Tag Archives: travel

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Based on this photo alone and an outdated address, my grandparents went looking for the house 30 years ago.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

China Impressions: Road Trip Snacks

5 Oct

My first Chinese road trip occurred during my first trip to China back in 2009. Stephen’s family drove us to Chengdu so I could achieve my panda dream. This was also my first experience with Chinese road trip snacks. When we got in the car, Stephen’s cousin passed us a bag of snacks, which consisted entirely of fruit — mini bananas, pears, lychee and mangosteen. Some of my favorite fruit, but not the easiest to eat in the car. Growing up, my dad always took pride in our cars. It was the greatest compliment when my friends would get in and tell him our years-old van still looked and smelled brand new. Fresh lychee is not readily available in the U.S., but if it were, we would never be allowed to take it in the car. I can hear my dad’s voice now — “It’s sticky and you’ll get shells and seeds all over!” But that, in a nutshell, seems to be the requirement for Chinese road trip snacks: sticky, shells and seeds.

This month we were in China briefly for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony and reception were held at a resort in a quiet mountain town about 3 hours outside of Shanghai, so the bride and groom kindly rented a big bus to take all their out-of-town guests there. I was prepared to “hold it” the whole way — it was a previous Chinese road trip that enabled me to set my 7 hours “hold it” record (I do not recommend this). I have taken many Chinese road trips, but since I assumed there’d be nothing but squatters, I have never been inside a Chinese rest stop. Until now.

I was pleased to find one handicap sit-down toilet in a sea of squatters (did I set that 7-hour record for nothing?!). While I was in the loo, Stephen hit up the fruit stall — that’s what they have at Chinese rest stops, fruit stalls. When I emerged, he greeted me with a bag of bananas and lotus pods. Members of our group gathered round as I broke the pod open and popped a seed into my mouth.

lotus fruit.jpg

“Oh god, this is horrible!” I said through muffled attempts to spit it out. Turns out you’re supposed to remove the bitter green shell before you eat it. If you do that the seeds are actually tasty.

Just then the bride came over and handed me what I thought was a souvenir relic from the Ming dynasty.

water-caltrop

“Try it,” she said. “It’s good, it tastes like a potato.”

water caltrop open.JPG

It was indeed good and potato-like, but I had no idea what it was. I meant to google “Chinese fruit or vegetable that looks like Satan’s mustache” when I got home, but I didn’t need to. An image of one happened to pop up on Reddit the other day. Turns out it’s a water caltrop, a type of water chestnut — those crunchy bits you see in tins or at the stir fry bar. Who knew they had such ominous exteriors.

water-chestnut-can

Stephen returned to our little group with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts (cue The Christmas Song). I’m not sure I’ve ever had freshly roasted chestnuts, but they were delicious, and in true Chinese road trip food form, difficult to open and sticky. At least the stall gave us an extra bag to put the shells.

Once back on the bus, everyone shared some of their treasures. One guy went down the aisle passing out sweet potatoes — piping hot, gooey, delicious whole sweet potatoes.

“Why did you buy a whole bag of sweet potatoes?” I asked him.

“Because sweet potatoes are awesome!” he replied. Touche.

So if you’re keeping tally, my Chinese rest stop road trip snacks consisted of a banana, lotus seeds, chestnuts, water chestnuts and a sweet potato.

When we couldn’t possibly eat another chestnut, we passed the bag through the bus, while other snacks came to us. I passed on the bag of dried squid, but grabbed a handful of the next thing that came by.

“Ooo, are these prawn crisps?” I asked.

“Did you just say prawn crisps?” the guy across from me asked, faking an English accent. “They’re obviously shrimp chips!”

My accent might say “American,” but apparently I’ve become more British than I thought.

On our way back to Shanghai 2 days later our bus stopped at the same rest stop. It was around 7pm, so instead of just snacks, we needed to eat something more substantial and dinner-like.

“So tell us, what can we eat here that won’t give us diarrhea?” one of the American guys whispered to Stephen. His advice was to get something hot and cooked, preferably not with meat. There were stalls selling rice balls filled with pork and salty egg, all kinds of tofu, ice cream, corn on the cob, and crepe-like sandwiches. We settled on the crepe-like thing filled with egg, spam and ketchup. It was surprisingly delicious despite how I described it, and we didn’t get sick from it either. On the way out we popped into the only store somewhat reminiscent of an American rest stop filled with packaged snacks like chips and candy. A bag of honey-flavored potato chips caught my eye because I remembered reading an article about Korean honey chip hysteria. I was so excited to try them. They were just OK — better if you thought of them as really thin biscuits/cookies instead of potato chips since they were so sweet. I later realized the popular chips are “honey butter” flavored, not just honey, so I probably bought some cheap rip off Korean chip. I guess I’ll have to go to Korea someday to try the real thing.

Though Chinese road trip snacks are some of the most inconvenient things to eat with their sticky shells, seeds and skins, they are also some of the healthiest. While I don’t see sweet potatoes, lotus and chestnuts coming to an American Flying J truck stop soon, it would be nice to have some options besides McDonalds, chips and candy on my next Megabus ride.

For more in my China Impressions series, click here.

Uneventful adventures in China

9 Aug

Greetings from China!

I met Stephen here the other day. He flew in from London, I flew in from Cincinnati and we met in Shanghai. It seemed like blog material waiting to happen, especially since I would have to find my way to the hotel all by myself. Sure, I was nervous, but I’ve been listening to Pimsleur Chinese lessons for months now and it was all leading up to this moment. I even studied on the plane. And then the minute I landed the only thing that came out of mouth was English. Because it turns out the people who exchange money and sell sim cards at the airport speak English. So my I arrived in a foreign country all by myself story was rather uneventful — I cleared immigration, exchanged some money into RMB, bought a sim card, texted Stephen, and caught a taxi. The only minor hiccup came when I tried to use Uber. I couldn’t figure out where to meet the driver and couldn’t call the driver because my sim card was data only (and also I don’t speak Chinese). So I had to take a taxi, which was reasonably priced and easy. What a boring blog story.

It’s been years since I’ve flown from the US to China, but I knew it was going to be rough. 14 hours on a plane is rough, but it’s even rougher when it’s a 747 with no individual TVs. Luckily I expected this would be the case and loaded up my iPad with movies and TV shows. 747s sure can transport a buttload of people, but transporting them comfortably is apparently not a priority. (For the low price of $1,000 I could have upgraded to business class though!) The entertainment options may suck, but at least they feed you well on a 14-hour flight. Every time I was about to reach for my snack bag, there was another snack or meal on its way. I look forward to crappy airplane food entirely way too much on a long-haul flight. But what else is there to do? I tried to break the flight down into manageable chunks. When there was 8 hours left I thought “only a flight to London now!” At 6 hours left it was a Megabus to Chicago. At 4 hours it was a drive to Cleveland. At 3 hours it was DEAR GOD HOW MUCH LONGER, I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE OUTSIDE THIS AIRPLANE. And then whatever meal you eat at 11pm Cincinnati time, 11am Shanghai time came and everything was OK. The obvious solution to not going crazy on an insanely long flight is to sleep. And believe me, I tried. But sleeping sitting up with your feet crammed against a laptop bag is no easy feat. I think I dozed on and off for an hour or two before I gave up and watched another movie. Thankfully our return flight from Hong Kong to London is only 12 hours. 😐

sleepy panda.gif
One final thing — I still may be afraid to speak any Chinese, but I’m amazed at how well I can understand it now. When I really focus I can pick up the gist of Stephen’s conversations. The key there is “really focus,” which isn’t easy, especially when insanely jetlagged. Most of the time my brain decides to just tune it out and focus on eating all the things. (Like xiaolongbao!) Also, have I mentioned before how Asian jetlag is the worst? Because it is. Even after being here for a few days and finally — FINALLY! — sleeping through the night Sunday night, I legit fell asleep on the toilet last night at 9:30. Stephen’s boss’s words still ring true: “You don’t sleep when you go to Asia, you just take a series of long naps.”

jet-lag gilmore girls.gif

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.

Greetings from the land of cheeseheads

30 Jun

I have this theory that your body is just naturally attuned to the time zone you were born in. It’s always easier for me to come back to Eastern Standard Time. That being said, my body does not like Central Time. It never has. I lived in it for several years, and even then I still referred to EST as “real time.” I’m in Milwaukee now, which is on Central Time, and my body has decided that 7am is the time to wake up. This works fine when I pass out at 10pm, but was not too peachy when I went to bed at 2:45am after a successful bachelorette party. I still can’t believe I pulled it off. Planning a bachelorette party/hen do is not easy to begin with, but doing it from the other side of the world is a whole different challenge. Everyone had a good time, I got to ride a party bus for the first time, and the only reason I felt crappy the next day was because of jet lag, not a hangover. I’d call that a success. I also ate cheese curds for the first time, because Wisconsin. They tasted like … cheese. Although perhaps I should try them deep-fried if I want the true experience.

Besides the time change, I’ve also been experiencing some reverse culture shock. In no particular order:

-American power outlets are rubbish. I was brainwashed into thinking they were the best, because, well, America, but they’re horrible. Every time I plug something in it feels so flimsy I’m not sure it’s going to stay. I bought a cheap American curling iron since my British curling tongs aren’t compatible with 120v. Halfway through I noticed my hair wasn’t curling. I was about to blame the cheap iron, but then I realized the plug had just fallen out of the socket. Yes, British plugs are big and unsightly, but they certainly get the job done. In fact, in a recent Reddit thread I believe they were voted best plugs in the world.

-American grocery stores are overwhelming. I’m staying at a hotel near a grocery store so I find myself there practically every day to pick up a meal or snack. I wanted some Greek yogurt. In the UK if I want the legit, high-protein stuff, I have 3 options: Fage Total, Liberte or Skyr. They each have a handful of flavors, but I usually just get plain. At the store here there was an entire aisle of Greek yogurt options — did I want it whipped? With a layer of chocolate on top? With oatmeal mixed in? With nuts mixed in? With a little flippy side full of sweets that turn a healthy snack into a sweet treat? And then there were the flavors — not just strawberry, blueberry and honey like I’m used to, but things like cherry cheesecake, salted caramel and key lime pie. I’m not exaggerating when I say I spent a good 15 minutes standing in that aisle just trying to choose a yogurt. I would say American and British grocery stores carry most of the same basics, but the American ones just have way more varieties of everything. (Don’t even get me started on the cereal aisle…)

-People are really friendly. I’ve walked into stores or hotels and been greeted by people who don’t work there, people who just for some reason want to say hi. I don’t understand this. Also apparently you’re supposed to acknowledge other runners and walkers when you’re out. I thought maybe this was just a suburbia thing, but I’ve been running in downtown Milwaukee and a lot of people do it. This is also weird to me. I will say, however, that Milwaukee is a brilliant city to run in. I took advantage of the one day it wasn’t butt-hot and did 6 miles along the lake and trails. Apparently I’m out of practice because I took a lot of walking breaks, but we’ll blame it on the humidity and desire to take in the scenery.  Like this lighthouse:

milwaukee lighthouseTime has really been flying by, I can’t believe I’ve been here for a week now. And more importantly, I can’t believe my best friend is getting married in less than 2 days!  I think I’m ready to tackle my maid of hono[u]r duties (like saving her a maple bacon doughnut. God bless America!).

2 recent feats that should not be impressive

20 Jun

You’d think by now traveling between the US and UK would be old hat for me. I am traveling to Milwaukee for a friend’s wedding soon and have already lost sleep over packing. When Stephen packs for a big trip, he often does it the morning of, expertly folding clothes into his bag in 10 minutes. For me it takes days — sometimes even weeks — to decide what clothing and items to bring. This is always because I declare that I am going to get rid of a lot of my clothes, and by “get rid of” I mean leave them at my Kentucky home. I tell myself I will wear them when I am there and thus will not need to pack so much next time, but it never works that way. Each time I bring more and more back and end up buying more and more that I want to wear instead. Last week I sorted through my closet and piled a mound of “take back” clothes on the bed. “There is no way that is all going to fit in one sub-23kg suitcase,” I thought. So I did what I should have done years ago — I tried everything on. “If you would not walk out the door right now wearing this and feel confident, you are not going to wear this in Milwaukee or Kentucky, and thus it should not take up valuable suitcase space,” I told myself. And just like that half my “take home” pile went into the “donate” bag. I have a problem in which I get too sentimentally attached to inanimate objects, particularly clothing, so for me to get rid of a big pile of it was a big step. And now I can actually see what shirts are in my closet now, and hopefully my suitcase will not be overweight. Just once I would like to go to the airport without overweight bag anxiety — just once!

I accomplished another minor feat this weekend: I did not eat the last xiaolongbao. Let me back up a bit. We went out to lunch in Chinatown. As is customary in Chinatown (and China, for that matter), one must order at least twice as much food as the amount of people in your party should reasonably eat. Each dish we ordered could have been a shared meal in itself, and we ordered 4 of them. During the week I try to eat healthily and count calories, but on the weekend, everything is fair game. Ever since I was little I was taught to clear my plate — that not stuffing yourself after you’re full was someone rude to the cook and to the impoverished children of the world.

louis ck meal full.jpg

I ate way more than I should have at that Chinese restaurant this past weekend, but I still left food on my plate. There was one lone xiaolongbao left — I even went so far as to reach for it with my chopsticks, but I reminded myself that the food was already a sunk cost, and there was no need to make myself feel sick. Let’s face it, I probably should have stopped eating 3 xiaolongbao and 2 ribs earlier, but the fact that I didn’t completely gorge myself shows that I’m making progress. Maybe there’s a chance I won’t gain 5 pounds in America like I always do!

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.

Continue reading