Boot camp

I usually walk home from work in the dark, somewhere at around 6 pm. One night last week, at the crest of the hill into the valley clearing that’s midway home, I could hear people shouting. As I drew close, the shouts turned to laughter and military style grunting.

I was not unnerved. I could see about a dozen, maybe two dozen people, all in many layers of lycra and fleece, bundled up against the cold. Their mostly black forms stood out even in the dark against the snowy field.


Look just under the tree to the left for the line of people…

As I approached and then passed the group, I watched as they formed two lines and got down on all fours. They bent down to form arches with their bodies, a living tunnel, that one person from the end of the line then had to crawl through. And then the another, and another. I could hear squeals and some laughter, probably when the crawler hit something sensitive, and now and again I could see someone pop up to jump around and warm up.

They had been basically rolling around in the snow in exercise clothing on an evening that was below freezing. That’s crazy.

But hey, they were outside, getting exercise in the middle of winter. I’m sure I’ve written about this before: in Sweden you have to go outside no matter what, in the dark, in the sun, you have to get exercise, in the snow, in the rain.

But this bootcamp thing — it puzzles me. This evening happened to be a week or so after the new year, so I imagined some of those people had made resolutions to be as fit as they possibly could be.

But military fit?

We live in a fairly sedentary society; many of us sit in front of our computers at desks all day long, or on the Metro or on the bus and peer into our phones. We don’t need to work that hard too survive, physically. Most of us are not laborers, or farmers trying to feed ourselves, or hunters looking for our winter meals.

But what if we need to be in shape like that someday? What if, in light of the political state of the world right now, we need to be able to walk kilometers every day, lift heavy objects, fight back somehow? That sounds like Margaret Atwood, like speculative fiction. Some of the most successful movies right now, say The Hunger Games, seem to unfold in a dystopian world as a seemingly regular person transforms into a self-sufficient fighting machine.

Whoa, what a fantasy! Apocalypse! Boot camp class from the local gym, just in case there’s World War Z! Are those folks totally freaked out about the current state of the planet? Or trying to get six-pack abs to post photos on a dating site? Or heeding some other primitive call, to be an active animal?

I am going to go for something more in the middle. It’s good to get outside in the winter in Sweden, no matter what you do!

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I woke up this morning thinking about how I have not been in the mood to write much here on this blog. I started it to record impressions of moving to a new place, to share with family and friends far away. Everything was new and everything was fodder for a post — ah, yes, look at how the natives do things here!

We’ve lived in Stockholm now for about six years (since August 2010), short a few hiatuses in between (Australia, Colorado). We are far from experts on Sweden and living in this society, but we have enough knowledge to be comfortable and look with a critical eye at certain givens.

We’ve experienced the changes in the housing market (our apartment earns more money than we do), seen the arrival of Roma folks from Romania once it joined the EU and how the later waves of immigration overshadowed them, learned how to handle the health and tax bureaucracies (as best we can, and with a lot of assistance), and more. We are not as comfortable in these systems, nor as secure in our observations as we might be at home, something that was made clear to me when I lived in Colorado for a little while, at home and yet not quite.

We also now look to home as outsiders, as foreigners in our own lands. People have been asking me ever since November 9, “How could Americans have voted for Trump?” And I have to answer honestly, “I don’t know.” I might have said the same thing from my bubble in the US if I’d still been living there, but now I’m in my own bubble outside the country peering in.

It’s an odd experience, to see my home as the subject of news stories in Swedish — the obsession here with the election was high. Now, instead of the front page, US political news is relegated to the middle of the paper. And that’s fine with me. I am happy to escape from the headlines from home as much as I can at the moment — because really, I can’t. I keep reading from afar.

I hope to recapture that feeling of being a stranger in a strange land again soon, an observer of foreign practices, inspired again by funny happenings and strange events. I hope not to be on hiatus from this blog as I have been.

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A few weeks ago I was on the main campus of Stockholm University to pick up some stuff, and I needed a bathroom. I wandered the long corridors that link one of the buildings up there, poking my head around corners and down hallways. Finally, in a large sitting area next to the 7-Eleven in the last building, I saw a sign for a toilet: WC, behind a mesh metal half wall.

I followed a young man, obviously a student, behind the partition and through a doorway into a short hallway. But he turned around without going in one of the doors there, and so I assumed the bathrooms were occupied. Maybe there were only three on that side, little tiny closet bathrooms like the ones at the airport. So I followed him across the sitting room to another door with a sign saying WC above it.

Once through that door, one faces a bank of regular toilet stalls, with two walls of sinks on opposite sides of the room — which I quickly surmised were left in place when the bathroom was renovated to take any and all genders. The young man turned right and took the last stall on the right, and I went to the last one on the far left. Weirdly (thankfully?), he was talking on the phone the whole time, so I figured he wasn’t listening to me urinate, which made the whole thing much easier.

How funny! The last time I was in an open-stall gender neutral bathroom was possibly over 20 years ago when I was in college, and my dorm had a men’s, women’s and anybody’s bathroom on every floor, with open toilet *and* shower stalls. One could look at the naked feet next to you showering and wonder whose they were, let alone if they were a man’s or a woman’s. That was good ol’ progressive Minnesota in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, I have gotten used to the privacy of having my own WC, my own little water closet, whether at the airport, the gym, at work, wherever I go in Sweden, with closed walls and very little interaction with another human. Possibly a waste of resources. But also: Super humane.

And perhaps the solution to the parts of my country, the US, that are freaking out about transgendered people using probably any bathroom at all. Which brings me to the topic I don’t want to discuss, which is the upcoming electing on Tuesday (already under way really and with results to be finalized on Tuesday night in the US). I’m trying not to think about it all. But the outcome will mean a lot for bathroom etiquette in the future, and a whole lot of other important topics.


Hallway to the bathrooms at the Mall of Scandinavia, Stockholm, January 2016.


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Fall cleanup

Matt and I have been traveling a lot the past two months, we’ve had visitors off and on, and I started a new job at the beginning of October. Things have been happening. But we’ve been relatively calm and stationary this past week or so, which of course meant I got the fall cleanup bug. (Winter is coming, it’s time to clean up and get cozy!)

We sorted out our electronica stash, which included power strips from Switzerland (we left six years ago), old “dumb” mobile phones, strange connector cables and more. We put away our summer clothes and pulled out winter ones, weeding out a few we no longer wanted. Then off we went to Myrorna (Salvation Army) to drop it all off.

img_20161023_152255The sorting happened last weekend, and the dropping off on Saturday. Today, Sunday, I headed back to Myrorna in search of a side table. Matt’s been putting his beer glasses on the floor next to his chair, and I am prone to tipping them over. So a small table seemed like just the thing. Yet nothing in the cavernous cellar at the Ropsten Myrorna quite fit. The one side table that was closest to desirable had two drawers and a great aspect ratio — and cracked wood on the face of the drawers and water stains from glasses on its tabletop, all for 400 SEK (more than 50 bucks!).

So, that last visit to the secondhand store was slightly depressing. People have a lot of castoffs here. There are flea markets every summer, and junk stores everywhere (and few garage sales, considering there are also very few garages in town). Beautiful old wooden cupboards and antiques end up in these places, but a lot of it is not in good shape. (Same for the clothes, shoes, kitchenware, you name it.) Sometimes we wonder if the market here for used goods might be a bit inflated (at least if Myrorna is a measure of selling poor quality used goods for too much money in some cases!).

As I spilled out onto the rain-glistening street after Myrorna closed at 4 pm, I pondered where else I might go to find an appropriately small, ship-shape table at an affordable price. I’d already checked Åhléns, the local department store chain, and been disappointed in the selection. Granit (cheap, made in India) had no tables in the store I visited near Östermalm. But on the bus ride over to Ropsten (I had been too lazy to walk over in the rain, and time had been tight), I had caught a glimpse of what looked like a farmers’ market stand at the Norra Djürgården, tucked in among the new apartment buildings. But the signs on the side of the small hut had said “Pop-Up Återbruk,” which I finally figured out meant “reuse” or “recycling.”

img_20161023_162215I walked down the side of the Hjörthagen mountain and made my way to the two small container huts, where people were busy packing up. They too had closed at 4 pm. Still, I stopped to watch as they were packing up these cleverly designed shipping containers, with foldable awnings and shelving built in to the walls. I also noticed a few of the people were wearing vests emblazoned with Stockholm Vatten, the city’s water treatment utility. That was confusing. I grabbed a guy named Peter Nygren (I may be getting his name wrong) to ask what was happening.

Vatten, which is the city water company, is about to change its name from simply Vatten to Vatten och Avfall, or Water and Garbage, Peter told me. And to cut down on garbage, the company is experimenting with these reuse sites: People can drop off anything, and take anything for free. Freecycling!

Vatten had sponsored an architectural design competition, and then paired the winner with a local builder to create these clever portable stores. They’ll be popping up in neighborhoods around the city, Peter continued, and whatever doesn’t get taken, Vatten will deliver to Myrorna or Stadsmissionen to see if they can find a buyer for these freecycled goods. After a few weekend experiments, the company will crunch the numbers to see if the pop-up reuse centers were successful.


Emptied shelves at the end of the day. (My quilt hanger is hiding in the back.)

So far, the answer may be a cautious yes: Peter told me they watched items deposited on the shelves that they thought for sure no one would want, and yet someone would walk up and take them a few minutes later. And I myself walked off with a pretty wooden quilt hanger, which was in much better shape than the raggedy side table at Myrorna. And did I mention it was free?

I’m betting there are some interesting economic principles at play here — the feeling of giving must trigger some self-righteousness, perhaps as a kind of payment so that one might value getting something for free even more. Plus it allows us humans to gather things we might not normally have purchased with money.

Hmmm. I feel like I should alert the local business schools to this experiment. I also want to alert the architectural blogs and magazines: the designs for the shipping containers are so clever — snugly fitted and elegant, despite the industrial feel of the metal framework. So very cool!

I will have to keep my eyes open for future Pop-Up installations nearby. And in the meantime, Matt and I rearranged the livingroom so that he has a side table we already happen to own standing closer to his chair. Phew!

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As I’ve been reporting in some of my previous posts this year, Sweden is having a stunningly beautiful warm summer. Temperatures in the 20s Celsius, mid-70s Farenheit. I think even one day we hit 80°F (about 27°C).

I’ve dug out tank tops and shorts I haven’t worn since living in hot and humid DC — and paired them with a sweater. But hey, for at least a few minutes now and then, I’ve felt a glimmer of summer: that sweaty, hot feeling of being out in the sun and having not much to do. Blissful.

I grew up in California’s Central Valley, and for me, the definition of summer is hot. So hot that you melt when you walk outside, that your bare thighs stick to the plastic seats in your car and that you sleep naked with the windows open and a fan on and you plan your activities for early morning and late evening.

That is not summer in Sweden, not even this summer. Not by a long shot.


Evidence: box for a Tristar 10,500-BTU room air conditioner.

And yet, what did I see when I took out the recycling on Monday earlier this week? Evidence that one of my neighbors bought a portable air conditioner, one that you can take from room to room.


My first thought was: “You have got to be kidding me.” Who needs an air conditioner here in Stockholm? That’s ridiculous! The temperatures are nowhere near real heat. The warm weather is amazing. What did I call it earlier in this post? BLISSFUL. Swedes should be outside reveling in this.

But Swedes think this weather is truly hot. Anything approaching 25°C is alarming, to a native Swede, and 30° or 40°C is death. A friend from California visiting in mid-July with her Swedish husband met us for supper at an outdoor café wearing two jackets (yes, two!), and her partner mocked her gently for being cold. He was wearing a light short-sleeved shirt and shorts. She looked at me as if I were crazy, sitting there in a t-shirt and a short skirt in 20°C/70°F. And she’s from San Francisco, which isn’t exactly warm, but it made me realize that I’m on the verge of acclimating to this summer climate.

My second thought on seeing that box in the recycling a few days ago (as temperatures dropped) was about the waste and knock-on impacts of air conditioners in Sweden. The materials required to make these machines that people will run for only a few days a year are more expensive than just moving into the shade or heading down to the cool water’s edge, which Swedes love. It’s not worth tricking out all the cool stone buildings with thick walls that are the norm here; no one has A/C except for the big stores, and it’s not necessary for 363 days of the year, usually.

Now think about the impacts of the electricity needed to run one unit: depending on how efficient the machine is and how long it’s running, it is probably only a tiny dent in the entire Swedish grid (which, admittedly, is pretty efficient and runs half on hydropower and nuclear power, two “clean” forms of energy, though this can be argued because of dam impacts and the dangers of nuclear meltdowns and whatnot). But what if poorly heat-adapted Swedes freak out and buy millions of these machines? Materials, plus energy to run them… plus climate change. This place is going to have warmer days more often in the near future. Its built infrastructure is for cool and cold temperatures. Will Sweden go the way of the air conditioner?

I hope not. Matt can vouch for my dislike of A/C air. I hate it in the car. I hated it when I lived in DC. Yuck, yuck, yuck. Poor Matt. And poor me: should I ever become completely accustomed to this cool weather in summer, I will be doomed to air conditioning for the rest of my days! But at least I can now eat ice cream any time of year.

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Fruit in the city


Cherry trees! They must more than 7 years old to be fruiting like this.

On my run today through our neighborhood and out into the park behind it, I passed ripening cherries on the trees in our courtyard and a whole thicket of raspberries, pale pink for now and soon to be ripened to soft red.

The raspberries weren’t a surprise; I’ve run past those thickets many times. But the cherries were; I don’t see sweet cherries here that often, and if I do see cherries, I think they are usually the tart kind.

Cherry trees need temperate climates — I think of picking sweet cherries as a child from the tree in our backyard in Central California. Hot weather (and cold winters) makes for sweet stone fruit: nectarines and apricots, plums and peaches. I don’t think of those as Swedish crops. Maybe tart or sour cherries. But definitely more northerly berries thrive here: raspberries and blueberries, blackberries and hjortron (cloudberries).

However, it’s been hot here lately, hotter than any summer I’ve ever experienced in Stockholm. Day after day, the highs have been about 20°C (70°F) and sometimes more. It’s even been stickily humid here the past few days, with thunderstorms and showers — nowhere close to Minnesota or DC summer weather, where one needs to take a shower twice a day, but a nice change from the cold and rainy summers I’ve had here the past few years.

Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s El Niño. I will not complain too much for the moment as I enjoy this warmer weather.

And wow, maybe I can enjoy some local sweet cherries! I’m trying to figure out the best time for picking them. Not too soon, before they ripen, but not too late either, after our neighbors or the birds figure out they are there.

These fruits are free to the public — growing on public pathways, there for the taking. I think this is part of allamansrätten, every man’s right, to camp on other people’s lawns if they aren’t bugging them, and to go into the woods to collect wild mushrooms, blueberries, strawberries and other forest finds.

Swedes have what they call their “wild strawberry places,” or smullstronställe, which is a place where they are happy. Ingmar Bergman made a movie of the same name too, but I assume the term comes from Swedes’ favorite berry patches — they tend not to share those locations, whether for forest picking and their psychologically happy places, I suspect. These are secrets.

My secret will be staying home in the city during the part of the summer that the cherries are ripe, while everyone else is out in the countryside, hanging out in their lilla stuga på landet (little houses in the land). I’ll try to report back if my cherry picking is successful!


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Secrets to a successful IKEA excursion

I think I have discovered the secrets of how to get in and out of IKEA without too much trauma:

  1. Timing.
  2. Planning ahead.
  3. Entering at the exit.

Kamprad (IKEA’s founder) designed flat-packing furniture that you could easily stack in your car…

Let me explain. Matt and I went to IKEA almost as an afterthought back in May. We had rented a car to go get some other items at the Barkaby shopping mall area: the outlets are there, as is IKEA and the huge Stadium sports store that is now attached to it. We went to Rusta for discount toilet paper among other things, and finally to IKEA to get a new plant pot on wheels and some steak knives.

We pulled in at somewhere around 11 am — before lunch, on a rainy day. The lot was almost empty. (Rule #1: Timing is everything!)

You know the drill: the IKEA floor plan is a twisty maze meant to lure you into buying things you had no idea you wanted. In and out through the compactly designed kitchens, wide open bedrooms, and so forth, you follow the arrows on the floor. You pick upi compact fluorescent light bulbs, pillows and sheets, and all sorts of other non-furniture items, placed appealingly in your path. IKEA supposedly calls this “opening your pocketbook.”

It’s exhausting, and expensive. We plopped pillowcases and cuttingboards in our big yellow IKEA bag; we picked up things I can’t remember now. We bought them all, needed or not. It works, that meandering maze. (Remember this later: Rule #2 is planning ahead!)

We left, tired from standing on the concrete floors for too long and hungry enough that I acquiesced to eating at MAX’s (it’s sort of like Burger King, only it has gluten-free, vegan and other interesting options on the menu!).

But on Sunday this past weekend, we somehow rocked it. We arrived at around 1:30 pm, which reinforced Rule #1: we were lucky to find a parking spot, and walked with the other zombies in the front doors and up the escalator to the entry to the display-floor maze. We detoured immediately to gather our strength in the café, which was packed with people. The lines for trays for picking up food, the dessert bar, even for coffee were at least six people deep if not a dozen. We turned on our heels and left as quickly as possible, sans food or drink.

At this point, Matt peeled off for the Stadium sports store (big sales!) and I went back downstairs to find a bathroom. Once that was taken care of, I was about to head back upstairs to dive into the maze, but instead, buttonholed a young woman in an IKEA vest handing out yellow bags to the steady stream of people coming in the front doors. I asked her where I might find outdoor furniture (utmöbler), and she said, in Swedish, “Right behind the cash registers.”

Oh! “Can I go in the out doors?” I asked.

“Sure!” she answered. “That’s better. Then you don’t have to go through the whole top-floor displays.” (Or something like that, again in Swedish.)

Whoa! In the out door! I’d suggested that to Matt when we arrived, but he’d nixed the idea. And yet, that’s what I did: waltzed right in the exit, passed through the lines of people waiting to check out with their stacks of things, and saw my quarry set up on the floor behind the cash registers. Jumping ahead to Rule #3: It’s okay to skip the maze if you know what you want. Enter in the exit!

But that means you have to follow Rule #2: Know what you want, before you even get in the car to go to IKEA. One of my colleagues had done the research online and assigned me the task of picking up the outdoor furniture for our office (wooden bistro tables and chairs). She gave me the name (ASKHOLMEN) and how much it should cost. I spent a few minutes looking at the floor models, scratching my head to figure out where to find the boxed versions, and then headed back to look for an information desk. Packed with people (#1, timing!), I skipped it for the self-help computer kiosks. There I found the article numbers for the chairs and tables, and the aisle and shelf numbers as well.

After a quick detour into the tschotschkes rooms at the end of the IKEA maze, to see if they had office folders (no luck — should have looked online first!), I took a hidden shortcut to skip the lamps/dishes/glassware/plants and grabbed a big cart on my way into the warehouse, strode over to the aisle and shelves I needed, stacked the items on the cart, walked over to the end of the checkout area, where things were relatively empty and calm (IKEA has introduced four-item self-checkout kiosks where you do it yourself — but really, who walks out of IKEA with only four items??), paid, and navigated my cart out into the packed parking lot.

Matt and I figured it took about 20 minutes to complete this IKEA shopping excursion. That must be a record. If not for worldwide competition, then certainly for me!

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