Tag Archives: ikea

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Based on this photo alone and an outdated address, my grandparents went looking for the house 30 years ago.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


“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.

My Epic IKEA Adventure, or Why IKEA Delivers

25 Jan

ikea wembley

Almost everywhere I’ve lived — Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago — has been home to an IKEA, but it’s never been “I’ll just swing by on the way home from work” close. It’s always far enough to require a special outing — an Epic IKEA adventure. London is no different.

For my birthday this year my parents got me an awesome present — an IKEA gift card in £. I have no idea how they procured it — it involved phone calls, international transactions, and the Royal Mail sending it to Kentucky — but it made its way back across the pond with me and was burning a hole in my pocket. I was behind on work from my jetlag, yet every time I would start working on something, a voice in the back of my head would say, “I wonder if IKEA sells a steamer insert. You should probably go on their website and check.” And then an hour later I have a steamer insert on my virtual shopping list, along with 10 other things. This went on for days. Clearly, the only way to stop it would be to have an epic IKEA adventure and buy all the things. So that’s what I did yesterday.

Getting to IKEA was easy enough. I rolled my shopping trolley to the overground station, arriving just in time for the train, got off at Stonebridge Park, and took the free IKEA shuttle to IKEA Wembley. In minutes I was at the Mecca of cheap Swedish furniture and other random household goods.

In a way, IKEA is like the Vatican Museum. Most people only want to see the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican knows this. But if they charged €5 just to see that, no one would pay the €16 to go through the whole museum. So they make you wander for hours through the entire museum (sometimes in wet socks and shoes) before they let you see Michelangelo’s masterpiece. There are no shortcuts either. Every so often they’ll put up a sign letting you know you’re going the right way, but you’re a long way from the main event. That’s how I feel about IKEA’s showroom. Everything on my list was in the marketplace, but they don’t let you go right there. They make you walk through the entire showroom, through bedrooms, baths and kitchens, with signs promising you you’re almost to the haven of cheap dishes and candles. I guess they’re counting on you buying something just because it looks good in the fake bedroom — if it was just in a bin in the marketplace, you wouldn’t pick it up. They even have little bins of products spread throughout the showroom. I fell for this trick when I first walked in, but I soon realized everything was also in the marketplace, and with more variety. By the time I finally made it through the showroom I had wasted a good half hour. With my list from the website in hand, I picked up everything I needed (and more) and made it to the warehouse part. The only thing I needed there was the famous cheap Lack side table that every apartment must have.

lack side table

We already have two of them, but recently bought a printer and were storing it on top of my keyboard bench, so we needed another table. I was going to have this delivered, but in true Renee fashion wanted to save the delivery fee and figured I could carry it. It’s only a little side table! I brought my largest tote bag, foolishly thinking it would fit. I think someone behind me laughed when they saw me try. I experimented carrying it in one hand around the store. Now this table was easy to carry in the way that high heels are comfortable when you first try them out around the store. With my eye on the clock, I checked out, using up all but £7 of my gift card on pots, plates, storage bins, utensils, a steamer insert, whatever the Swedish word is for “whopper chopper” and of course that side table.

I made the shuttle just in time (time was really on my side during this adventure) and was dropped off back at the Tube station. The Tube station I did not realize was at the top of three flights of stairs, because my trolley was empty when I arrived and I wasn’t carrying a table. But now I was. I went up each step slowly, taking a step, moving my cart up, cursing the stupid table. I finally made it with a minute to spare. Realizing that this table was not as comfortable to carry as I thought, I decided to be smart and take the Tube to Baker Street, then take the 274 bus that goes right by my apartment to minimize my walking. It was a long ride to Baker Street on the Bakerloo line, but the time passed quickly because there was a cute British kid sitting next to me who said cute British things. I didn’t even care that he spent the whole ride kicking my table, because honestly I wanted to kick the table too. When we arrived at Baker Street station, I followed the “way out” signs, thinking I was home free. And then I saw the stairs. I did not know there would be stairs, as I never get off at Baker Street, and my Tube station only has escalators. I begrudgingly began my step-pull routine when a woman came up behind me. “Need any help?” she asked. I lied and told her I was fine, because that’s the polite thing to do. “Are you sure?” she asked, watching me struggle. We then had what can only be described as a polite off, as she continued to offer help and I continued to insist I was OK, until finally she lifted the bottom of my trolley and suddenly I could walk up the stairs at a normal pace. I thanked her profusely, knowing that this was the perfect occasion to say “cheers,” but it just doesn’t sound right in an American accent. She walked on ahead of me as I turned a corner to encounter — you guessed it — more stairs! Side note: how are so many Tube stations not accessible? What about people with disabilities, the elderly, and those carrying trollies and tables who would greatly benefit from a lift? This time a well-dressed man came up behind me and offered help. The table digging into my fingers, I didn’t even bother with a polite off. He helped me lift my trolley up not one, but two flights of stairs. Kind people of Baker Street station, I can’t thank you enough.

Finally out of the station and on the main road, I once again thought I was home free, as the bus stop is right in front of the station… until I remembered that Baker Street is a one-way going south, and I needed to go north. To catch the northbound 274 bus I had to go over one block. This is when the metaphorical heels started giving me blisters. That table I thought was so easy to carry in the store was killing me. I was almost to the stop when I saw the bus coming down the street. The 274 never seems to come often, so I had to catch that bus. I don’t want to say I ran into oncoming traffic with my trolley and table in order to make the bus because I know my parents and grandparents read this, so I’ll say I patiently waited for the walk sign and crossed the street when appropriate, not at all running or risking the poorly packed dishes in my trolley (all of us survived, by the way). Since this story is already too long, I’ll just say that I eventually made it home with my IKEA haul, I would definitely go back to IKEA Wembley, but I am not buying a table unless we drive.