favorites -- super narrow and many of the buildings looked almost like the they were tipping over onto each other. It reminded both of us of Diagon Alley quite a bit.

Another fun aspect of the weekend was checking out a lot of small, new restaurants as we went. Most places were pretty cheap and all were very delicious. Once we knew where we were headed, we'd find something on Yelp with high ratings and a low price. It was wonderful to eat for around €10 often, which is essentially impossible in Stockholm most of the time. Over the weekend, we had some really excellent Thai, awesome Chinese food, lunch at an Italian place (photo at top right), lunch at a brasserie, and last, enjoyed some hot chocolate outside at a café near the bus back to the airport.

On Saturday, we also visited the Van Gogh Museum (also no photos allowed) which was very nice. I've always loved his work and each time I get to see one up close, I find it so fascinating to be able to see each brush stroke he took so long ago.

We also visited the Flower Market, which wasn't quite as spectacular as I thought it would be -- but that was probably caused by a combination of it being cloudy and dreary, crowded, and that the things each booth were selling appeared to mostly be the same. I did grab a couple of small, cheap souvenirs and gifts at one of the shops though, so it wasn't a total loss.

A cat waiting on his coffee?
Street party we stumbled upon, which seemed to be related to an art show in an old parking garage next door
Our hotel room (here) was quite nice  //  The cleared tiles -- we walked, a lot!
And last, the scene departing Amsterdam. I love the view above the clouds, it really never gets old.

I hope to get back to The Netherlands someday soon, ideally to visit some of the Dutch friends I have from the US who have now moved back there. It was an incredibly beautiful city, and just walking around and seeing all the sights was wonderful. I was pleasantly surprised to see I could read much of what was written in Dutch, using my combined knowledge of Swedish and English, although it did feel a bit crazy at times to listen to things and have no idea what was being said -- I'm not used to that anymore!

PS: One last thing I wasn't expecting, Amsterdam is nowhere near as card-friendly as Sweden (which accepts and prefers cards absolutely everywhere)! Yikes, we had more than a few issues paying at times, and one place would not accept Visa or MasterCard, only Maestro. Who does that?! Odd. So, let this be a warning to others!

Friday, March 06, 2015

Life Lately // Week 10

So here's what I've been up to lately outside of the normal work / life routine...

In January, Stockholm hosted the 2015 European Figure Skating Championships and I was lucky enough to be able to attend a lot of it (pretty much anytime I wasn't otherwise busy). All of the competition was wonderful, but the Mens Freeskate and Closing Gala were certainly my favorites. Javier Fernandez of Spain continued to earn his title as "absolute favorite" in my book. His gala program was just phenomenal. It was awesome to see it all in person.

Then towards the middle of February, some friends and I went to an L.A. Galaxy (USA) versus Hammarby (Sweden) soccer game at the Tele2 arena (which is happily just a few minutes by subway from our place). It was at this event that I realized soccer is a very reasonable spectator sport when compared with baseball, basketball, etc. There are no absurd clock practices. The game is 90 minutes and that's that. Yes there are very, very minor additions to that, but really, it's 90 minutes and you're done. There was no time to get bored, I didn't even think of sneaking out as I've done at off-ice sporting events in the past, and I genuinely had a great time.

Perhaps the only downside (though really, it was mostly funny) was the trash talk going on from all the Swedes around us, hating pretty intensely on America for the moment. In particular, I heard (translated from Swedish), "Go home, f***ing Yankees!" and one old many constantly referred to a US player with a bleached yellow mohawk as "Donald Duck Mohawken" each time he yelled something at the guy. Mostly though, it was just funny. And in a situation like this, while I didn't really feel like standing out by wearing all red, white and blue clothing, I never worried about safety, as can be a concern elsewhere in Europe at soccer games. Even if one drunk diehard did seem like he was going to target our small group for supporting the US, it's a safe bet that the person's friends or those around us wouldn't have allowed it to get very far.

End of February: an alt-J concert with my husband that was equal parts musically awesome and visually beautiful. I went to see them just before we moved out of Boston last, and while much smaller and less technically advanced, that was a very great show also. It was pretty packed this time around, but the view was great and we even got seats in the balcony, instead of having to standing the crushed floor area below.

Joey loves laundry ... Luna loves competitive diving?
As always, there's been much hanging out with the cats.

Into the oven...
...and done!
And while we certainly do love our favorites around here, occasionally trying out some new recipes, and homemade pizza in this case. It was delicious, and given the cost (200kr / $25+) for a large pizza here, far more reasonable. For the first try, I went simple with sauce, shredded and fresh mozzarella. It was a pretty big hit, and quite easy, so last night at the grocery store, I grabbed some feta, spinach and olives to make it again, but an American/Greek edition.