LC Forstén Fotograf

Capturing life's moments, big and small, through portraiture and documentary story telling.

Photography in Stockholm, Sweden. Documentary photography focusing on families and weddings. Portraits of maternity, infants, children, families, professionals.

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 25th - Merry Christmas!!

I am writing in my PJs exhausted from an amazing Jul and Christmas.  And I have about 6 minutes before we need to  leave for our next dinner... I think we're going to be a little late. 

I really think this has been the first "Best of Both Worlds" winter holiday season we've ever had.  I think writing this Advent Calendar helped me figure it out.  Our Jul celebration was so wonderful.  I went to a beautiful choral celebration before food prep got going in earnest, it was a lovely and peaceful moment.  Food took a long time to serve, as it always does, and the kids did really well with the starving until over-indulging.  The food was amazing!!  It was every classic dish I was hoping for.  The food prep was half the fun and there were way way too many cooks in the kitchen, but only because there wasn't any space left for anyone to work.  i didn't get any pictures of us enjoying the food because I don't like having a camera at the table, but I may have to stop minding my manners because it was just too good to not share.  The thing I REALLY wished I had captured was a video of all 13 adults loudly singing snapps songs with great joy and merriment!  The room echoed to Hej Tomte Gubbar and Helan Går.

Then... SANTA CAME!!  He only brought one present each for the kids, who were both terrified and overjoyed.  The gifts he brought were perfect.  The Lego Batman Scuttler for Batboy, a ladybug backpack for Batgirl, and a Pippi and Herr Nilsson doll for Cousin M.  Then, as tradition has it, Uncle Jan directed the kids in helping pass out packages, primarly for the kids, and we opened too many things, the toddlers melted and couldn't handle any more.  We finally made our way home around midnight and had a few hours to get ready for round two and rest.

When the kids woke up, Jul Tomten had been back.  Batboy set me straight.  And the tomtar had organized all the gifts from family that we hadn't yet opened so we had a proper tear-into-the-presents chaos.  Everyone was very happy with their gifts and stocking goodies.  Batgirl loved the oranges in her stocking and Cora and I enjoyed M&Ms and coffee.  Much.  Needed.  Coffee.  It was amazing.  And now we have to run... and I'm hoping there will be some more snapps songs to record for you!  MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!  AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 24th - New Year's Eve, God Jul!

Dec 24th – God Jul!!  How we’re making Christmas happen, aka, thank goodness for the tradition of the tomtar (gnomes) or we would have some serious splainin’ to do.

So what do you do when you have beautiful stockings that you hand made and love, and a tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Day (the 25th, Christmas Day is the 25th)… and yet, Santa is supposed to have already waltzed through the door, dropping not just any bag, but your family heirloom present bag filled with presents from not just Santa but from everyone?  The logistics are challenging to explain to a very logistic-minded 5 year old.  It’s just magic only works for so much.  So here goes.

On Christmas Eve, when you’re with your Finnish family, Santa comes to your home through the door.  Or the Great-Uncle-you’re-eating-dinner-with’s home.  He hits these kids’ houses early because they are closer to the North Pole and he comes in because he likes the food better.  It’s comfort food for him and the people are like family to him.  You know, because they’re all Finns after all.  This is true even when your Finnish family is in Texas.  He makes exceptions for expats. 

Now, Santa has a bag filled with presents from other family members because of the gnomes, or tomtar.  Santa is basically the king of the gnomes (in Swedish he is called “Jul Tomte” or Christmas Gnome.  No Saint anyone up here).  And since he is the king of the gnomes, they help him out.  They watch you though your windows if they live outside, or the cracks in cupboards if they are house gnomes, and they keep track of your behavior and what you like.  Good thing too, because we totally spaced the whole “Letter to Santa” thing this year, which is too bad, because he writes back to Swedish kids!  Next year. 

They also come in the house from time to time and you just hope they are in a helping mood.  For example, we got a good snow a few weeks back and a sled just appeared in Felix’s room.  Get this… with a bow on it!  Those wily tomtar just knew he needed one and that when there is a good snow, you can’t wait for Christmas.  You’ve gotta get out to sled.

For Christmas Eve, they come in, steal all the packages from your family that aren’t being guarded by a dog or two and sneak them off to Santa.  If your dog is elder and hard-of-hearing, they’re able to sneak around him.  If your mom or dad leaves out the special family present bag, they collect that as well.  This helps Santa have a nice full bag of gifts to share with everyone, and adds a little more magic to the gifts from the humans.  (I wish the tomtar had taken some of the gifts we had in Stockholm and carried them to Helsinki for us… the car is uncomfortably full!  But they help enough.  This is a first world problem to have!!)

So then Santa can be ready to bust through the door on Christmas Eve.  There’s just no waiting for the next day when Santa is there in your living room.  So, twist our arms, we’ll open some gifts between courses.  This year we’re having a celebration with the larger extended family and we aren’t all staying in one place, so we’re not going to open everything on Christmas eve till late in the evening.  If you don’t have to stay up super late after making a big meal, it’s nice to rest.  We’ll all go to wherever we’re living and staying after dinner and a few presents and I’ll put my kids to bed reading The Nativity from my dear friend Cynthia in Portland and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas from another dear friend Kay in Houston.  If you haven’t seen this version of the Nativity by Julie Vivas, you should rush to the bookstore and pick one up.  You can because it’s still open in the States, in Finland, Christmas Eve is a holiday, so everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is closed.  If I’m lucky I’ll go to a Christmas Eve service in a beautiful church at 2pm.  I think beautiful, candle-lit Midnight Mass is going to have to wait until I can start my Christmas dinner at 4pm and my kids are old enough to be dragged along as well, half asleep no doubt.

We will leave our (travel) stockings hung, if not by the chimney with care, somewhere, and in the night the tomtar will have to help Santa out since he’s already come by.  They will help fill our stockings with M&Ms and oranges and maybe a few surprise treats by the … radiator?  We’ll open the rest of our gifts as a family, in our PJs, and enjoy a simple breakfast and probably lose Felix to a Lego daze quite quickly.  (Spoiler Alert! Don’t tell Felix he’s getting some Legos!  Yeah, he assumes).  I think we’ll try a mix between pure euphoric present chaos and taking time to appreciate what you’ve received.  We’ll try to make rice porridge but am not sure if the rental kitchen will accommodate.  And we have dinner to go to on Christmas Day with a different relative. 

I think in the end, I miss dinner at my Aunt’s the most.  The meals and family communion we had when I was a kid are now just a very fond memory, anyway.  My grandmother has passed, and almost all of us have our own families, many of us have moved away (you might assume we moved the farthest… and you’d be right!), and we aren’t kids romping around a big house with awesome toys, seeing older cousins who are home from college, and fielding good hearted teasing by aunts and uncles.  I’m sure the food would be just as good, though!  I’m sad we can’t be closer to get the next generation of cousins together more often, but maybe next year?  Eh? Eh?  Another great holiday book for inspiration to bring your family together, check out “Over the River and Through the Woods” by Linda Ashman.  It makes me veclempt every time. 

So that will be our ScandiAmericansk Jul Christmas.  I’ll try to share some pictures on Christmas Day… you know, the 25th, for our last day of the Advent calendar.  It’s been fun, challenging, and eye opening to me to write like this everyday and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  I’ll see what I can do to keep writing but my family promises you it won’t be daily!

God Jul everyone!

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 23rd - ScandicAmerican Jul-Christmas. Part 1.

God Jul and Merry Christmas!!

Dec 23rd – Our ScandiAmericansk Christmas, Part 1:

Blending traditions from two different cultures always requires creative attention to detail.  When blending two faith traditions or two quite different cultures you likely have to navigate how to hold more than one truth in the same space.  Until we had kids, the Christmas I grew up with didn’t seem drastically different from the one I celebrated with my in-laws.  But now we have to get all of the details straight, and stick to the story, so for your sake AND mine, I’m going to write it down for you.  (If you want the most hilarious version of the many ways to Christmas, take a listen to David Sedaris’ 6 to 8 Black Men.  A Christmas and Cross-Cultural classic!)

Most of you reading this are American, but not all, so here’s what we do in my part of the States.  There are two main focal points 1) Christmas is on December 25th and 2) Santa comes down your chimney while you’re sleeping on Christmas Eve to leave presents in your stocking.  He rides a sled pulled by reindeer and you never see him except for decoys in malls.  It’s always a creative explanation when you don’t have a fireplace.  If you are on the naughty list you get coal in your stocking. 

An aside - One day I was reading our Golden Books from the 40’s and after seeing that there used to be home-delivery of coal, it made me wonder if the whole “coal in your stocking” thing was a dig on poor kids from the days when we actually used coal to heat our homes.  If you had a cold home, maybe all everyone got from Santa was some very appreciated coal!  Maybe someone with a longer memory or a passion for cultural history can illuminate that for me. 

In my family, Christmas Eve was for getting last minute gifts and wrapping them, eating a simple meal to be ready for the Big Day, and Church.  When we were young, we often participated in the Christmas Pageant on Christmas Eve.  My mom made the Kings’ robes one year out of old San Antonio Fiesta dresses and they were stunning.   As we aged out of Pageants we would go to the midnight candle-lit Christmas Eve service, filled with amazing music and beautiful light.  We got to open one present from under the tree on Christmas Eve and were put to bed reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. 

When we woke up the house had been filled with magic.  There were new surprise presents, usually unwrapped, and our stockings were filled with oranges, M&Ms and a few small treats.  I can still feel how it felt to reach into my beautiful velvet-lined needlepoint stocking just thinking about it.  The M&Ms always tasted better out of that stocking.  I don’t know when I stopped believing in Santa, but it never took away from the magic of the morning.  Once my brother and I had wrangled our parents down to the living room, we could tear into everything.  No one ever had time to get out of their pajamas, so the pictures are less than glamourous.  It was the most joyous chaos of paper tearing, curled ribbons bouncing around like tumbleweeds and our cats playing in them, and seeing the happy faces of your family when they opened what you gave.   I had a very fortunate childhood and always had amazing gifts waiting for me.  I’m only 5 years into this, and the challenge of creating a magical Christmas is REAL!  My parents knocked it out of the park. 

After we emerged from the high of Christmas morning, we got dressed up and often went to my Aunt Lucy’s house to enjoy time with my many cousins, eat amazing food, and exchange a few more gifts.  It wasn’t ever a formal meal I dreaded.  It was always so wonderful.  The meal consisted of some meat option, could be turkey, beef, lamb, or pork.  There were many amazing vegetable dishes but nothing required.  Sweet potato casserole is a favorite, we often had spinach, a salad.  My aunt always made rolls and my brother always tried to get far more than his fair share.  They were so good!  Dessert was many choices of pie and if it had been a good baking year for my Uncle John, chocolate eclairs too.  Some years we would have our grandmother with, she didn’t like to leave home for long and it took someone picking her up in Austin for her to join.  I always loved the Christmas china and the bubble lights on her tree.  I don’t imagine they make an energy efficient LED version of those.  Sigh.  In the evening, most people went to the movies.  Or the next day.  Sometimes we went to our place in Elgin for Christmas and we missed the meal with those cousins but instead had our country cousins over to our place.  One year my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Vic took their kids to Breckenridge for Christmas and I got to tag along.  I learned to ski by getting really lost and had a great time with my older cousins.  Santa brought me a pizza-phone that year… remember those?!  But that was the exception to our regular Christmas experience.

 Celebrating Sinter Claus with our Belgian relative... so many ways to celebrate the Claus!

Celebrating Sinter Claus with our Belgian relative... so many ways to celebrate the Claus!

When I joined the Forstén family I was surrounded by a new language and started to learn a new way to have Christmas, or Jul as it’s called in Swedish.  Scandinavian Christmas also centers around two key points: 1) Christmas is Christmas Eve on December 24th and 2) Santa comes to your house, often through the front door, carrying your bag of gifts, on Christmas eve.  It’s the same bag you use every year and somehow he gets a hold of the gifts your friends and family had left at your house as well.  He comes in for some sweet milk-rice porridge and a warm drink.  Stays for a bit, hands out a few gifts, and then takes off, leaving the bag with you.  Some years he is too busy and just ding-dong-ditches the bag on your doorstep.  This happens at some point on Christmas Eve, often while you are taking a break between the first and second course of your Christmas meal.  The cruel thing is that, because you’re in the middle of dinner, you have to wait to open the gifts.  Or maybe other families eat earlier?  I wouldn’t really know.  I’ll come back to that. 

The Christmas meal is much more specific, and ours is a Swedish Finnish Expat Texas meal, they vary between Norway, Sweden and Finland.  The morning starts with warm rice porridge to tide you over until dinner. I believe everyone begins the meal with a cold fish course.  What’s served probably varies.  Ours has included: Gravlax (salt-cured Salmon) however gravid seek (white fish) and smoked fishes are common as well, Christmas mustard, several variations of pickled herring, boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and dill, salt pickles with crème-fraish and honey, crisp bread or thin rye bread, sometimes rom grade (caviar with whip cream) and pate as well. Meatballs are usually served for the kids as well.  Some regional specialties include Rossolli, which is a “salad” with pickled cuumbers, pickled beets, pickled herring, fresh carrots, and mayonnaise.  I love Rossolli and I don’t know why.  You must include snapps and sing a few rounds of traditional drinking songs setting an appropriately merry tone.  We sometimes have tequila instead especially in the States when it was harder to obtain aquavit. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but this is the basic table.  And you eat all this and you’re less than half-way through. 

You clean the table, take a break, sometimes Santa comes in the door, and then you sit down for more snapps and the warm meal.  This includes a Christmas ham, which is less like a spiraled ham and more like an enormous pork butt roast.  It’s been boiling all day in brine, then is roasted for hours with a honey-gingerbread crust.  Oh that crust.  There are a number of casseroles that change depending on how Finnish your meal is.  Finns might have rutabaga casserole, while Swedes are more likely to have Jansson’s Frestelse which is basically potatoes au gratin with a lot more dairy and anchovies.  (Not my casserole).  Cora’s dad makes sure there is a can of French Peas. Lingon jam or Plumbs soaked in Madeira typically accompany the meat.  And of course you drink more and at some point you fall off the chair and roll to the living room to open gifts, drink coffee and snack on some pastries and or chocolates.

As you can imagine, getting ALL of THIS together, plus have all the gifts ready, plus arrange for Santa to show up is A LOT of work.  It’s not uncommon to go to the graveyard and light a candle for family members or try to catch a Christmas Church concert earlier in the day. It’s usually VERY late by the time we’ve opened gifts.  And it’s a trick to keep the magic alive and not slip up.  Many, but not all, in Scandinavia take a long time to open gifts.  Each person takes his or her turn, carefully unwraps the gift, thanks the person who gave it.  Admires it.  Then you pick the next gift.  It’s a highly civilized and involves more gratitude than what I grew up with.  We are practicing Felix’s “unwrapping, thank you” face because you can’t just stash that pair of socks in search of the monster truck you’re really hoping for. You have to really appreciate the socks.  Because you should and it’s a good lesson to learn.  Still, I miss that explosion of paper and ribbon and fun. 

And I’m usually half asleep or more by the time we finish.  If we finish early the guitar comes out, and we sit by the fire for a few songs and then all collapse into bed.  The next day we sleep in late, make soup and/or sandwiches with all of the leftovers, and do as little as possible.  Enjoy our gifts, hang out. 

Because the meal is so involved and BIG, a popular thing in Sweden is that families no longer serve this traditional meal with all the trimmings, but serve a less complicated but still nice meal and go out for Jul Bord some other time in Advent.  “Jul Bord” or “Christmas Table” serves all the traditional foods plus other new innovations without the stress of the actual holiday happening at the same time.  Then they are free to simplify or modernize or just go to the Canary Islands instead. 

SO the question is, for our kids, how do we blend these traditions without losing too much of both in the blending process?  Tomorrow, I’ll let you know what we decided!!  And I'll have it written down, so I will remember!

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 22nd - Solstice Pictures

It was a perfect afternoon.  We rushed out to catch the sunset with Felix on his bike and the double bike stroller all packed up with blankets and snacks and candles.  We walked down some super icy Nacka Nature Reserve paths and managed to not slip...win!  The sunset was delicate and beautiful.  When we got down to the lake there were two young guys testing the ice and one older guy skating around, I think maybe also testing the ice.  But seriously, there was a guy skating on the local lake!!!  Amazing!  

We brought candles since we didn't have time to light a fire, had a few treats to represent the sun, the dark, something warm and something sweet.  It was a really beautiful moment with my family.  And the frozen lake in front of us and the sunsetting and darkness falling around us was just perfect.  Happy Solstice!

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 21st - the Winter Solstice

Dec 21st – The winter Solstice

 PhotoCredit: Cora Forsten

PhotoCredit: Cora Forsten

Today is the winter solstice.  Just about every celebration between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day is one version or another of the celebration of light in the darkness.  Up here at the top of the world, the darkness people are trying to illuminate is real.  It’s long, and I imagine outside of the bright big city, it’s quite dark.  And I love it.  Maybe its all these years of too little sleep between school, babies, and work  and packing up our life and moving abroad, but I long for a long winters hibernation.  I Iove the deep darkness of the winter solstice.  I do not see any reason to be afraid of the darkness.  Mean people in the dark, sure, but not the darkness on its own.  The winter is a time when seeds lay dormant, waiting to become something amazing.  There is so much possibility in that, and I love it. 

So today we’re going out to the nature reserve at sunset (you know, at 2pm) to celebrate the longest night and how the darkness holds possibility.  We’ll light some candles and set some new-years’-like intentions for where this crazy adventure is going to take us and where we’ll take it.  We’ll enjoy a walk in the crisp clear winter wonderland and enjoy some time together celebrating the season.  And then we’ll come back to our home with stars in every window, lights on the tree, and candles around every corner and enjoy some warm food and kid snuggles, because the lights in the darkness are also amazing.  And I’m going to really, really try to go to bed early.  Really.  I’ll try anyway…

Tomorrow you’ll get to see the pictures, because I’m really going to go to bed tonight.  Happy Winter Solstice, y’all!

Dec 20th – What the kids are up to.  Today, the boy.

Dec 20th – What the kids are up to.  Today, the boy.

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For those friends who haven’t been able to spend much time with Batboy, he is tall, athletic, kind, and creative.  He has a lot of energy, but it is tame-able.  He uses his manners when he is reminded or just over-the-moon happy.  He is very sensitive and does NOT like to talk about his emotions.  He’ll talk ad nauseum about a project he wants to build, though.  His future Batcave, which he will build right outside our kitchen window, is going to have EVERYTHING we will ever need, and we’ll never have to go to work again. 

He is a problem solver.  He loves to build things, run and climb, knows about a lot of construction vehicles.  He only likes stories and TV shows that are not scary and have very little or no interpersonal conflict.  They are all problem solving shows, some with magic, some with just unique solutions.  He is definitely in his preschool-teen-years and will dramatically run away crying when things don’t go his way.  The “Terrible Twos” was a breeze compared to this, but then, two wasn’t so bad for him.  He’s not the “follow directions in a group” type.  He’d almost always rather do things his own way. 

When we left Batboy was excited for our big move but also sad to leave his friends.  He had had an amazing year at our beloved Montessori preschool.  He was doing basic math, starting to read and write, drawing rocket ship after rocket ship, and even learning to make them out of wood.  He enjoyed all of his classmates, ran into school without looking back and was generally thriving.  He was really crushing on Dana who worked in between the classroom and the office.  He made her a wooden airplane. On nice days he rode his bike to school (with both training wheels) and really enjoyed it.  He was so frustrated when it was raining too much or we were too late to bike.

He didn’t miss a beat when we got to the islands for the summer.  He was thrilled to get to see his extended family and ran from cottage to cottage to boat to sauna finding people to play with and talk to.  He found connection with everyone from his 1yo cousin to his 90 year-old great-great-aunt.  It was amazing to see how he lit up being around everyone. 

He also LOVES being outside.  It was paradise for him to be able to wake up every morning and run outside and play with everything and nothing but room to run.  Compared to our regular life we had almost no toys, and it almost never mattered.  The only safety discussions we had were “If you are near the water, you must have a life vest” and “If you are in the grass, you need to wear boots and check for ticks later”.  No traffic, no strangers, no city worries.  He isn’t the type to wander off, so we didn’t worry about that.  Batgirl will be the one with a strict radius rule and maybe some wildlife cameras to keep track of where she’s gone. 

He learned to use a fishing pole, drive boats, watch the sky, and play in cold water (for a little while).  He can spot different types of sea birds, berries in the forest, chanterelle mushrooms, jellyfish, fish, and trees.  The tree identification was also a skill learned at his school.  Monica and the trees of SE Portland were amazing with that.  He loved to “help” people working and was following behind Cora’s uncle when he mowed, Cora’s cousin’s husband on all of his cottage improvement projects, and his grandfather as he chain-sawed firewood.  He was reluctant to carry the wood to the house but he did!  They were kind to be patient with him.  It was so great to see him run and climb along the rocks with grace and joy.  Nothing like a warm slab of granite to ground out any stresses you might carry. 

Swimming was another mater, he wasn’t so keen on that.  It was a cold summer, it took the grownups being brave, generally, to get in.  That fact kept him VERY attached to his life vest.  He had no interest in getting stranded in the cold water.  Thus, I was rarely able to get photos of him without it!  It sets a good tone for the younger cousins.  He did go to an outdoor swimming class that was just about the most quintessential Scandinavian summer thing to do.  Kids playing in a shallow bay next to red and yellow cottages with white trim, learning to put their heads under and swim.  Older kids learning lifesaving techniques.  When they weren’t in the water they played land games, Sharks and Minnows, Duck Duck Goose and the like.  It was Batboy’s first experience with those kinds of games and it was fun but took some getting used to! 

His Swedish is getting better, but he is also self-conscious about it now.  He doesn’t like the things he does to be imperfect, so he gets shy.  We know once preschool finally, finally starts it will go quickly, but I feel for him in the meantime.  Fortunately our good neighbor friends speak English so he has some kids to romp around with.  We’re all gaining it slower than we’d like, but we’re practicing patience. 

He was introduced to Lego Batman over the summer.  Last year was Peanuts, this has been the year of Batman.  Space and rockets and space shuttles have stayed constant.  Lego Batman is a fun version of Batman and he’s gotten us all excited about the Bat.  Even Batgirl likes to steal his batman PJs and wear them.  Roll up the sleeves and she can just manage. 

Legos are his other love.  He didn’t have many Legos over the summer (comparatively), so when the container arrived and we build him his Lego work station, he was over the moon.  Technically under it because a giant moon is right over his work station!  To make him a work station in a fairly small apartment, we took an IKEA pseudo-bunk bed and made the top part that was to be the upper bed a place for him to work with anything he doesn’t want his sister getting into.  I must admit, this was a stroke of genius.  We bleary-eyedly built it the night before the container arrived very late into the night, but it was amazing when complete and SO SO helpful.  Now he sits up there for hours building.  And calling out for help finding pieces.  I am a fan of organizing, so his colors are separated, but so many small pieces and even my system isn’t specialized enough for quick finding.  We don’t really have enough room to go Erik Rudin on the space.  (That is an inside joke for a select very few… just envision a Lego room with A LOT of small boxes!)  I do not like this part of Legos because it usually ends up being my job.  I’m hoping as he gets used to having them there he comes down to do some other work too!  And then school will happen and he’ll be mad to have to leave his Legos to go. 

He’s definitely a homebody, both of our kids are.  They are loving this “all together, all the time” time and would prefer we never leave each others’ company.  Except that they really enjoy when they get one-on-one time with one of us, but the don’t remember that until it’s happening.   He likes to play outside here, but it’s more complicated with winter clothes and being in the city.  We’re all excited to get out of town again, whenever it can happen, and at the least, by next late-Spring, early-Summer.  It helps to have the nature reserve so close, but nothing duplicates being able to run outside on a moment’s notice. 

Felix is still biking when it isn’t too icy.  He’s excited whenever we can plan time to go swimming (inside) and hopes to get into soccer soon.  He really loves Cosmic Kids Yoga.  It makes me crazy but I love watching him do it!  He’s still working on his letters, writing, some math work and some creative work.  A few penpals from school are helping but I do have to twist his arm a bit.  I wish I was set up to do more of the Montessori work he was rocking.  It’s hard to compete with Legos!  It’s a work in progress!  He’s learning the subway stops that are around our house and is SO SO SO excited for the snow whenever it comes.  He loves being out in the nature reserve – and on the flip side, gets cranky and irritated whenever we drive into the inner part of Stockholm.  It’s really cramping my city exploration but is great for getting out to the woods.  So tomorrow, for the Solstice, we’re heading to the woods for an early sunset and nature appreciation moment.  I think he’s going to love it.

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 19th - An update on the baby's world

Dec 19th – Speaking of… what the kids are up to.  Today, the baby.

I’m going to hold back on putting the kids’ names all over this post, I’ll call our boy Batboy and our girl Batgirl.  Because, Batboy is all Batman, all the time, and when you sing the beginning of the Batman theme song...Dunu nuhnuh nuhnuh nuhnuh nuhnuh nuhnuh... she says "Batman!".

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Today, an update on our Batgirl.

Batgirl has grown SO MUCH since we left.  There are lots of pics on Instagram and Facebook, if I post pics tonight I'm going to never going to get to bed. 

She walks and runs and climbs confidently.  She grew through two sizes of clothes before we received our container.  She’s learning more and more words every day, especially after seeing her almost same-aged cousin talking up a storm.  She is loving in such a sweet way!  She kisses all the things she loves, in pictures, figurines, and most adorably, her mamas.  When we left Portland and for most of the summer she wouldn’t let anyone hold her except us, our two nannies, or an occasional pregnant friend.  The last one was always interesting!  Over the summer she became more accustomed to Cora’s dad and a few relatives, but only for short stints.  After being here a couple of months she’s become much more interested in other people and lets a few others hold her.  She loves our neighbors and misses them when they are gone.  She’s SO excited to see her baby cousin in Finland and regularly hugs Batboy.  He says… “Get a picture, this is really cute!”

She loves animals, particularly dogs, cats, and monkeys, loves babies, and loves to watch Batboy bounce and jump around.  She dances to music and sings a little.  She likes to bang loudly on the piano and wants to play guitar with me but just holds her hands on the strings.  It’s really cramping my catch-up-practice to play with my cousin, sorry, Gus!  One of her favorite songs is Cielito Lindo, just the refrain.  I’m not allowed to sing the verses; I’m pretty sure it’s the “Ay, yi, yi, yi.”  Because she loves it so much I’m singing it all the time, and I was blown away today when Batboy, very quietly, sang the whole verse with all the words just right, even sounded like real Spanish.  Be still my heart!  He is VERY shy about singing. 

She is running in that super cute, sure-footed, strutting toddler way; she loves to climb all the things and is not learning from the times she falls.  Nothing serious, but it just makes her want to get it right the next time, so after a cry and a cuddle, right back up.  Musse… this is all your fault.  I cannot let her into the kitchen alone because she wants to climb all of the chairs and after her last growth spurt, with a stool she can easily carry on her own, can reach all of the counters. NOOOOOOOOOO!!!  She also likes ice-covered play equipment.  Oh help.  One day that determination will not be a death trap and I’ll be glad for it!

 She still loves food but not quite as enthusiastically.  Which means less cleanup for us, and that’s ok with me.  She still tries and eats more variety than Batboy.  She isn’t putting everything in her mouth like she used to, which is a relief, but we still aren’t in the clear for small pieces.  She also primarily likes to smash and crash Batboy’s creations or games, so small pieces or not, we have to find a way for them to work in separate spaces a lot of the time.  She’s also loving buttons that do things, light switches, remotes, computers, phones.  She isn’t fooled though, you give her a decoy and she just looks at you like “I’m sorry, what is THIS?!?”

Sibling rivalry is real, she is FIERCELY jealous.  She doesn’t want to share most anything, from her mamas to the toys she knows are hers, or anything that has been hers at one point.  The worst of them all though, is when one of us holds another baby.  Pure betrayal.  Batboy is one thing, he seems to have established his place in her world.  Anyone else and she breaks out the talons and teeth.  She’s completely in love with our neighbors, especially their Mommy, and Batgirl even gets mad when Mommy holds their youngest daughter!  Hopefully this leads her to a life of loving fiercely and not hoarding….

She loves the cold weather and enjoys going for a good walk.  She’s had the chicken pox this last week and has been cooped up and could not wait to get outside.  Over the summer her favorite place to sleep was in her swing on the porch at the island.  I wish we could do that whole “sleep in the pram outside in winter” thing that the internet loves to report on.  Sadly, we have no balcony and it’s not something people do, leaving their babies unattended in the courtyard.  We had hoped to try it, it works really well for her Finnish cousin.

She stopped eating books and now lets us read them!  Yahooo!  Some of her favorites are “Duck and Goose, Goose needs a hug”, “Mommy, Mama, and Me” (Thank you Abby!), Mumin (the baby versions), “Eight Silly Monkeys”, and books with babies and animals. 

She is funny and silly.  She cracks jokes, loves to laugh and has the best smile.  It’s hard to capture in photographs, but it’s getting more and more common.  She says a lot of small words in Swedish and English.  More than just Yeah! now… though she still says that too.  Yeah!  was one of her first words… it took many more months to get No in there.  I love that.  One that cracks us up…even in her sleep she calls out “Prut!” ( it means “toot” as in fart…) when she farts.  Sometimes “Stor Prut” (big fart).  As a baby, it’s adorable.  Less cute when her brother does it at the dinner table… how quickly that happens!!

We don’t have the same amount of one-on-one time that we had with Batboy since he was an only child for those first few years, but we try to make sure she’s getting plenty of books, puzzles, color matching, shape sorting and outdoor play.  She loves all the wooden puzzles we had in the container (thank you Julie and the Teleki family!  They are still being adored!).  She does not like to sit still, whether in a car seat or at an activity.  Every now and then they wake up crazy early and we try to put on the TV… she’s immune.  She enjoys it but like Cora, she can have it on in the background and keep at being busy and everywhere and into everything.  Batboy and I become zombies. 

We think that preschool will be a lot of fun for her.  She seems to be saying in her own way that she’s ready to make friends and get out of the house a little more.  Soon, baby, we are all ready.  Soon.

She’s grown up so so much, it’s just crazy and so much fun.  I love 18 months plus.  It’s the BEST… for me anyway.  We’re having fun, and what a special time that I get to be home to enjoy it.  The best.  I mean, I’m going to get to experience the crappy sleep routine whether I am working or home, but to get the fun silly parts too… priceless.  And Swedes regularly keep their kids home until this age because they can.  What a gift! 

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 18th - Family First in Sweden

Dec 18th – Family First in Sweden

Sweden is a very family centric culture.  It’s one of the big reasons we were excited to live here.  The government prioritizes families through its parental leave support, pensioner support, free education, and health coverage.  And this comes from the Swedish culture, because these kinds of things wouldn’t exist if the culture didn’t support it. They went through some rough times before the turn of the last century, and the result was that they decided to make sure they all took care of the basics for everyone in order to be a successful people.  In this Christmas season, I’d say it sounds a little bit like what that little Baby in a manger recommended when He grew up, you know, taking care of the young, the sick, the poor, the meek.  But I digress.

You see this play out in daily life in many small ways.  For one thing, shops close much earlier than in the states.  People go home to their families, have dinner and go to bed.  Lights are off in our courtyard by 9 or 10 (except ours… ) and there are primarily families in here.  The entire town center (except the 2 bars) closes by 8, and ours is open later than most of the town centers on our T-line.  I don’t know HOW people get shopping done after work when the grocery store is closed by 6pm, it baffles me, but it probably has something to do with the fact that rush hour starts at 3pm.  Work places everywhere are apparently used to parents going home around 3pm to pick their kids up from school, make dinner and get ready for the next day.  This isn’t a small rush, it’s like 5pm in Portland.  It’s on the subway, on the highways, everywhere.  By 5:30 the traffic has lulled.  The subway traffic picks up again at 6:30 or so with a different crowd headed home.  People just spend more time at home here.  They eat out less, they play more games, they probably watch plenty of TV but seriously, after 10pm, the live TV is almost non-existent.  They even baptize their babies at home.  The priest comes to your house. 

I also see extended families more involved in childcare than I am used to.  This isn’t a dig on extended families or friend-families in the states, it’s just a more robust tradition here, and is likely a result of people having more financial/health/retirement security and so more ability to help each other out.  Not a lot of extra, but enough, and with less worry.  I see grandmothers pushing prams in the subway, on the sidewalks, and in cafes with kids all the time.  At our preschool there were always a lot of grandparents helping at the 12:30 pickup, but outside of that community I don’t remember seeing it all that often.  It’s definitely a privilege because it requires people being able to retire with enough and/or have flexible schedules.  I recently heard how a woman who did not have family nearby, who spent her maternity leave like most of us, learning the hard ways how to take care of a newborn on our own, was super frustrated because when her husband took paternal leave, he went to his mom’s everyday for help, fika, and dinner.  (I’d be frustrated too!)  But families are there to support each other.  And that’s nice.   And I’m guessing that grandma will be super helpful in the future because she’s so used to having that babe in her world.  And people CAN take time to do it because of the way things are set up.  It isn’t a perfect system, but this is a pretty great result of a lot of policy makers trying to get it right.

And yes, the irony is that we are a LOT further away from most of our family and our friend-family.  But in the summer we get to see a lot more of Cora’s dad and mom than when were in Portland, spend way more time with extended family, and with the time-off policies here, we’ll have more time off to travel to see our people.  We will be back to visit because we’ll have time, and hopefully when our kids are grown and starting their own families, we’ll have the time and flexibility to be able to help them.  And in the meantime, we’ll have more flexibility to be there for them as they grow up.  And we’ll probably spend more time at home, even more than we did before if that’s possible!   The kids are happy with that, Felix never wants to leave his Legos (unless to play in the snow) and Freja never wants to leave the neighborhood, though she does love a good swing at the park. 

Advent Calendar 2017: A Sunday Adventure

Dec 17th – A Sunday Adventure

I set out today to do some Christmas shopping and go to a “Lessons and Carols” service at the Anglican Church in Stockholm.   It was -4 degress Celsius today, so the ground was frozen hard.  The snow and ice has melted away thankfully, so the sidewalks were clear.  They have laid loads of very coarse gravel.  They were at it at 6am this morning when the kids got us up, an enormous construction machine driving around our courtyard like a go-cart track.  Amazing.  As cold as it is, I really felt the gravel under my leather soles.  It was a very distinct texture.

The air was cold, crisp, and fresh, and it was so nice to get out.  We’ve been cooped up with chicken pox so haven't been out much.  So far we’re managing but we haven’t taken the kids out in the cold. Cabin Fever!  It’s amazing how walking on your own terms, when you’re used to dragging one kid and bribing another as she complains in her stroller, feels a bit like flying.  It’s like when you are backpacking, your pack weighs 50lbs, you’ve been hiking all day, and then you get to take off your pack for a break or lunch or to check out a view.  I felt so light and the possibilities felt endless.  And the view was lovely.

I got on the T just as the sun was setting (about 2pm) and rode up to Sergels Torg, and walked up Drottninggatan with a few specific things to find.  I was even brave and wore less-warm, fancier city shopping clothes to blend in better.  My heavy purse I'm sure gave me away, though.  I got halfway though the first store and I noticed my phone was totally dead.  I plugged it into the battery pack I now carry for this purpose and NOTHING.  Ugh.  I was going to be out for another handful of hours and I didn’t want Cora to worry.  The clerk at the store told me that the closest apple store was WAY far away in a suburb (really??!? Why is there no apple store in Central Stockholm?). 

One thing we’ve noticed about Swedes (generalizing here) is that they aren’t too eager to help you problem solve.  Happy to help, but you have to ask precisely the right question.   I stumbled upon a phone service store, the equivalent of Verizon, and asked if they could help me with the phone.  No, but maybe Gigamex could help.  There’s one in the next Torg over.  He pointed, gave limited directions.  So I went in that direction, found no Gigamex but did find a bookstore and went in there for help. 

Item number one to purchase – a map!  It’s crazy how different a city feels when you don’t have a navigator.  It wasn’t that long ago that I was navigating a wide swath of Bolivia with my trusty travel guide, a map, and maybe a flip phone from my host family because they were nervous about me being out on my own.  There were some grand adventures and getting lost always teaches you a lot about a city, especially on foot. 

I asked the info desk if instead of looking up a book they could help me find Gigamex.  She was super helpful, but we discovered it was closed.  I asked if she knew of a place I could go that had a computer I could use.  We discussed the possibility of there being such a place in the T station, both knowing that there hasn’t been an “internet café” in existence for years.  I checked anyway.  Yeah, no.  Just a Subway Sandwich shop.  In the subway station.  I just put those two together. (doh!)

I gave up on the phone and decided to find my way.  I headed in the direction the clerk told me, but wasn’t super sure I knew which way to turn.  So I stopped in a shop to double check the map directions.  There was a woman looking super bored waiting with her baby for her husband so I asked if she could help me.  I just needed to know if I should turn right or left at the next intersection but she walked me through the entire map all the way to the church where I was headed. 

A ways into the directions, just after a left turn, I got the sneaking suspicion I’d made a wrong turn.  Mind you it’s really cold, so instead of trying to orient the map, I flagged down two middle aged women walking and talking ahead of me.  After being slightly confused as to why I was interrupting them, they helped me find my way.  Why yes, I had taken a wrong turn, but it was easy to remedy.  And again, they were startled by my interrupting but very happy to help.  With phones you never have these brief encounters.  You never talk to strangers because why would you need to?  It's wonderful!

And then I just walked through town, admiring the fancy inner-Stockholm apartments, beautiful architecture, windows.  I had had the foresight to wear an actual watch so I knew how long I had to get to the church.  I was really nice to get away from the phone.  I just wanted to make sure Cora wasn’t worried.  As I walked down the street I found an electronics store that happened to be open.  There was one store clerk in the Service department.  There was no one waiting.  Still, I had to take ticket.  Then wait for a different service clerk to come as she couldn't help me.  Eventually the woman who said she couldn’t help me, did.  Fortunately for me because she got it to live again!!  Hoooray!  I let Cora know I was alive and kept walking according to my map. 

All of this was in Swedish, btw!  It’s getting better!  Slowly…

I made it to the church 20 mins early and there was standing room only.  Swedes only go to church at the holidays but WOW do they go to musical events at Christmas!!  I think every concert I’ve seen advertised has been sold out for weeks.  It’s crazy.  And I think 1 in 10 is in a choir.  There is a website called “find your choir”.com (but in Swedish).  It’s a cultural thing.  Maybe I’ll revive my St.John’s Singers days and find my choir.  I do love to sing! 

And so I went to sing!  The service was perfect.   The chapel is beautiful, stone and high wooden arches.  Very Episcopalian, great carols.  And all in English, which, when it comes to doing things for the sake of tradition and what you remember, is appreciated.  It has occurred to me that if I don’t make sure they learn them, my kids won’t know all the Christmas Songs that I hold dear.  They'll learn the Swedish ones, and that's great!  But I don't want them to miss out on my favorites.  No kids came with me tonight, but probably one day.  

It was beautiful, and an older woman doing a reading brought tears to my eyes; it just felt at that moment that my (long-since-passed) paternal grandmother was there with me at that moment.  I think she would have enjoyed the service and the chapel.  There was something reminiscent of St. David’s in Austin there. 

Since I’d been walking all afternoon and standing for the whole service I really appreciated that it was only an hour and 15 minutes.  And walking back to the bus I really regretted not wearing my more comfortable and warmer shoes.  Otherwise, it was a pretty fantastic day.  The adventure continues!  And now I have a map to live in my purse for the next time my phone dies!  Cheers, y'all!

Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 16th - Driving and Parking

Dec 16th – Driving and Parking

We’ve driven a lot in Finland over the summers so I wasn’t nervous about driving in Sweden.  The biggest difference is that in Finland we are usually driving in the country, on long roads in beautiful scenery with little traffic.  When we get to our destination, there is no trouble with parking (for the most part) and there are very few traffic signs to interpret.  Neither Finland nor Sweden bothers with using police to track speed, but Finland uses a LOT of cameras on the busy country highways to keep speed down.  I blew through one of them in a speed trap because Freja had a blowout and was screaming at the top her lungs and we had our eyes on the prize – a gas station bathroom.  Unfortunately the gas station was right after the speed limit dropped 20km/hr.  Cora’s uncle was a miracle worker and manages to convince the police that we could be let out of the ticket…THANK YOU, JAN!  Generally, no one speeds in Finland.  There are a few roads that you’ll find some people driving fast, usually in really nice cars, going way too fast, but it isn’t common.

There are fewer cameras here and I am pleased to see that Swedes drive a bit more like Texans than Finns.  Maybe it’s the big city, but I always miss Houston drivers.  Seriously, they are the best in the world (of where I've driven), on average.  Everyone is committed to getting through traffic as efficiently as possible.  People merge sensibly, they use blinkers, they give a friendly wave when allowed to cut in.  And they drive FAST.  I am a Houston girl and will always drive like one. 

I love that people drive the speed the road permits here, more or less, and not the speed limit on the nose.  There is a flow to it that is so appreciated.  There are backroads to get around heavy traffic, and if you avoid the freeway between 3 and 5:30pm or so, you can avoid the traffic, for the most part.  Portland was becoming a snarl from 7am to 7pm.  Even on the backroads.  It was miserable!

One really beautiful thing about Stockholm driving is all the tunnels!!  There are long tunnels all over the city.  It allows cars to avoid downtown and other congested areas.  Instead of plowing over historical areas to add in a freeway, the dug underneath.  AND they have periodic art in them!  The one to our house has a giant yellow mosaic braid that curves around the entrance with blue lighting leading up to it.  There is a globe between the two diverging tunnels that represents (I assume) the Globe arena that is just above it.  There are other places, under the butterfly center there is giant grass blades and butterflies,  and others.  It’s just nice!  Even when we were first here and getting lost all over the place, the art gave us a marker to remember and reminded us to take a deep breath when it was stressful.  And it gets stressful because the navigator can’t track you in the tunnels and they diverge quite often.  That is less awesome.  We should probably get a better navigator.

Now that we are in a big city, and not in the country, there are A LOT more signs to learn.  A few parking tickets have been good teachers, unfortunately!  Parking is the biggest headache and you do pay tolls to drive into the city, so it isn’t cheap.  But the tolls are tracked through your vehicle registration and you get a bill in the mail.  This is awesome because there are no toll booths, no lines, no congestion connected with the toll gathering.  And they change depending on what day and what time of day you are driving.  I’m impressed by all that.  Certainly more efficient than the mail system.  

In our neighborhood we currently have free parking but that is set to change starting in January, or soon thereafter.  I wish we could have a resrved space because you constantly have to move your car to avoid snow plow days.  Our street is Tuesday, our parking area is Thursday and in nearby areas it is Monday or Wednesday.  And everyone who is in a snow-plow area needs a parking space the day they plow… so it gets rather congested. 

Snow driving is another new thing to learn.  We have snow tires, they are required after December 1st, and the streets are managed as soon as the snow starts to fall.  It’s a paradise for kids who love construction vehicles; they are everywhere dropping gravel, plowing roads, doing construction.  In our little courtyard they can drive a GIANT front-end loader as well as a mini-digger to do most things.  It’s pretty amazing!  I still avoid the roads when it seems icy, however, and will look forward to getting some schooling on that. 

All in all – it’s not as bad as people make it out to be here.  Yes you can live with out a car here, but we really appreciate having ours.  It is our freedom to shop more efficiently, to explore the surrounding areas and to feel a little less tied to the transit system.  It also helps that we can ride with the car on the ferry to Finland so we can get out to the country there.  Thank you, Micca, for loaning us your trusty steed to help us get settled here!  Hopefully Grandma Della would be happy to see her car being used for our adventures.

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Advent Calendar 2017: 14 - Mail and Package Delivery

We love getting mail!  It sometimes works even!  In all seriousness, it gets here, but man is it a mess!  Sweden allowed private competition for the mail starting in 1993 and now is completely privatized.  The internet people who are advocating for smaller government and more privatization think this is awesome.

I disagree.  

Also, the irony!  Sweden was a trendsetter in privatization?  I will have to learn about how this happened.

I’ve had my issues with the USPS, specifically when my mail was getting opened AT the post office, and then stolen from our and all of our neighbors’ porches.  BUT The US mail system works faster, with cheaper and better tracking systems, and is cheaper overall.  For example, it costs 21 kr to send a letter from here to the US.  That is roughly $2.50.  It costs $1.15 to send a letter from the US to me.  Less than half!  Same route.  Same people involved.  

And because it is privatized there isn’t just one company delivering things.  At least two little motor-bike delivery guys come per day to deliver mail-box mail of some sort.   Sometimes there is a third that delivers advertisements.  DHL delivers packages.  

Now I imagine some of these frustrations are created by living more densely, which is a good thing for city building and making space for everyone.  But makes it hard to leave a package at your back door. 

If you aren’t home or they don’t have your Port Code or they just don’t feel like making the delivery rounds, PostNord and DHL take things to the local candy stores for pickup.  If they have your Port Code (outer door code) they might try to deliver it to your door.  Maybe.  There are three candy stores in Bagarmossen, two of which accept packages.  I thought that was ridiculous, but I just looked on Wikipedia and discovered that in 2009 there were 11,000 residents of our neighborhood!  I would never have guessed so many.  It apparently also won awards for it’s pedestrian and family friendly city design from when it was built in the 50’s.  You notice it for sure, that is one of the best features of the ‘hood.  So maybe we are big enough to warrant three candy stores (plus generous candy sections in the supermarkets on either side of the candy stores)!  

The candy stores have diversified to accept packages as well as offering other services. DHL delivers to one that also rents videos.  I guess there are still people who rent those?  They also have an espresso machine and maybe a hot dog roller/warmer thing.   I’ve never seen them in operation.  The PostNord Godis (candy) delivery point and mini Post Office has assorted sundries and tobacco.  The third doesn’t collect packages to my knowledge.  Don’t know how they stay in business, I’ve certainly never been inside.

When you get a package at the PostNord Candy store you can pick it up after 4pm.  Sometimes.  You stand in a long line often to be told that they didn’t have time to organize everything today.  They don’t know where your package is.  Come back tomorrow.  Meanwhile the delivery company is texting you incessantly to pick it up NOW.  If the owner is there he won’t let you use a foreign credit card to buy anything because of the fees.  If he isn’t there, the clerks don’t notice.  In order to collect your package, you have to have the paper slip or text message saying which package you are there for and your ID.  Once we had a package for Felix and I couldn’t get it out without his passport!!?!  Thank God we have a passport for him!  We don’t always know who the package is coming for so I now walk to the post office with all four passports.  

The DHL delivery system is much easier, they send you a code in a text.  You take that code, plug it into the machine and a door magically opens with your package.  No cranky clerks.  No lines.  But you can’t send anything the other way.  

I went to the Post Museum to mail a package thinking it would be easier.  Less lines for sure but the teller was equally unhelpful but in different ways.  All in all?  Mail is deeply appreciated and privatization, in this instance, is not what it’s cracked up to be.  Thus, Christmas cards are getting mailed from the states by those helpful companies that do this sort of thing for you.  And it will be cheaper than mailing a card from here.  Now that is a business innovation success!

All that being said, the mail delivery vehicles are AMAZING.  They have so many different ones for different types of neighborhoods and they seem to put a lot into making over-use injuries a thing of the past, everything looks very ergonomic.  There are motorbikes and little carts and acutal bikes.  I’ll have to do some more research on all this, it’s oddly fascinating!  Still inefficient but fascinating!

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Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 13th - Glad Luciadag!

Dec 13th – Luciadagen

Happy Luciadagen and Happy Hanukkah!  Both are festivals of lights.  Cheers.

Friends, today did not go as planned.  I have been looking forward to Luciadagen for weeks.  We used to enjoy the Swedish School production in Portland and it is my name day, after all!  I’ve always loved the tradition and was really looking forward to our first Swedish Lucia. 

I looked and looked for the right event.  There are so many celebrations of Lucia that I was stunned just trying to choose.  It’s like being in a new mega-store looking for an item where you have 20 choices but none of them looks quite right.  There are a lot of concerts with amazing musicians.  They are lovely and pricey.  There are ones aimed at kids… over 6, and a few for kids under.  Many, again, pricey, and surprisingly late at night, for us anyway.  There are few out of town that are more home-grown, but our car is blocked in by snow and the walking paths at least are very icy.  I’m sure the roads are better, but I wasn’t very interested in driving if I didn’t have to.   Eventually I found what was going to be an adorable young children’s Lucia celebration, early in the day, for free, and report back.  There was going to be a girl with a crown of candles on her head (probably just LED lights for the little girls) and a train of other girls with candles, star boys, tiny kids with gingerbread people outfits.  It was going to be adorable and followed by a fika with luciakatter, saffron “flavored” (colored) buns with raisins. 

But we were up past 4am with chicken-poxed Freja and I hadn’t found this perfect Lucia for younger kids until mid-morning.  We paid a subway fare before I figured out that the address I had pulled up was for the church’s head office and not the church we were supposed to go to, which was not a straight shot on the “T”  like the head office had been, and we were going to be more than 30 minutes late for a one-hour production.  Ugh.

So Felix and I had a fika of our own.  He elected for a chocolate cookie instead of Luciakatter and I had a dirty chai with oat milk.  Oat milk is a popular not-milk here.  It works pretty well. 

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We played out in the snow for a while and then went home. 

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I tried AGAIN in the evening to find even a Lucia procession, but all of the concerts were fully booked and I couldn’t find any outdoor (ie, no ticket required) processions.  So, I wandered around central Stockholm, back through Gamla Stan and took the subway home.   Not much was going on, most places were closed except the diner spots.  The best highlights - a running club dressed in Lucia garb and a moped/motorcycle club riding through Gamla Stan dressed at Santas with their bikes all lit up.   Those were fun. 

This day falls in the category of “one day I’ll know how this all works and plan accordingly.”   Today was a learning opportunity.  Today I missed my people and the familiarity of a city I know.  Even though I was able to wander between two parts of town with a dead phone and no map without getting lost.  That was a small win.  Even then, there was so much disappointment.

Cora saved my day, as she often does.  While I kvetched and futzed with my phone, she warmed some glögg, lit some candles, set out some chocolates and turned off the light.  Sigh.  It was a perfect celebration of lights.  Thanks, love.

Advent Calendar 2017: 12 - What we're wearing

It's cold out there!  We love to go out and play but sometimes getting dressed and out the door takes all day.  Here's why!  And this doesn't touch on getting the stroller packed and down the stairs.  Reflex is the reflective material that goes on EVERYTHING.  It's good to keep the kids visible in the dark.  This outfit is required for going almost anywhere but straight from inside to car to inside.  And then I see some girls wearing short skirts with just tights.  I just don't get it.  And if a kid is not wearing a hat, every grandmother in Stockholm will descend on you to warn of your child's impending fatal pneumonia.  Even if the hat has JUST been tossed off by the child in question.  But apparently short skirts and tights are just fine?  

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I'm loving all the wool.  Really nothing works better and I'm finally getting to use the many I've collected over the years.  Thank God I have the hand-wash setting on the Grov Washer to keep them clean!  What I haven't figured out is how to look like a fashionable Stockholmer in all these layers.  It's a little colder in our neighborhood than in town, but not warm enough to wear regular shoes.  It's me and the old ladies wearing "sensible" snow shoes!  But I'm warm and always prepared.  Ever the good Boy Scout!  Ready for adventure!

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Advent Calendar 2017: 11 - Our Neighborhood

Dec 11th – Our Neighborhood

Let’s go for a little walk!  You’ve seen the nature side of our ‘hood… now I’ll show you the walk to the town center.  And today it snowed and is so so lovely.  Everyone was acting as if nothing had happened.  Most people on the subway were wearing sneakers with short socks.  Fancy coats with furry hoods, but sneakers and short socks.  I was wearing long-johns under my jeans, two pairs of socks  and my extra warm winter hiking boots.  And a fancy coat with a fake-furry hood.  

We really enjoy our neighborhood.  There are preschools and playgrounds around every turn.  (Maybe one day we'll get to use one of the preschools!!) The two grade schools are good.  People are friendly on average and there is a homegrown art scene as Bagarmossen (our neighborhood) is where a lot of the artists and other misfits moved after Sodermalm was gentrified.  Bagarmossen is heading that way too, and we understand why!  Easy to get to the city, beautiful with access to nature.  Good amenities.  Bagarmossen means Baker’s Hat.  The town center is surrounded by a circle of apartment complexes (and a few houses on the outskirts) in the shape of a baker’s hat.  I love looking at maps of places, so here is a link to our place.  

We are a short walk to the subway.  We go out of our courtyard, through an awesome covered walkway, down a path, under the road via a tunnel.  Then down the path a little further (taking note of the hilarious cat ramps attached to balconies here and there to allow cats access to second floor apartments).  We pass the yummy bakery and the subway is on the right.  We’re on the Green line 17… just like Portland!

Further into the square we have two grocery stores, a pharmacy, four hair dressers, two bars, a handful of restaurants, most take-away, a church, a library and a Kulturskola which teaches kids from 6-22 awesome things like dance and music for really cheap.  There is a Christmas tree up right now, it looks a little anemic to tell the truth.   But then we head to the subway, I have an errand to run in Gamla Stan.

Getting out to go Gamla Stan was fairly magical.  I stopped at the Christmas market there, it was adorable and had a few nice stalls.  Not as nice as Helsinki's though!  The best part of the adventure, though, was walking in our neighborhood.

In our part of town the snow was falling, enough to cover everything.  The lights in windows and trees when I walked home were just so lovely.  Everyone was coming home at the end of the day, the train was packed.  And it was 4:15 when I left downtown.    

Advent Calendar 2017: 10 - Nature!

Dec 10th – Nature!

It's pretty amazing here, the access to nature, even without getting in the car we can escape the city in minutes.  We hoped to live on the edge of town so we could get outside more often and to wilder places but we ultimately decided that getting jobs and making friends was a higher priority.  We knew there were some green spaces on the map but we had no idea!  I’ve been amazed at the richness of parks here!  We live on the backside of Nacka Rerservat (Nacka Nature Reserve) and it’s amazing.  Within 5-10 minutes we’re in an enormous reserve with trails that go for days.  There is a conference center with a sauna about a 30 min walk from our place over bridges and lakes.  In the summer people swim in the lakes around the area because, get this, they are clean!  And according to our neighborhood facebook group, people are making the plunge now as well! I’m not that Swedish yet!!

In the reserve there is also a super cute little golf club house and golf course.  They have classes for kids.  There is a pet cemetery.   There are wide paths that are perfect for strollers and single track also that lets you get into the wilds.  You have to be careful which paths you chose because you can get really far in before seeing a map of how to get back out!!  We took our friend Tine for a walk and were gone WAY longer than planned because we just got so far in.  It was beautiful, though!  And Felix made it the whole way.  

And this is just one park.  There is another nature reserve of similar size just 15 mins down the road, and it doesn’t stop there.  Sweden and Finland even have a law called Allmans Rätt that allows people access to most of the private land so long as you are walking and being respectful.  And the other parks are amazing too, but we struggle to get out of our own neighborhood long enough to get to know them!  

Here are pictures from Swedish nature, just a small collection.  I didn't repeat the ones from Day 1 of the advent calendar.  Some photos are also from Sigesta Gård on Värmdö.  

And when we’re in Finland and the weather is a little warmer, we have two places to spend way out on the islands.  Felix LOVED being out on the islands this summer.  He was free to roam, enjoyed learning all about the flora and fauna and decided that he prefers to use the outhouse to a regular toilet because he gets an amazing view. 

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He learned to scramble over the big granite rocks and figure out which ones were slippery.  He told me today that he wants to live in the country or by the water, but that he doesn’t like the city.  This makes it hard to explore the beautiful city because he complains most of the time, but I love that he loves being outside! It’s nice that we have a lot of that close even though we’re in the city.  We’re really enjoying all the trees and rich mushroom life.  Now to find a spot where we can enjoy sunsets too!   Here are some pictures from our summer in Finland.  Just a few... there are way too many more!

Advent Calendar 2017: 9 - Work!..?

Dec 9th – What is the deal with your work or as some like to say it “Do you ever plan on working in Sweden?”

Why yes, we do plan to work and not be a drain on the socialist system for the rest of our lives.  It will help to get INTO the freaking system so we can do that!  There is a lot going for Sweden and once you’re IN the system, I hear it’s great.  This unexpected set of turns and check points has been less pleasant than making some cool friends.   To say the least, it's been slower than we expected.

First, we expected to sell our house faster.  We had to sell it before becoming residents here or we would pay a hefty 22% tax on the profit.  Not an option.  We thought we'd sell it before we left town... it took 3 months.  Could have been worse, but it was not what we planned for, based on the best information we had available.  So, we waited, I considered flying over to do bad things to our terrible realtor but refrained, and ultimately, we sold our house to a good friend.  All ended as well as could be given that we couldn’t get the three months of waiting back.  C’est la vie when you’re on a crazy adventure, eh?

Then, we expected to get into the system with a bit of red tape but nothing quite like we’ve experienced.  Cora and the kids signed up for their taxID numbers without TOO much hassle.  It was what you would expect, a long line at the tax office, explaining our family situation and showing ALL of our documentation (adoption paperwork, marriage certificates, birth certificates, etc).  Once we explained our family in a way that they could fit us into their boxes, we were golden.  The lady was so nice that she even tracked Cora down on Facebook because she accidentally sent the paper with our contact information back with our originals of other documents.  We got those numbers in about two weeks.  Then Cora went to the bank eager to get her bank account that would unlock Sweden, a bank with whom she has an account in Finland… only was told she needed her Swedish ID card in order to get an account.  Not just a tax ID number.  No work around possible for people who ALREADY HAVE AN ACCOUNT WITH THE BANK.  And a passport to assert identity.  Not good enough. 

So, she went back to the tax office, ordered the ID card and we waited two more weeks for it to arrive.  The day it did, she went back to the bank and we got a bank account, hooray!  But in order to unlock Sweden, you need an online bank ID code that verifies your identity.  You can’t get the online ID code immediately, you have to have that mailed.  It takes 3-5 business days… about two weeks.  But it didn’t come… so Cora went back to the bank after 3-5 business days (two weeks, after being told on the phone to be sure to wait for all of the days, and Monday isn’t a business day…??!?!?!?) only to find out that the teller failed press the button that finalized Cora’s request for the expletive code.  We waited another 3-5 business days (two weeks) (although this time it came faster) and got the code.  Then Cora could register her business.  But it takes some time for them to ACTUALLY register it once you’ve completed the complicated online form, you guessed it, about two weeks.  We’re still waiting for that number.  Once she gets that number, I can go in and register for my number.  The nice lady at the tax office told us about a loophole where business owners’ spouses can skip Migration and go straight to get the tax ID number once the business is registered.  We’re hoping it works like she said it would…  I’m guessing there are steps we don’t know about and each will take roughly... two weeks.

In the meantime we registered the kids for preschool, after searching high and low for one with openings mid-year.  This is a key step in “both of us looking for work/setting up work during business hours when we can actually do good work. “  Then (about two weeks later) we got a letter saying that until we BOTH have tax ID numbers, the kids can’t go to preschool.  Regular school would have been fine, because it’s illegal to homeschool after 7 here, but not preschool.

So we are practicing patience and our kids are REALLY enjoying this life where both parents are around 90% of the time.  And we really need to get into a regular routine because it’s been nice living with so little structure.  But also crazy making.  It’s going to be nice to have a routine again.

And Cora has a potential space to rent, and it should be awesome… and as soon as her business is officially registered… she can sign the lease and move forward.  We’ll tell all about it when it’s finalized.  Don’t want to jinx it.    

So, what’s our situation?  We’re trying to be patient, to not to think  about our savings, to keep our eyes on the prize and trusting it will all work out… hopefully sooner than later, but in no case sooner than two weeks.

And as to what I’m going to do?  That’s a whole other post.  Maybe I’ll write about it in two weeks. 

Advent Calendar 2017: 8 - Making Friends

Dec 8th – Making Friends

I tried so hard to write last night.  I even got most of a post written but all was for naught.  We were on a boat in the middle of the Baltic and the internet promised was barely functional.  I couldn’t even send the email I wrote to tell you I couldn’t send a post last night.  And I’m not surprised because the Viking Line Ferry/Cruise was being tossed by the wind and waves.  We could feel the boat as it crashed hard after each wave.  I am shocked none of us puked before the weather calmed down after Mariehamn in Åland.  

Freja is sick too, so she woke up at 4am for about an hour and a half.  Taking care of her on the rocking boat was nauseating to say the least, and I was mostly curled in a ball singing or shushing to try to help Cora, who was doing the harder work. She was my hero last night.  I’m very grateful she gets less seasick than I do! I’m still swaying as I write this, on land, 8 hours after getting off the boat (while sitting in the Laundry trying to game the system.  Edit... I failed and left when the lights were cut off!).  At breakfast, almost no one looked haggard like we did.  Some were commenting that the night may have given some people trouble.  Some people like us!  Judging from the “presents” left in a few places around the elevators, I’m pretty sure the bar/disco was a bit of a mess, and that some people regretted that last drink or 5.   But I set out to write two posts today, so let’s get to it! 

Making friends was one of the bigger concerns I had in our big transition.  I knew the language would be an issue.  I knew the culture was not known for welcoming new-comers, per se.  I was planning for a veritable long winter’s social nap where I would spend my long nights making Christmas crafts and practicing my guitar/banjo.  I learned from “Welcome to Sweden” that you say “Hej, Hej!” to your neighbors and never another word.  Unless it’s an emergency.  Only then can you also say... "Please help?".

We chose our apartment with the hope that it’s location and community would help us meet people.  Even though you aren’t supposed to talk to your neighbors, maybe there would be a kid thing we could participate in?  And then one day, a few weeks after we moved, a little girl playing in the courtyard said “hello!”  She and her little sister were playing and speaking a little bit of English with their Swedish and the girl said “We have only girls in our family… do you have only girls in your family, too?”  We came to find out they have 5 girls, 3 daughters (4,7, and 9) and 2 mamas, one is Irish and one is Swedish.  And that they speak English (as well as Swedish and Finnish, of course.  We’re a bit behind here!!).  Felix was over the moon and we were excited to have at least one neighbor to say more than “hej, hej” to.  Within a couple more weeks they were singing happy birthday to Felix at our house to celebrate.  They single-handedly saved his birthday celebration.  He still missed his old friends, but felt like he had a real birthday with his new friends.  I was very chocked up when thanking them!  A few weeks after that, Freja agreed to spend a couple of hours at their place while we unpacked boxes.  She LOVES them. She talks about them all the time and lets them babysit her with no fussing at all!  They are some of the kindest people we know, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and wit to make them fun. 

And then they introduced us to another English-speaking, lesbian family.  And they’re awesome too!  And I met another very nice woman at the English-speaking playgroup with a daughter similarly aged to Freja who is on the same page with alternative medicine that we are.  How fantastic! 

We’ve even made some Swedish-speaking friends!  Another super nice family, you guessed it, a lesbian family, this time with two boys the same age as Felix and Freja.  We met them at the LGBTQ play group and one of the mamas was so very kind to have us over.  They’ve been incredibly patient with my Swedish and only clarify in English once in a while.  And a dad in my neighborhood who has similarly aged kids and was super eager to recruit me for the Steering Committee for the housing association has also offered to get together with the kids one of these days, I’m guessing after the holidays.  Sadly, I can’t join the steering committee because we’re renting and don’t own our place.  Would have been a great way to practice my Swedish AND my Robert’s Rules of Order.

So now I’m pleased to say that instead of spending all of our nights hibernating in our apartment, we are already trying to figure out who to meet when and what else we can plan around our social calendar.  And that’s before we work in trips to Finland to see the cousins.  And before I figure out when to get to the next Christmas Market!  I also need some time for Christmas crafts.  #retired30somethingsproblems #goodproblemstohave

I don’t think most of this would have happened if we hadn’t been a queer family with kids.  The kids part is key number one.  No matter where you are, from what I’ve seen, having kids allows you to make friends with people who otherwise wouldn’t be open to expanding their community or who you simply wouldn't get to talking to.  It’s a great time to meet other people with kids who get along with yours, and if you are neighbors, maybe your kid can go play at the other kids’ house for a bit and give you a chance to breathe.  There are so many kids in our apartment complex and it’s nice to see that they run back and forth between the houses.   It is still true that your kids have to be compatible in age and interests, just as it often is in the US. For an old friend, having kids of different ages is something you manage.  New friends… often just isn’t worth it yet.  And then there’s the English speaking bit.  All in all, we’re circulating in micro-communities of people who want to know other people like us.  And that is what makes big, cosmopolitan Stockholm feel smaller and more manageable. Sigh of relief.  And taking a deep breath, we’ve got a lot of socializing to do before the weekend is out!  Play date at our place, Christmas dinner at another’s…thank god most of these people work!!  We’d never get a break!  No but really, we feel lucky and are so happy for this unexpected twist.  They don’t replace all of you, AND it’s nice to have some friends.

Advent Calendar 2017: 7 - Finland day 2

I got sick today and had a horrible headache, so the writing is taking a break.  I tried to hide under a pillow most of the day and convince Cora and the kids to go do something more fun.  But here is how Självstandihets Dag looked in Finland yesterday!  It was a bluebird day, for the few hours we had sunlight that is!  We took the city bus from Espoo to Helsinki despite Felix being mad as hell that we weren't staying home to play in the snow.  This is where Cora's cousin lives, just outside of Helsinki.  It's lovely and quiet, the sea is near by.  A hare lives in the neighborhood and hops around... it's huge!! 

I don't know how to photograph the light here yet, it is amazing.  The sunlight is golden and so lovely all the time it is up.  These pictures don't do it justice.

In town we met up with the rest of the family and walked around town, enjoying the light, and each other's company.  Cora's 90-year-old great aunt was in tow and we all enjoyed the lively mood of the city for the centennial Independence Day!

We then went to the Christmas Market, which was exactly what I'd hoped it would be, except that we were all cold and needed to warm up the kids and the 90 year old, so had limited time to look around.  

After warming up we went to the graveyard to honor the Finns who have passed who are also part of this important day.  Most honored are the veterans who fought to gain and preserve Finnish Independence.  It was a beautiful night, and so many people were out of all ages.  It was a beautiful tribute.  

To cap off our day, we went to  friend's house to watch the president's independence ball on TV and failed to get the kids to bed so we could enjoy ourselves.  Freja came to par-tay!  Glad 100 års Självstandighets Dag, Finland!  Heja, Finland!

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Advent Calendar 2017: 6 - Finland

Dec 6th – Finland                                                                             

Glad självständihetsdag!  Happy Independence Day!  Today is the 100th anniversary of Finnish Independence and we are here in Helsinki to celebrate with Cora’s extended family!  We took the boat over last night, it’s a mini- cruise that is very affordable, and we get to bring the car.  It takes time though, the boat leaves at 4:30 pm from Stockholm and arrives the next day at 10am in Helsinki.  You can sing karaoke in Finnish most of the night if you like, we went to bed.

A significant part of our life in Sweden is Finland.  Our family is part of a small Swedish-speaking Finnish community that is Finnish first and Finlandsvensk (a very close) second.  They are not Swedish even though it’s their mother-tongue.  It’s a micro-culture that is lovely to be a part of.  The accent is specific to this small community, the community has its own specific history, and it’s filled with warm people who I’ve been honored to know.  Being Finnish citizens is how we get to be here.  I’ve been coming in the summer since 2008 and Cora since, well, since she was born.  Coming from a small minority population means our experience isn’t the standard Finnish experience, and it is pretty special.  

We are lucky to have island places to enjoy in the summer and this past summer was a dream of watching the countryside transition from late spring to late summer.  We watched the fields change from green to gold and watched the harvest come in.  Even Felix was mesmerized, after all there was a rich tapestry of farm equipment to watch.  It’s beautiful. 

Finnish people have been living in so many parts for hundreds of years.  It’s weighty to feel how far they’ve come from a pretty hard agrarian/maritime life to what the country is today.  In many places, families have been in the same community for 400 years or more.  And by “same community” I mean living on the same island… not a big one.  The churches have memorials to seamen and fishermen who saved king’s ships in the 1600s.  The men who saved them have relatives living there now.  It’s a big contrast from the land of “everyone is from everywhere,” which is also beautiful, just different.  When you walk in the woods there is a heavy sense of spirits of all kinds around you.  Good thing the summer sun was out until 11pm!

Today for Finland’s 100th Independence Day Celebration people all over Finland people will be lighting candles in graveyards, particularly for veterans like Cora’s grandfather who fought to preserve Finnish independence, and to remember past generations who worked to make it possible.  It’s tangible here, the connection between independence day and those who earned it.  It’s not been that long.  And Russia is always looming at the threshold in Karelia. 

There will be fireworks and balls to attend.  I’m excited to see what I can see!  The fireworks aren’t till 10 pm, so we’ll be inside staying warm somewhere.  It did snow today…  Pictures will come tomorrow so I can post this and go enjoy!

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It’s a funny thing being a Swedish-Finn in Sweden.  People recognize the accent even in my Swedish, and thus that I am not Swedish but also not so much of *.  In fact, my hairdresser told me that it’s so unthinkable to people that I wouldn’t speak fluent Swedish because of my Finnish-Swedish accent.  It’s like a non-native English-speaker who looks like they are from the native culture having an Austin, Texas accent.  It’s from such a small community that who would start there with a new language?  So almost no one switches to English with me.  A blessing that feels like a curse sometimes! 

Swedes often don’t know a lot about Finland and many have never been there, but the reverse is almost never true.  Finland was once Swedish (for 700 years), so their history is permanently intertwined with Sweden and most I’ve met have been at least once, especially if they are Swedish speaking.   

After all of this time here, I’m proud to be married to a Finn.  I’m thrilled to be living in Stockholm with so much happening all the time, with beauty around every corner, with a language I’ve been trying to learn for so long.  The people are surprisingly warm and it feels alive.  The employment possibilities are significantly greater and people are more open to Cora’s acupuncture and naturopathy.  I love so many things about it and am hoping it will feel like home at some point in the not too distant future.  But there is always part of us that will be at home in Finland, and there are some amazing things about being Finnish.  Finnish foods are more varied and have more complex flavors.  Their fashion is outlandish at times! Swedes are fashionable, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more toned down and usually more uniform.  Honestly, I don’t know that I could pull off what some middle-aged Finnish ladies wear, but I love that they do it!!  Finns are hardworking, they keep things ordered and are sensible.  Helsinki is smaller; it is also inviting with its older buildings, higher density, and European charm, but it’s cozier than Stockholm.  There is a cohesiveness to Helsinki that Stockholm is just too big to have.  It also makes for less going on in Helsinki, so there are trade-ups.  It’s a beautiful place.  I’m proud to get to be a part of it.