This is my last post about Sweden for a while I imagine, just you know, finishing some thoughts.
Culturally, the Swedes were an interesting change of pace. They were gloriously quiet, on the verge of uncomfortably so (especially in restaurants), but mostly it was wonderful. On the bus, in a restaurant, everywhere except a bar, there's a real awareness of how much noise you're emitting, and coming from Amsterdam, not known for its sedate restraint, this was ehhhh.....relaxing.
Also? People were generally superpersonable. I had zero non-friendly interactions with anyone, even in a bar late at night, and without exception everyone in the public/retail/restaurant sector seemed to understand that being friendly and quietly enthusiastic is not a terrible thing. I'm sure that this would change a little bit had I been in bigger cities, but as it was, it left me with the feeling that the Swedes are a placid, helpful, inquisitive, courteous bunch.
On the critical side: there is definitely something bizarre going on here with their relationship to alcohol. I had heard via a Norwegian friend of Mara's named Fred that shit was fucked up, but I just kind of assumed it was just him. It's not.
What Fred said was that, on the weekends, the goal there is to get falling-down drunk, like toppling into a snowbank and not being found til morning drunk. But if you have more than a beer or glass of wine with dinner on Monday, people become very concerned about you. And the idea of a lunch cocktail is nearly criminal. I saw this firsthand.
This all seemed many times more alien after going from Sweden to Berlin, where (as I've said before) everyone who's not at work drinks beer all day long, everywhere. If you go into a corner grocery store and bring a bottle of beer to the cashier, they assume you want it opened right then so you can begin drinking it. And this is not like homeless person behavior...at least in summertime, which is the only time I've ever been there. It's young parents with babies in strollers, old people holding hands, etc. It seemed like a very adult place compared to Sweden.
The strict Swedish drunk-driving laws were a bit discomfiting. I believe that they probably do save lives by intimidating people into not drinking and getting behind the wheel. But as an American (an American who loves beer), the concept of monitoring your drinking Saturday night because you're scared of a breathalyzer roadblock Sunday morning at 10am? File that under This Would Never Fly In America.
Not that I saw enough policemen for this to even matter. Being on the road for roughly 14 hours, I saw two police cars, both interested in something besides my BAC.
They might have been going to put an injured animal out of its misery: in Sweden, if you hit an animal on the road and it escapes into the woods or wherever it came from, you're supposed to pull over, go to the place where you last saw it, and tie a piece of fabric around a convenient fence or tree. Then you call the police and report it. It's illegal to not do this. Then the police come and try to find the animal and rescue it, or failing that, deliver a mercy killing.
Wow, like three days at home. With no real responsibilities. Just Scrabble, moviewatching (Mike Leigh's Another Year and Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line so far), cooking, viruscleaning, and coughing. Yeah, I caught HBF's cough in Berlin I think and now I sound like a robot version of myself when I talk. My writing sounds about the same though I think.
So I''m drinking an assload of ginger tea (ginger, lemon, honey) and just laying low. We're cooking for Amsterdam's Newest Americans tonight so I imagine there'll be a recipe here eventually even though most of the components are well documented: mung bean gyoza with scallion oil and sriracha soy sauce; fresh basil rolls with shrimp, mango, hoisin, peanuts; noodles in peanut sauce.
UPDATE: Pushed to the top due to new photos and text.
Once again I find myself writing about a vacation in retrospect, which I guess is good because it means I was so busy vacationizing that I didn't have computer time/access. I mean I'm actually too busy at this very moment to be blogging, but I wrote most of this post in the Stockholm airport a few days ago, so I'm just adding photos now. Chronology out of joint, yo.
Retrospectivizing: on the other hand, as I think I've said, writing in retrospect be's difficult because your fresh and vital first impressions are not nearly as fresh and vital ten days later, and so every missed day's post is coming from the same, quickly solidifying post-vacation perspective, etc etc etc.
But yeah, what can we do about that now, nothing, I guess we forge ahead.
The post-vacation me wants to talk about Sweden first. This being my worst-researched vacation ever, I really didn't know what to expect, physically (in terms of the landscape), culturally, etc.
It's nothing like visiting Italy, which you've seen in books and movies and travel shows for so long that when you finally go there you're barely surprised by anything except how much "more so" everything is than what it was depicted as.
And I guess that's why my primary impression of Sweden is one of quiet surprise: it's a completely beautiful country full of seemingly endless forests and lakes and hilly farmland, and very few people. And the light. Light like this makes anything/everything look better.
If there's anything bad to say here, it's that it's kind of monotonously beautiful, although I covered only a tiny portion of the northeastern coast, and you could probably say the same thing about many northeastern coasts around the world. But as I was driving this weekend, I tried to imagine the whole thing covered in a foot or two of snow for six months at a time and, yeah, I can't say that the abnormally high Swedish suicide rate didn't cross my mind.
My quiet surprise completely extended to the food. I ate much, much better here than during my two-week-long wander through France a couple years ago, and nearly as well as we ate in Sardinia last year. I mean, on the page/screen, the food might not radiate excitement, but seriously, everything (with the exception of one cup of gas station coffee and a couple of pastries here and there) was very carefully prepared, perfectly seasoned, and fresh, fresh, fresh.
Admittedly, I was kind of in the palm of their hand: the food here is based on things I like. Fish, game, sausage, and liquor. But to be traveling in a foreign country unresearched and not have a bad meal is definitely noteworthy. Thinking back, some of the credit for this must go to Britt, who made 2 or 3 totally impressive dinners at home, and was constantly (quietly), off-handedly filling the fridge with a stream of preserved fish and fruit.
In kind of an Italian or French way, the quality of the ingredients pushed everything in the direction of absolute goodness. We had herring served a number of ways with potatoes, just herring out of a jar, sounds unpromising, but it's all quite a bit more subtle and complex than the marinated herring we see here in Amsterdam. These dishes were all really simple and unexpectedly delicious, and not nearly as fishy as they sound, especially the ones with caviar, which was mild, cold, refreshing, and difficult to stop eating, my favorite caviar ever.
Below: two of the many herring varieties sold by Abba (not the band); herring in dill cream and herring roe sauce with roasted potatoes; petite herring in a clove, allspice, and sugar marinade (ansjovis means sprat, not the anchovies we know) with red onions, sour cream, and mashed potatoes on knackebrod; bleak roe caviar and butter on knackebrod.
Würgeengel (The Exterminating Angel) was one of my favorite Berlin experiences this time around: an excellent cocktail bar with serious bartenders and an extremely "old Berlin" vibe, as if I know what that might mean. And they let us stay there til 4am on a Tuesday.
I think we're going to try and recreate their basil gimlet on Sunday, and of course thinking about that made me think about what kind of food we might want to be putting in our mouths....
I feel like something light and Asian-ish, but I'm kind of bored with most of the Thoroughly Repeatable things in our repertoire, so I started poking around in Viet World Kitchen and came up with some interesting little things:
So. Berlin. A good, good city that I would like to revisit soon, when there's time to do things and see friends who live there. I'm very jealous of their opening hours and big citiness, and the fact that the their relationship with alcohol could be described almost the opposite of Sweden's (beer is OK all the time, and it's purchasable and drinkable everywhere).
Our time there was a bit rushed, but it culminated in a performance that is probably one of my favorite things I've ever done onstage, so...not such a terrible tradeoff.
And now, a day of semi-nothingness, which doesn't feel at all right, but my car is out of gas...I need some time parked in the driveway. Or something. Somewhere.
We finally ate somewhere excellent: Bandol sur mer. Just great, service too. Of course Hilly wasn't there, so I have to go back Wednesday with her. Above: the illegible German menu. Below, the very legible English menu. Below that: amuse of nut-crusted goat cheese with apricot couscous maybe? And a tomato-celery soup. It's a fact that tomato soup is one of the few things I don't like, but this was pretty good.
Below that, two shots of the obscenity I ordered, soooo good: "poached egg with veal's head carpaccio, veal tongue salad, radish, and cress". Below that, my scallops with "primal tomato", crazy-tasting cashews (my description), cilantro, eggplant, and smoke. Floriaan's monkfish was good, but his orange potatoes were amazing, I have no idea how they were achieved.
UPDATE: We did go back on Wednesday, and of course it wasn't as good. It was OK, but quite obviously there was a different cook in the kitchen.
OK, have been awake for 36 hours or so, and not in a fun way.
Came home at 2am last night from an art/currywurst stroll to find my laptop unresponsive and bearing a forged notice from the polizei against a background of the German flag. My machine would do nothing except show me this.
Yes, a virus. Because I downloaded an Abba CD illegally? Some would call this justice. Abba probably would for sure.
Turns out that this was one nasty fucking virus. Let's say I started troubleshooting at 2:30am. I finished this afternoon at 5:45pm. I'm a software guy, and this was some really good software. It saw that I was the Administrator of my machine and, using my privileges, did all of the meanest things possible to me.
I still haven't managed to remove a bitch, but I did get my music off the machine, so we can rehearse tomorrow, unlike today. I celebrated my half-triumph with a beer on the street and some Syrian food.
Oof. We are working like dogs, and having a hard time finding awesome food, and so this is why you are not hearing from a duck.
For a second there it seemed like things were trending in a more positive direction. After decent Japanese on Tuesday and fucked-up dessert pasta Wednesday night, Thursday night we went to Yam Yam, which in Berlin means Korean food, not Italian.
My bibimbap was solidly good, especially after throwing my seaweed salad and Hilly's kimchee in there. But Hilly's tofu-filled mandu were just a little boring and again, weirdly sweet. The banchan of spinach and seaweed were both nice and fresh-tasting, I'll probably end up back here at some point b/c it's supposedly the best Korean in town, cheap, and right across the street.
Last night after a loooong day of work, we trekked out to Schoneberg to Renger-Patzsch for our nightly dinner/debrief b/c I'd seen nothing but rave reviews from bloggers about their unpretentious comfort food, especially the Alsatian tarte flambées.
And yes, things started very promisingly. This is HBF's summer salad with peaches and a tarte flambée with leeks, walnuts, and bleu d'Avergne to share. It was very tasty, kind of like a lavash pizza, friendly toppings on a superthin crust, you definitely didn't want to stop eating it.
But then: poor Hilly. She's been getting the worst of our disappointing food, I'll chalk it partly up to bad luck and partly up to vegetarianism. There were basically two things she could've ordered on what was a pretty meat-centric menu (calf's head risotto anyone?), and she went for the chanterelles with cheese dumplings. Out of pure gallantry, I took the other one, a pike perch crisp-fried with cabbage and caraway jus.
My fish was pleasant and cooked very nicely but ultimately just kind of plain. Nice technique, not much adventure or imagination. Or caraway. Hilly's dish was....not pleasant. The cheese dumplings were baseball-sized globs of dry, salty nast. Like if you went to the Natuurwinkel and bought one of their generic "veggie burgers" and re-pureed it and then balled it in a fist and then cooked the living shit out of it. Worse, her chanterelles were completely tasteless, even though they'd been showered with fresh thyme.
So, WTF, Berlin!??!?!?!?!!!?!?!. Do we really have to run the carnivorous gauntlet of Rutz after all for a 14-euro salad just so Hilly can eat something decent and Berlin can start to redeem itself? Do we????????? They do have nice wine.
Brandon turned out to be beautiful, one of my favorite parts of my trip. These pictures were all taken between 6am and 7am. Above: where we slept. Below: me making coffee; dried reindeer meat; tiny boat shed; empty cabins; the beach.
I may have mentioned this: Last weekend I went camping for the first time.
People who know me well would, um, laugh at the idea of me camping. I am known for many things, but practical, survival-type skills are not on that list of things. In fact, I am more known for barely being able to survive from a practical perspective. I can turn on the stove, open the refrigerator, flush the toilet, and that's about where my practical survival skills end. Sometimes I do a load of laundry, but compensate by leaving it in the washer for a couple days.
So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I accepted Anna's invitation to do some camping. I told her outright: "I just really hope you're not relying on me to do anything. I possess no relevant skills, unless we have to debug the campfire or troubleshoot a bear, etc. Just assume you're going camping with some creature that is nothing but liability and dead weight."
We eased into the whole camping thing by driving an hour or so north to Skellefteå and stopping for a picnic. Britt had told us that the weather up north was going to be "horrible". We kind of found that not to be the case: here is Skellefteå (above).
Our picnic occurred at a large cemetery, where there was a cafe that served these things that were supposed to be "moose poop". We had some. They were.....disappointing? Not because they didn't taste like moose poop ha ha but because they were dry as fuck.
From Skellefteå we went up to see the aforementioned burned-down summer home of Anna's family (below). When we eventually got back to Sikeå I saw some photos of the young Hillboms playing around the lake house when it wasn't burned down and it was all quite sad and nostalgic, but I won't subject you to that.
OK I show you one sad and nostalgic thing: their family's boat was still there, abandoned in a pile of weeds.
So yes, then we spent 4 hours driving in circles looking for a place to camp, a strategy that I cannot really recommend if you want your driver and passenger to remain civil and upbeat. The problem was this: we'd seen tons of campgrounds on our way up the coast, but north of Luleå there was nothing. So we did that thing where you pull off the main highway onto a smaller road in the hope that you'll find what you're looking for. It didn't work.
It was with very empty bellies and our last remaining shreds of civility that we straggled into a campsite at Brandon (pronounced differently than it looks) around 10:00pm and looked for a place to set up the tent.
After an hour or so of determining that the campsite was closed for the season and we were the only people stupid enough to be doing what we were doing in 45F weather, we set up the tent anyway in the interest of eating sausage and going to sleep.