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Based on this photo alone and an outdated address, my grandparents went looking for the house 30 years ago.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.

A look back on 2016

1 Jan

pug-new-year

 

 

Ah, 2016. Celebrities die every year, but the year that took away David Bowie, Prince and George Michael seemed particularly cruel. Then there was that little Brexit debacle and American election. But on a personal level, 2016 wasn’t all that bad. Dare I say it was actually quite good.

 

Here’s a little reflection of what went down over the past year:

-Stephen and I celebrated 10 years together
-I went to the Cadbury Creme Egg cafe
-I completed the Great Walk of London, which involved walking 16.35 miles around London solely for the Fitbit steps
-I got to be maid of hono[u]r in my best friend’s wedding in Milwaukee
-I spent Fourth of July in Chicago with good friends
-All the cousins on my dad’s side of the family were reunited for the first time in 9 years
-I started playing Pokemon Go, let it take over my life, completed my Pokedex and for some reason still continue to play
-I did gymnastics for the first time in 16 years with my other best friend and survived with only minor aches and injuries
-I traveled to China with Stephen — twice
-I complete my first half marathon
-I went to my first Cincinnati Bengals game, which happened to be in London
-I got to meet Meat Loaf, my musical idol since high school
-We bought a flat
-I saw 9 West End shows, somehow tying my record from 2015, 2014 and 2013 (maybe my 2017 resolution should be to see 10 shows!)
-I traveled to Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic with my parents and got to visit the house my great great grandfather built in Sweden in 1903 (link missing because I still need to make a blog post about this!)
-I spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in London for the first time. We watched the NYE fireworks from the roof of our building and it was beyond spectacular (the most spectacular part being we got to avoid the massive crowds)
-I got to eat at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in Versailles for my 30th birthday. We had an amazing little last minute getaway, until we almost got stuck in Paris because all flights to London were grounded. Thank god for the Eurostar train!

Here’s to 2017! I haven’t made any resolutions, but I hope it is filled with good travel, theatre, food, running, friends and family.

My first Christmas in London

25 Dec

For the first time in my life, I didn’t go “home” for Christmas. Since my parents came for Thanksgiving, I decided I would stay in London with Stephen for Christmas and New Years for once. I had visions of a laid-back London Christmas. With the Tube and buses not running, I imagined a blissful tourist-free city. We’d go for a run through the empty park in the morning, then pop into an empty Chinatown restaurant for lunch, then catch a movie in an empty theatre. I was already planning the artsy tourist-free London photos I’d capture.

Ha. Hahaha!

It turns out I was dreaming. It turns out there is no such thing as a tourist-free London. In fact, there may have been more tourists in the city than on your average Sunday. Though it was eerie to not see any double decker buses on the roads, there were plenty of cars and pedestrians. We weaved our way through the crowds in Hyde Park and pushed our way through Trafalgar Square. At the movie theatre in Leicester Square the automated machines were broken, so we had to wait in a long queue to buy tickets. Then my dreams of a quick Chinatown lunch were crushed when we saw the massive queues at every restaurant that was open. Who were all these people out on Christmas Day?! Though I guess they could ask the same about us. So Christmas lunch ended up being movie theatre nachos and popcorn, though we did go out for a proper fancy Christmas Eve lunch yesterday, complete with my first Christmas [figgy] pudding. And in an effort to keep some of the Christmas family tradition alive, I made Swedish meatballs for dinner tonight (and by “made” I mean reheated the frozen ones I bought from Iceland, but they were imported from Sweden and I made the sauce from scratch so that counts for something, right?).

So that was our Christmas this year. It felt a bit like that John Grisham book — like I skipped Christmas. I was a bit emotional earlier this week when it finally hit me that I was “missing” Christmas this year — not just the day itself, but all the traditional events that lead up to it — the Over the Rhine concert, cookie baking, shopping. But I realized I needed to stay back this year. Mostly to take care of housekeeping stuff (I found a good handyman and he’s been round 3 times this past week — the joys of owning an older home!), but also because it made me realize how much I treasure some of the Christmastime traditions. When you do the same thing every year, it can become predictable and expected. It’s only when you take a step back and a year off that you realize what you miss and enjoy. It’s not easy living far away from my family and friends, but it’s the time apart that makes the time together that much more sweet.

santa-hanging

Even Santa can’t stand the crowds of tourists, apparently

An unnecessary breakdown about my phone breakdoown

14 Dec

I had a bit of a breakdown yesterday. For weeks now my iPhone 6s has been randomly shutting off and rebooting itself. Apple admitted this was a known issue and replaced the battery, but the problem persisted. My phone was basically like the bus from Speed, except I had to constantly play music or Pokemon Go to prevent it from shutting off (which I admit is less dangerous than exploding). I was buying time until ios 10.2 came out, which I hoped might fix the issue. It didn’t — it bricked my phone. I was stuck with the dreaded restore screen, and I couldn’t restore or update because my phone would shut off in the middle of it.

Stephen came home right in the middle of it all and couldn’t understand why a phone could make me so upset. Of course it wasn’t just about my phone — it’s never about one thing. I was also stressed out about our new flat, which we’re still struggling to make feel like home. I had spent hours researching handymen to come replace our taps and fix our bathroom extractor fans and finally booked an appointment for Thursday, only to realize it would be cheaper if we bought the new extractor fans ourselves and just asked the guy to install them. It took me so long to get the appointment that I didn’t want to cancel it, but it meant I would have to spend the day extractor fan shopping after I spent the morning begging Apple to give me a walk-in appointment and fix my phone. Plus, I had my normal workload to get done too. Small problems in the grand scheme of things, but still problems.

I finally managed to pull myself together and switched into problem-solving mode. I started researching fans and stores that sell them. Of course none of them are in central London. Amazon had the best fans for the best price, but they wouldn’t arrive by our Thursday appointment if we ordered them Tuesday night. …unless we had Prime. So I signed up for a free trial of Prime and now the fans are scheduled to arrive on Thursday, with any luck at the exact moment the handyman arrives. Problem solved (hopefully).

Last night I constantly checked for Genius Bar appointments at the two Apple Stores near me, but their first available time was always next week. But then I checked this morning at 8am and there it was — 11am appointment today. So I schlepped my laptop and phone to the Apple Store, rehearsing my explanation the whole walk there. The Genius listened to my woes, typed a bunch of stuff onto his iPad, and presented me with a new phone, free of charge (even though I’m out of warranty!). It wasn’t that easy, though. He suggested I backup to iCloud instead of to my laptop just in case some software issue was causing my random shutdowns. So I sat at the Genius Bar while my new phone restored from backup then attempted to backup to iCloud … for nearly 3 hours. I was there so long my original Genius went on break. Luckily I brought my laptop and they have free WiFi, so I got a decent amount of work done. I’ve been using the new phone for several hours now and it hasn’t once shut down, so fingers crossed this means problem solved and my breakdown over my phone breakdown was unnecessary.

One final happier note:
img_5908

I finally caught them all! (And yes, I am still going to keep playing, because they’ve since added baby Pokemon and Pikachus wearing santa hats. And also I have a Pokeproblem.)

pikachu-hat-simpsons

Moving is the worst part 2: A stool story

21 Nov
corgi-stool

 A much better use for a stool

The thing I love about London is that you can carry a large wooden stool down the street, bring it on the tube, proceed to sit on it while riding the tube, then carry it down the street again and no one bats an eye. In America I’m sure at least someone would have quipped “Brought your own seat, eh? Smart!”

Why was I carrying a stool around London? I’ll get to that.

On Thursday we moved home — I believe that’s the phrase they use here, “move home,” along with “removal company,” which makes sense linguistically, but I still imagine the removal company removing all of your belongings and then taking them away forever when I see “removal” on the side of a van. But I digress. We moved and as I say every time, moving is the worst. We had the movers pack for us, which you’d think would make the process stress-free, but it was still completely mentally and physically draining. We didn’t get the keys to our new place until the day of, and discovered that not only did the previous owner not clean the flat whatsoever, but they took the chandeliers with them, meaning we walked into a nearly pitch-black flat. Stephen had to run out to buy £5 lamps at Argos just so the movers could see where they were going. So we had plenty to deal with at our new place, but things also had to be settled at our old flat. There was some miscommunication regarding the check out inspection and I found out Friday morning it was at noon and I had booked the flat to be cleaned at 2pm. So I had to frantically find a cleaner who could start as soon as possible and got the inspection moved to 2:30, the latest they could do. But before I could go over to meet the inspector, I had to supervisor the cleaners at our new place (who were not happy about all the boxes everywhere!), let in the guy to install our internet (superfast fibre, yay!) and wait for the sofa delivery. As expected, the sofa guys arrived 10 minutes before I had to go to meet the inspector at our old flat, so I let them in then asked the porter to supervise them. Then my stool and I were off.

About the stool — at our old place we took down some of the landlord’s curtains in the bedroom. I put them in the closet with the towels, but by the time I remembered we needed to rehang them, the movers had packed them up. Once we moved I dug the curtain out of the towel box. Time was of the essence because I needed to get to the flat before the inspector arrived and quickly hang it up. Because of the delayed sofa delivery, Uber was no longer an option, so my stool and I rode the tube. I got to the flat at 2:20pm — just in time to stand on my stool, hold the curtain up and realize I was missing curtain hooks.

Bollocks.

I explained to the inspector that I had the hooks at home in a box somewhere and could bring them later. He said it wasn’t his problem — his job was just to photograph and inspect the flat, which was still in a quasi state of disarray despite the fact that the cleaner had been working for 3 hours. I sat on my stool and waited for him to finish. Since the cleaner was still working and I had to lock up after her, he told me to drop the keys off at the estate agent’s office after the cleaner was done. When she finally finished, without thinking, I promptly packed up the items we had forgotten in the top closet, left the curtain in the wardrobe, and loaded my stool into an Uber to the estate agent. I carried my stool into the office, handed over the keys, then loaded my stool into another Uber to go home. There was no way I was walking it to the tube in the dark. When I got home I asked the porter how the sofa delivery went. He said he had something he must ask me.

“Why are you carrying that thing all around?”

I could only laugh.

It’s called the laugh of recognition / When you laugh but you feel like dyin’ – Over the Rhine

The next day I did nothing but unpack, yet the boxes seemed to be multiplying. And what did I find in the bottom of the towel box? (“Curtain hooks!” I bet you’re thinking, but no, the curtain hooks appear to be gone forever and I almost lost my mind searching for them.) Another curtain. Because of course the window has two curtains. So I need to make another trip to the flat. I guess I always needed to make another trip to the flat. Which begs the question: why the heck did I bring the stool all the way back?

So today my stool and I have another Tube date. Maybe I should go at rush hour just to have a seat. I can’t wait to see the porter’s face when he sees me and my stool again.

I’m already nostalgic and we haven’t even moved yet

16 Nov

On Monday I made my last trek to Aldi. It was dark, cloudy and rainy and I was tempted to hop on a bus, but knew I had to walk. I somehow figured if my last grocery trip from this flat was long and miserable, perhaps I’d feel less nostalgic for it once we move. I’m not sure it worked.

This week I’ve been hitting up all my favorite running spots around here since they’ll be farther away after the move. I told myself I could always run to Regent’s Park and Primose Hill from our new place, it would just be a long run. Though I don’t think I’ve run more than 5 miles at a time since my half 2 months ago. But if I get word there are good Pokemon in these parts, you know I’ll be back.

regents park autumn.png

autumn in regents park.png

paddington rec ground autumn.png(Photos of Regent’s Park and Paddington Recreation Ground I took on my runs this month)

We hired movers to do our packing, but I still spent a lot of today organizing and packing things. We’re just moving a couple miles away, but I’ve got it in my mind that I will never see my belongings again — like when we made the initial move out here and our stuff was out at sea for 6 weeks. I’ve packed my suitcase for my European trip with my parents even though we don’t leave until Black Friday (9 days from now). Surely I will have unpacked the flat at least a little by then, but I convinced myself that if I don’t pack the selfie stick and travel adapters now, they will disappear in some box and I will never see them again. That is the downside of having someone else pack for you — you have no idea what’s in every box. But the way I’m acting lately, it’s like we won’t be able to open any of the boxes.

They always say moving is a good way to purge all those unnecessary items that don’t bring you joy, which is probably one of the reasons I hate moving so much. I hate getting rid of things, even if it is things I no longer use or haven’t touched since we last moved. Though I am getting better and — dare I say — even enjoyed a bit of the purging I’ve been doing. Please remind me of this when you find me curled up in a ball in a month lamenting about the new flat’s lack of storage space. I can do this!

corgi box.gif

pug-puppies-box

(What I wish my moving boxes contained)

Moving is the worst: round 2

11 Nov

It still hasn’t hit me that we’re moving in 5 days. I realize I need to clarify when I say “we’re officially moving,” as I texted it to my friend the other day and she thought I meant to Asia or back to America. So in 5 days we’re moving into a new flat in central London. I remember reading somewhere that moving is one the most stressful things in life, especially on a relationship. Even when you hire movers to do all the packing for you (as we’re going to), there’s just so many things to consider and do. I cleaned out my closet for the first time in three years and donated 7 bags of clothing (OK, 3 of those bags may have been Stephen’s). I even found a belt I was sure I had lost in the Great Megabus Fire of 2014. Yet I still seem to have way too many belongings and our new flat has entirely way too little storage space. Stephen does not see the problem in this, but I lay awake at night wondering where I will store my shopping trolley in the new place and whether the kitchen has enough counter space for my collection of artificial flavouring. (Don’t ask. OK, you can ask. I put them in smoothies and oatmeal.) One of our biggest arguments during the flat search happened when Stephen wanted to buy a place that did not have a washing machine, dishwasher or freezer and didn’t really have any space for them. Luckily we did not go with that place. I keep forgetting that since this new flat will truly be ours, we can make modifications. We can completely redo the kitchen if we want and add cabinets and counter space galore. But that takes a lot of time and money. I’ve been looking at standalone wardrobes to put in the bedroom because there are zero closets in there — zero (WHY, OH WHY, DO YOU HATE STORAGE SPACE, LONDON?!), but we can’t buy it until we first strip the wallpaper and repaint the bedroom, which, again takes time and money. So while I’m looking forward to living in our new place — I’ll be able to walk to theatre day seat queues! — I am dreading that in-between phase where I’m tripping on boxes and living out of suitcases. And my parents will get to experience this with me, as they are coming to stay with us 6 days after we move. I still can’t decide if that is the best or worst timing ever. They’ll get to see our new place, but it will be in a state of disarray. I’ll also get to temporarily leave the chaos and accompany them on a journey through Europe as we visit our ancestors’ homelands. I’m looking forward to that, but all this moving stress hasn’t given me much time to plan the trip (or update the blog if you haven’t noticed). I’ve got a rough itinerary, all the transportation and accommodations booked, and Rick Steves books on my iPad, so I think we’ll be in good shape. If I can just get through this move first!

Completely unrelated, but since this post lacks pictures, here’s a photo of me in 30 years:

crazy-corgi-lady