Sunday, December 21, 2014

Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Skepparholmen Spa Hotel in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |

R was a water baby and his love affair with all things water and spa (salute per aqua, or, "health by water") has continued since. He can spend a whole day under the sun at the sea and a whole afternoon alternating between dips in a pool / jacuzzi and enclosing himself in a sauna at a spa.

But up until a few years ago, I wasn't at all on board with any of that. Roast myself under a burning sun? Not so much. Stick myself in a blazingly-hot confined space for minutes on end? No, thanks—I'm not exactly a fan of feeling hot and sticky. (Bikram yoga is somehow something entirely different).

And having the ethnic background that I do, lying under the sun at the beach isn't really necessary—I have a year-round tan, so to speak. Sitting under an umbrella with a book is ever so much more civilized to me. But as our relationship continued, I started to actually enjoy the feel of the sun's rays dancing across my skin after a dip and I began willingly choosing to spend a little time after I emerge from the sea or pool purposefully laying myself outside the confines of my umbrella's shade to dry off and warm up.

And wonder of wonders, I've since embraced the water and sauna rituals, too (I mean, clearly.). While I used to only go to spas for the massage and facial treatments, now we do the shuffle between pool, sauna and steam bath together.

But since moving to Sweden and beginning to indulge in all the sybaritic offerings here in Stockholm, I've suddenly had a new practice to acclimate to: the Swedish way of sauna-ing.

I'm an American—your typical overly-friendly, sometimes geographically-inept American that is modest to a point. Potentially describable as prudish. Someone who views a bathing suit with or without a towel wrapped around oneself as standard sauna dress code.

At your more "international" Swedish saunas, like you'd find at a hotel, that's just fine. But when my lovely Swedish in-laws gifted me a day at Centralbadet (The Central Baths—built in 1904 and wonderfully ornate) here in Stockholm for my birthday, I got a taste of the more traditional way that Swedes spend their time in a sauna.

Meaning: a prominently placed sign reminded guests that bathing suits are not to be worn in the saunas "for hygienic reasons" (which I don't really understand). I peeked in the first sauna and got quite an eyeful. After pulling myself together I reasoned that as they don't say anything about towels, I could maneuver myself out of my bathing suit under my towel and then scuttle in to one of the saunas modestly covered by the same towel still secured tightly around me.

But I had a hard time relaxing. It felt so awkward to be surrounded by groups of women, mostly Swedes and Russians, chatting amongst themselves while stark naked. Of course it wasn't awkward for anyone else, just the me, the American.

Once I figured out that sitting in the co-ed (and thus bathing suit mandatory) saunas was the way to go, I could get back to sauna-ing in peace. Although I will say that when I had one of the ladies-only saunas to myself I tried to go native for a few seconds, holding my towel down but ready to yank it up should the door open and you know what? It feel overwhelmingly more enjoyable to relax into the cedar wood and feel the heat seeping directly into my skin and not through a somewhat clammy suit clinging to me.

Around lots of other people, though? That will definitely not be happening.

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |
After my last, somewhat-liberating trip to Centralbadet a few days before my secret trip to NYC to surprise my family last month, December rolled around and it was time for another trip to the spa. For this go-round R found a great deal for both of us on Groupon which included lunch and an afternoon at Skepparholmen Spa out on one of the promontories in Nacka, where visitors have a crazy beautiful view of the sea flowing out to the archipelago. And lucky us, the day of our visit last week coincided with a little snow fall so we had the most surreal and ethereal experience in the woods (and I'm happy to say the sauna was international style, so swimsuits stayed firmly on!).

The spa is about 20 minutes from the city by car and we were invited to come at 1PM for lunch and then have a few hours after to enjoy the pools and sauna. Winding roads took us to a little spa hotel surrounded by stunning seafront greenery where we sat down to a lunch of carrot, ginger and lentil soup, a white coleslaw salad, deliciously nutty (gluten-free) bread and cheese, and a few slices of pork in a mustard tarragon sauce with a little broccoli and rice. There was a light Swedish beer to start and strong Swedish coffee to end. Lunch was served in the building above where you see stars hanging in the window and we had a view out to those craggy rocks and pine trees.

Then after relaxing a little bit in the lounge, at 2PM we headed down to a different building (the one you see in the first picture), removed our shoes, picked up our towel, robe and slippers, went through the changing rooms and emerged into the spa. There was a resting area in front of a fireplace with water and fruit, an indoor pool whose edges were built like beach recliners so you could comfortably lay down in it, tropical and ice water showers, a sauna with plate-glass windows directly overlooking the sea, and then of course, a heated outdoor pool on a platform in front of the sauna's windows with the best view of all.

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel outdoor heated pool in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel bastu sauna in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |
As we entered the spa proper the ominous clouds opened up and snow began to drift down, the sky changing from eerie green to moody gray to a mystical deep blue and there was no way we could stay inside, so we hung our towels and robes on a heating rack, took a deep breath, pushed open the door and (carefully) ran the 20 feet from the door to the pool, where we gratefully sank down.

Below our necks we were nice and warm, and above, our hair was sprinkled with snowflakes and our cheeks flushed from the cool air. It was the oddest and most wonderful of sensations, especially given the views before us. Across the water we watched the towns on the other bank turn from dark, slightly sinister-looking landscapes into white-flecked, cozy little hamlets. And then a cruise ship sailed by, with its twinkly lights winking at us from along the sail lines.

Being so close to, yet so far away from, the city always makes me feel unshackled and wild, and that current of energy combined with the cozy starkness of the spa made our day one of my most favorite ones of this year (and amazingly—and blessedly—I've had so many to choose from!). But, I'm not sure if we could ever go back there again knowing we might not have the same amazingly perfect atmospheric conditions.

...What am I saying, of course we'll go back!

Skepparholmen Spa Hotel outdoor heated pool view in Nacka, Stockholm + Swedish sauna customs  |  Swedish sauna rituals and snow flurries by the sea on afeathery*nest  |

* A version of this post appeared on View Stockholm. 

One year ago: According to the ancients
Two years ago: Some tweaks & Undecked halls & Out of the ordinary

Friday, December 19, 2014

The scent of Christmas

Homebaked pepparkakor // Swedish gingerbread cookies  |  The scent of Christmas on afeathery*nest  |

After our abundant julbord in Biskops Arnö a few weeks ago we came home with absolutely no room for dinner but a hankering for something festive and sweet (naturally).

So we pulled out the antique cookie cutters my mother-in-law had bought at the market and set about to making Sweden's famous gingerbread Christmas cookies: the pepparkaka. They're best served in adorable shapes (I'm partial to the piglet), with or without a smear of blue cheese (seriously, sounds odd but tastes amazing), and enjoyed alongside a warm, spiced mug of glögg (preferably with a drop or two of cognac swirling around).

We turned on some Christmas carols, lit a few candles and set about to rolling out the dough and cutting out as many shapes as we could from each stretch of heavenly-scented goodness. They bake quickly, hanging out for no more than 5 minutes in the oven until they're ready to be popped out onto the counter top to finish hardening. Then we scooped them into a Santa-napkin lined wooden crate left over from the clementines we'd brought home a day earlier and straight to the coffee table in the living room they went.

With the fragrance of ginger heavy on the air and swirling about with citrus from the fruit bowl and floral from the newly-opened hyacinth plants and then all of it mingling joyfully with our steaming cups of cinnamon, cardamom and clove-y glögg, it finally felt like Christmas had come into the apartment from the city's lit-up streets outside.

One year ago: Feasting, seasonally
Two years ago: Frissons & Monday meanders: 1 & Wistfulness & Latte pappas

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The biggest differences I've noticed in Sweden: Vol. 4

Sankt Eriksbron, bridge between Kungsholmen and Vasastan  |  The biggest differences I've noticed in Sweden: Vol. 4 on afeathery*nest  |

To the right, to the right:
The universal rule (maybe not in British countries and former colonies) of staying to the right doesn't seem to apply here. I religiously float to the right when I'm walking up or down staircases and on sidewalks, but for some reason Swedes generally seem to walk wherever they'd like regardless of which direction they're facing and the inevitable chaos they create in public spaces. Maybe it's the equality card coming into play?

Red, yellow, green, yellow, red:
In the U.S. traffic lights change from green to yellow before red so that drivers can begin slowing down. Here, the lights also change to yellow before green. This helps cyclists to reposition themselves on their bikes to push off and alerts drivers of manual cars that have turned off their engine while they wait out the red light to turn them back on. So helpful.

Washing up:
Most Swedes seem to store sponges, brushes and dish soap under the counter, hardly ever on the rim of the sink as we usually do in the U.S. With all the beautifully-designed products and accoutrements here, you'd think that wouldn't be the case, but perhaps it makes sense given the minimalistic mindset.

Kitchen apparatuses:
Another thing that's more "manual" here: can openers, which are basically curved knives that scare me to death and which I still haven't mastered yet. Most cans I open are a jagged mess with their contents spilled all over the counter and me a shaking wreck that requires a few minutes of settling-down-time afterwards when I realized that I've once again managed to not slice my hand open, even though I was sure I would.

Wrapping rhymes:
I remember my first Christmas in Stockholm 7 years ago when we were sitting around the Christmas tree and passing presents to each other and I saw that instead of the standard "For J. From X." written on packages, a full-fledged rhyme was there instead! Swedes have a tradition of writing out proper rhyming verses on EVERY Christmas present! Such a creative and dedicated bunch! I'll have to see what I can manage this Swedish!

As proof of the Swedes' dedication to this lovely tradition, one of the scheduled activities at the Biskops Arnö Christmas Market we visited earlier this month was a rimastuga (rhyming cottage) where students in writing / poetry programs were helping visitors prepare for Christmas by fashioning appropriate poems for their presents!

P.S. Not exactly related, although definitely a Swedish difference!, the New York Times just published their take on the housing situation in Stockholm, which I've mentioned before is quite a problem here.

*A few more Swedish differences:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3 

Monday, December 15, 2014

A drive north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market

Biskops Arnö Julmarknad Christmas Market  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |

Last Sunday we drove north 45 minutes to the tiny island of Biskops Arnö where R's cousin goes to school for their Annual Christmas Market (Julmarknad) and Feast (Julbord). After the urban version of holiday decorating here in Stockholm, it was a treat to experience an un-embellished version (I know I said Stockholm's decorations were simpler—and when I say "simpler" I mean it in a complimentary way—compared to the American  / New York style, but an island in the country is even more so!)

The school had prepared a number of activities for the day, but we focused our wanderings on the few stalls with crafts, foods, and wintry decor outside before heading into one of the buildings with soaring gothic ceilings to walk around all the other tables filled with jewelry, hand-knit accessories and decorations, freshly-baked bread, pure chocolates and jams, natural creams and elixirs, vintage Swedish decor, cheese from local sheep and goats, etc. It was lovely to see the variety of goodies on display and to know that much had been inspired from actual courses available at the school (like the handmade creams from wholesome and unrefined ingredients).

Biskops Arnö Julmarknad Christmas Market and mistel  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |
Biskops Arnö Julmarknad Christmas Market and gothic hall   |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |
Biskops Arnö Julmarknad Christmas Market and candlelight   |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |
Biskops Arnö Julmarknad Christmas Market and candlelight   |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |
Biskops Arnö Julmarknad Christmas Market and bröd bread  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |

Once we'd made our rounds at the market we headed over to another building where Christmas Caroling was on the schedule. I thought there would be a choir singing, but instead we were handed sheets of lyrics as we walked in and sat down to sing for ourselves to the pianist's playing! Apart from one song I didn't recognize, all the rest were familiar to me, so I was able to plod through following the melody—and surely mangling a little Swedish pronunciation along the way.
Biskops Arnö  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |
Biskops Arnö Piano & Fireplace  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |
Biskops Arnö Julbord / Christmas Feast  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |

Then it was time to head into the Julbord—a beautiful thing. The Swedish julbord (Christmas table) is a buffet, a smörgåsbord if you will, of traditional hot and cold dishes served around Christmastime. Not being my first, I knew to pace myself as I went around the tables scooping up all the Swedish delicacies that I love.

For my first plate, three different types of sill (pickled herring), cold poached salmon, smoked salmon, poached eggs with caviar, and a red beet salad. Then I went back for my second plate from the other side of the massive table of offerings and topped myself off with smoked ham, köttbullar (Swedish meatballs), Janssons frestelse (Janssons temptation, a type of potato casserole), prinskorv (Swedish sausages) and a stewed spinach dish (which was much more appetizing than its name seems to imply).

During all my indulging I sipped on sparkling water, which made it all the easier to rise after a little pause for a third plate: the desserts. I tried a chokladboll (chocolate ball), wienernougat (a chocolate bar dessert made with nougat and roasted almonds), and, my favorite of the bunch, a saffron panna cotta that was divine.

And of course a strong, delicious cup of Swedish coffee to end the meal.

Biskops Arnö  |  Driving north to visit Biskops Arnös Christmas market on afeathery*nest  |

Thankfully, as we were a group of 9 among our family and R's cousin's "in-law's", lunch lingered on at a leisurely and sedate pace while we chatted and then afterwards took a little walk for some fresh air and to see some more of the school (and, let's be honest, to digest) before climbing in the car to drive off the island back to Stockholm.

We were home by 4 or 5PM, but as no one could possibly even entertain the idea of dinner we decided to skip that altogether and bake pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) using the adorable vintage cookie cutters my mother-in-law had picked up at the market.

Altogether a most perfect Sunday!

One year ago: Thine self, quantified & Rainy Fridays
Two years ago: Trekking in tights & Talisman treasures & Farewell fall

Monday, December 8, 2014

Decked out for Christmas in Stockholm

Chrismas market / Julmarknad in Old Town / Gamla Stan in Stockholm  |  Christmas in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |

Growing up in New York and coastal Virginia, Christmas decorations were heavy on the multi-colored strings of lights and lit-up figurines of Santa Claus, his sleigh and reindeer, and a bevy of spectacularly-wrapped presents. There were also nativity scenes and Bethlehem stars and sweet candles lighting up the windows, but on the whole, the decorating styles were equally represented or perhaps a little more than slightly edging towards the kitschy side.

But one of the (many) things I adore about northern Europe is how it dresses up for the holidays—there's a bounty of white lights (my favorite), Christmas markets in the shadow of buildings constructed hundreds and hundreds of years ago filled with loads of handmade and locally-crafted gifts, and the majority of decorations embrace and celebrate the wintry landscape: miniature bulbs that flicker on and become animals that roam mountaintops and snow-covered woods, rustic straw figurines of goats, oranges studded with cloves hanging from doors and windows, and craft paper stars that look homey instead of glamorous are everywhere you look. It feels so festive and more in tune with the solstice, hibernation, and the way generations before us survived the darkest months of the year versus the commercialized aspect (which of course still exists here, but it doesn't feel as strong to me, or at least not yet).

My family's tradition (which R and I followed living in New York) was to bring down all the Christmas decorations from the attic and carry home our Christmas tree from the "farm" (the local grocery store's parking lot) on Thanksgiving. While R's family's tradition is the same as ours in that they also always have their biggest celebration on the 24th, they're different (more Swedish) in that they don't bring home their tree until the week of Christmas. Right now my in-laws' apartment has tiny pots of hyacinths on the verge of blooming while poinsettias are already flashing their deep red splendor, Advent candles lined up in a neat little row, and red paper stars and electric candles gleaming from their spot hanging in front of the windows and lining the windowsills, but we still have a few more weeks to go before trimming our tree.

In a way, though, I'm glad we still have something to look forward to this dark month of December. And in the meantime, herds of roaming Christmas moose tramping through the city are spreading their wintry cheer and lighting up the night.

Chrismas moose in Stockholm  |  Christmas in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |

As are the lights trimming the sail lines of the boats in the marinas—all of which combine to make the moody afternoons quite a bit more festive and cheery.

(All of these photos were taken around 3PM.)

Chrismas boats in Stockholm's Nybrokajen  |  Christmas in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |
Chrismas boats in Stockholm's Nybrokajen  |  Christmas in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |
Chrismas boats in Stockholm's Nybrokajen  |  Christmas in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |

One year ago: The days are long, but the years are short & Hello, December
Two years ago:  A bit more on AIRE & Facial (t)oils & Fondue femmes

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The gift of a day together in Östermalm

Östermlams Saluhall in Stockholm, Sweden  |  The gift of a day together in Östermalm on afeathery*nest  |
Östermlams Saluhall in Stockholm, Sweden  |  The gift of a day together in Östermalm on afeathery*nest  |

After two weeks apart, during and after which one of us (not me) was working extra long hours, having a beautiful winter day together in Stockholm free from work and school was an early Christmas gift for R and me. We slept in, had a pot of coffee at home and then took ourselves to Östermalm, the slightly ritzier section of town—similar to New York's Upper East Side or Boston's Beacon Hill.

Our destination (and why we had skipped any nibblies to go with our late-morning coffee) was Östermalms Saluhall, built in 1888 and proudly known as "the world's 7th best food hall" according to Bon Appétit magazine.

Smørrebrød at Östermlams Saluhall in Stockholm, Sweden  |  The gift of a day together in Östermalm on afeathery*nest  |

We both thought that I hadn't been there before, but after walking in and recognizing the bustle-y aisles, overflowing displays, and gorgeously presented meat, fish, produce and specialty jams, sauces and accompaniments, I scanned through my archive of photos on my phone and there it was from seven years ago, when R flew from Taormina and I flew from New York to meet in Stockholm for Christmas and he took me to the market where I was on the hunt for spices to make a Goan meal for the family—the exact same view from where we sat for lunch yesterday:

Smørrebrød at Östermlams Saluhall in Stockholm, Sweden  |  The gift of a day together in Östermalm on afeathery*nest  |

So rather than a new experience, a lovely revisit. Though if I'm remembering correctly, we didn't eat the last time we were at the Saluhall together, making this time's trip a slight improvement, as we had a delectable lunch at the bar of Lisa Elmqvist's (another place, rather, name, that jogged my memory—I later remembered that I had read about American-in-Paris David Lebovitz's experience there last summer).

We were both in the mood for fish, so R had a towering open-faced shrimp sandwich that was on the verge of toppling over whereas I had a plate of six different kinds of sill (pickled herring—not the nicest sounding words, but one of my favorite things about Swedish cuisine), all fantastic, accompanied by boiled potatoes with dill, Västerbotten cheese, and a hard-boiled egg topped with caviar. While not our usual practice, we decided to have a bottle of wine to go with our little seafood extravaganza, and I must say, perhaps it needs to become our usual practice! Our lunch lingered on as we refilled our glasses and caught each other up on all the things the phone calls, pictures, videos, e-mails and voice notes from the last few weeks hadn't quite captured.

Lisa Elmqvist at Östermlams Saluhall in Stockholm, Sweden  |  The gift of a day together in Östermalm on afeathery*nest  |

Afterwards we wove our way back outside through less crowded aisles and strolled some more around the neighborhood. We ended up at the waterfront on Strandvägen, where we decided that even though the sun was setting there was no rush to end our day so early, so we crossed the bridge into Gamla Stan for a walk around the Old Town's Christmas market and a mug of glögg (warm spiced wine) and a few pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies), both Christmas specialties, before going home.

* A version of this post appeared on View Stockholm. 

One year ago: It all melts away & Tweaks for gentler travel
Two years ago: A good thing & Equal play & Tension with the Times

Monday, December 1, 2014

A taste of the familiar

World Trade Center, Freedom Tower & WTC Path Transit Hub  |  A taste of the familiar on afeathery*nest  |
I'd forgotten just how friendly Americans are after 8 months amongst the mostly-reserved Swedes. Strangers smiling, holding doors for you, nodding appreciatively when you coo at their dogs—I didn't know how much I'd been missing that.

(What I didn't miss were the untimely trains and unappreciated catcalls on the street).

I'd also forgotten how much I missed my regular haunts. While I spent the majority of the last two weeks ensconced at my brother and sister-in-law's apartment to soak up as much time with my little nephew (and them and my mom, who stopped by after work) as I could, I still made time for a few forays into the city to my old neighborhood and favorite spots to do a little shopping (which I hate, but for big items I'd rather see the comparatively friendly 8.875% sales tax), meet up with friends and relive my former routines.

Like Sundays in Soho. Since living in Stockholm we haven't been to mass at all. Not only are the English and Italian masses at inconvenient times (or on Saturdays, which I don't like), the very few (three) Catholic churches in Stockholm seem so unfamiliar, at least on the outside. Of course those are all excuses, but in any case, my deeply-rooted Sunday-in-New York schedule of mass and brunch at Hundred Acres (with a beloved Bloody Mary) was happily revived last weekend.

Another revival? Fonda's Happy Hour menu enjoyed with friends, both of which I had missed very much.

And of course the sacred American ritual I was lucky enough to be in the U.S. for: eating (rather, indulging) in one of my mom's Thanksgiving feasts. Sitting down at her table, with the plates I remembered from many meals past, was so special—as was the food: a butternut squash and chestnut soup; a mango and spinach salad; fresh cranberry, orange, apple and walnut chutney; wild rice with toasted nuts; a coconut and butternut squash mash; and Cornish game hens stuffed with figs, walnuts, oysters, apples, cinnamon and ginger. And then of course a pot of spiced chai and her towering dessert: a pumpkin-ginger cheesecake with a walnut-cayenne crust topped with freshly whipped cream. Incredible.

Liberty Harbor Marina, Morris Canal + The Statue of Liberty  |  A taste of the familiar on afeathery*nest  |

The two weeks flew by and of course just when my lively little nephew started to feel comfortable with me again (apparently he'd forgotten all about how we bonded when he was a newborn), it was time to go. He'd just gotten to the point where he'd run around crazily but zoom over to me every so often to either lay his head down in my lap for a moment (sigh) or grasp my legs before dashing back to his toys. We even started to have our own little "thing" going, which will surprise absolutely no one when I reveal that it has to do with The Lion King and us doing lion cub roars back and forth to each other.

But my absolute favorite parts of my trip home (just edging out my mom's Thanksgiving meal) were mornings spent with the baby. My brother and sister-in-law's apartment has two bedrooms, one for them and one that serves as both the baby's and guest room, where I slept. When he woke up he'd mewl in his crib for a while and then sleepily stand up unsteadily, grasping the edge of his crib to peep over at me. He'd stare until I looked at him squarely from across the room and then burst out into the toothiest grin and raise his hands up to me (cue the melty heart). I'd pick him up and bring him back to bed with me where we'd chat and read and snuggle for a bit before he'd be fully awake and back into little-one-year-old-boy-zooming-around mode. Those sleepy sunrise moments were the best and what I miss the most about my quick trip home.

Now that I'm back in Stockholm though, I realize I don't really miss New York itself. My family and old habits, yes, but not the stones and steel and concrete that make up the island of Manhattan. I was actually really happy to come back to Stockholm, and not just because R was waiting here for me (these last two weeks were the longest we've been apart since being married—prior to that we'd gone as long as four months...!), but turns out I missed Lady Stockholm herself, too.

And as the calendar has just flipped to December, the month when Stockholm truly shines (literally and figuratively), I can't wait to revel in the entire Christmas season here. I've been here for the holidays before while on vacation, but never for the weeks leading up to it, and spending it entirely with my Swedish-Italian family this year will make it even more festive.

But just in case a bit of homesickness for the Eastern Seaboard sneaks up on me, I'm glad I've got a stash of my mom's Thanksgiving leftovers in the freezer and many, many videos of my little lion cub nephew on my laptop for a second helping of the familiar.

One year ago: A Derby Bourbon & Postcard from Trinidad & Tobago
Two years ago:  Milkman nostalgia & Being gentle with myself

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla

La Giralda  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |

(Still in New York, but catching up on overdue posts.)

After our time by the beach and jaunts into the hilltop specks of white, we were ready to head back into a city. Sevilla, built along the curve of the Guadalquivir River and fused into a welcoming, harmonic whole from its Roman, Moorish, and Castilian origins is a gorgeously mystic place where we spent 4 days this past September. On our way there after leaving Conil de la Frontera we stopped for a walk about Jerez (and a sherry, naturally), bringing us to Sevilla around 2PM.

We had booked a hotel in the oldest part of town, right around from the spectacular Giralda, the tower of the cathedral that serves as a beacon to prayer, a landmark for woefully lost tourists (which we of course became), and a reason to stop ten times a day to stare up in wonder at her brilliance.

While we could easily pick her out, and we knew we were in the general vicinity of our hotel, the only problem was that we couldn't actually find it. Try as R did to maneuver our teeny rental car through the seemingly even teenier streets, the higgledy-piggledyness of Sevilla's Old Town streets streets rendered our GPS useless and our map reading skills were apparently not up to par. Surprisingly, we didn’t turn on each other (I’m sure the snack and sherry helped), but finally we decided to pull over while R waited with the car in a clearly marked no-parking zone and I went on foot to find our hotel.

Of course it was on the one little streetside niche we had circled around at least 6 times previously, but hadn’t actually ventured into. Once I found it on foot, it was easy enough to direct R back by car.

Sevilla City Hall / Ayuntamiento de Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Seville Cathedral / Catedral de Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Plaza de Santa Maria / Royal Alcázar of Seville /  Real Alcázar de Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |

As soon as we settled in we headed right back out to have a proper wander. The mysteriousness of the unfollow-able streets, the breeze blowing through all the plazas and the ornateness of the architecture made it the perfect town for meandering about in.

For our initial poking about we focused on the historic area, not following a map, just following the interesting looking streets until we happened upon the Cathedral, the Giralda (whose presence stunned me into silence when we first found ourselves directly in front of it on foot), the National Archives, Bishop's Palace, etc.

When we were ready for something to nibble on we parked ourselves at a table straddling a restaurant and its sidewalk for a plate of mixed cured meats, olives, the Andalucían specialty of spinach and chickpeas, and some local wine. Of course R became pals with the bartender / waiter whose two brothers both live in Sicily. Leave it to him to find his countrymen…or at least a tenuous representation of them.

Satiated by our late afternoon snack and tired from our drive and walk, that evening we just had a drink on our hotel's rooftop terrace to enjoy the stunning view of the Giralda.

Plaza de Santa Maria / Royal Alcázar of Seville /  Real Alcázar de Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Plaza de Santa Maria / Cathedral of Seville /  Catedral de Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Fontecruz Sevilla Terrace View of the Giralda  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |

One morning we took the Isabel II / Puente de Triana bridge across the river to see Triana, the neighborhood that used to be the workers' district. It wasn’t as enticing as I thought it would be, so we weren’t there long before crossing back over into Sevilla proper.

Bridge to Triana, Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Bridge to Triana, Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Triana, Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |

On another afternoon we took a 30-minute drive slightly north-east of Sevilla to Carmona. But of course my favorite day in Sevilla was my birthday, where R planned everything perfectly for me.

Every day in Sevilla started with a walk around the corner to break our fast at Gusto, our replacement for the lovely breakfast we found in Marbella, which we happened upon on our second day and proceeded to go to every morning after, including on my birthday.

After coffee and a walk we went to AIRE. That’s right—after trying out and becoming semi-regulars at the newest (and first American) outpost of the Spanish underground baths in Tribeca, we headed to one of the first locations in its home country. We did our usual routine: 30-minute massages and the bath rituals. While it was something special to be in one of the birthplaces of the Moorish water wonderment, I have to say that the Tribeca one a little more magical for me. More inviting and atmospheric. Of course we still enjoyed our afternoon because what's not to love about some pampering?

Once our time there had ended we went back to the hotel to freshen up and then set out for the evening's entertainment, but first: an ice cream snack at Bolas, a heladeria we had come across the day before. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had (even in Sicily). The couple / family that owns it was so kind to us, going out of their way to explain the different ingredients in their pure, unadulterated flavors (like Queso de Cabra con Dulce de Membrillo, or Goat Cheese with Membrillo / Quince, and Sevilla Moro, a sweetened cream run through with walnuts, candied orange peel, raisins, cinnamon and cabell d'àngel a threaded jam made from pumpkin).

They went so far as to show us the sweet bread used in one flavor by bringing out a package of it from the kitchen (no artificial flavorings there!) and then they handed it to us to enjoy. Such a warm gesture—and a useful one at that, as when we were hungry on the flight home we remembered the snack in my bag!

Plaza de Santa Maria /  Arzobispado de Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Sevilla streets  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
AIRE Sevilla  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
Casa de la Memoria Flamenco Show  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |

Armed with a delicious cone for R and a cup for me, we began walking towards Casa de la Memoria, a cultural center for flamenco with a theater for intimate shows where R had booked tickets for us. We were seated in a small auditorium, perhaps with 40 other people, while a singer, a drummer, and a male and female dancer performed. It was every bit as thrilling to me as you'd think an up-close flamenco performance would be. The music seeped in and the rhythm and frenzy of the foot stomping and skirt swirling and heel taping made my blood pound in such a way that when we emerged from the building I felt as if I had just finished doing something much more arduous than sitting before a stage.

Towards the end of our trip we were a bit tired of Spanish cuisine and in dire need of something more exotic so R found Al Medina, a Moroccan restaurant, to take me to for my birthday dinner which was one of the most loveliest dining experiences we had in Spain. I don’t remember what R ordered for himself, but I do remember the perfectly-made pastilla that I had. I’d first had the savory sweet dish when we were in Tunisia 7 years ago and anytime I have the chance to have it again, I do. Pastilla is basically a savory pie filled with chicken, almonds and cinnamon—and while it's a Moroccan dish, it's originally from Andalus, so it was a more than fitting meal.

On our last morning in Spain we finished our coffees at Gusto and headed back to the hotel lobby to pick up our waiting luggage and load it into the car. As we walked out of the piazza and away from La Giralda she began to toll the 9th hour of the day. I turned to face her for one more look, to see her serving her primary purpose of housing the tolling bells, as until then I had just been enjoying her for her Moorish beauty.

While my daily life has never been marked by the regular pealing of bells, that early morning moment, when the cobblestones were still damp and children skipped to school with their hands tucked into those of their parents, made me reminisce about Sundays in downtown Charlottesville, summers in Sicily, and one Christmas in Rome—the times I could remember when the call of a church bell was not just a pretty melody in the background, but instead directed the unfolding of my day.

There's a chance of course that the repetitive bells would eventually begin to grate on one's consciousness, but on the last morning of our Andalucìan road trip as we prepared to drive away from Sevilla, I chose to romanticize otherwise.

La Giralda  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
The beauty of this trip was that we picked a region with nice highways (a pleasant surprise!), and an abundance of gorgeous towns filled with magnificent historical sites, good food and breathtaking views. It was easy to point to a place on the map and just go. Every planned and spontaneous place was worth seeing and what I'll remember most was the freedom of that—of just going.

And yes, it was everything I had hoped it would be—helped ever so much by sharing it with the most genial of pilots and companionable of travel partners.

Sevilla NO8DO  |  Postcard from Andalucía: Sevilla  on afeathery*nest  |
*"NO8DO", Sevilla's motto, is imprinted throughout the city. It means "No me ha dejado" (Sevilla has not abandoned me). Beautiful sentiment for a much conquered land.

Other Andalucía posts:
After 9 years, 9 days in southern Spain
Postcard from Andalucía
Postcard from Andalucía: Málaga 
Postcard from Andalucía: Granada and La Alhambra
Postcard from Andalucía: Nerja + Marbella
Postcard from Andalucía: Gibraltar + Tarifa
Postcard from Andalucía: Conil de la Frontera
Postcard from Andalucía: Cadíz + Medina-Sidonia
Postcard from Andalucía: Vejer de la Frontera
Postcard from Andalucía: Jerez + Carmona

Monday, November 17, 2014

Across an ocean

Lower Manhattan + Freedom Tower  |  Across an ocean on afeathery*nest  |

My family (both by birth and by love) has a thing for showing up unexpectedly.

Like my parents and brother showing up at my university to help me celebrate my 21st birthday (at a surprise dinner party they organized with my roommates). Or those same roommates and I plotting with our other roommates’ parents to stage the most ridiculous reunion party with her friends and family from around the state (and neighboring ones!) for her birthday.

Or like me flying to LA from NYC (where I had a summer internship) to wait in a hotel lobby for my mom’s arrival from Virginia for a work trip, then sneak up behind her while she checked in to surprise (scare) her.

Or R traveling for 24 hours in a linen suit from Sicily to New York and walking into the restaurant where I was celebrating my birthday in the Meatpacking District with my parents, my brother, and my cousins with the hugest of smiles and not one single wrinkle (I’ll never know how Italians do it).

Then of course I reciprocated by flying to Sicily one cold week in February a few days after getting a ridiculous flight deal from Alitalia in my inbox and walking into his business while he was on the phone with his mom (who was in on it).

We like nothing more than pulling off crazy cross-country, cross-oceanic surprises and then bursting into blubbering heaves when we see each others’ faces.

But I just may have pulled off the best one yet—I flew, unbeknownst to anyone, from Stockholm to NYC this weekend so I could be there to celebrate my darling nephew / godson’s first birthday (and lucky me, Thanksgiving isn’t too far away, either).

My plan was not to tell anyone at all and just show up at the birthday party where essentially all of my American family (since most live in the Tri-state area around New York) would be gathered. My first homecoming, perfectly timed to celebrate the little boy who I was there to greet in the hospital on the day he came into this world and into our lives and who has not stopped making me smile and laugh with his adorable expressions, his mischievous personality, and his inquisitive, thoughtful stare, all of which I’ve been able to see develop and change week by week even after we left the US, thanks to his video and photo-adept taking grandparents and video-chatting parents.

Apparently my family knows me quite well, though, as my brother's non-teary response to seeing me walk unexpectedly into his apartment was, "I knew you'd come."

And he was right—there’s nothing that would have kept me from being here and holding my nephew in my arms and tickling his chubby little thighs to coax out one of his sweet gurgling laughs. Even if he won’t remember the day, and probably didn’t even really recognize me when I walked in, I’ll remember it and always know that not even an ocean could keep me away from being with him on his very first birthday.

One year ago: Craving a cozy cappuccino
Two years ago: Today's trio & Good things right now & Happy makers

Friday, November 7, 2014

An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö

An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |

A few Sundays ago, ready for some fresh air and a view of rolling greenery unmarred by architecture of any sort (even though I'm enamored with it), we borrowed my in-laws' car, picked up some friends and headed out to the countryside, which we arrived in less than 10 minutes after leaving the city. I still can't believe how close near-uninhabited land is!

Our destination was Äppelfabriken in Svartsjö on Faringsö (an island) 45 minutes away from Stockholm. I'd read about it on another expat's blog and thought a visit there would make a perfect fall day trip.

An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |
An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |
An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |
An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |

But, there were hardly any apples left on the trees and those that were still dotting the branches weren't supposed to be picked, as the orchard was preparing to make a film. We had to snag one anyway, though, as a little girl had been promised an afternoon of apple picking and we couldn't disappoint her.

An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |
An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |

Besides the lack of apples to be had, it also wasn't exactly as I'd expected, given how used I am to the apple and pumpkin farms of the Hudson Valley which are a little more dense and abundant, with well-populated rows and rows of trees and creeping vines to choose from. But in any case, the gorgeous drive there (where we saw elks racing across the meadow!), the utterly delicious and cozy fika we took inside one of the cottages, and the company made it worthwhile.

An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |
An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |
An afternoon at Äppelfabriken on Faringsö  on afeathery*nest  |

* A version of this post appeared on View Stockholm. 

One year ago: The rosy glow of an autumn dusk
Two years ago: Foiled