Saturday, May 31, 2014

Have needles, will travel

Handknit phone case  |  Have needles, will travel on afeathery*nest  |

It's been a long time since I've shared any of the knit goodies I've made (or, made and unraveled), so I've got a bit of a backlog of things crafted from the two huge cones of natural cotton I picked up before we left NYC: There's this little case I made for my new phone after I finally replaced the comatose one. The knit pouch goes around the rubbery hand grip one, this way when it's in my bag next to keys and pens and whatnot it won't get all scratchy.

Handknit phone case  |  Have needles, will travel on afeathery*nest  |

Then when I was in Italy I began work on another set of 4 napkins, this time all in different stitches and slightly larger than my previous ones.

Handknit cotton napkins  |  Have needles, will travel on afeathery*nest  |

Handknit cotton napkins  |  Have needles, will travel on afeathery*nest  |

And, right before we left NYC I made a traveling sleeve for my laptop, using some of the leftover buttons from my nephew's cardigan set.

Handknit cotton laptop sleeve with wooden buttons  |  Have needles, will travel on afeathery*nest  |
Handknit cotton laptop sleeve with wooden buttons  |  Have needles, will travel on afeathery*nest  |

Next up while I wait for the rest of my yarn supply to arrive from NYC (since I'm still stuck with the creamy cotton cones), perhaps an open-weave market bag? We tend to run out every other day for groceries now, instead of waiting for the weekly delivery from FreshDirect, so I know it'd come in handy. And, it would definitely be less unsightly than the big blue IKEA bags we've been using.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

1st day of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare) language classes

Swedish building in Stockholm  |  1st day of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare) language classes on afeathery*nest  |

Yesterday was my first day of school at SFI (Swedish for Foreigners, a.k.a. "Svenska för Invandrare"), a state-run language program to help immigrants learn to speak Swedish and become familiar with the national culture as quickly as possible. The government is so keen on people assimilating—rather than just coming in and taking advantage of benefits without contributing—that there's a hefty, tax-free bonus involved with completing the course and passing the national exam (although there are rumblings it's ending soon...).

I'm starting SFI at Level C, as I've had formal education and can somewhat speak another language—those seeking asylum from countries where they've had no schooling and haven't learned to write their own language or speak any others start at A. Once I pass this level and D, I can continue to a more advanced, "professional" course called SFX for people who work in specific fields, e.g., business, law, etc., or continue to a more university-style language course called SAS (Swedish as a Second Language, "Svenska som Andra Språk", which picks up after SFI and goes from levels E - H).

To be eligible for the free classes, you must be a legal resident of Sweden with a personnumer, which is why I went through all that rigamarole before I arrived and made sure to get my resident card on Day 1 so that I could apply ASAP for the school and be covered under the national health care system.

When I was able to register, I chose a school in the city center (versus near us), because I wanted to be sure I'd be out and interacting and whatnot every day. I also chose a school in a pretty area and in a more typical Swedish building because...well, why not?

Albino White Stålhästen bicycle |  1st day of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare) language classes on afeathery*nest  |
Albino White Stålhästen bicycle |  1st day of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare) language classes on afeathery*nest  |
I left home an hour before class began to ride the 7 kilometers (30-minutes according to Google) there. I gave myself a buffer because while I've ridden quite far and alongside traffic before, I hadn't yet negotiated left-hand turns and riding in traffic itself. Luckily all went quite smoothly apart from walking the bike a bit because Google led me down a harrowing street. I arrived, scouted a space to lock up Cleo, spent 10 minutes actually locking her up, and made it into the lobby with 5 minutes to spare.

The first day wasn't a full 4-hour session, but rather a briefer 2-hour intro. I was the only American in the class, the other students are from Lithuania, Argentina, China, Japan, Colombia and Pakistan. All of us more or less the same age. And all of us had a severe dislike for one of the others that was a bit of a know-it-all, the type to shout out the answer even when it's not asked of them. No idea why that person was in the intro class with the rest of us who arrived here within the last few weeks since they've been here for 8 months and already took SFI C and D, but our mutual disdain was solidified when we went around the room saying what languages we speak and heard their answer include "Swedish".

Cue the cumulative eye-rolling.

Anyway, we spent the class reviewing the alphabet and learning how/when to pronounce certain letters certain ways (and how to pronounce the Swedish-specific letters ä, å, and ö), and the basics like "My name is...", "I come from...", "I live in...", "I speak...", "Excuse me" and the days of the week.

I'm hoping that when the real classes begin it'll be a bit more structured and with homework—but with no more interruptions from you-know-who.

Vasastan  |  1st day of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare) language classes on afeathery*nest  |

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Socializing in Stockholm

Rosendals Trädgård  |  Socializing in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |
I came to Stockholm already knowing a few people—thanks to R having spent his 20s here and us having returned for vacations, but in a full month of living in this pretty city on the sea, I've made two friends on my own—thanks to social media and this here blog.

You know things are fairly anonymous around these parts, but when I received an email from another gal that had just moved here too, but from elsewhere in the EU, asking whether I'd be interested in meeting another fellow expat, I quickly responded "yes!".

She kindly mentioned that she didn't mean to intrude, knowing how I don't share personal photos or heavily-identifying details here, but I will gladly ignore all that if it means spending some time with another native-English-speaking lady (or really, anyone nice, regardless of language!). So, we met for hot chocolate in Gamla Stan (Old Town) at Chokladkoppen one evening last week and swapped stories about visas and renting an apartment and setting up a bank account and all the other fun things that come with moving to a new country.

Walking into Gamla Stan  |  Socializing in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |
Gamla Stan  |  Socializing in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |
A week after that, R and I went to a friend's espresso bar where I ended up chatting with a woman who was there with her husband and one of their three kids. After talking about living in different countries, languages, children, the US vs. Sweden vs. Italy, etc., they got their things ready to leave and headed out. As soon as the woman walked out the door I said to R, "shoot, she was nice! I should have gotten her contact info."

Fast forward to 8 hours later and we're getting ready to go to sleep when I see an Instagram notification pop up on my phone—I had posted a photo of the hot chocolate I had at the bar earlier in the day and turns out the other woman had Instagrammed a photo, too. We had both tagged the bar's location and when she uploaded her picture, she clicked the location tag to see recent photos taken there and the last one was mine. She thought to herself, "I recognize that hot chocolate...", clicked onto my profile and found me!

Hot chocolate at Dolcetto |  Socializing in Stockholm on afeathery*nest  |
We've chatted a bit since and have already met for lunch and a walk in a rose garden on Djurgården (first picture), where I took Cleo for her inaugural city ride.

The lesson from all of this?

Hot chocolate forges friendships—as if we had any doubt about chocolate's power.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Meet Cleo, my new Stålhästen

Y'all, I did something I've been thinking about doing for a while, but never could in NYC.
(And no, sadly it's not getting a dog).

But! I got a horse! A "steel horse", that is. More specifically, a white ladies Stålhästen with cognac-colored leather details. Isn't she beautiful? Her name is Cleo and we're already best friends.

Cleo, my new white Stålhästen bike  |  Meet Cleo on afeathery*nest  |
Growing up I had a shiny turquoise bike for neighborhood romps to friend's houses or to the pool or library, but I've never had a bike as an adult, much less ridden one on city streets. I never even considered it in New York. Jay-walking with abandon is one thing...trusting American drivers to be aware of non-drivers alongside them and sharing their road is another thing entirely.

All that changed last week when I saw a beautiful Stålhästen on the street and decided I had to have one. We had been talking about getting bikes anyway, since Stockholm has such a great bike culture, there are tons of green spaces and bike paths that actually function to get you from point A to point B, I like moving around on my own (as you know), and public transit (while pretty and clean) is pretty expensive, so an alternative isn't a bad idea.

So, we took an hour-long walk from home to Södermalm last week, where Stålhästen, "a Swedish bicycle company offering elegant bicycles for an affordable price" has a summer pop-up store. Perfect description, no? In fact, when I saw my first one on the street and looked it up online I was shocked at just how affordable it was. I completely expected some absurd price, but while we went just to look, for a (very) few hundred dollars, I came home with a new bike and accessories (front and back rack, lights, locks, helmet, etc.). The only thing I'm on the lookout for now is a wooden crate for the front and leather panniers for the back. I can make do for without either at the moment, so I'm waiting until I find exactly what I have in mind before buying.

Since coming home with her just a few days ago we've already done quite a lot together, most impressively (to myself, having never ridden a bike on a marked road before) a round-trip 13km (8 mile) city-street ride to Djurgården to meet a new friend (more on that soon!) for a walk and lunch in a rose garden.

From Hammabry Sjöstad to Södermalm by white Stålhästen bike  |  Meet Cleo on afeathery*nest  |
Stadsgårdsleden on Södermlam by white Stålhästen bike  |  Meet Cleo on afeathery*nest  |
View of Strändvägen by white Stålhästen bike  |  Meet Cleo on afeathery*nest  |
There were bike paths the entire way there and I only had a minor freakout when I was on a bridge from one island to another and my lane ended for a few feet at the same time a hop-on hop-off bus pulled up next to me. I braked and skittered about for a second, but then all was okay. Apart from that, a very sore rear end from being a little too enthusiastic the first few days, and a bruise on my calf when I smacked a pedal into myself while walking her out of the park, we've been doing okay so far.

I never realized what a rush and a sense of freedom you have riding a bike for both pleasure and efficiency. I can pop over to the bigger (more economical) grocery store in 9 minutes, can take much more scenic routes to go to school or visit my mother-in-law (I would get there in about the same time by tram and subway), and just meander about on my own strength but with the ability to carry much more with me than I would by foot.

Plus, once R got a look at Cleo(patra), his desire for a bike ramped up and within two days he had found his new bike, appropriately named Caesar.

One year ago: Me, then, again

Friday, May 23, 2014

First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda

Cinderella boat through Stockholm's archipelago  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
Last week when sunny summer began flirting with scattered-showers-spring, we hopped on a boat heading out from Stockholm into the archipelago to explore one of the approximately 30,000 islands (sounds like a huge number, but they also count all the rocky outcroppings and skerries and whatnot as "islands"). Rather than head into the city center to grab a dayboat from the pier most convenient to tourists, we went to the port in Nacka, the second stop for departing boats and closer to us in the south near Hammaby Sjöstad. Not only would it be a calmer departure, but it's only 20 minutes away from us by bus as opposed to 40.

Map of Stockholm to Grinda  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
We're not in full-summer-swing yet, so the options for a weekday trip were a bit limited. Of the options available, I didn't want to head to Vaxholm, an island connected by bridge to Stockholm's city limits and mostly considered a further suburb (you can see it above near the blue number 274), as well as the most obvious place to go. Instead we chose Grinda (the red marker)—a calmer, more isolated and uninhabited island for our outing.

When the Cinderella boat arrived we hopped on and I couldn't help but be surprised at how nice it was (and thank goodness because the tickets were a little pricey). Lots of people were sitting at quaint tables in front of expansive windows tucking into their seafood lunches or reading or working. We headed outside to the back deck to sit in pools of sunlight and soak in all the charming towns as they whizzed by.

Swedish flag in Stockholm's archipelago  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
Vaxholm  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
Stockholm's archipelago  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
An hour after leaving Nacka, we arrived at the teensy "port" of Grinda. The boat left and we just looked around blankly—they weren't kidding about the whole island being a nature preserve. There was absolutely nothing at the boat landing site. So, we turned inward with our picnic lunch and headed up a path into the forest.

We came out of the woods into a clearing directly in front of a very happy family of cows lolling about in clover. They were quite massive, which you can't tell from the picture below, but suffice to say that while one part of me really wanted to nuzzle their noses, the other was quite glad they seemed uninterested in us.

Once cow-watching became a bit monotonous (somewhere around 2 minutes in), we turned left past their paddock and walked 10 minutes to a landing area for recreational boats. We decided to unpack our lunch there on the lilting deck and nod our hellos to locals as they arrived and set off while we had a chicken salad. 

Grazing cows on Grinda  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
Grinda  |  First Swedish archipelago visit: a daytrip to Grinda on afeathery*nest  |
After lunch we decided not to risk missing a boat back since there didn't seem to be anywhere to spend the night except under a tree, so we walked back over to where we arrived and laid our picnic blanket on a grassy bluff for a nap. I fell into a deep sleep and luckily R's phone rang a few minutes before the return boat very quietly docked. We jumped up and ran down the plank for our trip home.

The day trip itself was perfect—we didn't leave too early and didn't come back too late, and since there's not really much to do or see on Grinda, a 2.5 hour stopover for lunch and a nap was perfect. The beauty of Grinda is its tranquility, so if you're looking for a quiet spot to rest and just be, Grinda's your gal. If you're into window-shopping, cafè-sitting, and poking around historical places, Vaxholm (the 4th picture in), might be a better option.

P.S. Our two months of time off is ending this weekend and we're headed back to the real world very soon—R begins a new job and I start school next week!

One year ago: 100

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Drizzly day in the city: Djurgården + Helin & Voltaire

Helin & Voltaire on Djurgården in Stockholm  |  Drizzly day in the city: Djurgården + Helin & Voltaire on afeathery*nest  |
On my first trip to Sweden it was Christmas and Stockholm was at its prettiest. All candlelight and red paper stars in windows and crisp air and dancing snow on cobblestones. I was immediately enthralled—as long as I wasn't out for too long (my scanty American "winter" clothes didn't do much to keep me warm), but even when I was, we could at least come in from the cold to mugs of glögg.

But after a few days catching up en famille, R and I snuck away for an afternoon stroll alone and he brought me to the island of Djurgården, one of Stockholm's 14.

Perched up on a very slight crest was a fairytale-like structure housing Helin & Voltaire, the most charming cafè, complete with stone walls, a lit fireplace and the glow of candlesticks. We went in to warm ourselves up and enjoy a fika in the flame light and I loved it so much that we came back again the next time we were in town and wanted a special place to unfussily celebrate our first anniversary of marriage. Here's a picture of it in winter that I shared during the very early days of this blog. Charming, no?

View of Nobleparken from Djurgården in Stockholm  |  Drizzly day in the city: Djurgården + Helin & Voltaire on afeathery*nest  |
So last week when it was drizzling off and on one day and we were a little stir crazy and out of sorts, R wisely suggested we go out to Djurgården for a walk and lunch at Helin & Voltaire. This time, as I wasn't contending with snowy paths for the first time ever, I noticed a bit more on the way over, like these gorgeous Hermès-roofed buildings across the water near the Nobel Park and the entrance to a  rose garden I noticed and will go back to see another day.

After a delicious lunch, followed by a very yummy hazelnut-chocolate-coconut cookie, we headed back across the water to the city center, stopping on the bridge to admire the view. Even on the dreariest of days, Stockholm is such a beautiful city and I still can't quite believe I live here now.

View of Strandvägen from Djurgården in Stockholm  |  Drizzly day in the city: Djurgården + Helin & Voltaire on afeathery*nest  |
One year ago: Blueprints

Monday, May 19, 2014

The biggest differences I've noticed in Sweden: Vol. 2

Norrmalmstorg |  The biggest differences I've noticed in Sweden: Vol. 2 on afeathery*nest  |
Click here for the first volume of things I've noticed as an expat.

Recycling for cash works:
I remember seeing a redemption figure on plastic bottles in the US but no one ever redeemed them for cash because you had to go to some central sorting facility. Not so here. When you buy bottled water/soda/wine/etc. or canned goods, a fee is added to your receipt (same as in the US, here about 30 cents), but it's very easy to get that money back. Most grocery stores here have kiosks right at the entrance, so you bring your bottles back and get a receipt before you even enter, then you just scan it at the register and you're refunded. Serious incentive to not toss your recyclables! In fact, when we saw a bottle discarded on the street outside the apartment I swooped down to grab it and added it to our bag so I could get money back for something we didn't buy. The system works!

Everything is child-proofed:
You can't push open your apartment/terrace doors with one hand, you need to use both (you twist something while you pull something). And for a full day we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the dishwasher in our sublet. The soap was in, the dial was turned to “eco”, we’d hit Start 50 times and nothing seemed to happen. Then I noticed a little knob under the kitchen faucet that didn’t do anything when turned. I thought, maybe this redirects the water to the dishwasher? Yep. In order to run it you have to turn it on in two places.

It's expensive...even compared to NYC:
People warned me how expensive Stockholm is, but I brushed it off. NYC is expensive too, right? I thought I was prepared, but whoa, it really is a lot more expensive. A cappuccino costs almost $5 (in NYC, between $3.50 and $4.50 is normal), a ride on public transit is almost $4 for one “swipe” to NYC’s $2.50 (granted, the system here is so much cleaner and nicer and I don’t fear sitting on the seats, but still). And the big one, the reason department stores, sporting good stores and electronics stores in NYC are full of Scandinavians: the 25% sales tax. T-W-E-N-T-Y F-I-V-E. I knew that before coming, so we did a big shopping spree for clothing basics, but it hit home when we went to IKEA for a few things for the apartment that not only cost a smidgen more than in NYC, we also paid almost 15% more in tax (NYC’s sales tax is 8.875%). Then again, should something happen to me and I need to go to the hospital, I’m completely covered and I don’t even have a job!

Apartment building laundry rooms are communal and free:
Some apartments have a washer and dryer built in, or tenants add them via a hookup, but it's most common for people to use the communal laundry area in their buildings. Actually, I don't remember even seeing a laundromat yet. But unlike NYC where you just pop down to the machines whenever you feel like it (and have to pay!), here you must book ahead of time (and it's free!). I’ve seen other expats write about the experience and show hand-written sign-up sheets, but our building has a little electronic screen thingy, which makes it a little more fancy’ish. You book 4 hour slots to do your laundry and you don't pay a dime for it. Plus, not only are there two normal-sized washing machines, one larger one for comforters and a dryer, there's also a drying cabinet and a wringer/mangle (have never seen those before!).

Boxed wine is good:
At the Systembolaget I was looking at different bottles of wine and realized they were similar in price to NYC (and in Sweden the tax is included in the price on the shelves, so that makes it easier to shop). But then I realized a few of the bottles I was considering were available in box form, too (which holds the equivalent of 4 bottles). I did the math and realized the boxed version was a very good deal. I will always and forever be enamored with the romance of uncorking a bottle of wine (I hate screw tops), so the fact that I'm now a proponent of box wines (with nary a thought of those horrid Franzia ones from the 80's), is saying something. Currently on our counter is a box of Sicilian Syrah and Puglian Negromaro. Each very good and purchased for the equivalent of $30. So for $60, 8 bottles of wine that we are very much enjoying.

One year ago: Long weekend

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bath house day at Elements Spa in Södermalm

Elements Spa balcony terrace at Clarion Hotel in Södermalm, Stockholm  |  Bath house day at Elements Spa in Södermalm on afeathery*nest  |
Earlier this week we took advantage of our continuing status as a lady-and-gent-of-leisure to spend the afternoon at a spa. A few reasons why this happened:
  • R has always been a fanatic of the pool/sea and saunas, and while I wasn't at the beginning of our courtship, I came over to his side a few years ago
  • Scandinavians are extremely pro-sauna (you'll find them in many houses and even in some apartments!)
  • It was yet another gray day and instead of Vitamin D we could perk ourselves up with a wee bit of pampering
  • As we're not working at the moment (and haven't been since we left NYC), it seemed that we had no choice but to take advantage of a 2-for-1 deal that R found (Stockholm is generally as, if not more, expensive than NYC), since we needed a little skin soothing anyway
The place that made all this possible? Elements Spa at the Clarion Hotel in Södermalm. R came across a weekday deal for two at 295SEK, or $45. That's right: forty-five dollars for two people to spend the entire day at a bath house. Of course we had to go!

We took a nice 30-minute walk to the spa and then spent the next few hours alternating between the heated indoor-outdoor pool (separated by a glass divider that zoomed up so you could continue your swim outside in a glassed-in pool open to the elements), the sauna, the snow shower, the steam sauna, and snoozing wrapped in blankets and towels on the terrace. There were only a handful of other people there, so we were almost always the only ones in the saunas. And, our package included the most delicious cardamom tea and fresh fruit, so we punctuated our spa cycles with a cup or two and a few delicacies from the platter to keep ourselves nice and hydrated.

By the time we left our skin was glowing, our nails were sparkling, and our expressions were nice and languid.

One small thing dampened the experience, though. We weren't told when we arrived that only one towel was included for our entire visit: the bathhouse portion and our actual post-bath shower. I'm all for clean living and lessening the use of water, detergent and electricity, but had I known at the beginning, I wouldn't have carted my towel into the steam sauna with me and used it to mop at my hair when I went outside. The prospect of a wet towel for my post-bath shower wasn't so nice, but neither was the idea of paying for a towel (30SEK each, or $4.50), so, I used my bathrobe and you know what? It was fine. But, FYI for anyone thinking of going.

One year ago: Tonics and potions

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Baptizing our new apartment in Stockholm

R lived in Stockholm in his 20s and the one person he's stayed closest to in the many years since is a fellow Sicilian who also found himself in Sweden after school. This weekend we had him, his wife, his brother and his wife, and their baby daughter over for a housewarming dinner party.

I can't even begin to tell you how much fun we had.

And, I'm going to go ahead and take full credit for it since I dug out my iPod, which I haven't updated since 2007, and had it playing in the background. I put on the Club/Dance playlist, chock-full of now-quite-old songs, and suddenly these Sicilian men in their late 30s/early-40s flashed back to their youth at Swedish nightclubs and jumped up and started dancing around and I have to say it was most definitely an amazing thing to see.

They picked up random things to wave around in the air to accompany their wildly spastic gyrations—a spatula, a dishcloth, the pan holding the risotto al pistachio that R had prepared (luckily that was just sort of, swayed around, not waved above anyone's head) and had at it.

Moving to a new country is such a daunting thing—an adventure to be sure, but all sense of home and security and your "tribe", so to speak, vanishes. I know I'm lucky to be here with my husband and we have his mom, a resident Swede, nearby to help us and above all provide the comfort and support only a mother can. But a person needs both family and friends, right? That's why being able to laugh with other young women and wives in my new home in Stockholm this weekend was something so very special.

And, these aren't just any women, but thoughtful ones that have heard tell of my affinity for orchids and brought me a beautiful one as a housewarming gift...and a miniature wooden Swedish flag.

I think it's safe to say our apartment has officially been broken in.

One year ago: Pitter-patter-y weekends

Monday, May 12, 2014

The biggest differences I've noticed in Sweden: Vol. 1

Gamla Stan  |  The biggest differences I've noticed in Sweden: Vol. 1 on afeathery*nest  |

The quiet:
People don't shout, there's no excessive honking on the road (or any really) and after a few weeks here I've heard a siren only twice. In fact, when we landed from NYC I had a moment of panic thinking we had crossed one too many time zones because it was freakishly quiet at the airport—at noon all we heard was a low, gentle murmur. Nothing like the International Arrivals terminal at JFK.

The cleanliness of public transit:
The trams, light rails, subway, buses, ferries and commuter rails are so clean—even though dogs are allowed on them! In NYC dogs aren't allowed on public transit (unless they're in a bag, so forget taking your golden retriever to the park via subway). In Stockholm there's generally a car or two dedicated to animals, so you can't just jump on anywhere, but still. They're so clean. The stations, too!

Weather isn't a factor:
There's a saying here that there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes, and I can attest that these Swedes aren't kidding about that. Even on a cold, gray, rainy day when we were driving around in a car we passed schools with kids playing outside. Not only that, the sidewalks were peppered with people happily walking dogs, jogging or strolling and chatting with friends—without umbrellas (or hoods)! I was worrying about all of them getting serious head colds, but they all seemed nonchalant about the whole thing, having specifically chosen to take a stroll in the rain.

The brusqueness:
Swedes are notoriously shy and hesitant to engage (which is fine for an introvert like myself), but what I didn't count on was the passive aggressiveness. There have been a few specific attempts when I've been quite harshly shoved (at the airport, walking down the sidewalk). Since there's no threat of a confrontation maybe that makes people more confident in their rude behavior?

Paying for bathrooms:
Some, but not all, public places charge to use the facilities. It's less than 50 cents, so not a crazy amount. But still, I was a bit surprised by the concept until I went inside and saw why: the bathrooms were spotless. Come to think of it, even the ones we haven't paid for have been clean so far.

* A few more Swedish differences 

One year ago: Welcome back

Friday, May 9, 2014

Adjusting to Swedish life

Klarastrandsleden  |  The first few days in Hammarby Sjöstad on afeathery*nest  |
My Virginia childhood didn't do much to prepare me for 6°C / 43°F days in May. Nor did it prepare my for a sky that lightens at 4:30AM and doesn’t darken until 10PM (and we’re not even in full-on summer yet!).

It did, however, prepare me for living on the waterfront and hearing the clanging of boat bells and horns, which is lucky, since we now live in a “port city”. I could hear the call of the water the last few days but hadn’t done much exploring, at least not physically (naturally I Googled and YouTubed the area to no end before we moved) since it was raining and cold and R was sick at home (his body didn’t transition so well from the heat of Sicily to the icicles of Stockholm).

But the other day while R was taking an afternoon nap, I ventured out alone to putter around my new neighborhood and buy some groceries to make him soup and detergent to do laundry.

While many people here speak good, if not perfect, English, I’m hesitant to get into the groove of conversing in my native language because some expats never learn Swedish since they don't really have to to survive. But after trying to go grocery shopping on my own, I have no idea how they manage that.

Buying spinach or onions is one thing—those are straightforward items. Trying to figure out which of the 17 types of eggs or chicken or laundry detergent to buy is another beast entirely and was exhausting and frustrating. I stood to the side of the narrow aisles, maniacally photographing labels and using Google Translate’s image feature to figure out if I was buying some crazily perfumed detergent or some inhumanely raised chicken.

After my harrowing, hour-long trip to buy a handful of things, I stopped at Sytembolaget, the state-run liquor store (similar to an ABC store). I’d read about how people hate Systembolaget mainly because you can only buy alcohol during the week (fine by me) and apparently it’s a madhouse before closing time on Friday (I’m good at planning ahead so no worries there), but because of what I'd read I was expecting an unpleasant situation. Turns out, it was so pretty and clean and nicely laid out and labeled (not that I could read anything). But anyway, I had my wine, so off to the house I went to make R some chicken soup while I had a glass (or two) of my hard-won wine.

I walked in the door and rattled off to R in Italian how frustrated I was, and he wisely said, "did you think you’d be able to speak Swedish in a day?". And I was thinking back to my last month in Italy, where for the first time I felt 100% comfortable being out on my own to run errands or go to the Samsung Service Center and explain what happened to my phone or sit through a marathon lunch or dinner—and that feels so far from where I am today with a new language.

This summer marks 9 years since R and I met, so I definitely didn't learn Italian in a day. And true, the first few years don’t count since before R moved to the US to marry me I wasn’t really too focused on speaking Italian, but it took a number of years before I hit that comfort level (and I'm nowhere near fluent now, but at least I can manage for a day). I know I’ll probably get to a reasonable comfort level with Swedish faster since we’re living in the country, versus R and I speaking in Italian only half (if that) of the time in New York with yearly or every other year trips back to Italy.

Still. I was discouraged and had a headache when I returned from my solo expedition.

But like many things, everything seemed brighter the next day, as my personnumer arrived—the number that’s like an American Social Security Number which makes me an official, registered resident (my resident card came while I was in Italy) of Sweden. It gives me access to healthcare and means I can now look for a language school! (Whew.)

We celebrated by heading out to a bakery for a fika complete with a coconut-rolled chocolate ball. Delicious.

Chokladboll from Magnus Johanssons Bageri & Konditori in Hammarby Sjöstad |  The first few days in Hammarby Sjöstad on afeathery*nest  |
The only two administrative / bureaucratic things left to do now is request my Swedish ID card, which will give me a Swedish / EU-approved form of ID, since my New York State Driver's License doesn’t count, and who wants to carry a passport around every day? Besides, the latter doesn’t include my perssonnumer, which is essential. If I had a Swedish Driver's License, I wouldn’t need an ID (neither R or his mom have one, because he has an Italian Driver's License and she a Swedish one), but since I have a year to use my NYS License and in any case, I have to study for and take a driving/written exam, no way will I be getting that anytime soon.

And, now that we’re officially registered as living here, we can inform the Italian Consulate, so they know where to find me when my citizenship request is approved.

But even before doing those two approved, legal, benefit-filled Swedish life can officially begin!

One year ago: Playing with pauses

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our new home in Hammarby Sjöstad

Hammarby Sjöstad  |  Living in Hammarby Sjöstad on afeathery*nest  |
Finding an apartment in Stockholm is hard—NYC hard, but with a twist. While NYC apartments exist, they’re just incredibly expensive. In Stockholm, they just don’t exist. The city is built on 14 islands and most residential buildings seem to be 4-6 flights. Ours in NYC was 35.

Plus, the city doesn’t want to crowd out the original buildings or smush in too much construction, so if you want to live in the city itself, it’s very hard to find a place. If you want to live on the public transit line (which serves Stockholm county, not just the city), you could find some newer construction in what you could consider the “suburbs”, but for my first year or at least for a little bit, I wanted to be more central. I thought it would make the transition a bit easier. Regardless, in our minds we were set to live with R’s mother for a couple of months before we found anything, whether permanent or transitional.

Then: her cousin’s daughter’s boss decided to move in with her partner and offered us her furnished apartment for 6-12 months! We found out a few weeks before we left NYC, which made our departure so much nicer, knowing we wouldn’t be nomads and squatters for long.

Hammarby Sjöstad  |  Living in Hammarby Sjöstad on afeathery*nest  |
Not only is the apartment furnished in our style (my mother-in-law said when she walked in she felt like she was in our NYC apartment), but we could keep our shipment of NYC things at her house and just bring over a few things to tide us over in our transition period because the apartment came with everything (dishes, pots/pans, coasters, candlesticks, a TV, etc.). All we had to bring with us were our suitcases and some linens.

(Of course we also went and got tons of plants and flowers and candles, because you know I can’t exist without those).

So the apartment itself is a perfect temporary solution for us: we can comfortably and affordably live somewhere while we figure out what our next, more permanent move will be and we don’t have to go through the hassle of unpacking all of our belongings and then repacking them.

But it wasn’t just the apartment that won me over—it was the area, too. There are two small promontories that are (almost literally) a stone’s throw away to the south of Södermalm, the island people say is the “Brooklyn” of Stockholm, where the city had planned to construct the Olympic village if they had won the bid in 2004. Since Athens got it, it was decided create an eco-zone within an already very sustainable city, the area now known as Hammarby Sjöstad, where we live.

Hammarby Sjöstad  |  Living in Hammarby Sjöstad on afeathery*nest  |
When it's time to find a long-term home, I can’t really decide if I’d rather move to a renovated apartment in a grand old palazzo, similar to my brother’s in Milan or stay in the sort of apartment we’re in now: a more “modern” building that’s a mix of metal, concrete, and glass, with wood finishes. We’re amidst low-rises with large terraces that are in small groupings along the waterfront and canals, each with their own courtyard and gardens, with footpaths and bridges and gazebos everywhere.

At the moment, the closeness to nature and nicely landscaped areas, the rushing water and all the blinking glass and shininess is wooing me over. I also love the easy access to trams, buses, ferries, and the subway line (although that’s true in most places here), but something that’s a little different in this neighborhood is the intense commitment to sustainability.

Our building has multiple recycling containers plus a compost valve, so we can port all that outside and these whooshing vacuum things swoop it all away—no need for garbage trucks. All the waste is carted underground to some sort of facility where it’s recycled and the heat generated from the process creates electricity to run things here.

The area also uses half as much water as Stockholm proper, the windows and terrace doors don't let the cold in (it’s been in the 30-40s here and we haven’t turned on the heat) and has tons and tons of commitments to implement even more practices to inspire better behavior.

My other favorite feature: in the mornings I can hear the seagulls on the water while I have my coffee and fuss over my plants.

Our new apartment in Hammarby Sjöstad  |  Living in Hammarby Sjöstad on afeathery*nest  |
One year ago: Lullaby oil concoction

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Postcard from Milano & Parma

Pastel Parma  |  Postcard from Milano & Parma on afeathery*nest  |
Last catch-up post from my month in Italy! Back to our regularly-scheduled Swedish programming soon… 

When my brother and his family returned to Milan after Easter, I traveled north with them while R stayed behind with his brother, this way we each got some solid sibling time in, albeit at opposite ends of the country.

It was my first time seeing their apartment and wow, their gorgeous home in a stately palazzo right off of a major park with a direct view of a famous arch was incredible. High ceilings, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, three (T-H-R-E-E) terraces (off the kitchen, off their bedroom and off the living room), marble everywhere and the cherry on top, one of those iron scroll old-timey elevators—all this for just under what we paid in NYC (obviously that’s not the cherry on top for us).

There’s something special about being able to step off onto a terrace while waiting for water to boil, or sitting in a patch of sunlight while having coffee and checking on your flowers and herbs. We spent mornings before heading out to explore there, and in the evenings we went to the front terrace with this spectacular view for sliced fruit, wine, and other nibblies pre-dinner.

Arco della Pace, Parco Sempione  |  Postcard from Milano & Parma on afeathery*nest  |
My first night in Milan we went to their neighborhood restaurant, La Posteria di Nonna Papera, for a very late, very delicious dinner, where I wasn’t able to give up on my ‘nduja obsession, and luckily the chef at this restaurant has ties to Calabria so his specialty was a pasta dish with a sauce made of my beloved spicy spread (and being Milan, they had gluten-free pasta!).

While my brother was working during the week, he did have the national holiday off on Friday, so he and I spent an afternoon meandering about Parco Sempione and Brera with the baby fast asleep in his stroller (for three hours!). We explored the park, went to the Castello Sforzesco and saw some exhibits there, then to the charming neighborhood of Brera where we stopped for a hearty aperitivo at Salsamenteria di Parma of sparkling red wine native to the region (served in mugs!), grilled polenta with a medley of culatello and lardo (cured meats native to Lombardy) and caciotta (cheese) on top, and a few slices of salame to satiate any bits of hunger left.

When he was working, my sister-in-law and I took the baby to a nearby cafè where we sat for a few hours with our cappuccini in the mornings, then to the farmer’s market for lunch and dinner goodies and then in the afternoons if she had errands to run or things to do around the house I was happily on babysitting duty.

For the weekend I was there before heading home to Stockholm (!) we took a little overnight trip down to Parma, an hour away on the high-speed train. I remember before the baby was born friends had told them to get their traveling in while the baby was little, but they (and I) have learned that’s just crazy. It is extremely hard to travel with someone that has to be changed, fed, burped, and put to sleep every few hours.

And since the baby was born in NYC, where they don’t have a permanent home, there was a lot of shuttling around which I know was exhausting for my brother and his family, and now that they’re back in Italy (although only for a little while), the trip to Parma was their second—and last—baby trip, apart from the long one back to the US. Then I think they’ll be staying put until he is diaper free and eating the same food they are.

Pastel Parma corner  |  Postcard from Milano & Parma on afeathery*nest  |
I tried to help as much as possible, but oof, it was not easy!

That being said, we still had a nice little trip. After we dropped everything off at the hotel we took a walk to the town center for lunch at Trattoria Corrieri, where we got our first tastes of Parmigiana food, which is abundant with meat (you’ve heard of Prosciutto di Parma?) and parmigiana (named after the city it came from). Then while the parents and the baby retreated for a nap, I walked around for a few hours, finally finding a little café to sit at to people watch and read. This was all during the time I was sans phone, so after I got over my discomfort of being completely “alone” should anything happen, I began to enjoy the freedom. No need to check my send messages, no need to take pictures and share them. No need to open Google Maps to make sure I was heading in the “right” direction.

After we met up at the hotel that evening, we all freshened up and then went to find a place to eat. I’ve been spoiled in NYC where smoking is banned in all buildings, the outdoor dining areas of restaurants, and parks/beaches. In Italy: not so, and I found that even if someone sat next to you and a baby, they lit up without a second thought.

While we walked around looking for a place to eat we saw a lot of “baby friendly” places, meaning there were lots of other children (even newborns!) sleeping or fussing in their strollers while their parents ate, but people were was smoking everywhere. We finally took a side street and found Enopolium, where we could eat inside but the wall was basically open to the street, so it was like being outside. We lingered there for 3 hours, playing round after round of hangman while we had a few drinks with our dessert and the baby slept on.

Parma Baptistery  |  Postcard from Milano & Parma on afeathery*nest  |
The next morning a friend and his girlfriend drove over from Modena (an hour from Parma in the opposite direction of Milan), and we all explored together before having the most insane meal at Leon d’Oro, one of those tavern-type places that have been around for more than a hundred or so years. We sat down and all the specialties of the area were rolled out for us to try. I started with a risotto al’radicchio and then had a bollito misto, which is basically a variety of different “boiled meats” (which doesn’t sound appetizing, but trust me it so is) served with jams, marmalades, and spicy mustards. I could barely move by the time we finished dessert so we took a long walk in the Parco Ducale before catching our train back to Milan.

A few days later I flew to Stockholm and now R and I are moved into our furnished sublet, where we’ll stay for the next few months. More on that soon!
One year ago: Fleeing the foolishness & Postcard from Mexico

Friday, May 2, 2014

Easter 2014: Sicily

Venerdi Santo, Santa Caterina, Taormina, Sicily  |  Easter in Sicily on afeathery*nest  |
Ahh, springtime in Sicily. Rebirth. Easter. Little lambs frolicking in the sunshine.

Except it was about 50F, windy, rainy and cloudy for most of the month.

We made the best of it (with only a few complaints from me) by bundling up, lighting the fireplace often, and cozying up with card games and hearty, spicy food.

By the time Easter weekend rolled around I was sorely in need of some sunshine (which thank goodness we at least got a teensy little bit of). My brother, his wife and their adorable munchkin of a baby son came down from Milan to spend the holiday with us, which made it all even better for me, of course. We took walks through the town, went out for pizza, took the cable car down to Isola Bella (seen here), went to view the Good Friday/Venerdi Santo procession on the corso (main street), and to Sunday mass at the Duomo (cathedral) of Taormina.

Then instead of a traditional Easter lunch/dinner at home, we headed to Gambino Vini, our friend's vineyard a few towns over in Linguaglossa (glimpsed here previously), for an afternoon feast.

Degustazione dei Vini / Wine Tasting at Gambino Vini, Linguaglossa  |  Easter in Sicily on afeathery*nest  |
Our little group (R, myself, my brother, his wife, their baby, R's brother and his girlfriend) settled ourselves in at a beautiful farmhouse table overlooking the valley and enjoyed tasting about 7 different wines (hearty 'tastes' at that!) and a sampling of light food to accompany our toasts. There were salumi (cured meats), formaggi (local cheese), sausages, lentils, a chickpea soup, a fennel salad, and hazelnut truffles to finish.

A few hours later we finally hoisted ourselves up and ambled outside to take advantage of the spectacular Etna foothills scenery with a few family pictures—especially since we didn't know when we'd all be together again—before the drive down the curvy road home.

(This is when my phone died—luckily I was able to share a few pics before all was lost!)

P.S. I'm back in Stockholm now, but given all my technical drama recently, still catching up on the month in Italy.

One year ago: Goings on & Smited by the Gods & Easter Dinner 2013