Monday, August 31, 2009

Alice in the Grocery Store

When I went to Sweden I went to many beautiful and quaint little towns, drove through green and picturesque countryside, and had many breathtaking, enjoyable experiences.

Nevertheless, one of the most facinating things I experienced was something quite humble: going to the grocery store.

If anyone was going grocery shopping, I made sure to tag along. The grocery store was like a wonderland and I was like Alice.

The Swedish Grocery Store

It was different before we even walked through the door. To get a cart, you insert a coin into a slot on a chain of carts and unlock one from the group, a bit like baggage carts at the airport except when you return your cart, you get your coin back.

When you walk in, each person slides their grocery store card through a slot and takes a scanner from a wall of scanners. This you take through the store to shop, scanning your items along the way and dropping them into your shopping bag, which you also scan and buy. At the check-out, you hand your scanner to the clerk and pay the cost.

What do groceries selections tell you about people?

I wondered this while I was there, and I have been wondering the same thing about Americans ever since I got home.

In Sweden, there are entire aisles devoted to mustard, to fish pastes, to licorice, and to fikabröd (coffee cakes). Now that I'm home, I am still searching for good fikabröd, since fika is a Swedish habit I brought back with me (I'll tell you all about that in another post).

Our stores in the US concentrate on other things, for example, entire aisles devoted to potato chips and to packaged convenience foods. There are cultural conclusions to draw here, not complimentary to the US, I'm afraid.
Entire aisle devoted to mustard
Entire aisle devoted to licorice.
And a Few Other Things

For everything I am telling you, there are 50 things I am leaving out. It's unavoidable, so I will just give you a guided tour of some of my photos.

The little local store in Oskarshamn, Maxi, had quite a selection of fruit soups, which as you can see come in cartons (invented by a Swede by the way), in flavors like blueberry (blåbär), strawberry (jordgubbe) and wild strawberry (smultron). I wish I had done more investigating of why wild strawberry is considered a different fruit, a distinct flavor, from strawberry. Anyway, I drank fruit soup at the fabulous continental breakfast at my hotel in Stockholm. It was delicious, cool, thick and only as sweet as the fruit itself.
In the US, our standard ice cream flavors are strawberry, chocolate and vanilla, though of course there are 50 other gourmet flavors to choose from. In Sweden, one of the ordinary flavors, found everywhere, is pear ice cream. There was also pear-flavored water, soda, you name it; pear seemed like a favorite, which was good news for me since I love pear.
I was in Sweden during crawdad (kräft) season, but I can't remember what the festival is called nor did I attend. Yes, I'm from the American South and yes, I've eaten many a dinner on Bourbon Street, but I still have never eaten a crawdad (OK, crayfish). When I was a kid, crawdads were practically my playmates, so I'm glad I never had to eat one in Sweden. But they were abundantly available in the stores.
There was a whole cooler just for strange and exotic meats, kangaroo and zebra, for instance, in addition to the usual buffalo and elk (älg) which is really moose. Here is a package of alligator steaks. Milk is still the miracle-drink, in any language, nature's most nutritious food, as it says here. There were so many lovely dairy products. Filmjölk, for example, which is a little like buttermilk and yogurt had a lovechild. Full fat milk, more types of yogurt, and other things I didn't try.
The cow laughs in Swedish too, but instead of being marketed expensively in the gourmet cheese section, these are bacon flavored and aimed at kids.

"American" Food

It is interesting to see what is considered American food elsewhere, as I'm sure people from Mexico and from Asian countries must look at the ethnic foods in American grocery stores and wonder.

There was this brand that marketed American style food, a brand called McEnnedy. Let's pause a moment and ponder that name, which seems almost to have been forged artificially from two warring cultures in order to evoke both McDonald's and JFK in a single breath.

Here is McEnnedy's sign, tempting you to try the American food.
The American food itself, however, is mystifying. Sweetcorn salad and red beans sound like a Southern barbecue, I suppose. Interestingly, what is being sold are seasoning packets. What seasonings could you possibly need to make corn salad? Don't ask me; I couldn't read the ingredients.
American hamburger sauce, which I think is Thousand Island.
Anyway, it's all about barbecue.
Grill time!
It makes me wonder, do we have anything better than barbecue to offer as American food?

What about apple pie? Well, the Swedes definitely make pastries better than we do.

What about Southern food (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, meatloaf, pot roast) or Soul Food (fried catfish, collards, sweet carrots)?

What is American food anyway?

Clever Packaging

Finally, let's talk packaging. Aside from inventing the milk carton, the Swedes have embraced two clever types of packaging that are sort of a middle ground between canned and fresh.

The ubiquitous tube which is everywhere in Swedish markets. Seriously, your entire fridge could be filled with nothing but tubes. Everything that goes on a sandwich comes in tubes, mayo, mustard, relish, and even my favorites, the fish pastes (pronounced pah-stay) like tuna, salmon and herring.

You eat those on mjukbröd (soft bread), which I honestly don't know how my Swedish expat friends can live without. If anyone has a recipe or a lead on buying it in the US, please let me know. IKEA in Emeryville does not carry it.
Anyway, the other type of interesting packaging is a plastic tube sealed at each end with metal rings. Here, I have only ever seen polenta packaged this way. There, you can find everything from soups to rice pudding packaged in these kinds of tubes.
These are great ideas I wish we would adopt. It is a lot less wasteful than the plastic tubs we favor here.

If you made it to the end of this post, I have to thank you for indulging me. Maybe the fascination with grocery stores is something peculiarly my own. Maybe I will go on a grocery store tour of the world someday. Have I ever told you that in Texas they have Texas-shaped corn chips?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Little Things

Two weeks have passed since I returned to the United States, and dear friends keep asking me when I will write the rest of the story of my trip to Sweden.

With all my heart, I miss the sense of amazement that filled me for two full weeks in that beautiful place. Little things --things the Swedes themselves probably don't even notice-- were fascinating to me, things that look ordinary but on closer inspection were very different indeed.

For example, playing cards with E for ess (ace), D for dam (queen) and Kn for knight (jack). I could still play solitaire even with these strange abbreviations staring back at me.
On the sides of cigarette packages, no mitigated, watered-down warning from some remote surgeon general, but a giant stark bold statement "SMOKING KILLS." No pussy-footing around the matter and you got to appreciate that! The warning, however, is about as effective there as it is here.
I went to a loppis, which is sort of like a flea market. There were 10 million things there I would have bought if I had A. known the value of a krona well enough to recognize a bargain, B. possessed all the kronor I needed, and C. had a much bigger suitcase.
What I loved most were the textiles, the great piles of old tablecloths, handworked kitchen cloths in red and white (which I search for fruitlessly at home), doilies and antimacassars like the ones my great-grandmother made. There were so many choices I couldn't make up my mind.

I bought a little hand-embroidered tapestry that says, "älska mig mest när jag förtjänar det minst för det är när jag behöver det mest." I'm not writing that perfectly, but what it means is, Love me the most when I deserve it the least, because that is when I need it the most.
Maybe I am a particularly unadaptive traveler, but I never did get used to the money, never did find a convenient formula to do in my head to calculate 7SEK=$1. I never got past the sense of using Monopoly money, never made sense of prices which seemed very expensive to me.

Swedish kronor are very beautiful, though, the coins are thick and satisfying, and the bills colorful and lovely.
Bathrooms have these on the walls, to hang towels and drying laundry on. The hot water runs through them so they are heated, always hot, and things dry quickly. Wish I could rig one up in my house.
There were indeed Volvos everywhere. People drive stick-shift and think Americans are odd to drive automatics. I never drove while I was there, but I could have because the rules are quite straightforward. Streetlights have the usual configuration of red, yellow and green, but the yellow light has a different function; it flashes right before a red light turns green.
There is, of course, much more I can tell you, but some things deserve a post unto themselves. Food, for example. Signs, for another. The flower shop. Clouds. The Swedish language. Culture.

Not to mention the individual places I saw, Stockholm, Skansen, the Vasamuseet, Öland, Oskarshamn, the Kosta Boda Art Hotel, Äspo Hard Rock Laboratory, Korpamoen and the Utvandrarna Musuem.

And I have a lot to say about the America-Sweden connection. I will try to get to these things soon. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Sun rising in southern Sweden, as seen through a rain-wet window of a bus that is heading away.
I am back and struggling with an overwhelming sense of disorientation. Once I have successfully recast all my experiences and memories into the neutral adventure everyone thinks I had, I will probably feel better.

I found something I wrote at a midway point through the trip:
"This is as painful as a birth or a metamorphosis, so that I dream of it at night and feel like a creature caught in a flood, groping sometimes for a rock or a branch, something stable to hold onto.

I'm not even sure how I feel about my American-ness anymore. A week ago, my heart yearned toward Sweden, a mythical, unknown Sweden, and I wanted to reject America outright. Do I still?

I now realize there are things inside me that are American and that I value and want to keep: I am strong, capable, independent and I live in a world of possibility."
This trip has changed me, which I am told is normal.

I also came home to a terrific mess -- of unpaid bills and looming deadlines and maxed out finances -- which I'm also told is normal.

I have to scramble to get ready to teach my class, have to hurriedly revise my syllabus and daily plan. My creativity and personal vision elude me, however, so the result is quite generic.

There is a flood of work-related email to wade through, academic politics I'm not ready to engage with, budget cuts, protests and administrative requirements.

Somehow, I felt beautiful in Sweden. It is a land full of beautiful people and I felt like one of them. But here, I feel utterly invisible. Why is that? Something shone its light on me there, and here I am in the shadows.

I missed some important meeting yesterday, and then showed up today for one I didn't have to attend. It was good though, because suddenly I was surrounded by professors, greeting me enthusiastically with hugs and smiles, delivering good news that lightened my spirit, saying yes to requests I had already given up hope about.

All these wonderful, smart people whom I get to call my colleagues for a few more months, this is surely something to count among my blessings. Everything will feel better when I finally fully remember who I am.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I'd love to tell you about what's different in Sweden, but the list is quite long. Where in the world to begin?

Think of a movie where a friendly alien lands on Earth, Starman, for example. I am that alien, wandering through the grocery store, the city plaza, the apartment complex, in a constant state of wonder.

Mostly it's fun, though sometimes it can get overwhelming, and sometimes plain frustrating.

Example of frustrating: a stain on one of my clothes. No problem; I will run to the store for some stain remover. But no such product seems to exist here.

No problem, I will use hydrogen peroxide. You know, the stuff that bubbles up when you put it on a cut? No, never heard of that.

I was almost defeated by all this when I suddenly remembered baking soda, which I found in the kitchen cupboard cleverly disguised as something called bakpulver, which I only identified by tasting it.

Then, just when I was feeling almost like a college graduate again, it was time to figure out how to use the washing machine. Where does the soap go? What temperature would I like? In centigrade, please, and answers like "warm" will not do.
On the other hand, it can be wondrous.

Like the discovery of the whole aisle of lösgodis (literally, loose goodies, I suppose), bulk bins of candy. Not just candy, but a strange, undisovered world of candy, maybe 15 different kinds of licorice, from salty to cream-filled, toffees, chocolates. I would say "yum" but since I am in Sweden, I will just say "mumsfilibaba."
So, things are different here, in every way. Around the house, the toilets are different (more like airplane toilets with trapdoors). The doorknobs are different (handles instead). The electrical outlets are different.
No one wears their shoes in the house so there is an area by every front door dedicated to the donning and doffing of shoes, complete with a long shoehorn for making the process easier.

The fridge is different, the cupboards, the ingredients on the shelf, the measurements in the cookbooks.

Out in the world, the people look you in the eye, but they hardly ever smile. The push in front of one another, they don't say excuse me, they take a number to stand in line, they pay to use a shopping cart at the store and they pay for the bags too.

When two people come toward one another, say through a doorway, there is no understanding that everyone will go to the right; they go every which way. Men don't let ladies go first; people just go, so if you want to go first, you better get going!

People ride bicycles, especially girls and women in pretty dresses on bicycles with baskets, pretty as a picture. There is a cool little addition to ladies' bikes, a little shield over the back wheel, just to keep your dress from getting caught in your spokes. An ekerskydd; I want one.

This is just scratching the surface. There is so much more.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Förlorad och Återfunnen (Lost & Found)

I love Swedish clouds
By the time I arrived in Copenhagen, I had been up and traveling for 19 hours and had not really slept well in several days. Off the plane I was met with a sea of languages and long lines of people.

There was a Danish child next to me in line who literally never stopped talking for the entire 45 minutes it took for all the passengers one by one to show their passports to the guard. I began to wonder if I really liked the sound of Scandinavian languages after all.

Waiting for my baggage, I looked around for the train ticket office, or a map of the airport, or someone who looked as if they worked there.

I had a map in my pocket, one I had drawn myself from looking at the Kastrup website earlier. However, both it and the wall map I eventually found made no sense; no red dot saying "You are here" and no little arrows pointing to know which direction was which.

Then suddenly there was the way and there was the ticket office. I managed to buy a ticket, to find the train platform, and to get on a train that more or less went where I wanted to go.
The Oresund Bridge
The train trip was an adventure in itself, going over the Oresund Bridge, chatting with elderly people from southern Sweden (who have a particular accent, Skånska), and looking at the pretty green countryside dotted with perfect little lakes and red houses with white trim, crowned by a bright blue sky with sweeping clouds-- the kind of sky I have seen every day in Sweden.

While on the train, I studied the train table and map and figured a way to shave an hour off my trip, but it required getting off the train in the middle of nowhere (Alvesta) and waiting for another one that I wasn't really sure would come.
The Oresund Sea
But it did. And I arrived in Kalmar, an hour early with no Swedish kroner and a useless cellphone.

I wanted to call my friend Anders and tell him I was early, since he was driving an hour from Oskarshamn to pick me up. There was a payphone in the station, but I didn't know how to use it.
Mysterious payphone
Up until then, when people found out I was American they spoke to me in English, broken rusty English sometimes, but English nevertheless. However, in Kalmar station, all three people I went up to said they didn't speak English.

But a nice woman at the ticket counter dialed Anders' house and I told Martin, his son, that I was at the station.

I hauled my luggage out onto the sidewalk, a cobblestone sidewalk, a European sidewalk, surrounded by European buildings, and up to some things I can only assume were benches (I hope).

I had no more time than to sit down and cross my legs, when Anders and his eldest son, Patric, zipped up in their Volvo, driving right up onto the sidewalk directly in front of my feet. He had left early on the hunch that I would be early too.

It was the best, best moment, which words can't even describe.

Next: odyssey of food

Att Resa (Traveling)

I've been trying to write a post for a week but it's too difficult! The impressions come in such rapid succession that there is no time for processing and writing, which for me takes time and a certain relaxed state. Every time I sit down at the computer to write, something interesting happens or someone interesting comes over to talk to me.

I flew to Sweden Monday after spending two days in the Bay Area with my old friend, Kelly.
I love this girl...
The trip was long and various and required a lot of patience, for me, because I was so very anxious to arrive at my destination.
Just another passenger...
One flight lasted 5 hours and took me from San Francisco to Newark, New Jersey, where I waited 2 hours in the airport.
Newark from the air
The next trip lasted 8 hours and took me to Copenhagen, Denmark. I cat-napped as best I could through that flight.
There was a little monitor to show the progress of the flight. Here I was just beginning, 4,000 miles and 8 hours from Copenhagen, 36,000 feet in the air and traveling at 514 miles per hour.

Up until that point, everything was smooth, pleasant and totally manageable. It didn't become challenging until I arrived at Kastrup, the Copenhagen airport. But that is a story for another post because now, if I don't stop writing I will miss the chance to go to the flower shop to buy flowers for Anders' mother.

To be continued...