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Our ancestral journey to Västervik Sweden

12 Jan

When I was in elementary school my classmates and I went through an ancestral heritage phase. It may have been because we were studying it in school, but all I remember is that it suddenly became cool to say “I’m a quarter Irish” or “I’m half German” or “I’m 1/18 Cherokee” (because every elementary school class has that one kid who claims she’s related to a Cherokee princess, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a Cherokee princess). My parents may have told me my full heritage — a mix of Czech, Swedish, German, Polish and probably a couple others — but I clung to Czech and Swedish. I may have even said I was half each. I liked that my surname was Czechoslovakian, because nobody can pronounce it (“it” being both my surname and “Czechoslovakian”).  At that time Czechoslovakia may have still been a country, but I knew absolutely nothing about it. It was some mystical, magical, far away land. In true beauty pageant fashion I’m not sure I could have found it on a map. My last name was the only bit of my Czech heritage I had. That, and a Valentine written in Czech my great-great-aunt in Cleveland once sent me, and a glass vase given to me by my great-great-aunt’s Czech pen pal who came to visit her (and my entire extended family) in Cleveland when I was young. This lovely old Czech woman’s first (and I believe only) experience of America was suburban Cleveland. I remember my grandparents showed her a right good time though, and stayed in touch with her even after my great-great-aunt passed.

My Swedish heritage, however, my family embraced. My great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, emigrated from Sweden to Pennsylvania in 1914. I never met her, but she passed on some traditions to my grandmother, who passed them on to my mother, who tried to keep them up with our family. These traditions mostly came out at Christmastime. We made Swedish ginger cookies (which we Americanized by slathering them in pounds of frosting), Swedish red velvet cake, Swedish meatballs and meat cakes, and proudly displayed our Swedish candelabra, Dala horses and straw goats. My grandmother kept a very detailed photo album of the family history, and even had photos of my great-grandmother’s house built by her father (my great-great-grandfather) in Västervik, Sweden.

Based on this photo alone and an outdated address, my grandparents went looking for the house 30 years ago. The library in Västervik helped them find the new address, so they drove their rental car over and knocked on the door. I would love to have heard how that conversation went down — “Hello, do you speak English? We are from America. My grandfather built your house. Can we come in?”

But whatever they said worked, because Marianne, the new owner, let them in and gave them a grand tour (all while 8 months pregnant and renovating the place!).

This year my parents and I decided to do a little ancestral tour of Europe, visiting Prague, Stockholm and Västervik. On a whim my dad looked up Marianne on Facebook and saw that she was still living in the house. So he messaged her, and just like that we had an invite for lunch and a house tour in Västervik .

vastervik sign.png

After looking at train schedules, we decided to rent a car. My dad drove while I navigated and spent 30 minutes trying to get the car’s language into English. (I’m not exaggerating, it really did take that long. Thankfully my phone, and Google Translate in particular, worked in Sweden). But eventually we pulled up to a small yellow house on a quiet street in Västervik. Marianne and Benny came out and greeted us like were long lost relatives. And in a way it felt like we were — throughout the day I had to keep reminding myself that Marianne was not my great-aunt or second cousin once removed. She was just some stranger who happened to buy the house from a guy who bought the house from my great-great-grandfather. Yet she showed us the warmest of hospitality, first giving us the grand tour of the house, pointing out which elements were original from 1903, then led us into the kitchen where a traditional Swedish lunch spread was waiting for us.

swedish lunch.pngWe ate Christmas bread, ham, and even drank Swedish Christmas soda. Over lunch we took the opportunity to drill Marianne and Benny with all our Swedish questions. We asked them about meatballs, ginger cookies and Dala horses, all of which they confirmed were in fact Swedish.

What about straw goats? I asked.

Maryann looked at Benny, puzzled.

“Goat?” she asked. “What is goat?”

I quickly googled Swedish straw goat and showed her a photo.

yule-goat

“Ah, yes!” she said. “Yulegoat! This is Swedish.” She then told us about the giant straw yulegoat they erect in Gävle every year and how every year somebody tries to burn it down. I quickly googled Gävle goat and found its Wikipedia page.

“Yep, this year’s goat has already been burned down,” I announced. Apparently even Sweden can’t have nice things.

My mom then asked her about red velvet cake, something we usually bake for my birthday or Christmas. The recipe card from my grandmother says “Swedish red cake.”

“Red welwit?” Marianne asked, struggling to pronounce it.

“Yes, it’s red cake,” my mom said. I pulled up a photo on my phone.

“It’s red?” Marianne asked. “Is it strawberry flavored?”

“No,” we said. “It’s just loaded with artificial coloring. Or beet juice.”

“Sorry, I have never heard of this red velvet,” Marianne said. A quick google search shows red velvet cake was likely invented in America in order to sell more red food coloring. Figures. Oh well, it’s still tasty even if it’s not Swedish.

After lunch we walked around town. I tried to imagine my great-grandmother walking these streets as a girl. What would there have been in place of the McDonald’s and H&M? We strolled along the waterfront, passed the house being constructed by Björn of ABBA, who, fun fact, grew up in Västervik.

vastervik waterfront.png
vastervik city.png
vastervik street.png

We saw the ruins of the Stegeholm Castle and walked up to Gränsö slotts ljusstöperi, an old-school candlestick maker (so famous in the country their website is actually http://www.swedishcandles.com/ and we saw them for sale in gift shops in Stockholm).

candles vastervik.png
vastervik candles.png
After loading up on souvenirs to take home, we walked back to the house, took some more photos, then said our goodbyes. We told them they were welcome to visit us in the U.S. anytime, though it’s hard to imagine someone as well-traveled as Marianne coming to Kentucky (but hey, if Vera from the Czech Republic can enjoy suburban Cleveland, maybe Marianne from Västervik would like Florence, Kentucky!). I told Marianne I would email her the photos I took and my dad said he would keep in touch via Facebook, and we hopped in our rental car and made the 3-hour journey back to Stockholm. (With a quick pit stop at IKEA, because you cannot go all the way to Sweden and not check out an authentic Swedish IKEA. For the record, it looks like an American or British IKEA, only slightly bigger and better designed. And their giant hot dog poster doesn’t have to say “not actual size.”)

ikea giant hot dog.jpg

We also had a nice time in Prague, strolling Charles Bridge, gazing up at the castle and visiting the impressive Old Town Christmas market. But I’m pretty sure my ancestors didn’t live in Prague’s Old Town (or even Prague for that matter), so it didn’t have the same effect as traveling to Västervik. A lot of Americans can’t even narrow down their ancestors to a city, yet alone an exact address, so it was such an incredible experience to be able to step back in time for a day.

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Fun times at The Wilds

23 Jul

Trivia question: The largest wildlife conservation center in North America, a place where African, Asian, and North American species roam freely on over 9,000 acres, is in what U.S. state?

Did you guess Florida, California, or somewhere with way better weather than middle-of-nowhere Ohio? You’re wrong. The answer is Ohio (middle-of-nowhere Ohio, to be exact).

Last week we drove approximately 3 hours from Cincinnati to visit The Wilds, the largest wildlife conservation center in North America. Though it’s partnered with the Columbus Zoo, there’s nothing zoo-like about it — all the animals roam freely in open pastures. The only way to see them is through scheduled bus tours, which drive you through the pastures for 2 hours like you’re on a safari (or at Jurassic Park). They have open-air buses for the authentic safari experience, but since it was 90+ degrees F (33C) on the day we went, we opted for the “climate-controlled” buses. I put “climate-controlled” in quotation marks because whatever air-conditioning system they had on board did not seem to be working and I was a hot, sweaty mess by the end of the tour. If you want to get up close and personal with the animals (and have $125 burning a hole in your pocket), you can take the Wildside Tour. We first encountered a Wildside truck being surrounded by Persian onagers.

wildside onagers.pngAs we circled back around our bus met the same fate.

persian onagers.pngThey were everywhere! Apparently they were attracted to the bus because the exhaust kept the flies off them. Two of them parked themselves right in front of our bus and would not move.

onagers bus.pngOur driver had to call Animal Management to come and lure them away so we could continue on with the tour.

We got off the bus for a bit to see the parakeets and some other animals.

parakeets the wilds.pngCheetah!

cheetah the wilds.pngThey were feeding the African painted dogs while we were there.

painted dogs the wilds.pngZebra (with a less impressive wiener than the zebra we saw in San Diego. Sorry, it had to be said!)

zebra the wilds.png

zebra close up.pngFrom a distance we saw the ostrich harassing the Wildside Tour, so we knew he was gonna be fun.

ostrich wildside.pngHe kept trying to stick his head in our driver’s little window.ostrich bus.pngostrich funny.pngWe had a great view!

ostrich the wilds.pngHow often do you get to see an ostrich and a giraffe together?giraffe ostrich.png

giraffe the wilds.pngSouthern white rhino

white rhino the wilds.pngScimitar-horned oryx have wicked horns!oryx the wilds.pngThey’re native to North Africa and still thought it was way too hot in Ohio.

Baby scimitar-horned oryx with tiny horns!

oryx babies.png

Almost all my photos were taken from the bus, so you can see how close we were able to get to a lot of the animals. If you ever find yourself in middle-of-nowhere Ohio, I highly recommend a visit to The Wilds. Just maybe not on one of the hottest days of the year.

The Great Walk of London 2016

19 May

Stephen Facetimed me this evening as I was walking in Hyde Park.

“Are you running?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “I’m walking. I’ve been walking for six hours now.”

And because he knows me, his first question was not “Why?!” but, “Where have you been going to the bathroom?”

The Great Walk of London 2016 happened, my friends. And it was glorious.

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Ode to Churchill the Corgi

8 Apr

As you may have noticed with posts like this, I really, really love corgis. But unfortunately my current living situation does not allow me to have a dog. While I enjoy scouting for them on runs through the park, the next best thing to having a dog is having a family member get a dog. Though it’s been over a year since we lost Squirt, my parents are still not ready for another dog. Late last year Stephen’s family’s chihuahua Xiao Bei crossed over the rainbow bridge, which gave Stephen and me a new mission: get his family a corgi.

We started by slyly sending them photos of my favorite Instagram corgis, like Super Corgi JOJO. Then we upped the cute factor with puppy photos. They were sold. His cousin began researching breeders and sent us photos of prospects. We vetoed a few before Stephen sent me this photo followed by “Yes?”

china corgi breeder

He was perfect. I couldn’t wait to meet him, even if he was halfway across the world. The day they brought him home I begged Stephen to ask them for more pictures.

corgi puppy eyes.png

His cuteness was addicting — I couldn’t get enough. I watched him play fetch over Facetime. I saved every photo of him Stephen’s family sent.

“What’s his name?” I asked Stephen.

“He doesn’t have one yet,” he replied. Then he said we could help name him. After he vetoed my Chinese translations of “little butthead” and “short legs,” he said we should pick an English name. We wanted a human name that was stately and English and easy to pronounce.

“Churchill,” I suggested, conjuring the great British statesman and first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States… and also the adorable bulldog from the insurance commercials. (Source of this photo: an article stating that more British children can identify the Churchill Insurance dog than the wartime prime minister)

churchill dog

And just like that the little corgi had a name. Churchill. I watched Churchill eat his dinner over Facetime and promptly pass out in his bed. I treasured every sweet photo.

corgi puppy passed out.png

Stephen said even his uncle, who is not a dog person, was falling for Churchill. How could anyone not? I wanted so badly to go to China to visit Churchill in person. I knew the chances of me being able to cuddle him as a puppy were slim, but I looked forward to meeting him someday.

And then Stephen got off the phone with his cousin and dropped this bomb:

“Churchill’s dead.”

I thought it was an April Fools joke. Apparently so did his cousin, not realizing that April Fools’ Day has been banned in China.

Stephen’s family was so in love with Churchill that they took him on an adventure in the mountains. He likely ate something that was poisonous and died the next day.

I was heartbroken. We were all just getting to know Churchill. I never even got a chance to properly meet him, and now I never will. The little guy was supposed to have his whole life ahead of him. I always knew someday he’d cross the rainbow bridge and frolic with Squirt and Xiao Bei, I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.

corgi puppy toy

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Fun times at the Louisville Zoo

5 Jan

The other day we went down to Louisville to visit the zoo (and my brother). I’ve been to the Cincinnati Zoo countless times so it was nice to get my Fitbit steps and animal fix in a new spot. They had a killer gorilla exhibit (more on that later) as well as some animals Cincinnati Zoo doesn’t have, like wallabies and rock hyraxes.

What’s a rock hyrax? This:

rock hyrax.png

I would have bet money it was a rodent, but according to its little informative sign, its closest living relatives are the elephant and manatee. (How?!) Especially when those teeth just scream rodent (and “Phteven”)

stephen with a ph

Sorry, Tuna the Chihuahua-Dachshund mix cracks me up.

We wandered over to the lion exhibit where Marvin Gaye was playing (not really, but it should have been). The male slowly licked the female’s face before trying to — ahem — “jump over her.” She was not having any of it though and he quickly retreated to his rock to pout. Side note: are lions supposed to be that skinny? I guess I haven’t seen many up close since at most zoos they’re sitting far away so you don’t get a good look at them.

lion love.png

The Louisville Zoo is home to a rare white American alligator named King Louie. My camera didn’t feel like focusing on him.

white alligator louisville.png

The zoo is also home to freedom incarnate.

american eagle.png

And actual Louisville cardinals! Although I don’t think this dude is part of the zoo, he was just hanging out by the parrot exhibit.

louisville cardinal zoo.png

This bird inexplicably decided to sit on this other bird.

birds sitting on each other.png

This bird has killer neck feathers.

bird cool neck.png

We went on the Wallaroo Walkabout which was full of animals too small to be kangaroos and too big to be wallabies, so they’re called wallaroos (I think).

louisville wallaby.png

Apparently I was confusing wallabies with wombats and was disappointed we didn’t see any of those cute koala-beaver-looking things, but wallabies are still cool too.

cute wallaby.png

We also saw this little bird in the Wallaroo Walkabout. I felt bad for him because he was super pumped to see us but couldn’t come through the fence.

australian bird.png

He spent the whole time banging his beak against the fencing in vain until we left.

aussie bird.png

Over at Gorilla Forest it was Helen the gorilla’s 58th birthday! Helen is the fourth oldest known gorilla in the North American population. We arrived a few hours after her celebration, but judging by the state of the decor, it was a raging party.

gorilla party.png

Like most animals (and children) she seemed most interested in the box her present came in.

louisville gorilla birthday.png

NOM NOM box!

louisville gorilla helen.png

I was really impressed with Gorilla Forest, both with the quality of the exhibit and the amount of gorillas they had. I also like this gorilla throwing shade:

gorilla throwing shade.png

I think somebody is regretting eating so much of Helen’s cake. I sent this photo to my friend and captioned it “How I feel after a month of eating ‘Murican food.”

gorilla regret.png

This random lady there was showing a gorilla photos of gorillas on her phone.

gorilla cell phone.png

I think he found a photo he likes!

gorilla scream.png

I didn’t go into Louisville Zoo with high expectations, but I was impressed. The crowds weren’t bad and most of the animals were out. Any day where I get to see and photograph gorillas and rock hyraxes is a good day in my book.

American vs. British Sour Patch Kids

6 Dec

It’s time for another American vs. British sweets taste test! On the table this time: Sour Patch Kids.

us uk sour patch.pngSour Patch Kids were just launched in the UK in 2012. They are marketed by Maynards (which was sold to Cadbury, which was acquired by Kraft, which goes by the name Mondelēz International, Inc. — have you gone cross-eyed yet?). Maynards is also behind the popular wine gums, which are firm gumdrops that contain neither wine nor gum.

Besides the giant “Maynards” there’s another packaging difference — the American bag is 226g and the UK one is 160g (does this surprise anyone that the American one would be bigger?). I got the US one for $2 (£1.32) and the UK one for £1 ($1.51), which is roughly the same price per gram (the US one is a slightly better value).
us uk sour patch kids.pngThe other main difference is in the list of ingredients. Here’s what’s in the US version:

us sour patch kids ingredients.pngMmm…. corn syrup and yellow 5.

Did you happen to catch the little guy on the front of the UK package saying “We are made with natural colours”? Check out the UK Sour Patch Kids ingredients:

uk sour patch kids ingredients.png

Mmm… Paprika, spinach, stinging nettle  and turmeric extract!

Here’s what the kids themselves look like. The colors, Duke, the colors!

sour patch kids countries.png

See that purple UK Sour Patch Kid on the far right that looks like a naturally dyed blue raspberry? It’s not. It’s blackcurrant.

“What the heck is blackcurrant?” my dad asked.

I showed him this photo:

blackcurrant.jpg

“That looks weird,” he said. Then he popped a blackcurrant Sour Patch Kid in his mouth.

“That’s $%&@!” he declared.

Blackcurrant is not an American flavor whatsoever, but the Brits love it. According to Wikipedia, “in Britain, 95% of the blackcurrants grown end up in Ribena and similar fruit syrups and juices.” During our very first trip to Tesco after we moved to London we bought a bottle of Ribena because it was on sale and we thought it was grape juice. I think we drank almost half the bottle before realizing it was concentrate. Tip: Ribena tastes much better diluted with water.

Sour Patch Kids Soda Popz are only available in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. So naturally I had to walk an hour to Morrison’s (the only place that seems to sell them) to get some.

sour patch soda popz.png

They too are made with natural colours and come in cola, orangeade, cherryade, tropical and apple fizz flavours. Judging by that list, I’m not entirely sure the folks at Maynards/Kraft/Mondelēz International have ever had soda pop. The cola one is especially tasty (and very soda popz), orange can pass for a soda flavour (but it’s also included in the regular pack), but the others do not belong. Why not make cherry cola? Or Dr. Pepper? Or root beer? Basically all the flavors in the Jelly Belly Soda Pop Shoppe collection. And why aren’t Sour Patch Kids Soda Popz available in the US, the world capital of soda consumption? Because they know we would see through their questionable flavor selection?

sour patch kids soda.png

Here are all the kids in a group family photo.

sour patch kids different flavors.png

Now for the important questions I know you’re wondering: how did they taste? Which one is the best?

Like with my Cadbury Egg experiment, the US Sour Patch Kids tasted like what my brain thinks Sour Patch Kids should taste like — like childhood and sweet, sweet corn syrup. They got a natural advantage. The UK ones had a slightly different texture — they were a bit more chewier and dense, almost like Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. If I had to rank my favorite flavors I think I’d pick American cherry, British cola then American raspberry. British cherry just didn’t have that punch that the American one did, however eating the British bag made me feel like I was somehow being healthy by not consuming handfuls of corn syrup and artificial colors with my buckets of sugar. As for the blackcurrant one, I have come to enjoy blackcurrant as a fruit and flavor — it’s one of my favorite Fruit Pastilles, but it just doesn’t go right with the sour coating. I’ll take a corn syrupy blue raspberry Sour Patch Kid over a blackcurrant one any day.

Manneken-Pis wore a costume! And we also went to Ghent

28 Aug

The other day I was talking to our porter about our trip to Belgium.

“Is it a good place for couples to visit?” he asked.

I told him it was if you like wandering around, exploring historic sites and eating delicious food (which we do), but I’m not sure what he meant. What makes a place good for couples? Plenty of nightclubs? Places to canoodle? Whatever the opposite of family-friendly is? I was puzzled.

So the jury is still out on whether Belgium is good for couples, but it’s definitely good for foodies, beeries and arties (I’m pretty sure I just made those last two words up).

We made Brussels our home base and then took day trips to Ghent and Bruges. We had planned to hit Antwerp too, but Stephen came down with a nasty cold so we decided to take it easy the last day. Plus, there’s probably a limit on how many medieval fairy-tale like towns one can take over the course of 4 days.

Though Brussels makes a good base, it’s two best sights — Manneken-Pis and the Grand Place — can be seen in the span of 10 minutes (20 if you walk slowly and take a lot of photos). Rick Steves says there are two types of people — those who adore Manneken-Pis and those who abhor him. I’ll let you guess which of us is the former. Here’s a hint: I read online that Manneken-Pis wears a costume a couple times a month, and was dying to see one. The first day we were in Brussels I looked up the schedule and saw he’d be dressed the next day, so I made Stephen walk out of our way before our train to Ghent just to see the little squirt dressed like “one of the Buumdroegers.”

manneken pis costume

I still have no idea what a Buumdroeger is (one who “carries the tree during the Meyboom plantation?”), but I had to see Manneken-Pis dressed like one.

manneken pis outfitSuccess! (Though in hindsight, I should have waited for the tall dude to move and gotten a clear shot. I was too excited.)

Then it was on to Ghent. Ghent is the only Belgian city on our itinerary that I didn’t previously visit with my parents two years ago, so I was excited for something new. I had read that it was one of the most beautiful and authentic cities in the world, so expectations were a little high.

ghent belgium

I would say it’s definitely beautiful and authentic in an Amsterdam-meets-Bruges way with slightly less tourists and more free toilets — which is the best, because my two complaints about Bruges are that there are too many tourists and a lack of free toilets. It seems no matter where I travel, I always end up on a quest for a quality toilet, whether that means a free one or a non-squatter.

Besides the free loos, the most well-known sight in Ghent is probably the Ghent altarpiece (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) at St. Bavo Cathedral. When I was in high school I did a project on Jan van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s funny, when you’re 14 years old in Kentucky writing about a 15th-century work of art in Belgium, it all seems so far away and other-worldly — high school Renee never imagined she’d ever find herself on a day trip in Ghent, face to face with the world’s most stolen artwork. And yet there I was. Photos were not allowed, so here’s a picture from Google:

ghent altarpiece
Of course a photo doesn’t do it justice. I’m told I have to watch the movie The Monuments Men now since the Ghent altarpiece is in it.

After lunch (mmm… Flemish beef beer stew and fries) we went to see the other side of Ghent’s art scene: Werregarenstraat, or Graffiti Street. According to Rick Steves (I told you, he’s my homeboy), they made graffiti illegal in Ghent except for on this one street so street artists would have an outlet. When I heard “graffiti street” I imagined crude images (remember the Lisbon wiener?) or gang tags, but what we saw was some serious art (and one crude Muppets image). It’s a shame these can be painted over at any time.

ghent graffiti street

ghent graffiti censored

ghent graffiti good

ghent graffiti monkey

ghent muppets

Our last stop in Ghent was Gravensteen castle.

ghent castle

It was built in 1180 and renovated in the 19th century. We did a lot of climbing and walking around looking at the art exhibit and torture devices inside. We also got some nice views.

ghent castle view

ghent view

At one point we were walking along a walkway with no guard or railing and at least a 10-foot drop. I should have taken a photo. My first thought was “Stay to the side and don’t fall.” My second thought was “This would never fly in lawsuit-crazy America.”

In short, Ghent definitely has a lot to offer for couples who enjoy charming architecture, castles, artwork (both old and new), and of course, free loos.