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Cincinnati to London Wow Air review

16 Jul

I remember when they first announced that Wow Air was going to offer low-cost flights from Cincinnati to Europe. According to my mom, everyone was talking about it.

“Do you think all the American riff-raff will go to Europe now that it’s cheap?” my mom asked.

“Have you been to Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Street?” I replied. “The American riff-raff is already here.”

Wow Air describes itself as low-cost, which we all know means no-frills and this:

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“It’ll be like riding Easyjet or Ryanair long-haul!” I said. “Do I really want to fly for six hours with no food or movies?”

The answer, I soon found out, was “maybe… when I have no other options.” Because last month I had no other options.

I had planned to fly to London using United miles, but it turns out Saver awards are hard to come by in the summer, especially when you wait until the last minute. BA and Virgin also had no mileage flights, so I decided to give Wow Air a go.

wow air cincinnati to london

These prices are for another date, I just wanted to show the different ticket categories

My one-way ticket from Cincinnati to London Gatwick cost $378. I opted for the Wow Plus ticket because it came with a personal item, carry on bag, and checked bag, plus I got to select my seat. Had I chosen Wow Basic I think I would have paid something like $269, which is stupidly cheap, but it comes with only an under-the-seat personal item. So if you’re one of those people who backpack around Europe with an actual school backpack that fits under an airplane seat, you can really get a deal with Wow!

The Wow Air flight from Cincinnati to Reykjavik leaves at 12:50am, which is tricky, because it means you have to head to the airport the date before your flight. Wow sends multiple text messages and emails to remind you of this. CVG airport is an eerie place at 11 at night — everything is shut down except McDonalds. I mean everything — even the machines that whisk your luggage away at check-in, so they were just stacking the bags up and a guy was loading them onto a cart to take them to the plane.

Even though the airport was dead, Wow check-in was busy. They only have one flight a day, so we were all on the same flight. I read online that they weigh your carry-on and hand luggage, which made packing a stressful experience for me. My carry-on was exactly at the allowed 12kg/26lb and my checked bag was really riding the line of the 20kg/44lb limit. They did not ask me to weigh my wheeled carry on, but they did make me put it in the size gauge, which made me nervous, because I knew it was a half inch off the 22x18x10in limit. It fit, but barely — it actually got stuck and I knocked the entire gauge guide over when I tried to remove it. I placed my checked bag on the scale and it weighed in at 20.8kg. Perhaps because she was nice, or because the queue was so long she wanted to get me through, or because it’s not technically overweight until it hits 21kg, the check-in lady didn’t say anything and merely slapped a tag on it. Wow Air’s policy is to charge an extra $19 per kilo that your bag is overweight, which is better than United’s flat $100 for an overweight bag, but I’m still happy I didn’t have to pay it.

I got to the gate only to find the flight was delayed. This was not a surprise to me, as I had checked flightradar24.com before I left and saw that the flight had not left on time all week. I had a 4-hour layover in Reykjavik so I was in no rush. The plane finally arrived, we boarded relatively quickly, and were off the ground about an hour after they said we would be.

wow air cincinnati to reykjavik seating.png

The seating arrangement is three by three with no TV screens

Normally I can’t sleep sitting up, especially on planes, but because it was two hours past my bedtime already, I immediately passed out and faded in and out of consciousness the entire 6-hour flight. It was by no means good sleep — I kept waking up because my neck hurt or because I could feel my mouth drooping open, but it made the time go by quickly, which was great considering there are no TV screens or free food or beverages.  I didn’t even hear the cart come by with food for purchase or duty free items. When I did get up to go to the bathroom, all the flight attendants were in the back giggling amongst themselves and speaking Icelandic. The red-eye must be an easy flight for them!

When we touched down at Keflavik Airport, the signs pointing towards passport control weren’t very clear, so I ended up queuing at a gate and almost boarded a flight to Edinburgh, but other than that, the arrival process was easy. I got an Iceland stamp in my passport even though I was only there for 4 hours.

That is one of the downsides of taking Wow Air from Cincinnati to London — you have to kill 4 hours at Keflavik Airport. Though as far as airports go, it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever been to. The whole place has a Nordic vibe like it was designed by IKEA (which of course means most of the seating looks nice but isn’t very comfortable). I got a vegan sandwich from Mathus along with a cup of skyr Icelandic yogurt. As much as I’m trying to reduce my dairy consumption, I couldn’t come to Iceland and not try authentic skyr! And I’m so glad I did, it was 10 times better than the Arla brand skyr I used to buy in the UK. I grabbed a table and used the free WiFi to get some work done.

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Keflavik airport skyr.png

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I wish I had bought this candy!

Another perk of Keflavik Airport — the best-tasting tap water I’ve ever had!

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The time actually went by pretty quickly and before I knew it, it was time to board my flight to London Gatwick. The flight from Reykjavik to London Gatwick takes about 3 hours, and goes by quickly if you pass out, listen to good music, and play on your iPad. I did a combination of the three. We landed around 8pm, but by the time I got through immigration, took the Gatwick Express to Victoria, then took a bus to my flat, I got home around 10pm London time.

Now that I wrote entirely way too much, I’ll try to sum it up with some pros and cons:

Pros:
-It’s the cheapest way to fly to Europe
-You arrive in London in the evening so you can immediately pass out. Most other airlines’ flights arrive early in the morning so you have to struggle the whole day to stay awake (or take a 4-hour nap like I usually do and be jetlagged for a week)
-The Icelandic flight crew are very friendly and begin every announcement with “Dear guests,” which while proper English, always sounds funny. They’re also good looking, or at least they were on my flights, if that kind of thing is important to you
-If you have to have a layover, Keflavik Airport is a nice airport to spend time in, with free WiFi and lots of healthy food options
-My flight from Cincinnati to Reykjavik had a power outlet so I could charge my phone (though there wasn’t one on the flight to London)
-The tap water at Keflavik Airport comes from a glacier and is the best tasting water you’ll ever have
-Wow Air has a sense of humor!
wow air sick bag.png

Cons:
-No free food — you have to pay for everything, even drinks
-No movies or entertainment. This may not be a problem with the Cincinnati to Reykjavik red-eye, but could be on the return trip, which leaves London at 11:40am
-Your flight is probably going to be delayed
-The seats barely recline and you don’t have much leg room
-Bags cost extra, only an under-seat bag is free
-Checked bag weight limit is 20kg/44lb, while every other airline is 23kg/50lb
-You have to kill 4 hours at the airport if you’re traveling on to London
-The flight might be cheap, but Iceland is one of the most expensive countries to visit
-You waste an entire day of traveling, though that’s hard to avoid since there are no direct trans-Atlantic flights out of Cincinnati

Now the important question: would I take it again?

Maybe. While I had a good experience, the bag weight limit could be a deal breaker. I did not go crazy shopping this visit and thought I did not have much stuff, but I was still slightly over the limit. In the winter when I have heavier clothing and am carrying Christmas presents, getting my bag under 44 lbs would be nearly impossible. I’m glad Wow Air is an option, though, and I really would like to actually see Reykjavik beyond its airport sometime!

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Seen in the in-flight magazine. All the reason to visit Iceland!

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That time I was in the The Daily Show audience

13 Jun

The last time (read: one and only time) I was in a live studio audience it was a rather disappointing experience. It was for a show I didn’t watch with guests I wasn’t familiar with and they never even showed the audience on TV. I needed to have another, better, experience with a show I actually watch. So when I decided to go to New York for a few days to meet up with Stephen, I immediately booked a ticket for The Daily Show. I’ve watched The Daily Show on a daily basis for years now, ever since it popped up on Sky on demand. I went from being someone who was completely apathetic about politics and news to someone who can’t get enough of it. Obviously, as a trained journalist I get my news from multiple sources, but the Daily Show does a good job of highlighting the headlines with humor (and a little left-leaning bias). I was excited to witness how the proverbial sausage was made.

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This sign is hanging above the door to the studio

Because I booked the ticket about 3 weeks in advance, the guaranteed tickets were sold out, which meant I got a non-guaranteed ticket. Which meant I had to queue. As an honorary Brit and day seat connoisseur, I am no stranger to standing in line outside of theaters. I just had to figure out the all-important question: what time to arrive? Because the only thing worse than showing up an hour earlier than needed is showing up 5 minutes too late. The ticket said I had to arrive by 5pm, but online comments suggested I get there by 4pm. I played it safe and arrived around 3:35pm. There was a decent amount of people ahead of me — perhaps around 30? — and by the time 5pm arrived, there were at least 50 people behind me. When it got close to 5pm, a producer came out and explained the process. Once they determined how many seats they had available and how many guaranteed ticket holders showed up, they’d start allowing us in. “In” being into the next queue, of course. Then we’d go through airport-like security before going into the studio. A little after 5pm they let a big group of people at the front of the line move forward, which of course meant they cut the line 3 people in front of me. I was going to be so mad if I came that close to going in! Fortunately as the guaranteed ticket holders made their way into the studio, they let a second group of unguaranteed in. A producer with an iPad came around and took our names to verify our reservations and handed us numbered tickets.

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“You needed to book a ticket online? I thought it was free!” The guy three people ahead of me said. The producer was as nice as she could have been about it, but she couldn’t let him in without a booking. He waited almost two hours for nothing! As much as it sucks, I’m glad they stick to their rules. A couple girls with guaranteed tickets showed up at 5:05pm, but since they missed the 5pm cut off, they were sent to the very back of the unguaranteed line. Around 5:15pm another producer came out and told us it was our last chance to use the restroom before going into the studio, as once we were seated, we couldn’t leave until filming was over. The guy behind me went nuts, complaining about how you can’t do that to people — not let them pee for two hours! — some people have medical conditions! But as far as I know, he survived. I went down to the bathroom in the basement before rejoining my place in the queue outside. Eventually I made it through security and was escorted into the theater. It’s a bit of a cliche, but it was indeed surreal walking across the set of The Daily Show to find my seat. I was lucky to be seated close to the center instead of on the very end of the row.

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Once all the seats were filled, they played a little safety video starring all of the correspondents, with cheeky tips like “if a joke is made about a black person, look to your nearest black person and only laugh if they’re laughing.” Everyone laughed at that. One thing The Daily Show did differently than The Jonathan Ross Show did in London was that they allowed us to take photos and use our phones up until the taping began. This made it much more enjoyable to kill time, plus everyone knows “pics or it didn’t happen,” so a selfie with the set in the background is necessary. Around 6pm, the warmup comedian came out to get everyone hyped up. Instead of making us do embarrassing dance moves like Johnathan Ross’s guy did, he mostly did crowd work, asking people where they were from and what they did for work and riffing on that. He was really funny and got everyone laughing, clapping and whooping. I expected there to be more instructions — indications to applaud, etc, but they basically just told us to “lose our sh*t.” A little after 6:30pm the main producer came out, which the comedian said was a sign the show was going to start soon.

“How much longer?” the comedian asked. I figured he would say “5 minutes.”

“30 seconds!” he said. Then suddenly the intro theme song started playing and all of us rose to our feet, clapping and cheering. Even though I had already waited 3 hours for this 30-min taping, it felt like it was all happening so soon. When Trevor came out the audience truly did “lose their sh*t.” He sat down, looked directly at the camera, then jumped right into the show. When the commercial break came, a bevy of I’m assuming writers and producers rushed the stage to talk to Trevor. When they left he finally acknowledged us, which, of course, made everyone “lose their sh*t.” I had read in reviews of the taping that Trevor likes to interact with the audience during the commercial breaks, but I have to admit, a lot of his interaction felt scripted. Like he was using the material written for him that got cut from the show. He continued to rip on how cheap EPA chief Scott Pruitt is, which was the main story of the first half of the show. When the show resumed, it was interesting to watch what Trevor did when the news clips or taped pieces were playing. A lot of times he laughed along, or just stared straight ahead into the camera, working on the correct facial expression to have when the camera turned back to him. The guest that night was actress Regina King. I was expecting the interview to go long like on The Johnathan Ross Show and they’d edit together the best bits, but what they filmed was what aired. I’m still glad I went to the taping, but the audience members don’t get to see anything extra that the audience at home misses out on. (Except maybe Trevor’s killer dance moves while he’s standing up waiting to introduce the moment of zen at the end!) When the taping ended, Trevor thanked us all once again, then rushed back to the green room. Row by row we were escorted out of the studio.

I finally had a good live studio audience experience! That night I watched the show with the sole purpose of looking for myself in the audience. After the interview with Regina King, if you paused in the right moment and squinted, you could almost see me!

Daily Show audience

Which is more than I can say about The Jonathan Ross Show. Since it involved so much waiting around, I probably wouldn’t go to a taping every time I’m in New York City, but I’m really glad I went this time!

A look back on 2017

5 Jan

And just like that, it’s 2018. 2017 really flew by, so I figured I’d pull myself out of this jetlag fog to remember all the things I did last year.

-I became an expert in cholesterol and became obsessed with lowering mine, only to find its genetic and there’s not much I can do
-I got to meet Cherry, my parents’ new Chihuahua-corgi rescue, and promptly fell in love with her (The amount of photos of her butt alone that I have on my phone is probably cause for concern)
-I got to see my Chicago and Milwaukee friends twice
-I ran a 5K race in under 30 minutes and completely wiped out in a 10K race and still finished in under an hour
-I got to see my favorite band Over the Rhine twice, once at their farm and once in Over the Rhine
-I saw Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell the Musical twice from the front row
-I finally visited Greenwich
-Stephen and I had an epic holiday in Prague, Budapest and Tuscany
-We finally visited the Buckingham Palace state rooms
-I road a camel
-I got to meet my best friend’s daughter at the hospital a day after she was born
-I reached level 38 in Pokemon Go and still continue to play every day
-I saw Hamilton in Chicago
-I saw 16 West End shows, smashing previous years’ record of 9
-I became pescetarian in September and kept with it aside from a bit of turkey on Thanksgiving
-We rang in the New Year with new friends and a killer fireworks display in London

I don’t like to make formal New Year’s Resolutions, but there are some things I’d like to focus on in 2018. I’d like to continue my pescetarian diet at least until my next cholesterol test, just to see if it’s making any difference. Though to be honest, I don’t really miss meat that much. I think I’d also like to have another go at a half marathon this year, either the Flying Pig in Cincinnati or the Royal Parks Half in London (if I can manage to secure a ballot spot! Third time’s the charm, right?). On the hobby front, I’d like to pursue calligraphy and lettering more. I got into it a bit last year, but I got some nice pens and paper for my birthday this year that make me want to do it more. They say you should have at least 3 hobbies — one to keep you healthy, one that allows you to be creative, and one that makes you money. At least I’ve got the first two down! (Does writing and editing count as a money-making hobby if it’s your job?)

Here’s to a great 2018 — may I not spend the entirety of it jet lagged! (I’ve been back in London 6 days now and it’s starting to feel like I just might)

doug the pug new year

That time we were stranded in Italy

15 Sep

gelato siena.pngIs there anything better (or worse) than coming home from vacation? You get to sleep in your own bed again and return to the daily routine. On the other hand, you have to return to the daily routine — no more sailing along the Danube, driving with the top down through Tuscany or eating gelato for both an appetizer and dessert.

We just returned from an epic holiday to Prague, Budapest and Tuscany (as per our tradition, three places that are not really close and have absolutely nothing to do with each other). It was one of our best trips yet — until we tried to get back to London.

We booked a flight out of Florence on CityJet — an airline that previously canceled our Paris flight and made us take the Eurostar train. But that was weather-related, so surely we’d be fine flying out of Florence. It was a bright and sunny day the day we were scheduled to leave. And yet no planes seemed to be doing that — leaving. As we sat in the terminal, slowly we saw each flight on the monitor go from “delayed” to “diverted” to “canceled.” It was a clear day and yet no planes were taking off or landing in Florence. I was tracking our plane on my phone and noticed its landing time kept getting pushed back by 5 minutes before it finally switched to the dreaded “diverted.” It was diverted to Rimini near San Marino, a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Florence Airport.

High winds was the excuse they gave us, though the weather reports were showing only 20mph gusts. Stephen has his own theory about an air traffic control officer who took a long riposo (Italian siesta). Something didn’t add up.

Since no flights were landing at the airport, every airline bused their passengers to nearby cities like Pisa or Rome. CityJet put us on a bus to Pisa. The employee at the gate ensured us that we would be put up in a hotel and that CityJet would text us about our rescheduled flight, which would likely be flying out of Pisa airport the next morning. Another passenger told me this had happened to her before and they rescheduled her flight for 6am. At least we’ll get back to London early and not waste another entire day, I thought. I envisioned us staying in the center of Pisa as we had just a week before, enjoying one last Italian meal and stroll by the leaning tower at night.

Instead the bus pulled up to a hotel 20 minutes outside of Pisa with absolutely nothing nearby besides a gas station. We were stranded. Our room didn’t even have WiFi. CityJet texted me that they were working on sourcing a crew and aircraft for us to fly out of Pisa and would continue to send updates. The next update was that they were rebooking us on alternate airlines and would email us our new itinerary. As we entered the lobby of the hotel, we were greeted by a chorus of CityJet hold music emitting from fellow passengers’ phones. We overheard one woman who had managed to get through to someone.

“You bused me out to Pisa then booked me on a flight leaving tomorrow night from Florence Airport with a layover in Amsterdam? That is unacceptable!”

We hadn’t received our rebooking yet, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be on the direct British Airways flight out of Pisa. I was correct.

“Paris,” I told Stephen. “They’ve rebooked us on a flight out of Florence Airport tomorrow with a connection in Paris.”

He immediately got out his phone to call CityJet.

“Are you going to complain?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m going to get our money back. We’re not taking that flight. We’re not risking it with Florence Airport again. Look up cheap flights from Pisa or Rome.”

And that’s how we ended up spending the next day taking a taxi to Pisa’s train station, riding a 4-hour train to Rome, riding a 30-min train to Fiumicino airport, sitting at the airport for 3 hours, finding out our flight was delayed 30 minutes and wanting to cry, but finally landing at London Gatwick.

We left our Florence hotel at 9:30 am on Tuesday, thinking we’d be back in London at 2:30pm. We got back at 11:30pm on Wednesday. That is two entire days of our lives wasted on traveling. Though I suppose I should look on the bright side — we did manage to get home safely, our transportation costs to Rome should be reimbursed by CityJet, and the refund we’ll receive from our original flight should cover the cost of our EasyJet flight from Rome. But, man, talk about putting a damper on an otherwise amazing trip. We’ll certainly be back to Tuscany, but the next time we’ll think twice about flying in and out of Florence.

My mildly convenient superpower

7 Jun

I remember reading an AskReddit thread once about mildly convenient superpowers. I never really thought about what mildly convenient superpower I might want, until it occurred to me the other day that I might already have one.

Almost every time I fly or travel on a Megabus, I never have to sit next to a stranger. There’s always an empty seat next to me.

I thought it was just a fluke at first. It used to happen on my frequent Chicago-Cincinnati Megabus trips when the bus was only half full. But then there was a time the bus was completely full save for one empty seat, which just so happened to be next to me. It began feeling like a superpower.

It’s been so long since I’ve had someone sit next to me on a trans-Atlantic flight that I don’t even know where I would put my headphones or water bottle if they couldn’t go on the empty seat next to me. I flew back to London last week and made sure to select an aisle seat next to an empty middle seat. I almost got ambitious and selected a row with two empty seats (maybe I could actually stretch out and sleep?!), but knew that was too much of a risk. Some couple could come along and choose those two seats. I checked the seat map on the Virgin app every hour or so during my 5-hour layover in Boston and figured I was golden — the middle seat next to me remained empty. But then I checked one last time while waiting to board, only to see a little X on the empty seat — as well as on every single seat on the plane. It was a fully booked flight. My superpower had met its match.

A few minutes after I sat down, uncomfortably holding my giant headphones, toiletry bag and water bottle until I could figure out where to store them, a young man came and motioned to the empty seat.

“I’m seated there, but my girlfriend is in 55E — would you mind switching with her?” he asked. Stephen and I have asked people to do this many times and I was happy to pay it forward. Until I asked them to confirm the seat.

“55E? Is that a middle seat?” I asked. It was. I felt like a horrible person, but I had to turn down their request. Being stuck for 6+ hours with your knees touching one person is bad enough, there was no way I was going to do it crammed between two people.

“It’s no problem, we understand,” the girlfriend said, waved goodbye to her boyfriend, and headed back a few rows. The boyfriend immediately put on headphones and closed his eyes while I tried not to bump his legs digging for my iPad in my bag. It seemed my superpower was no more and I was going to have to suck it up, just like everyone else seated in economy. But then they closed the cabin doors and I felt a presence next to me. It was the girlfriend.

“Hey!” she said to her boyfriend. “There’s no one sitting next to me, come on back!”

And that’s how I knew I truly have a mildly convenient superpower.

super corgi

 

When a (wo)man is tired of London…

19 Apr

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Samuel Johnson

I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m tired of London, but it’s certainly grinding on me lately. The crowds of tourists have been giving me a mean case of pedestrian road rage (yes, that’s a thing), and it’s taken everything I’ve got not to body slam a group of Spanish high school students blocking the entire pavement in the park whilst I’m running. Things that used to be a happy coincidence — like just happening to catch the Horseguards changing of the guards when trying to get to St. James Park have become a huge nuisance. There’s always something going on near our flat in central London, whether it be Mary Poppins filming or an alt right protest (and anti-alt right protest and a huge police presence just in case the two protests clashed).

So while those crowds of tourists who walk at a snail’s pace and stop sporadically for selfies couldn’t be more chuffed to be in London, I am so looking forward to heading to America tomorrow. I’m looking forward to driving again, to running in my parent’s subdivision with no chance of getting trapped behind tour groups and slow walkers, and, of course, seeing family and friends. I’m starting in Milwaukee, then heading to Chicago, then finally to Cincinnati via my old pal Megabus (please no explosions this time!).

I just checked in online for my flight and was surprised when Delta informed me the second leg of my trip might be overbooked and asked me if I’d be willing to accept a voucher to go on a different flight. (A new process in light of the recent United fiasco, perhaps?) The kicker is they asked me to bid with the voucher amount I’d be willing to accept — $200, $300, $400, or $500. I opted out since I have a non refundable hotel reservation to make, but I wonder what kind of person bids $300? Whoever bids the least will be the first to be bumped. Presumably someone who for one reason or another doesn’t really want to take the flight will bid $200, but anyone who’s smart would go for the max. Who bids $300 or $400? I’d really love to know.

Here’s hoping for smooth traveling (I’m flying Delta, but wearing leggings) and as mild a case of jetlag as possible!

london pug bus

At least I saw a pug bus today!

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.