My Trip to Norbotten, Sweden

I hate having to repeat stories all the time, so I'm posting this so that all my friends can read this at once, as well as anyone who might care how my trip went. All in all, it was the most successful vacation my family has ever taken. Our house did not flood. Our car did not die. No one got injured. And despite a centuries old family curse on my side of the family, no luggage was lost! But I digress.

In the Fall of 1994, relatives on my mother's side told me my grandmother was going to die, and that she insisted upon seeing me before her time came. The major problem was she moved back to Sweden a few years earlier, and not only Sweden, but Northern Sweden! Well, I went, and not only did I get to meet some of the neatest people overseas, but my grandmother made it through, and they all promised to invite me back, which they did, and thus, this story was born:).

Some Photos from My 1994 Trip to Sweden During St. Lucia

On the way there, the flight crew dressed up for St. Lucia, paraded about the isles, and handed out glögg (a traditional raisin-aquavit punch)

This was my main reason to visit. I was having lunch with my "mormor" (maternal grandmother) Edit in Ågarden in Boden.

I got to meet cousin Carin Caarle and her husband Ebbe, which my mother had told about while I was growing up. This is at their house in Luleå.

Sven and his mother in downtown Luleå. Swedish cities have a unique small-town feel without being lost in the past. Thuroughly modern yet quiant. Describes the people there very well.

My "main liason," so to speak. Sven was a gracious host, who not only put up with my incessant talking and questions, but never broke a sweat. Here we are at Karin and Jonne's house in Boden, with Sven's mormor, Henna.

Sven's younger brother, Mats. Mats makes fiddles in his workshop at their father Gunnar's house.

This is Siv and her mother Henna. I stayed at Siv's house the whole time I was there, and she taught me a lot about Swedish cooking, including pålt, which I love.

This is Jonne and Karin's stuga, a summer cottage that I would later stay at. In the shed, they have a HUGE snowmobile, which is kind of a neccessity this far north. The building on the far right is the actual house, which later they added an extra floor.

They invited us back for the Summer of 1996, and we all decided Midsommar would be a good time. Midsommar is a huge festival in Sweden that has no real parallel in the United States. Last time I went during St. Lucia, which is a small festival where children dress up in white and carry candles, but Midsommar is a real party! But early in the year, I changed jobs , and wasn't sure I would get the vacation by that time. When it was finally shown when I would get vacation, we planned to visit in early August, but when we tried to get the plane tickets, The Olympics! Ugh, nearly impossible to get Atlantic flight tickets during that time, even way in advance. We finally did scrape by and get tickets for a week after we wanted to go, and the trip was going to be difficult. We'd have to drive an hour to Baltimore/Washington Airport (BWI), park there, get a plane to Kefalvik, Iceland (the Airport near Reykjavik), transfer to a flight to Stockholm, and then fly to Lulea, where my cousin would pick me up to drive to Boden, a city just 20 minutes South of the Arctic Circle. And with a recently turned six-year old in tow! But travel we must.

Glottal Nordic Accents Abound

Christine works in Maryland, so we agreed to meet her there by Metro. Since we had already packed the night before, and put our luggage in the car, CR and I packed our carry-ons, and headed out towards the metro. Taking the 5S Fairfax Connector bus ("If it's good enough for crazy people who pick their noses and talk loudly to their own clothing, it's good enough for you... it's Public Transportation!"), we went to the West Falls Church Metro, touted by Virginia Tourists as one of the most concrete-colored of all Metro stations in Falls Church. Taking the Orange line to Metro Center, my son and I paused briefly to admire a man arguing that he should be allowed to let his whole family in on just one farecard. I paused at this sight, and almost muttered "Damn tourists," when the irony hit me that I was going to be a tourist soon, and maybe I should show some respect. Then it was off to White Flint on the Red Line where my son extolled the virtues of coating his fingers with black gunk from the escalator hand rails and pointing out punk haircuts.

Christine picked us up in our newly-repaired car, and we headed towards her work so she could finish some last-minute details. I got to meet some of her co-workers, one of whom I did just the opposite of dazzling by un-impressing her with Mac knowledge that she had not understanding of, nor care. At times like this, I often notice that glassy stare of my hostage audience when I am suddenly aware of just how boring a one-sided conversation I am having with someone who is obviously intelligent, but nonetheless wishing that their phone would ring so they could gracefully exit my droning speech. I, too, noticed that I was unable to stop without making it sound like an uncomfortable and sudden silence, so I continued like a pointless documentary, wishing as well that her phone could ring so that I could stop. Luckily, my wife knows how much I talk, so she interrupted gracefully, and hid me in an abandoned cubicle with my son who will always know how to stop me from speaking by simply wandering off in mid-sentence. I then spent time spinning him around in a chair.

Then we left for BWI, and we parked in a huge satellite lot, and marked on a piece of paper where we parked, knowing that we could not possibly remember it ten minutes from now, much less a week. We wrote down "Green Lot, Section A". A bus took us to the airport itself, which exemplified the common 1980's architecture of airports: huge glassy places with criss-crossing girders that look like they were inspired by Tinker-Toys, or that there was a huge warehouse sale on PVC piping and glass. We got our seat assignments on Iceland Air, said what I thought might be a final goodbye to our luggage, and then bummed around some to kill time. We got a gift for Siv (my Grandmother's niece), and CR saw dwarves for the first time. "DAD!" he shouted at what seemed like 50 decibels past polite, "Little adults!" I have always wondered how kids know what are kids and what are not, considering CR had never seen a dwarf in his life. "How do you know they are not kids?" I asked, hoping for some insight into his exciting thought process. "I dunno..." he said, confounding my scientific curiosity yet again. We ate at Roy Rogers, and paid too much for hamburgers. I purchased some reading material for the trip, and chose "Raptor Red", a book about a velocoraptor as told from the eyes of a fiction-writing paleontologist. This was a serious piece, but in order to jazz up paperback sales, I suppose, they put this honking huge hologram on the cover, making it look as tacky as a Zebra Holo-Romanace cover (for those women out there who remember that series fondly).

When the gate for Iceland Air opened, we waited in a large waiting room, complete with duty-free shops and restrooms. It was then I heard Icelandic for the first time. I have heard all kinds of languages, from Latin-based, to Saxon-based, but Icelandic is sort of German/Hebrew/Russian as far as accents go, and nearly everyone was speaking it. I was later told it was the closest language to the old Nordic Viking speech. Even their letters are weird, and I am used to bars and dots mangling vowels in Saxon-based languages like German, Finnish, and Swedish, but those weird Icelandic people mangle consonants as well! Putting lines through the letter D and so on. Never have the Romans suffered so much from their letters. Then a stewardess boarded us, and we packed into the small 757-200 and watched "Broken Arrow" starring a former Sweathog, Vinny Barabrino. It was pretty bad. The food was good, however, and I watched the sun set over my sleeping wife who insists on getting the window seat so she can snooze away her motion sickness. Then a few hours later, it rose again, and we were in Iceland.

From Barren Wasteland to Pine-Fresh Paradise.

Most people hate planes for the food, the take-off, the landing, etc... I like the take-offs and landings, and even find turbulence comforting, but I HATE sitting still in seats designed by sadistic efficiency experts for hours while my body, too tall for most compact cars, writhes in orthopedic pain. I often go to the lavatory not because my bladder demands severance, but because my legs, back, and posterior demand a position that does not cause a pressing numbness on my spinal column. My last 9-hour flight to Stockholm was bad, but this 5 hour flight to Iceland was even worse, because the seats were even smaller, and I think my butt was fatter than last time. And when I am in pain, and sitting upright, I cannot sleep. Not that they let you. Captains belching out in Icelandic what god-forsaken icy rock we are flying over and we could see if it wasn't for the clouds, stewardesses asking if you want a meal, and being in the isle and being big assures you that you will receive constant bumps and foot-stomping of passer's by to the other side of the plane. Not that Icelandic Air is bad about it, in fact, the service was great, and the food was worth it enough to make me wish I passed over Roy Roger's $3.29 Hamburger. I just hate being on a plane for a long time. The over-painted stewardesses were sweet and polite, even to the rudest of passengers, but personal space is measured in millimeters on a plane, and I often found myself speaking inches, oh, excuse me, centimeters away from a face that looked like is was spray-painted with latex. The accents were almost Russian, and combine that accent with youth in bad makeup, I though I was in a Roger Moore version of a James Bond film ("I am sorry, Meester Bohnd, but I hef to keel you now...")

Landing in Keflavik reminded me of those bad science fiction films where the protagonists land on a god-forsaken chunk of land only to proclaim that they don't see a ship that might have given off a distress signal, whereupon they either get eaten by something with tentacles, or the captain mates with one that looks suspiciously like a chorus girl in green body paint. Iceland's Airport is on the ugliest chunk of land I have ever had the displeasure of seeing my aircraft land on. The craggy volcanic brown debris scattered unevenly as far as the eye can see, which is about as far as the featureless ocean, or the mountains. In Iceland's defense, I am sure they put the airport here because nothing else wanted to be there. The magazines of Iceland showed grassy rolling hills worthy of a Saga, and natural hot springs with friendly natives boiling themselves for tourists. And they brag about seafood, which includes (as Dave Barry might say, I am NOT making this up!) whale and puffin. Yes, puffin, that cute and pudgy black-and-white seabird with the cry of a immature buzzsaw and a safety-orange beak. Icky-poo. Keflavik tried its best to jazz up the place, including installing modern art. One piece that sticks in my mind was a rainbow-colored object d'art outside the main terminal that looked lonely and festive amid this bleak brown plain, as if to say, "I'm fun, really! Take me home, now, please...".

The airport was very nice. Carpeted floors and a small size gave visitors a cozy feeling as they are led to the main atrium, which is more of that PVC-pipe-and-panel decor I mentioned earlier. A statue of Leif Erikson (I'm related to him somewhere) was in the main doorway, and planes hung from the ceiling. But the one feature of this small but busy terminal was "IceMart!" Anything and everything Icelandic can be bought here, from wool sweaters and stuffed ravens to "Reykjavik Hard Rock Café" tee-shirts and Bjork CDs (they are proud of that girl, they are). My family and I got to sample some of the best Icelandic chocolate (rivals close to fine Swiss Chocolate, very good!) and mineral water.

But soon, it was off to skies again in cramped conditions and Christine and CR slept again while I was forced to watch foreign children run rampant in stocking feet back and forth through the isle. Not soon enough we landed in Arlanda, Stockholm's International Airport, which I may add, is not near Stockholm, but about a 45 minute drive away, kind of like Washington Dulles is to DC. But the scenery is beautiful! There is a main "causeway" through the terminals called "Sky City", which is kind of odd, because "Sky" in Swedish is pronounced something like "shuu" and means "Gravy", as in what you put on mashed potatoes. But no gravy was to be had, and we were in a hurry to get to the other end of Arlanda, where our flight was already boarding. Well, when we got there, we found out they were boarding the waiting room only. So we stopped and ate free fruit for a while, before they let us board. We had to drop our luggage on a chute, which was kind of odd, and I was sure my luggage would be lost now!

An hour and twenty minutes later, we were in Lulea (pronounced "Loo-lay-AW"). My cousin Sven met us there, and we waited forever for the luggage to arrive, but when it came, nothing was lost! Hooray! But leave it my son to lock himself into a bathroom. I had to jimmy the lock to get him out. We got to ride in Sven's "Seat" (pronounced "SEE-aht"), a Spanish car made by Volkswagen. In America, I think they are called "Jettas", but I am not sure. We drove for a while towards Boden, admiring scenery that I thought was nice in the winter, but the summer, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Huge pine forests and small little barns dotted lands around the roads as we drove by.

Boden (pronounced "BOO-den")is a small military-oriented town on the Lule ("LOO-Lay") River. Sven's mother Siv lives there in an apartment, called a "Flat" in Europe. Siv welcomed us with open arms, and introduced herself to her boyfriend Gunnar, a musician. We then ate, and Christine got to savor over some of the delicacies I had when I was in Sweden last, including cloudberries and herring. By that time, it was night, and not really dark as I am used to because it was still summer and we were only a twenty minute drive from the arctic circle. It got dim out around 10pm, and stayed dim until about 4pm when the sun came back up again. But we were exhausted from our plane trip, and we had a busy day the next day, so we went to bed. Siv put us up in her room, which had two twin beds next to each other to make a king bed, and CR slept on a mattress on the floor. "Where will you sleep?" we asked. "On a futon in the den!" she said. Oh no! We put the woman and her boyfriend out of their beds! But she told us not to worry.

Discovering food allergies

I woke up early coughing, so I read some of my book "Raptor Red", and then got up for breakfast. Christine had already found out that Swedish coffee is far superior to American coffee on the plane, so she was already addicted to the fine blend of roasted caffeinated beans from Africa and Columbia. I told her so... we ate some Swedish breakfast, and Christine was sure that we were annoying our hostess by now with questions.

To Lulea we went, and we toured the local streets of the fine city that was moved in the last few hundred years (300 years ago is "recently" in European history, really puts a perspective on things as an American). Then we went to my cousin Carin's house in Lulea, where I stopped breathing, literally. Asthma strikes again! But I had never had an attack this bad before. It turned out that I was allergic to berries! How fun. Well, I never got into berries much anyway, so I didn't miss them. We also discovered at this time that CR's asthma machine needed, yes, you guessed it, a European adapter, which we did not buy in the US because we thought we wouldn't need one if we weren't bringing our hair dryer. Luckily, CR did well without it, since the air was so clean.

Carin was ever the gracious hostess. She made us comfortable for the rest of the visit. Man, Carin sure can cook! The peppered pork chop meal was delicious. We stayed a while while Christine heard about some of my early youth. It's kind of weird; my mother died before Christine ever got to meet her, so she had never heard stories about how I was when I was young. Carin only saw me for a short time, but she re-affirmed my memories that I was a quiet and shy youth. That was reassuring, since when I look at my son bounce all over the place, I wonder, "Was I like that?" Apparently my memory of being quiet was at least partially true. Then we said our goodbyes and went home. Why was I so thirsty? Swedish air is so dry...

The field trips begin.

Sven took us on a tour, which included a 1800's salmon fishery, where the mosquitoes nearly ate Christine alive. It was weird, since the buildings were recently restored, and previous graffiti was not removed. So along with "Anderson 1912" and "Nils kilt a bear here 1895", there was "JP + MR '77" and "KISS" with appropriate jagged lettering. There was also a weird stone circle here and a neat story about a man who climbed a tree to escape persecution, only to find the richest salmon run in history.

Then it was off to Voullerim, a place where they found a 6000 year old settlement, and smack dab in the middle of old wilderness was a ultra-modern museum with a café that sold ice cream and danishes. We saw this great film about primitive peoples that they showed us in English, since were the only people in the amphitheater at the time. Really cool.

Then is was off to Jokkmokk, the Soumi (Lapplander) Southern Trading area, complete with museum and reindeer cuisine. Now before any of you think I am gross, cruel, and possibly sick for eating reindeer, I am not going to give you a speech that it tastes like chicken. It is virtually indistinguishable from beef. Christine and Sven had small reindeer steaks, and I had a soft of stir-fry with rice. Very good. The museum was also a history of Northern Sweden (Norrbotten) from both the Soumi and early farmer perspective. I judged from all the photos that early Swedish farmers were dirt poor, but had huge mustaches.

We also crossed the Arctic circle. There is a small chalet-like restaurant (which we didn't go to) up at the top of a hill, but a blue sign in many languages told you this was it: The Arctic Circle. What is it? Well, it's the southern limit of the Arctic region (lat. 66 degrees 30' N); because of the way the Earth spins around the Sun on a tilted axis of rotation, it is also the southernmost limit of the midnight Sun, or 24-hour summer day. The humorous side of this was the old joke question, "Is there a huge dotted line on the ground?" Well, someone thought of that, so there is a small dotted line of white painted rocks that come from the chalet above, stop at the road, begin again at the other side, go down the river embankment, and end at the river. Does it stop there? Oh, no! Careful looking shows that not only did someone paint rocks on the other side of the river white (thus continuing this "dotted line"), but there was actually a couple of floating white balls anchored in the river itself, completing the illusion that there was a real line. Swedish humor; you had to be there. I wonder if someone thought of painted rocks in Ecuador? After this visit, and the signed certificate to prove we crossed the abstract boundary, I felt I had really gone someplace different. Now I felt traveled. Funny how a stupid group of painted rocks can do that to a person.

On our way back, we stopped at the Boden damn, owned by Vattenfall, the Swedish power company. The hydroelectric power in this place was immense, you could feel the air sing with the electricity, and the floor vibrated with the huge turbines we saw beneath our feet. They also had a small salmon fishery, and we saw some local fish in a tank. The Swedes are very eco-conscious. I felt bad when the tour guide asked me what fuel sources my power came from. I had no idea! I guessed coal.

After a lot of walking, and Christine's bug bites (they say the if you are bitten by bugs a lot, your blood is sweet), we went back Siv's flat, and slept.

The next few days was visiting relatives and chatting. I'll cover the highlights:

Grandma Edit

My grandmother is 89. She barely knows who she is, or where she is. I visited her in her little "servishus" (Service House, a sort of old-folks-home, but nicer). Edit (Edith to you Americans) was my mother's mother, and after her husband died, and my mother (her only child) died, she sort of lost her long-term goals, and got depressed and senile. So she moved back to Sweden, after leaving there over 60 years ago, for the health care and the relatives. Over the years and operations, she needed more assistance, and now receives full round-the-clock service and meals. The people who work there are young men and women, who are very pleasant, and loved the fact we were American ("You like David Letterman? Alright!"). But one of the main reasons I went was to settle the affairs of my Grandmother upon her final passage. No one knows when she's going to die, there's been several close calls in the last few years. It was kind of ghoulish to plan out her death, funeral, and financial matters, but it had to be done, and everyone was real supportive. We got done what needed to be done, and talked out in the open how everyone felt. It was unanimous that we knew she felt left behind by all the people who died (she is also the last of a family of 9 brothers and sisters), and that her final passage will not be a sad one, but a sort of bon voyage. There might be some money left over after it's all done, and I have kept that bon voyage concept in mind when it's all over.

While I was there she recognized me part of the time, and even some visitors part of the time, but most of the time, she had to be reminded to speak English. I think she had a good time while visiting, but I can't really be sure.


In the middle of the week, we decided to stay at Karin and Jonne's Stuga, partly for space reasons (a lot of land to run around and play for my son). A "Stuga" ("cottage") is a summer home, often red in color, that Swedes usually own, have a relative that owns, or rents for the summer. It's kind of part of the "Swedish dream" to own one, and I think more than half of the people in Sweden own one. Jonne (short for "Jon Eric") is Edit's nephew, and Karin is his extremely animated wife. Jonne works for the department of transportation, and Karin heads a large group of "Dagis", a sort of government-subsidized day-care center. I call her animated because she's really one loud, talkative, creative, and witty person who cannot seem to sit still.

This stuga was like many in the fact it had no internal bathrooms or showers. The bathroom was a small toilet in an unlit part of a separate bath/storage building behind the "guest stuga", which Christine and I slept in. No air conditioners (this is Sweden!), and heating was done by fire or stove, depending on which room you were in. They were kind of like cabins. I had my first shower, which we did as a family. That was really nice. The Shower was in their sauna, and since the solar-heated hot water went cold, Jonne had to boil water in this huge stove. Then you mixed hot water with cold water in plastic bins, and poured it on yourself, or on each other, which was more fun. Of course, having to got to the bathroom in the middle of the night was unique, especially because of the "midnight sun", now a dusk-like light in the middle of the night. I wanted to shout, "Go home! Go to sleep! Now is the time to set!", but the sun would surely not listen. Also, our room was decorated in early 1970's teenage girl decor, with orange wallpaper, shag carpeting, and velvet pictures of flower, piglets, and one poster of a young couple silhouetted on a beach, the girl noticeably topless and cold.

Another aspect of this stuga was the main house was not only yellow (not standard), but Jonne had built a second floor, but no stairs. He and his wife were having an argument on where to put them, and decided to wait until next year. It was a family topic of conversation. Most of the main relative meetings were held in the main house, the veranda, or the lawn. Vegetables were fresh from the garden, and we feasted on renstek (reindeer meat), fish, and Christine cooked an American meal for them. It was hard to decide was "American" really meant, since we're all ethnic immigrants, and we knew nothing of Native American cooking. We decided on Country-fried steak, gravy, mashed potatoes, ham green beans, and pineapple upside-down cake. We also tried to make fudge, but there was no sweetened condensed milk to be had in Norbotten.

We also went to Jonne and Siv's mother's (Henne's) stuga, and Sven took me and my son fishing. There must be some justice that CR caught not only the first fish, but caught another fish, and all Sven and I caught were two fish, one was thrown back because it was too small, and mine that was barely big enough. CR caught the only really edible perch, but we had to leave before they could be cooked, which Karin said was a shame because she said, "Children should eat their first catch to show them why they fished." My son still thinks he was going to keep them as pets. Perhaps that was for the best.


Sven took us to Finland, mostly because Christine thought it would be cool. But we did have a good time in that long car trip. After a long ride, we crossed the Finnish-Swedish border, and both governments could care less. We didn't even slow down through the checkpoint that resembled an abandoned toll area. We drove around and visited the tourist information bureau while my son got over his carsickness. We were at the Northern tip of the Gulf of Bothina. And it was windy and cold. We also stopped at the Finnish Tourist Shop, and bought touristy things, like licorice and handmade wooden things. Christine got a ring made of reindeer bone. On the way back, we watched some salmon fishermen fish with huge nets attached to poles. We weren't there long, so it wasn't as exciting to tell about as it was to be there. The one thing that I took with me from that journey was the fact that this was the first time I had ever been in a country where I totally did not understand the language. In my adult life, I have been to Sweden and Mexico, and I do speak a little Spanish and Swedish, so I could understand store signs and basic things, but Finnish is really really weird (the only langauge I know of where the word for "NO" does not start with an "N" or is one syllable; "Sekki" I think it is...).

The Trip Back:

It's always hard to say goodbye. Everyone was really nice, and we had a great time. You can say that over and over again, but it gets awkward after a while. We got some good goodbye presents. Christine got a handmade necklace with the Soumi sun god symbol carved into it from Sven, and a huge hand-knitted bedcover from Henne. I got a knife from Sven's father Gunnar; a really good one that was handmade with good, quality steel and a handmade wooden handle and wooden sheath. It's the kind of knife that you pass down from generation to generation. CR got one that was smaller (pen-knife size). I also got a book about Northern Scandinavia, and a book by Astrid Lindgren, "Ronia, the Robber's Daughter". Both, blessedly, were in English.

What made it really hard to deal with saying goodbye was that it wasn't like, "Oh, I'll see you again next summer," or "Come visit soon," since it was halfway around the world, and when will I get money to go again? I estimate we'll go back in a few years. If my grandmother passes away, depending how much I have left to inherit, I might use that money and our money to go, or maybe I'll be one rich dude selling Punk Walrus books and I'll say, "Oh, yeah, I'll come over for palt! I'll just jump into my learjet and see you in a few hours..." But it was not knowing that made it hard. It's weird to finally find a family, and then have them separated by thousands of miles from you. We did invite them to come over once we get a decent place to live. Karin's daughter Suzanne seemed particularly keen on coming over. I just hope she doesn't watch our 10 O'clock news. That would scare her...

The plane trip was boring. Boring, boring, boring. And long. Long and boring. Boring and long. Did I mention it was boring? We saw some movie that starred Robert Redford as a newscaster who sets a woman up to be a prime anchor person. I think it was called "Up Close and Personal". It was really, really, bad. Just awful. But the food was good again. The last flight back to Baltimore was filled with crying babies, but we were seated so close to the engines, we barely heard them. I guess I just missed everyone so bad.

Coming home met with no disaster, either. Our car started, and when we got home, nothing was flooded or went wrong. This may seem like a weird and pessimistic thing to say, but if anyone who has known our previous vacations, this was a bloody miracle. Our cats didn't even go nuts.

But culture shock is a shock nonetheless. I can't say I'd ever live in Sweden. I'd miss the glare, pomp, and circumstance of the American media, the pow and blam of the storefronts, and the fact that things don't shut down when the sun sets. But when I watch the 10 O'Clock news... I wonder if I should have torn up the return tickets sometimes...

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