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Yule and Home

SWEDEN | Friday, 26 December 2008 | Views [799]

Executive Summary    

After our Arctic trip (see previous post), we finished off our stay in Sweden with Xmas at Annika and Mattias’ place, seeing how the Swedes do it and catching up with the family.  After that we packed up our year and headed home to Brisbane.

Contents

Arn
Yule in Tibro
-Julafton (Xmas Eve)
-Juldagen (Xmas Day)
Packing and leaving Sweden (sniff)
The journey home
-Helsinki – Tokyo
-The Qantas club at Narita Airport
-Tokyo – Brisbane
Reintegration into Society
Wrap up
 
 

Arn

With only a couple of days between getting back from Kiruna and heading off to Jul (Yule/Xmas), I don’t remember doing much of note, except that I finally got to watch Arn.  Arn is one of the pop culture phenomena in Sweden of the past few years.  It is a series of historical novels set in Västergötaland (sort of between Skövde and Göteborg) at the time of the crusades, and features the adventures of the title character “Arn”, a boy raised in a monastery who gets involved in various political machinations of the time (which seems to involve rival kings/warlords bopping each other on the head and taking over), falls in love and becomes a Knight Templar in the crusades when he can’t have her.  It’s all very melodramatic, but a rollicking good read (I’m told, they’re in Swedish).  The author is a fairly well known journalist who everyone seems to think is a bit of a male chauvinist plonker in his columns, but who writes a bloody good book.

The books are being made into movies and are the Swedish local blockbusters.  The second movie “Arn:  Riket vid vägens slut” (“Arn:  The Kingdom at the Road’s End”) was in cinemas while we were there, but it was the DVD of the first movie “Arn:  Tempelriddaren” (“Arn:  The Knight Templar”) that I got to watch.  Now, being a Swedish phenomenon, it’s all in Swedish.  Even the DVD had a choice of a few languages not including English, which is partly why we hadn’t watched it till then.  But, armed with the Swedish dialogue and with the Swedish subtitles also on, I dove in to try and find what they’ve been keeping to themselves.  And I’m proud to report that I managed to follow it pretty well (mostly from the subtitles – helped by 9 months of Swedish subtitles at the bottom of every other TV show).

The story is set in real locations (ie most of the place names were real and the monastery’s ruins still exist) and with a few real characters.  The production values were excellent, as was the acting.  It was probably the Swedish equivalent of “Australia” – a local film industry that usually does a good trade in small, local pictures getting together to pull out all the stops for a big budget blockbuster (with a budget of US$30 million, the most expensive film in Scandinavian history).  I’m not able to say whether the actors were all as recognisable to the Swedes as the actors in Aussie films are to us, but Stellan Skärsgård (one of the three “Dads” in Mama Mia) made an appearance.  Anyway, it was nice to be able to experience some Swedish pop-culture.

Yule in Tibro

On 23 December Anders and Agnete picked us up for the 2hr drive down to Anneke’s place in Tibro for Jul.  On the first evening, we chilled out and took it easy making sweets out of marzipan.  Basically, you buy different colours and use it like playdough, making various Xmassy things like Santa hats and snowmen.  All good fun.

Then it was time for some dinner, some takeaway kebabs or pizza was suggested and everyone seemed in agreement on kebabs, so we happily went along.  When the kebabs arrived, it looked like they’d taken a large pizza base and wrapped it around half a lamb’s worth of spicy kebab meat to make a foot long hunk of eatin’.  I managed to polish it all off, partly because the other men had, and partly because when I got full I found myself in that unfortunate position where there was not enough left to bother putting in the fridge for later.  Unfortunately, this left my poor old tummy feeling a bit full and bloated for the whole next day, which curtailed my enjoyment of the Yule feast a bit (dammit).

Julafton (Xmas Eve)

Next day was Julafton.  Now, this is technically Xmas Eve and falls on 24 December, but that is when the Swedes have their big Xmas celebration.  I think it has something do with traditionally going to church the next day, so they have the big feast the night before.

Anyway, the result is pretty much the same – presents, big lunch, traditional things on TV (the same old Disney cartoons they play every year).  I think there was even a King’s Xmas Message, but I can’t remember.

In addition to Anders, Agnete, Emma, me, Annika and Mattias were Mattias’ parents and their dogs and his younger brother Magnus.

After the feast Anders went out to get a paper, which was very unfortunate for him because while he was out Santa arrived wearing his huge wolf-skin coat (don’t worry, the wolves were finished with them many years ago).  Santa gave out some presents and then left just before Anders got back. 

Santa is apparently a relatively recent (last couple of centuries) addition to the Swedish Yule folklore.  Before that the Julbock (“Xmas Goat”) would fly around butting presents into houses with his horns.  The Swedes still make Julbocks out of pine fronds for extra Xmas decorations on the doorsteps (to go with the Yule candles in the windows).  The recentness of Santa might be why he’s thought of as the head elf - his name (“Tomten”) just means “The Elf”.

In Sweden they have a real connection to their woodland spirits, which come in a couple of groups.  The Tomte are the elves, though more like the “Elves and the Shoemaker” elves than anything you’d find in Middle Earth - helpful little sprites.  The Trolls on the other hand are the mischievous/evil little woodland goblins that steal things you know you just put down there a second ago.  Once again, they’re not big ogres, but little goblins.  There’s also giants, but they’re not really around any more – the main story about giants explains why there are boulders in the middle of so many fields in Sweden (many fields have granite outcrops or boulders in them – the farmers just plough around them).  It turns out that the giants don’t like the sound of the church bells ringing, and so they throw boulders at the village churches to try to make them shut up.  Fortunately they seem to have very bad aim.

After a relaxing afternoon watching cartoons and drinking julöl (and my own concoction of julmust and vodka – to use up our remaining supplies) we had a supper of “tomtegröt” (“Elf porridge”) – a rice pudding that Santa and his reindeer eat when they visit.  Conversation turned to “Arn” vs “Lord of the Rings” books and movies and I was chuffed to be able to follow most of it and contribute a couple of things – since it was done in Swedish.  Incidentally, speaking of Arn I may as well make the enchanted phrase (see the Wrap Up section) “Arn elephant” – just to make it unique and unlikely to come up in general conversation.

Eventually everyone went up to bed and left Emma and Annika and me talking about random things including Swedish heavy metal – very popular, possibly something to do with the long dark winters and internalised emotions.  After midnight ticked us over to 25 December, the 3 of us Skyped Emma and my parents for a “Merry Xmas” phone call (and use up the rest of our credit).  It was great to be ahead of Australia for a change (since we’d cheated and celebrated a day early).

It was a nice Xmas, though it didn’t seem to really be Xmas without my family around.  Actually, thinking back it might be the first Xmas I have ever had without them.  And in response to the inevitable question, no, unfortunately we didn’t get a white Xmas.  It did snow for about 5 minutes during the afternoon, but not enough to cover the ground.  The temperature was about +2 during the day.

Juldagen (Xmas Day)

Next morning we awoke to a fairly thick layer of frost on the ground outside.  As this was actually Xmas Day (25 December) then I guess you could say we had a white Xmas.  Not really the lovely snow covered white Xmas, but still very pretty and possibly even more twinkly than snow.

After a breakfast of leftovers, we said our goodbyes to Annika and Mattias and Anders, Agnete, Emma and I drove back to Örebro over the low but often rugged hills that separate Götaland from Närke.  As we got into Örebro, we discovered that it had snowed moderately there and with snow covering the ground we declared our White Xmas wish somewhat fulfilled – though with the different days celebrated, it felt more like Boxing Day.

Packing and leaving Sweden (sniff)

What we call “Boxing Day” the Swedes call “Annandag Jul” (“the other day of Xmas”).  We took the English name to heart as this day marked our decent into packing madness as we tried to gather all the stuff we’d brought and all the stuff we’d collected during our trip into our suitcases for the trip home.  It had been obvious for a while that we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in under the weight limit, so (with Agnete’s help) we’d got a 20L postpack box to send some stuff ahead.  Once this was full we realised that we’d need a couple more, so we headed off to the post office in the local ICA (“EE-ka”) supermarket to post the first and get some more.  In the end we sent back 3 boxes. 

In calculating the relative costs, we made a poor assumption that is worth pointing out to anyone doing the same in future.  The weight limit on the packages was 20kg (for a cost of 500SEK = AUD$100).  But it became clear that, short of filling the boxes with water or bricks, the actual weight we could back in was never going to get that high.  I think we managed to cram about 14kg in the heaviest box.  But it was still the cheapest way of getting our extra stuff home since our remaining luggage was still a few kg over the limit.

One interesting thing happened while we were mailing things home (though I think this was before Xmas).  I was in the ICA mailing off some presents and had a rotten cold and was not up to trying my Swedish (which I’d managed the time before).  So I asked the lady if she spoke English, she asked me to wait and went and fetched a bloke that worked there.  He asked me how he could help me in the thickest Aussie country accent I’d heard in quite a while.  I must say it was a nice surprise and we chatted for a bit while he processed my package.  He was from Mildura and met a Swedish lass in Thailand and followed her home (they’d since broken up but he met someone else and settled down).  He said that there were a couple of other Aussie lads who lived just around the corner, prompting us to extrapolate to the number of Aussies that would be in the whole of Sweden if that density held (note, it probably wouldn’t).  Shame we were at the end of our trip, but then again we didn’t come to meet Aussies.

The day before our last night, Anna came to visit and say goodbye and we drove out to the lake for one last look at the wintery expanse.  This time there were skaters skating around in the bay near the shore, with adults further out checking the ice thickness and the kids closer in (learning and falling over a lot).  It was a nice way to finish our stay.

Next morning Anders and Agnete (very kindly) drove us to the airport.  It was a 2hr each way drive so we were very grateful – though Anders does seem to enjoy driving for long periods.  Leaving Örebro towards Stockholm, we got to see one final sunrise over the icy farmland.  For some reason the sun coming up over the lake reminded me to the Rage closing credits.  Anyway, we said our goodbyes in the parking lot and A&A left us to check in and wait for our flight.

The journey home

We checked in and noticed that we had a combined luggage weight of 48kg, which was significantly above the 40kg limit we deserved, but the checkin guy seemed not to notice or care.  As the luggage was going right through to Brisbane, the fear of excess baggage was finally lifted.  We were bombarding him with questions and trying to get our seats together which he was very helpful about, but couldn’t manage it on the Helsinki-Tokyo leg.  Actually, I worked out that with our carry-on and our clothes and boots (and possibly the packages we sent home, I can’t recall) we were together bringing about 100kg of stuff home with us (plus the extra 10kg of Xmas fat we’d accumulated).

While we waited we found a souvenir shop with another Sweden “3 yellow crowns on a blue shirt” shirt, which I was quite happy about, but has since started to flake off after only a couple of wears.

Our first flight was a short 1hr jump to Helsinki.  Nothing much to report – the view of Finland as we landed was nice, with all the lakes and stuff.  We had an hour to wait in Helsinki for the connection, so we hit a souvenir shop.  Emma found an interesting shirt with a Finnish cartoon hippo on it, but accidentally got the men’s size when she grabbed the packet, which was a disappointment when we got home [note, the hippo shirt has turned into a fantastic lounge around at home shirt for Emma, it’s soft and baggy and the hippo’s repose perfectly reflects the new goal of the shirt].  I finally found a cool Finland shirt with brown reindeer, but they didn’t bloody well have my size (I know, I busted open a packet to try one on – after the random sizing I’d encountered recently I wasn’t taking chances).  Oh well, the proud nation of Finland will have to go unrepresented on my torso.

Helsinki – Tokyo

The next flight was the 9hr overnight to Tokyo.  This was actually a pretty good flight.  Firstly, the guy that Emma sat next to kindly offered to switch seats with me (Emma’s strange innate ability to get other men to leave such a cutie alone and go away even works on airplanes it seems) so we had the 2 seats between the aisle and window to ourselves.  The entertainment was pretty good too, with video on demand and a pretty good selection.  The only annoyance was that every announcement was made in Finnish, Swedish and English, which interrupted movie viewing quite a few times and for long periods – then, after the movie finally resumed, the Japanese attendant would be fetched and 2 minutes later the movie would be interrupted again with the Japanese version (I’ve got no problem with the multilinguality, I just wish they didn’t feel obliged to stop my movie to tell me things I didn’t really care to know).  Even though we were landing in Tokyo at 9am, that was only about 3am Sweden time so there was not great urge to go to sleep (which was good because I suck at sleeping sitting up).  So we watched a few movies while flying through the Siberian night sky - no views this time due to darkness and the attendants closing all the blinds (I did sneak a gorgeous peek at the sun rising somewhere over Khabarovsk though). 

I watched Tropic Thunder (A-) but had a little trouble hearing it over the plane noise, so for my next film I watched a foreign film (so I could at least read the subtitles).  This was a B+ Swedish film called “Solström” I think – and gave me one last chance to enjoy the wonderful Swedish language.  Emma watched a Finnish film about Santa Claus for the same reason, and Wall-E.  After that I had time for about one more movie and had to choose between Indiana Jones, Dark Knight and Wall-E.  At Emma’s recommendation I watched Wall-E and it was great – good film and not much dialogue to have to try to hear (A).

The Qantas club at Narita Airport

We landed in Tokyo just as we were getting a bit sleepy – and were greeted with a fairly bright and sunny view of Japan from the air.  We had about 11 hours to wait until our flight to Brisbane, but luckily Emma had Qantas club membership (due to expire in 2 days) and our next flight was with Qantas (though codeshared on JAL), so we were able to get into the Qantas club in Narita airport.  After passing through customs, we thought we’d have a quick look to see where it was before looking around the airport.  Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for our desire to see any more of the airport or Japan, the Qantas club was about the first room we found and, after looking inside and feeling very tired (we’d been awake for about 20hrs by then), we decided we’d have a bit of a rest.  We found a nice quiet corner with a few comfy chairs to ourselves and made our nest.  We very rapidly decided that we could not be arsed leaving our nest and stayed in the club all day.  And why bother:  they had free internet (Emma had her laptop and we’d even kept the Japan extension on the multi-country power plug we’d bought to use our Swedish hard drive in Australia);  they had free food (Japanese nibblies and soup and deserts;  they had drinks (including free beer);  they had comfy chairs (I put 2 together for a couple of naps);  later on I even discovered they had free showers.  And we were tired and just wanted free pampering, so it was win-win all around.

Although I wasn’t planning on drinking any alcohol, I did make 2 exceptions.  Firstly, they had VB, which I figured I’d have to acclimatise and because it’s actually a nice beer (go figure).  Secondly, they had an Asahi beer pouring machine.  You put in your glass and press the button, and not only does it know how much beer to put in, it actually tilts the glass for the first part of the pour.  Gotta love the Japanese.

Emma spent most of the time playing with photos.  I spent it in a sort of 4hr cycle – I’d get tired and curl up on my 2-chair-bed for a nap, but I’d only go for about an hour before waking up (despite taking a sedative that I thought would put me down for 4hrs).  Then I’d be awake and active and look around, surf the net, eat some food, read a paper, before getting tired again after a couple of hours and repeating the cycle.  Despite being a bit of an ordeal, it was a pretty damn nice kind of ordeal – I shudder to think how the day might have passed in the general airport.

Tokyo – Brisbane

The final leg of the trip home was on a Qantas flight, though codeshared onto a JAL plane.  This was probably the least pleasant of all the long haul flights on the trip, but mostly because we were just so tired by then and it was another overnighter (about 9pm to 7am).  I’ve never been good at sleeping while sitting up, something that used to make the 15hr drive from Charters Towers to Brisbane every Xmas hols a real drain (and fuelling my general appreciation for air travel), and despite not having slept properly for about 30hours I still couldn’t manage it.  The entertainment was the looped video variety – great by 2004 standards but on the lower side of what we’d had more recently on Finnair.  We watched that Ricky Gervais movie “Dead Ringers” – not a bad flick, a B+ effort from all involved based on a C script (I guess Ricky Gervais still has to prove himself to Hollywood before he gets the A material).  After that my decision to watch Wall-E on the previous flight came back to bite me – Wall-E was the only other movie that I had any interest in watching (the rest were either repellent or Japanese).  Luckily it’s good enough to watch twice in 24hrs and killed another couple of laps around the dial.  After that I tried to sleep but pretty much failed and, being way too tired to read, ended up playing a few hours of solitaire before breakfast.  Actually, on reflection, I did watch “Vicki Christina Barcelona”, Woody Allen’s latest effort, but was way too tired to care.  Emma fared a little better – not because she’s any better at sleeping, on the contrary she’s so used to lying there awake in the early hours that she’s almost used to it.

We landed in Brisbane at about 7am, bought our limit of duty free booze (though we discovered when we unpacked our flat that we’d barely dented the last lot from a few years before) and (after a bit of stuffing around that in hindsight we might have shortened) joined the very end of the customs line.  Once we got to the front we discovered that cloves are not allowed into the country and had to give up our glögg spice mixes (I was frankly surprised that it was only the cloves that were the problem) – lucky for the country (but unluckily for our mulled wine needs) that I translated the Swedish ingredients for the customs guy, plus we voluntarily pointed out a clove in another bag of spices just labelled “spices” so that we could ditch it and get moving again (rather than wait for the supervisor to eventually come and have a look).  It was all very friendly though and as we’d declared everything there were no rules broken or anything like that.

So it was about 9am when we finally emerged to be greeted by our families.  Emma’s Mum was crying, though we’d been away from her only half the time we’d been away from everyone else.  After a quick catch up we faced the Brisbane summer heat outside the airport (it was so freaking green) and got in our separate cars to head to my parent’s place in Morayfield (so that Emma and her Mum could get some alone time).

Reintegration into Society

Actually, the heat never really took any reacclimatisation, which surprised me.  After a couple of months of temps around zero, we walked back into 30+ without any “gawd it’s hot”, it just felt like normal 30+ warmth.  The brightness of the sun took a little more getting used to, but the combination of sun and warmth was actually a relief and I can sort of see how Europeans would crave it (in Queensland we fear and avoid it).

The next couple of days were spent catching up on sleep and family.  I made the mistake of having a brief nap at about 2pm (based on my experience in Tokyo) that zonked me for the rest of the afternoon (I couldn’t shake the drowsy feeling despite only being out for 30min or so).  We went for a couple of walks in the little bit of bush near their place and were rewarded by seeing koalas, kangaroos and rainbow lorikeets, all less than 48hours after getting off the plane – it’s like even the native wildlife was welcoming us home.

For New Year’s Eve (the day after we got back) we stayed in (and went to bed at about 10pm) and on New Years Day we had a bit of a family gathering to catch up with the wider family (including seeing my nephew for the first time).

After that we loaded up all the cars at our disposal and took the stuff we’d stored at Mum and Dad’s back to our flat, where a lot of it stayed piled in the corner until Easter.  Then we started work again on the 7th of January.  I’d forgotten how mentally draining it is to be stuck at a desk for 7 hours a day.  Luckily we had a wedding to plan to keep us busy but that is, as they say, a different story.

Wrap up

OK, so that’s it.  It was a great trip, we’re very glad we did it and did it in a fair degree of comfort.  We’ve scratched the surface of a foreign country, though only barely and it’s brought home how hard it must be for outsiders to scratch deeper into ours.  The Swedes are, I think, a naturally private nation and quite happy to be on the relatively anonymous edge of the world.

Thanks once again to all the people that helped us out along the way:  Anders and Agnete; Anna, Annika, Magnus and Mattias; Maria, Lovisa and Kerstin; Kalle and Siri; Bob Brown (no, another one); Ylve and Rolf; Tonia; Duncan and Louise; Fiona; Michelle; and Anders and Agnete one last time.

Thanks to those who bore with these blogs after about Switzerland.  They did get a bit long, but since they’re our lasting record I didn’t want to extinguish a memory just so you could get back to work a bit quicker (and in fact I’m a little insulted that you’d ask such a thing).  For those of you that did manage to trawl this far looking for the gold that became rarer as the blogs went on I have planted a magic word in the blogs somewhere, if you find it then tell me and you’ll win the prize of a hug or a free drink (whichever is more preferable, or just my gratitude and the title of “one of my bestest friends in the whole world” if you’re standoffishly teetotal or hundreds of kilometres away).

Since we’ve been back, the knowledge I’ve gleaned about the land, language, people and culture of Sweden has, to even a greater degree than I expected, been of almost no practical use.  Apart from our dear friend Claire who knows what it’s like, my “why would you want to travel outside of a great country like Australia” father has actually shown the most interest in probing some of that knowledge.  Come on people, let me show off a little bit!

But we don’t only travel to show off (that’s just most of it).  I’d been thinking philosophically at various points about the joy of travel and discovery which I’ll clumsily try to leave off with.  There’s a whole lot that one doesn’t know much about: the “Other”.  Anything we’ve never experienced (countries, people, even pop songs) we only have a vague notion of, unaccompanied by mental pictures or sensations.  When we encounter it for the first time it is someone else’s.  Then a funny thing happens:  it suddenly becomes our own.  It becomes part of our experience, or our mind’s collection, of us.  It makes our sum total a little bit bigger and we grow slightly to accommodate it.  And since growth is, after all, the ultimate purpose of life maybe we feel a little more accomplished at that.

 

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