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Örebro 2

SWEDEN | Monday, 15 December 2008 | Views [1276]

Executive Summary

This blog covers the 4 weeks or so between our last trip to the UK and our trip up to the Arctic.  It covers the second half of November and the first half of December.  During this time Emma worked on her second mini-sabbatical, writing up papers from her work back in Australia but being based in Örebro University to meet other researchers in the same field.

This was our last big chunk of time just living in Sweden and absorbing as much Swedish culture as we could in the short time.  November saw the days grow shorter and colder and darker as the country moved into winter.  It also saw the first real snow in Örebro, though it is known in Sweden ad a dark, fairly miserable month.  December saw the beginning of the Yule season as the country brightened with snow and lights and Yule cheer, traditions and food.

On the weekends we travelled to Tibro to visit Emma’s cousin Anneke; to Stockholm to catch up with Nigel, a dancing friend from Brisbane;  and to Finnafallet, Anders’ cottage in the forest for a snowy winter wonderland.

Contents

Örebro - an overview
Weekend in Tibro with Anneke and Mattias (and Milton)
Snow in Örebro
Last Weekend in Stockholm with Nigel and Jonas
Dance in Örebro
Weekend at Finnafallet
Yule
Many Dinners with Swedes
 

Örebro - an overview

Ok, time for a recap on the Swedish city of Örebro.  Örebro is a city of about 100,000 people, making it roughly the size of Toowoomba.  I haven't been to Toowoomba since I was a child so I can't say for sure, but I also assume that the vibe of the place is probably roughly similar (as similar as any other town in Australia anyway) - a largish regional centre that's not too remote, is surrounded by smaller towns, and is inland (and a bit cold (-: ).  Örebro is the 6th largest city in Sweden - Sweden's population is not as concentrated as Australia (sounds odd since they fit half the population into an area the size of the Queensland east coast, but Australia's population is mostly concentrated in the capital cities, whereas Sweden has smaller cities and more biggish small towns).

Örebro is situated at the western end of Hjälmaren, Sweden's 4th largest lake, roughly in the middle of the central/north part of Sweden (from a population point of view) - almost halfway between Stockholm and Oslo.  The location is nicely in the middle of all the big lakes and would once have lain on the main land route around the lakes Mälaran and Hjälmaren from the fertile areas of Svealand (the land of the Svea - from Stockholm to Mora, centred around Uppsala) and Götaland (“YERT-a-land” - the land of the Geats/Goths) - original chunks of territory that eventually coalesced into Sweden.  From Örebro, you can travel southwest between the two biggest lakes, Vänern and Vättern to Västergötaland (the western land of the Geats - around Skövde down to Göteborg) or south-southeast to Östergotaland (the Eastern land of the Geats - the Köpings: Jönköping to Jinköping to Norrköping).  It occupies the first easy crossing point of the river Svartån ("The Black River") and its name is related to this crossing point.

Örebro is 59-and-a-bit degrees north.  This is further north than the continental USA (and all the main cities of Canada, Scotland, Denmark, Mongolia, China and Japan.  It’s roughly the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland, Hudson Bay, Anchorage and Magadan (on the Sea of Okhotsk – as well as Okhotsk itself).  It is also further north than all of the continents in the southern hemisphere extend to the south (except Antarctica of course).  This is a testament to the warming power of the Gulf Stream that Scandinavia is so relatively warm and habitable compared to other regions so far north.

"Örebro" literally means "Gravel banks bridge" or maybe "Fordbridge" if you want to be more poetic, though a common alternate story is that it means "Pennybridge" since the bridge across the river there was a toll bridge that cost 1 öre to cross (the öre is one hundredth of the Swedish krona, though today only the 50 öre coin is still used - 1 krona=20c).  The name is pronounced a bit like "ER-e-BROO", though if you can't roll your "r"s like we can't, then it is difficult to say in a way that is quickly understood by Swedes.

To protect the river crossing point, a castle was built on an island in the river just downstream of the crossing point in the 1200s.  This castle was greatly expanded in the 1500s when the local duke (and future king Karl IX) lived there.  After Örebro lost its strategic importance as Sweden became a more strongly centralised nation (rather than a more loose collection of regions) the castle was used as a prison and generally left to decay a bit.  A restoration in about 1900 brought it back to its current state - Lonely Planet describes it as "the most photogenic castle in Sweden", and we agree.  It has roofs, rather than battlements over the circular towers on each of its corners, but otherwise it looks perfect.  With its slightly stooped appearance it's a little bit like a gorilla (or Mt Tibrogargan which also looks like a gorilla) crouching on the island in the dark waters.

The castle and river make a great open space in the middle of town.  On each side of the old bridge stretch two cobblestoned streets – Storgatan (“Main Street”) to the north and Drottninggatan (“Queen Street”) to the south.  Both are very pretty, with quaint old buildings along them – except at the end of Storgatan, where a couple of horrid 1970s long office blocks stand guard like a gate in a city wall (appropriate since they house the Police and Tax Office).  Drottninggatan is the cuter of the two (only just) and is the main shopping street.   Along it is Stortorget (“Main Square”) with St Nicholai Church at one end.  Downstream (east) along the river lied Stadsparken, a nice park with a collection of old historical wooden buildings at one end called Wadköping (“VOD-SHER-ping”) that have been moved there from around the area to make a cute little open air museum.  

Örebro’s other main landmark is Svampen (“The mushroom”) – a water tower built in the 1960s, looking like a flying saucer on a Roman column and having a great view of town.  Another landmark is Olaus Petri Kyrkan, a church dedicated to Olaus Petri, an Örebro local and one of the main driving forces in bringing the Reformation to Sweden (the other being the King, Gustav Vasa, who installed Olaus’ brother as Archbishop when the Pope wouldn’t play ball and insisted the old Archbishop who had acted as chancellor for the Danish overlords be reinstalled – fool).

The area around the river mouth at the lake is mostly wetland.  It was reclaimed in the 1860s to give more industrial land, but over the past couple of decades has been slowly returned to a wetland and is an important stopover point for migratory birds.  This is fantastic for the birds and nature in general (and birdwatchers), but it means that any ideas you might have about beautiful lake frontage might be a bit misleading.  The lake is not visible from the town, it’s a bit of a hike out there, no buildings are on the lake front and the shores of the lake are very low lying, offering few views.  It’s nice and all, but Örebro is a town near a lake, not on a lake, and the lake plays very little roll in the town’s character.

One notable thing about Örebro in modern Sweden is that it’s the location of one of the biggest schools for the deaf in the countries.  As a result it has quite a sizable deaf community (especially teenagers and young adults), often noticeable having animated (though mercifully silent) discussions on the busses.  Given that deafness (as opposed to other disabilities) requires a different language, it makes sense that deaf people should congregate in one location where they can interact with others who share their language.

OK, enough background now.  I thought it important to give some, since Örebro has been a bit like our home base for a lot of the trip, so we feel a certain fondness towards it.  Also, being a small regional town it’s not exactly on the radar of travellers or guidebooks and there won’t be a lot of info on it on the web.

Weekend in Tibro with Anneke and Mattias (and Milton)

After getting back from the UK for the last time we had a couple of days to rest and wash our clothes before heading off for a weekend with Emma’s cousin Anneke (Anders’ other daughter).  Anneke is newly married to Mattias and they have just bought a house in Tibro (“TEE-broo”), where Mattias is from - near Skövde (“WHURV-de”), about 90min from Örebro.  They also have a gorgeous little poocchie called Milton, who is a pure breed (I forget the name), but looks a bit like a cross between a poodle and a dachshund.  He has little legs and a very jaunty running style and is sooo cute.

We arrived on a Friday night and caught up over a few drinks that turned into snaps and turned into a late night.  Next morning they drove a seedy couple of visitors (or a seedy visitor and his fiancée, I can’t vouch for how Emma was feeling) around the area, atking us to Karlsborg, a military town on lake Vättern (the thinner of the two biggest lakes in Sweden).  Unfortunately the museum was closed but we had a good walk around the 18th century base and a quick look at where the Göta canal meets the lake.  The Göta canal was built in the 1800s to link a few of the many lakes and rivers in Sweden to join Göteborg and Stockholm.  It’s not as wide as this sounds, but is apparently a very nice route to spend a few days traversing Sweden on a boat on (nice for the scenery, it’s obviously nice for the boat since there aren’t many alternatives).  Unfortunately we never managed to fit it into our schedule and so just having a quick glimpse was a bonus.

After Karlsborg, we travelled south to the town of Hjo (pronounced “Yoo” as in the cute sign as you enter the town “I love Hjo”) – a small lakeside town with even better views of Vättern.  I’m really glad we got to see one of these mothers since we’d travelled past and between them on trains without getting a glimpse, and they’re huge when you see them on a map.  And the view across was nice, with the other shore a long way away.  Hjo is apparently a very pretty town in summer, with its lakeside setting and lovely park.  It was still nice to see it in winter, but it was clearly not at its bestest.

After Hjo we headed into Skövde for a quick look at the main centre before having dinner.  That night we went bowling in Tibro and had a fun night.  I topped the points list (just) at the end of the night by using my secret strategy of “rolling that heavy ball really hard at the middle skittle at the other end”.  This strategy worked so often that I’m left unsure what the real skill is in bowling, but there probably is one or people wouldn’t bother straining their wrists doing it.  Emma fared rather less well with her “roll the ball down the gutter on the side” strategy, but got kudos for sticking with it like Bush in Iraq.  A good time was had by all (except my left wrist) and the beer was pretty cheap by Swedish standards.  When we got home we broke out Guitar Hero, which is a surprisingly fun game, and it felt good to have a guitar (albeit a pretend one) in my hands after so long.

Next day we mostly watched TV until it was time to go home.  One of the comedy shows, a pretend travel journalism show called “Lilla Landet Lagom” was making fun of Skövde that week, which was good fun - number two of the “Top 5 things to do in Skövde for teenagers” list was “Take the train to Borås” (ie another town).  It was fun just hanging out with Anneke and Mattias and we’ll be back there for Xmas.  Their new house, BTW, is rather large and impressive.  They mostly live on the ground floor (Milton can’t get down the stairs with his cote but stumpy little legs), but have a top floor with HEAPS of storage space in the sloping roof space and even a lower basement level.  This couple planning to buy a house and start a family was very jealous.

Snow in Örebro

The next week progressed in fairly standard fashion.  Emma worked at the Uni from before dawn (8am) until after sunset (5pm).  I walked in to the city library and continued blogging.  Even though I left home at 10am and got back around 2pm, I still felt like I was putting in a full day’s work - mostly because in a very real sense I had.  In
December in Örebro the sun rises at about 9am and sets at about 3pm.  After about 2pm, that sense of late afternoon/dusk starts to set in, the sun goes down at about 3pm and by 4pm it is a night indistinguishable from midnight.  It is as though the Brisbane sun rose to the height it is at about 8am and then skipped over the middle of the day to about 4pm and went down again.  In midwinter, the sun hardly gets above the height of nearby buildings.  Having spent most of our combined lives in the tropics, and most of the rest in the subtropics, we are unused to this huge difference in day lengths and low sun during the middle of the day.  In Brisbane, the sun sets at 7pm in midsummer and at 5pm in midwinter.  Therefore all throughout the year the sun is setting at about teatime, so it’s weird to have sunlight after dinner for a Queenslander, and it’s even weirder to have no sun at all before dinner.

As a result of this lack of sunlight, it gets cold (“duh” I hear you say).  The funny thing is, also, that the temperature variation goes right down too.  You might have a maximum of 2 and a minimum of -1.  I guess it’s the sun warming the Earth that makes the temps rise, rather than the lack of sun at night that makes them fall (OK, that was odd, but I know what I mean).  Also odd, is how the temperatures seem to hover so often between 1 and -1.  I’m not sure if this has something to do with phase change (one of the more interesting things I learned in high school Chemistry – if you heat ice, the temperature will rise until it starts to melt, at which point the temp will stay at 0 while the extra heat energy is used to change the ice to water, before rising again once the ice has melted – ditto at 100 for water to steam), but it was a pain for those of us after some extreme temps to write home about (and see the effect of).

My usual tactic of walking around sightseeing was curtailed a bit by the early sunsets.  One day I walked out to the lake, but at 2pm was forced to walk back before I was stranded out there by the dark.  It was also starting to get cold at that time of year and we were a bit nervous how out clothes would suffice.  Emma eventually caved (sensibly) and bought a nice warm Swedish coat, while I’m still hoping my over coat and lots of layers underneath will suffice.  It has to-date.  The Swedes have a saying “Det finns ingen dålig väder, bara dåliga kläder.” which translates directly as “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” – we have pretty much the exact same saying in English, but their version rhymes.  This makes me a little nervous since my clothes are as yet untested against sub -10 temperatures, but they should be fine - hålla tummarna (“hold your thumbs”: Swedes hold their thumbs in their fists, rather than crossing their fingers, when hoping for something, which makes more sense if you’re really wishing hard – try it and see).

On the Wednesday it snowed while I was on my way home from the library (I had stopped in at the museum for a quick look and emerged into a glorious snowfall).  This snow didn’t last long, however, being mostly melted by evening.

On the Saturday morning of the next weekend we awoke to find that it had snowed overnight, and this time it stuck around – for about 4 days.  Like a couple of kids we went out and had a walk in the snow, going up Svampen for a look at a winter wonderland.  We saw kids playing in the snow in the park at the bottom and walked into town with out cameras.  The next few days were glorious.  Snow really brightens a place up, turning a dark evening much less dark with a blanket of white on the ground. 

The snow does odd things to a view.  It’s a bit like meeting a friend who’s suddenly grown a beard overnight, the old view is suddenly covered by fluff.  Also, the snow hides some things – like kerbs, paths and road markings, while highlighting other things – like buildings and trees.  It also reverses the usual contrasts, so that now the ground is the lightest thing – a bit like having everything suddenly thrown into negative.  The snow piles up on any horizontal surface, no matter how narrow – even fences.  The already gorgeous little Swedish houses get an extra frosting, and (perhaps most pretty of all) even the trees get a new white canopy as the snow coats every twig and branch.  The effect is so beautiful you feel it in your stomach.

Fresh snow is just amazing – and all the (what I thought were) clichés are true – it is really white, snowflakes are really fluffy and swirl around drifting slowly to ground (this one is only sometimes though), and rolling snowballs on the ground (eg to make a snowman) does make them bigger with a “snowball effect” (if the temperature is vaguely right).  If it’s really cold (significantly different from 0 (-;) the snow has no liquid moisture to bind it and it’s quite powdery and difficult to make good snowballs and snowmen.  Usually, though, the temperature has been close to 0 and the snow is a bit more malleable (throwing snowballs at trees and walls is great fun). The kids really do go sledding down hills too – and I’ve noticed that many schools and daycare centres have small mounds in their yards (if they don’t have a hill) – I thought that odd in summer, but when snow falls their use becomes more obvious.

When the snow is fresh or untrodden, it’s quite easy to walk on (though good boots are advisable).  On more high-use footpaths, though, the snow gets compacted into a slushy ice which is quite slippery.  Many people break wrists every year from slipping over, though not us yet (hålla tummarna).  Generally within a day of the snowfall, the authorities have ploughed the roads and major paths and sprinkled some grit (in between a coarse sand and a fine gravel) on the footpaths that works really well to give you grip (not surprisingly, if it didn’t they probably wouldn’t bother).  Actually, the result of the grit is to make the snow look like chocolate chip icecream.  The cars all have winter tyres fitted each year, which have tiny spikes in the rubber for more grip.  I haven’t driven in snow (or at all in Sweden), but it doesn’t look like much fun, what with the slippery roads and the reduction in the visibility of road markings and such.

The snow doesn’t hang around permanently though.  That first snowfall left snow on the ground for about 4 days, but then it pretty much melted overnight, leaving the world much as it was before the snow (just a little soggier) – even the grass was still green.  It’s snowed a couple of times since though, and it’s always great – even the Swedes still feel cheered up by some lovely snow on the ground.

Apparently we were lucky with the snow this year, in previous years it hasn’t snowed so much in December.  People often talk about how much more it used to snow when they were kids.  Now, this could be memories seen through the lens of childhood, but it seemed to be fairly universal.  In Malmö they said it used to snow and now it hardly ever does, while in Örebro they say that slow used to cover the ground continuously for most of the winter months, while now the snow melts away every few days or weeks until the next snowfall.  While talking to Siri (Agnete’s mother) she said that she doesn’t think global warming is real but just a cycle of hot and cold weather that we’re in the hot phase of couldn’t think of any time in her lifetime that it’s been less snow (anthough apparently the 1940s were pretty cold).  Anyway, all this anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence of global warming, but it certainly doesn’t contradict the idea.

Last Weekend in Stockholm with Nigel and Jonas

The snow didn’t stick around for the next weekend, though, melting on the Thursday.  This was unfortunate, since we were going to Stockholm one last time.  Partly we wanted to see it in winter with Gamla Stan under a blanket of snow, but mostly it was to catch up with our friend Nigel.  Nigel is a fellow swing dancer from Brisbane who has been on the road for even longer than us – and to much more hard core places: Mongolia; Trans Siberian railway; Turkey, Syria, Iran; and finally Ghana where he volunteered as a schoolteacher for 6 months.  This would make us horribly jealous and not want to spend a weekend with him were it not for the fact that he’s also one of the nicest guys you could meet (OK, I was just kidding, we would meet him anyway, we’re not that shallow).  Nigel is now in Stockholm doing some study/sciency stuff at the Karolinska Institute for at least a year.

So we went in on the train on Friday evening (using our vouchers from the refund from our train delay to Malmö) and stayed at Nigel’s place (his flatmate was nice enough to offer his bed since he was out of town).  We caught up over a nice home cooked risotto: swapping travel stories; news from home (though Nige kept asking questions about what was going on now, which we didn’t really know since we’d been on the road a while too, just not as long);  and giving Nigel the inside outsiders tips on living in Sweden (he arrived in September but has mostly been working).

Next day we went in for a look around Gamla Stan.  I acted the tour guide pointing out the main sights and where to go in the summer and showed him the good viewpoints for when the weather was a bit nicer (it was cloudy and rainy most of the weekend).  That night we went out dancing again at “Chicago”, the dance venue Emma and I had been to a couple of times before.  We hadn’t enjoyed outselves overly the other times (the people tended to be a bit standoffish, the dancefloor was too crowded and they liked their music on the fast side) but this time we at least had someone else to dance with.  It turns out that Wednesday night is the big night at Chicago, when all the people (including the posers) go and overfill the dancefloor, whereas Saturday night is much more fun.  It was less crowded (just perfectly full), the people were much more friendly and the music was awesome.  They had a jazz quartet playing´, made up of musos from other bands, and (I don’t say this often but) those cats were swingin!  They obviously knew how to play for dancers, they varied the tempos nicely and they his the perfect swing groove for most of the night.  Nigel knew a few people from classes and we danced with a few people and we were just loving it.  Lessons are great, but you eventually reach a level where you have to stop thinking of moves and put it all together and just dance, which is what we’ve been doing all year.  I even had a fun man dance with Nigel (he’s a very gentle but clear lead).  I got to chat to a few people in Swedish (my Swedish has progressed far enough for small talk) and they even invited us out to the pub afterwards for a beer, which was fantastic.  All in all it was exactly what we’d been hoping for from the other visits, turns out we just got the day wrong.  We went to bed late and sore and very happy.

Next day we went back into Gamla Stan to meet up with Emma’s cousin Jonas.  We had arranged to meet at Hermitage (the veggie restaurant we like so much), but it turned out to be unaccountably closed that day.  So after Jonas arrived we went looking for somewhere else to eat, ending up at an Indian place with very misleading fliers (suggesting a lunch special that didn’t exist).  That piece of dodginess aside, we had a pretty good meal and I got to replenish my meat nutrient stocks.  Early on some spectacle was provided by the people in the next table who managed to get a paper napkin too close to the candle – the big lesson from which is not to try and put said napkin out by shaking it vigorously.  This merely gives it more oxygen and scatters bits of flaming paper over a wide area - placing a menu firmly over the flame is probably the better bet.  The poor toddler in their party was quite understandably upset (though unhurt) by this and had to be comforted outside.

After lunch, we wandered down Väastelånggatan (“West Long Street”), the main tourist street in Gamla Stan.  Usually we try and avoid it since it’s packed with people and a bit gaudy, preferring the other streets that are usually far less busy and much prettier.  This time though, we were souvenir hunting.  We needed presents to bring home and Tshirts for ourselves from Sweden (something we hadn’t bothered to get yet since the standard range is fairly lacklustre).  I managed to find a couple of shirts that were OK, but the stupid store owner screwed me by offering me a Large size when the Small didn’t quite fit (the other shirt required a small size), leaving me with a slightly baggy shirt rather than the nicely fitting Medium I was really after.  What is it with souvenir shirt sellers trying to stuff people into oversized shirts?  Are they used to catering to the obese American crowd?  Do they not understand that people might want to wear their shirts in normal circumstances?  Yargh!  [Update:  Actually, the shirt turned out to be about right.  Damn them.]

After we/Emma found all the souvenirs we/I could carry we had a quick look around the Xmas markets in Stortorget (“Main Square”) as the 3pm dusk settled.  We then wandered over to the big Xmas tree we’d seen on the harbour front during the day.  This tree looked like an oddly perfectly shaped natural tree (the branches looked real), but we read a plaque explaining that this tree was actually made of branches from other trees (a sort of “Frankenbaum” if you will – and if you excuse the German for tree which seemed appropriate to the pun).  This tree has apparently won the Sweden’s prettiest tree award for a few years running until it was excluded from entering (and rightly so, or all sorts of Frankenstein-Moreau efforts might start up in the Miss Sweden comp).  It wasn’t lit yet but we found out that it was due to light up at 4:30 (long after sunset), so we went for a walk around the harbour to Skeppsholmen to kill some time, but the cold wind off the harbour hindered our resolve slightly - it was only (ie not too extreme) +4 degrees but it felt a lot colder with the moist air.  When the allotted hour arrived, we watched the tree light up, and about 3 dim red lights appeared on the tree.  Jonas commented “That was modest” in wonderfully understated Swedish fashion, but luckily a minute later the main lights came on and the harbour front of Gamla Stan had its cone of lights.  This was Sunday 30 December and was the first day of Advent – the traditional Yule season for Sweden, leading to Xmas and ending on January 13.

After that we headed for the subway station at Kungsträdgård (“Kings Garden” - the main Federation Square style gathering point in Stockholm), only to find one entrance blocked and police tape around one of the statues.  Jonas realised the significance of the date and explained that 30 December is the date of the death of Karl XII, shot in mysterious circumstances while besieging a town in Norway.  Karl XII was Sweden’s last great warrior king, though his efforts succeeded mostly in losing Sweden its empire due to his inability to make peace treaties while he was ahead (he was described in one book as “a brilliant general but a useless diplomat”).  Karl XII’s death is (for some odd reason) celebrated by Swedish nationalists and neo-Nazis with demonstrations and by non-neo-Nazis with counter demonstrations (this year was quiet in Stockholm but they had some street battles in Lund).

Anyway, we got on our train with no further fuss, said “Hej då” to Jonas when he got off, got our stuff from Nigel’s and hopped on the train back to Örebro.  It was great to see both Nigel and Jonas and say goodbye to Stockholm with a fun weekend that wasn’t too dampened by the weather.

Dance in Örebro

Our time in Örebro during the weekends either side of the Stockholm trip also provided the chance to dance in Örebro.  Ingrid (from Lund) had given us the contact details of the dance studio in Örebro, Midtown Lindyhop – a newish school starting a newish scene.  On the first Saturday they were having their end of year party and we went along.  They had a live band playing who delivered nice short, danceable tunes, even though they’d never played to dancers before (it’s always fun to see the reactions of such bands, they usually have lots of fun themselves seeing people interpreting their music so clearly).

And the people were super nice too.  In this scene, Emma and I were quite good dancers (the scene is only 3 years old) and I think we impressed and (hopefully) gave the newbies new ideas or at least some inspiration.  I got to dance with lots of the girls and also got the opportunity to use my Swedish for whole conversations.  That’s one of the tricks to practicing a language in a country where most people speak English: start a conversation in the language you want to continue it in, if you start in Swedish and speak it for a while, then when you have to switch to English for a hard bit you can go back to Swedish, if you start in English it’s hard to switch.  Like I said earlier, my Swedish has progressed to the small talk stage, and usually the conversations are variants on the same themes as people ask where we’re from and where we’ve been.  We ended the night quite elated.

The next night was after the Stockholm weekend and we had a fun night then too, but we were tired by then and it’s fairly common to follow one or two great nights with a quieter night of lowered enthusiasm as you come down off the high of the other nights.  So we just enjoyed having a few dances and had a quite one, and went home not too late since we had to be ready to head back to Finnafallet in the morning.

Weekend at Finnafallet

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Finnafallet is the summer cottage owned by Anders and Agnete.  They go up there for weekends all the time and we’d gone with them a couple of times before, including a night around midsommar, but we hadn’t had a chance to get back there since with all our travel and living in other cities.  This weekend, though we got our chance to head back up there for one last look and to see it in winter.

Finnafallet is about an hour from Örebro and Rockhammar and is a small 2 up 2 down cottage on a mountain top in the forest.  It was more in the forest when we visited in summer, but since then the area around had been logged.  This was a bit of a shame, but the area wasn’t as big as we’d thought (just a hectare each on a couple of sides), and had left them with a nice view of the surrounding hills, rather than the closup trees that they’d had previously.

The cottage is nice and rustic with no electricity and no running water.  As a result you rely on candlelight and the fire and enjoy the peace and quiet even more.  Time, and the job you work at during the week, don’t really exist in Finnafallet and you live in the private little world like a farmer of old (I’d say peasant, but it’s a bit more comfy than that and Sweden didn’t really have bonded serfs back in the day, but rather free farmers).  It’s very relaxing.

It was also snowing, so we got to make a snögubben (“snowman”) and ride on a sled.  We also made a snölykta (“snow lantern”) consisting of snowballs arranged in a hollow pile with a candle in the middle – it gives a gorgeous light effect.  We also got to see the snow’s natural luminosity when we had a walk outside at night.  Despite it being a cloudy night (kind of necessary for it to be snowing) with only a half moon or so hidden behind the overcast skies, and of course having no other ambient light up a hilltop in the forest, we see well enough to walk comfortably around.  The snow almost looks like it glows with its own inner light, but I guess it’s just very effectively reflecting the small amount of light from the sky, plus the snow makes the contrasts clearer.  It’s a bit like having a full moon on a clear night out in the country, away from the city lights – an effect that is supposedly quite amazing on snow, but we didn’t get to see that yet.

It seems wrong to treat this weekend in purely chronological terms.  Aside from the above activities, we took a walk to the lake to see it iced over (no swimming this time).  The ice wasn’t strong enough to walk on, but it seemed a bit slushy on top with harder ice underneath.  In the evening we sat in the kitchen with Anders and the wood burning stove, eating pyttipanna (a fryup, like a fresh bubble and squeak) and drinking julmust (Xmas softdrink, a bit like sarsaparilla) and julöl (Xmas beer – a dark beer that is quite sweet, a bit like alcoholic julmust) and some snaps (though in moderation).  That night we slept in the bedroom in front of a crackling fire.

Yule

All that month of December was the lead up to Christmas.  Not being particularly religious (and a bit lazy), I tend to call it “Xmas” to highlight that it’s become a non-religious festival over the years.  In fact, it started out as a non-Christian midwinter festival anyway.  The Swedes call it “Jul”, pronounced just like the equivalent in English “Yule”.  Since this word has the connotations of the midwinter celebrations, I’ve decided to try using that word for Christmas and see how it goes.

Anyhoo, Yule in Sweden is a lovely time of year.  The lead up to the day is Advent, beginning on the 4th Sunday before the 25th.  It is the first day of Advent (this year on 30 November) when the Yule lights are lit and decorations start getting put up.  The Swedes do a really nice line of Yule lights.  Usually they simply put candles in the window – most often this consists of 7 electric candles arranged in a chevron pattern (like a Jewish menorah but sloping down on both sides).  Some houses also put up a paper star with a light in it.  Since the great majority of households do this, it makes the cities take on a cheery look, with little lights in all the windows.  Some very few houses do some twinkly lights and Santa-type arrangements, but they are not the norm and many thing it a bit garish.  We sent some links of Brisbane lights from ourbrisbane.com to Agnete and she thought them way too over the top.  The lights also make more sense in Sweden since darkness is the rule here at this time of year.  It’s as though the community is banding together to resist the growing winter darkness – which I think was the point of the old pagan Yule celebration in the first place, and you can understand why when you experience it.  November is the month of shortening days and growing cold (almost everyone agrees November is the worst month in Sweden), while in December it all burst forth again with Yule lights and often some snow on the ground.

Another related tradition is the Advent candles.  This is 4 long candles arranged in a row.  On the first Sunday of Advent (and during that first week) you light the first candle (eg at dinner or whenever you feel like it, if you left it burning it’d be gone in a few hours).  During the second week you light the first two candles.  On the third week you light the first 3 candles and so on to the fourth week.  This makes the candles have a nice ascending pattern as you lead up to the big day.

The day we got back from Finnafallet we went to Åh Helga Natt (Oh Holy Night) – a public carols concert in the main square a bit like Carols in the Domain etc in Oz.  This was a fun night, especially to hear the Swedish carols, though we did get pretty cold standing around in the snow.  The highlight was an opera singer from the UK, and the Swedish comedienne who was making jokes to him at one point (in English, yay).  Less great was the other main singer, normally a famous backing singer, who was enjoying the limelight a bit much and Mariah Careying the songs to death (if the Little Drummer Boy played his drum for the King that far off the beat I’m not sure it would have ended so well).  One extra, unexpected thing we heard was the sound of hundreds of people applauding with gloves on.  It’s a much deeper, more resonant sound than naked hand applause.  It’s fully to be expected, but it was something that we found interesting nonetheless (it’s sometimes the small differences that are the most noticeable).

Swedes also have Advent calendars for the kiddies, the same as they do/used to do in Australia.  Örebro goes one step further with this and turns the windows of the Rådhus (City hall) into a giant Advent calendar.  The windows are all numbered and each day (at the odd time of 17:02) another one is opened, revealing a different painting by a local artist.  It’s quite cute, even if the quality is a bit variable (some are good, some are “Huh?”).

The other big Yule tradition (apart from Yule itself, which hasn’t happened yet at time of writing) is Lucia (“loo-SEE-a”).  This tradition is part beauty pageant and part carol singing.  On 13 December, each school or city or whatever chooses the prettiest girl to be Lucia (usually a blonde, but increasingly multiculturally selected).  This girl dresses in a white robe with a red sash and wears a crown of 7 candles on her head (6 in a circle and 1 in the middle).  She is attended by one or more girls in the same outfit (minus the crown) holding candles and one or more boys dressed in black pants and white shirt carrying a star.  They all then sing lovely Swedish Lucia songs.  All this takes place in the early morning (apparently when school kids do it they get to go and wake their teachers up – kids usually use electric candles).  The original Lucia was an Italian saint who, having rejected the proposal of a powerful man, was set on fire.  Her prayers saved her from harm – though not for long since he then stabbed her to death.  An odd sort of thing for Swedes to celebrate (though I guess it explains the crown of candles and red belt), but I guess it was one of those pagan ceremonies that managed to survive Christianity by blending with a Christian story (and vice versa).  It seems to be peculiarly Swedish too since I don’t know if even the other Scandinavian countries celebrate this tradition.  We saw the Lucia at the Uni where Emma was working – appropriate since Emma works at the Uni in Brisbane in the suburb of Saint Lucia.  The choir was beautiful and the songs were lovely too (and wonderfully unfamiliar to us – of the 7 songs they sang we only knew one).  This was enjoyed with some Glögg (mulled wine) and Luciabullar (saffron buns).  All this happened in the pre-dawn of 7:30, indoors, but with snow outside the windows of the cafeteria it was held in.  On the way back to town I got to see more lovely houses covered in snow in the early morning light.

Many Dinners with Swedes

The people we’ve met in Örebro have been some of the friendliest of the trip.  What with Emma working at the Uni and her family being around here, we’ve been invited to a few different people’s places for dinner.

The weeks of December saw us first having lovely dinners with Ylva and her husband Bertil.  Ylva works at the Uni and was one of the people in Emma’s department.  She is a lovely women with one of the kindest faces you could imagine.  Later that week we were invited to dinner with the Department after their end of year planning meeting.  Our meal was paid for from the departmental budget, but they explained that overseas guests meant that the allowance for the meal increased (though that’s not why they invited us (-:).  At that dinner I got to talk to Rolf, Emma’s main contact at the Uni, who we had dinner with the next week.  Rolf is an enthusiastic talker and very friendly man.  At all these dinners we were able to talk about Swedish politics and get more of an idea of what interests Swedes in general.

Later that last week we also had dinner with Kalle and Siri, Agnete’s parents.  They don’t speak English, so it was a fantastic opportunity to be forced to use our Swedish.  Anna (Emma’s cousin and their granddaughter) and Magnus were there as well to help with any necessary translation.  That was a wonderful night too.  Siri (in particular) was very considerate with her Swedish, speaking slowly and clearly for us, but without sounding too childish – perfect.

During the last weekend of this time we also visited Micke, another of Emma’s cousins via a different uncle.  Micke (the Swedish short form of Mikael) lives just north of Örebro with his wife Anna-Karin and their 5 year old son Viktor.  Micke is an unusually talkative Swede, he says that he’s a bit of an oddity, and we had a great afternoon talking as Micke and I talked over our respective (less verbal) spouses (-:  We also enjoyed a wonderful lunch.  Viktor is very cute.  Like many kids he was shy to start with - he even hid under his hood (Kenny style) when we spoke to him – but after a few hours he was talking and wanting us to play with his cars.  The fact that we were mostly talking English was a little frustrating for him though I think.

That morning we’d been out to Wadköping to see it and the park covered in snow and to have fika with Anna-Lisa, a PhD student from Emma’s department.  And that night we had dinner with Anna and Magnus again (we wouldn’t be seeing them at Yule) and their dog, Curtis.  I’m not sure I’d recommend getting a schnauzer – they seem to be a lot of hard work.  Emma whipped up a lazy 3 course Indian meal and we caught up with them for perhaps the last time on this trip.

It’s been great meeting more Swedes.  During the time we were travelling so much, we were beginning to feel like we were always out of the country and never really connecting with Sweden.  These last few months have allowed us to settle and meet people and actually learn a bit about the country we’ve called our second home for 9 months.  The fact that it’s moved into Yule has also helped since at this time of year the traditions really come out (in any country).  Our Swedish got better and better – still not fluent, but always improving.  This was helped by the realisation that the teletext that many Swedes use to get news and so on could be used to get subtitles (in Swedish for the hearing impaired) to help us watch more Swedish TV, since we can read Swedish better than we can hear it.

 

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