Friday, December 28, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: Back from vacation

I was going to title this Back in the saddle again but that was just too obvious, and then I'd have Gene Autry singing it in my head the whole time I write. I'm just not up to that.

If you've been keeping track, I've been either out of the country, sick or working for most of the last month and a half. The rest of the days it's rained. Those were the days Leif and I took turns standing at the patio doors with our noses pressed up against the glass trying to decide if there was any chance of riding that day. There were a few days where the weather wasn't absolutely horrible and the roads mostly dry. Those always seemed to happen on days that I worked so Leif got to ride while I spent time with kids.

But today.....oh today. Sixty degrees (F) and sunshine everywhere. Instead of cushy grey clouds and mist everywhere there was that incredibly blue sky. Even the breeze was warm.

We didn't even really have to ask if we should ride, it was assumed that we would. All we had to do was  plan the time (before or after lunch, we chose after) and just how long a ride is appropriate when one of us (me) is basically starting from scratch. We left all the dishes in the sink after lunch and hurried into our riding clothes. Weather can turn on a dime here, and even though the forecast was no rain we've learned not to trust any forecaster completely.

In another bold move, we dressed for fall, not winter. No shoe covers, no warm gloves, no rain jackets. Just long pants and a light jacket. It's been so cold and wet lately that going out without the heavy warm stuff felt strange. Like going out practically naked.

Only five minutes into the ride I decided I was glad that I was dressed lightly. It was absolutely beautiful out. The sun and wind on my face made me feel like I was five years old again, running outside in the spring. Everything smelled like wet dirt and wood smoke and being in motion again after so many weeks of forced stillness was wonderful. It was like my body was coming alive again.

So we rode about 20 miles today on mostly flat roads just to get me warmed up again and used to being on my bike. I rolled along behind Leif (I still have no clue where I'm going here, and the view is pretty nice) lifting my face into the sun and wind, casually nodding to the other cyclists as they passed us in the other direction (there were LOTS of guys out today, dressed for the possibility of a sudden winter snow), and singing to myself a few little reminders...

My  left foot is stuck to the pedal, don't stop without taking it off....
It's not a bad thing being stuck to the pedal, they even say it's a good thing, just remember to take your foot off. (This alternated with "right foot" as I was practicing feeling trapped with both feet, but not at the same time. I'm not stupid.)

The big ring's for riding flat and fast, the little one is for climbing....
Check where you are before the hill, before the hill, before the hill.
Check where you are before the hill so you can keep up.

I probably don't need to tell you that I sing these under my breath. I'm trying to exude confidence and just a hint of "don't mess with me" as I ride the mean streets of Tuscany. I'm operating under the delusion that the only person who knows I'm completely clueless is Leif and that anyone seeing me out there assumes I've been riding for years. It's a nice fantasy anyway.

The forecast is for three more days of the same beautiful weather. I already have a date to ride with a friend tomorrow and will ride with Leif the other two days. This is the best Christmas present ever.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My first Italian Christmas

This is the first time I was actually in Italy for Christmas and it's our first Christmas together after getting married. So all in all a pretty exciting time for us both. To continue the "first" theme our friend Barbara invited us to her home for Christmas dinner; her first time hosting Christmas since moving here four years ago.

I probably don't need to remind anyone what Christmas is like at Mom and Dad's, but for my friends who have never had the privilege of an invitation I'll summarize. There is always tons of food, and once that's been cleared away the table is refilled with desserts and sweets. Getting the table ready  for dinner involves a certain amount of logistics. Kind of like Tetris with food. Careful placement of each platter and bowl is necessary so that everything fits with space for people to actually eat as well. It may in fact take longer than actually eating the meal. Something is almost always forgotten in the kitchen or the breezeway or the garage. We use every available space for storage, depending on the ambient temperature outside and the allowable.temperature for the food to be stored. Dinner is a noisy affair (there are lots of kids of various ages, but honestly, even as they grow up the conversation remains fairly loud) and no one sits still. After dinner activities include groaning, napping, some more groaning and discussions about which physical activity will best relieve the groaning this year followed by an enthusiastic or reluctant participation in said activity. Then there are games and supper from leftovers. All in all a great day.

This Christmas was quieter and less frenetic. It was bilingual and since there was only one mother tongue Italian speaker all the conversation was slower. After dinner we watched an Italian film and talked about going for a walk but never actually did it. Instead of a table filled with all the food at one time we served each dish at its own time. We started with saffron risotto and the second dish was a beautiful pork roast and salsiccia with potatoes and carrots and fennel bulb side dishes and some smoked salmon, finishing with the traditional pannetone (Italian Christmas cake) and a chocolate polenta cake with candied oranges. It took almost eight hours to get from the aperitivo to the dolce (dessert) and every moment was a joy. Just like at Mom and Dad's. I'm so lucky to have wonderful friends and a wonderful man to celebrate life with.

We arrived on our bikes carrying
most of our kitchen on our backs
and in Leif's saddle bags.
So pretty much the usual,
just on bicycles instead of a car.
I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot to take very many pictures. Merry Christmas to you all. I love you and miss you but don't worry. I've found friends and family here that make missing you less difficult.
Leif and Diane, the
from Canada.

Our beautiful and gracious hostess Barbara.
Fast becoming my best friend.
Barbara's neighbor Giuseppe.
A wonderful man from
Sicily who knows almost
everything about Florence.

Barbara's beautiful tree and apartment.
Me making saffron risotto.

The candied oranges. I forgot to
get a picture of the cake.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas

I started a very bitchy post a little earlier today, prompted by my discovery that currently there are more people reading my blog in Latvia than in the US. Well, in the last few days, anyway. Which shouldn't matter because I should just be grateful anyone finds anything I write interesting. So I'm sorry for mentally writing a slightly biting and catty post that will never see the light of your computer monitor.

It's just been such a weird holiday season and I don't quite know what to do with myself so I think I overreacted a bit on the Latvia thing. I spent four weeks away from home with only a backpack's worth of necessities, then arrived home a week before Christmas only to be attacked by the most recent "bug  that's going around." It's just been a little difficult to get myself in the mood. I haven't shopped at all, barely even walked around town to see all the pretty lights, and have been forced to listen to Christmas playlists on YouTube because I haven't found a radio station that plays enough Christmas music for me. Disco, reggae, country, bad home films of concerts complete with heavy breathing and (creative) covers by non-English speakers singing in English who should probably consider a career other than singing. It's been tough.

I suppose it didn't help that I took not one but two jobs on Christmas Eve day, a day historically geared towards finding a way to leave work early and hang out at my parents all night eating food and drinking in front of the fireplace. One job is during the afternoon and the other job for Christmas Eve. I did it mostly because we'll be celebrating big on Christmas Day with friends and the family will make it worth my while to miss midnight mass and basically continue my wandering ways by celebrating the holiday in homes other than my own.

To cheer myself up I spent the afternoon making candied orange slices in dark chocolate. I'm pretty impressed with myself. And tonight I'll be going to a concert in a theater built in the 17th century. There's no snow and it's not even freezing cold. I'll still have a Christmas with great friends and my love.

Maybe most importantly, I get Christmas 7 hours before my family. I win.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Blue Christmas? I think not.

I've been feeling a little strange lately. Out of sorts. Apprehensive. Possibly even a little blue.

I thought it had something to do with Christmas. Yesterday I started writing a post about how different my Christmas is going to be, like it was a bad thing. I was boo hooing that I have no idea what Christmas will be like, never having spent it in Florence. A friend told me (with great love I'm sure) to remember the beautiful Christmases past and enjoy the beautiful Christmas present. Good advice. You'll never get to read that post. It's terrible. Trust me.

This morning I woke up and the air was, if not technically warm, at least warmer than the last few days.. The sun was threatening to shine. The animals were acting like themselves instead of like mopey teenagers. My first thought when I woke up all I could think was "Tomorrow I get to go home!"

And that's what's been wrong for all these weeks. I'm homesick.

I've been living in other people's houses, eating their food, and sleeping in their beds for the last four weeks. Half of that time I was also living in a language I barely understand. All my clothes are varying degrees of dirty having been worn anywhere from two to twelve times. All my clothes. Which isn't saying that I have mountains of laundry with me. I've been living out of a backpack for these four weeks. Things have been rinsed and things have been hung outside to take some of the dirty out of them. (For future reference, that "clean" you get from hanging them outside bit only lasts about five minutes.)

I read Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country five times and a single James Bond novel six times because they were the only English books we had. In the first two weeks I watched more hockey than any American will get to do this year. I've also watched cross country, biathalon, and down hill skiing, and horse dancing. I've watched probably hundreds of nightly reports on these sports as well as soccer, hand ball, floor hockey and bowling. All in Swedish. Which worked for me because I really don't enjoy watching sports news in any language.

So I've been bored out of my skull, aimlessly wandering around my temporary homes and occasionally lifting my nose into the air and wondering " that me?" followed quickly by "No, it couldn't be. Must be an overweight mountain goat passing by." I've been the perfect guest, but even the perfect guest can get a little restless sometimes and start to long for home.

That's where I'm at right now. I'm ready to go home and start this Christmas thing in earnest. Also laundry...I don't even know where to start there. I think I'll get a library card. I need to watch White Christmas. So much to do and Christmas is only a little more than a week away!

Friday, December 14, 2012

IKEA: The Musical

Truly Invar: A Musical Tale of Furniture, or as I call it IKEA: The Musical, is a show everyone should watch. Even those who think musicals are stupid. Even my ex-stepson who once said while watching Paint Your Wagon  (for all of five minutes) "No cowboy is going to randomly burst into song. This is stupid!"

We watched it on TV while staying with Leif's father. I happen to see it listed one day while I was pretending to read the newspaper and remembered that we'd seen commercials for it. It was definitely a "must see" even with the language barrier.

Accompanied by a violin and a pump organ on stage left, it's all dancing and singing (no speaking at all) AND it's educational. Seriously, watching a man who resembles Lurch on the Addams Family sing and play  the organ while basically running as fast as he can (reminder: pump organ) for almost 2 hours is worth the time alone.

I learned all about IKEA. How it started (mail order), how it grew, and how it became blue and yellow (to prove just how Swedish the company really was). I was reminded that Sweden gave us dynamite and ABBA, Pippi Longstocking and Vikings (although I disagree with this. Norway gave us the Vikings, but this is an ongoing debate between Leif and myself. What the larger intellectual community has to say means little to us.) I learned that dynamite funded the first Nobel prizes but not from the show, from Leif. I hypothesized that IKEA is responsible for the abundance of cafeteria style restaurants in Sweden, and Leif didn't tell me I was wrong. Then again he didn't tell me I was right either. As depicted in the show, Swedes were aghast at the thought of customers getting their own food and paying at a central location, just as they were at the idea of customers finding their own things in a warehouse and bringing it to the cash register themselves. Obviously they've gotten used to the idea.

I learned all this from a bundle of dancing dynamite, a singing meatball and a host of other characters. I was particularly enchanted with a Viking sporting the traditional horned helmet, knee length braids AND a beard ala ZZ Top. Ingvar himself danced with a midsummer pole in a way that reminded me of Fred Astaire dancing with a coat rack. This really was an entertaining way to learn about Swedish history and culture, capitalism in Europe, politics and Swedish musical theater. Oh yeah, and about IKEA. Almost forgot that!

Of course at this point you'd have to watch it in Swedish, which makes it somewhat of a challenge but worth your personal struggle and the stress on your trusty translator. I think early next year they're coming out with an English version. I'm guessing it will lose something in the translation but I still recommend seeing it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Canine defication supervisor

I'm back watching dogs poo. How exactly would one put this valuable skill on a resume....and make it sound like a coveted business skill that not everyone has? That's right. You don't. You bury that skill so deep no one would suspect that you've ever seen a dog or cat. Of course, if during the interview you happen to spy a picture of a dog or cat prominently placed feel free to mention it in passing as something you've done in the past. Could be a foot in the door, if that's a door you really want to open.

I guess I don't have to tell you that we're back up in the mountains, watching dogs poo. This time in the snow.

I've never been up here in the winter. In the summer all the doors are open and everyone comes and goes as they please and the only time we're all in one place is at dinner time. Now they're underfoot constantly (I'm sure they're thinking the same thing about us) and when we're all in the kitchen it's kind of like being on Noah's ark, if Noah had a twelve foot aluminum Larson rowboat with one oar and a slow leak. With both dogs laying on the floor there's no room left to walk. The cats take up residence on the chairs, usually the ones we would like to sit in.

Once we finish cooking a meal and get seated the dogs sprawl around our chairs, dog legs tangled with chair legs and Siri always has one foot touching me. This means getting up during the meal is impossible to do without making everyone get up and mill around the room for awhile. Tails brush the tabletop, someone inevitably trips over a dog, the cats start spitting and swiping at each other and general mayhem ensues till everyone gets back in their chairs. It's like running a Chinese fire drill in a closet. All in all meals are exciting and challenging here at Casa di Poo. (In Italian I believe we would call it Casa di Caca. If it were a fancier place perhaps Palazzo di Escremento.)

The pet owner spent a lot of time telling me how it was impossible for the cats to be outside overnight at this time of year. It was just too cold for them. They should go outside, she stressed, just not at night. Needless to say I let one outside early in the evening that first day and it didn't return for twenty four hours. Just to drive me crazy, I'm sure. She came back looking warm and invigorated, not freezing and pitiful. I blame my first sleepless night here on that cat.

Their owner had said that she was feeding the cats an extra time in the winter "because they need it" whatever that means. The day after I lost one of them they didn't bug me for food in the middle of the day so I didn't feed them. Possibly my stupidest point of that day. Later they showed me their displeasure by peeing and pooing in inappropriate places. I blame my second sleepless night on both the cats as I spent it hoping I had fed them enough before bed so that I wouldn't have to sterilize the entire house when I got up.

The third day we took the dogs out for a long walk around the property as we had all pretty much been in the house watching it snow the day before. It was lovely. The sun was even shining part of the time. The dogs were running and playing in the snow and Leif and I were walking hand in hand, smiling at each other and enjoying the day. Suddenly Leif said "Is that Molly?" and pointed to the other side of the fence. The wrong side. He was right. That was our (for now) dog looking happily confused to be on the wrong side of the fence. After a little panic and brainstorming at high decibels Leif found a place to climb over the five foot fence and sweet talk the collarless, obedience school drop out back along the fence, down the road and into the gate. Meanwhile I stayed with the other dog inside the fence worrying that they would both disappear and I'd have some explaining to do. Needless to say Leif did a perimeter check and plugged any holes he found as best he could. I slept that night, only because I figured nothing else could go wrong.

The other day I heard a hissing sound. I looked through a doorway and saw,  in Matrix-like slow motion, one cat floating backwards across the doorway with ears flattened, tailed bushed out, and claws and teeth bared. After she disappeared from the door the other cat floated by going forward....same configuration of ears, tail, claws and teeth. As she disappeared from view I heard growling that grew into yowling and suddenly stopped. One by one they both sauntered through the door looking completely innocent and carefree. I guess problem solved. I lost no sleep whatsoever over the two cats not getting along. They never get along.

So at last count we've had one disappearing/reappearing cat, one failed escape attempt, random acts of pooing and peeing and ninja cat performances. Things should slow down a little as it started snowing again today so the cats and dogs have re-entered hibernation mode. Which means everyone's getting along and not straying far from home. For now.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Swedish coffee

At one time in my life I drank over twelve cups of coffee every day. When I found I couldn't function without it I quit cold turkey. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone; on the other hand I probably couldn't have done it any other way. Eventually, years later, I started drinking again, but in reasonable amounts. I even worked at a coffee shop and managed to keep myself down to about two cups a day.

One of the joys of living in Italy is the coffee. It's strong and small and delivers caffeine without muss or fuss. I spent two weeks in Sweden having coffee with breakfast, at elevens, sometimes after lunch, afternoon coffee and coffee with dessert after dinner. Sweden is definitely a place where the culture around coffee is just as strong as it is in Italy. I wish I could say the same for the coffee itself.

It's taken me five visits and endless gallons (or liters for those more metrically minded) of coffee in Sweden for me to figure out just what it is about it that doesn't work for me. This trip I made a concerted effort to really understand; to analyze the coffee and my reaction to it.

My conclusion, after hours of drinking coffee in multiple locations and accompanied by a variety of goodies, is that Swedish coffee is simultaneously tasteless and incredibly harsh. The grounds are only mildly aromatic, the kitchen doesn't fill with the smell of warm coffee while it's brewing and even when I stuck my nose in the cup (yes, I did this over and over. This is science, after all!) I could barely detect the faint aroma of coffee. It didn't taste like coffee in my mouth. In fact, it didn't taste like anything unless I added milk and sugar. Then it tasted like warm, sweet, watered down milk.

You'd think with all that lack of flavor going on that the experience would pretty much be over when I swallowed, wouldn't you? I did too. We would both be wrong. Five seconds after I swallowed the inside of my mouth felt like leathery wrinkled elephant skin and tasted vaguely like soap. Every time, without fail. It made me wonder why in the world they even drink the stuff. I have to assume that generations of exposure to Swedish coffee has rendered them immune to the after shock.

Then I had an epiphany. Maybe this is what makes Swedish coffee so Swedish. It's not too anything. It's not too strong, it delivers caffeine reliably and it will never compete with the flavors of the cakes and cookies. In fact, the cakes and cookies are essential as they mask the aftertaste. And because of these qualities it can be consumed in copious quantities giving Swedes as many chances to come together over a cup of coffee as they can stand.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


This picture has nothing to do with  Thanksgiving or Christmas.
It's just pretty.

OK, I promised a report on what I had for Thanksgiving dinner, so here it is.

I can't exactly remember.

I wish I  knew how to type in a whisper. How awful of me. I'm sure you were expecting something a bit more wordy here. Possibly you wanted a lengthy description of a home made Swedish meal complete with riveting commentary on presentation and taste. Perhaps you were thinking that I would at least have set aside a moment while eating whatever I had to remember what I'm thankful for. Well, I did do that, but it's a daily ritual so Thanksgiving day just doesn't stand out among all the rest. Sorry.

In lieu of describing Thanksgiving dinner I will instead regale you with all the things Christmas that I ate or drank during the two weeks we spent in Sweden. It's not a short list as Swedes seem to enjoy making everything taste different for Christmas. I don't know why. Maybe it's because they don't have the Winter Carnival like we do in Minnesota and need some distraction to keep them from going stir crazy. Maybe they're tired of coming up with new ways to use beets and herrings. I just don't know.

First there was Christmas beer which we had the first night we were there and almost every meal we ate at home in the following days. Leif's dad has a favorite called Pripp's Jul. I'd like to report that it had a festive flavor with hints of gingerbread and candy canes but in truth it just tasted like beer. Maybe I would need to drink the everyday Swedish beer, every day, to find the finer points of Christmas beer. That's never gonna happen so I'll just take Pripp's word for it that it tastes like Christmas, if Christmas tasted like beer.

Then there is a Christmas soda called Julmust. Coca-Cola puts a picture of Santa on the can and calls it Christmas soda. Still tastes like Coke though. In Sweden Christmas soda tastes different. I can't really put my finger on what it tastes like. Sort of like a less sweet cola with a maple syrup taste at the end. Like having Christmas ham and coke in your mouth at the same time. Not unpleasant. Just different.

Christmas bread arrived in the stores a few days after we got there. Sometimes it has raisins, sometimes not, and the bread is more dense and dark. It tastes just slightly sweet and seems to go with everything from meat to cheese. I assume it also goes with caviar because I watched Leif and his dad eat it for breakfast (!), but it will have to remain a third hand report as I really don't enjoy caviar. FYI I didn't spot any Christmas caviar while I was there. I can't imagine that they would leave such an icon of Swedish food unmolested by Christmas spirit, but maybe this is where they are showing great restraint and I'm just not appreciating the effort.

Christmas is also the season for exotic sweet breads like Lussekatter. These are very traditional Swedish sweet buns made with saffron and raisins that are usually twisted into a figure eight shape. Since they all taste pretty much the same, marketing demands that there be a variety of shapes. Long coffee cakes, little saffron squares, big and little figure eights either looking perfect, like they came off a production line or so "hand made" that you'd swear they were fashioned by a team of four year olds on a sugar high. Every time you go to someone's house for coffee they hope that they're the first ones to serve you  lussekatter. Of course they all couldn't be first, but I could honestly say I'd never see one shaped quite like it before.

Then there's the mulled wine called glögg. Every year the municipal liquor store releases a special, limited production flavor of the year in addition to the traditional glögg. All are served warm with raisins and almonds (in the cup so the raisins can soak up some alcohol) and there are alcohol free versions for drivers and kids. This years offering is in a white bottle and has the flavors of Japanese yuzu, ginger and mandarin oranges. I had to look yuzu up as it's a mystery food to me. According to Wikipedia (information source for the discerning) it is a strange looking sour citrus from Japan that is surprisingly frost-hardy. It probably doesn't taste like much on its own, but it's very good in glögg.

One night we had dinner with Leif's brother and his family. We had Christmas sausages called prins korv. Translated directly those would be prince sausages. They are halfway between a hot dog and  a sausage in taste and size, and very good with beet salad and mashed potatoes. Tomas' wife Karin commented that the sausages didn't taste much like prince this year. Never having tasted a prince myself I couldn't argue; I'll just take her word for it.

I actually got to make gingerbread cookies with Karin this year. Pepparkaka is more than just a cookie I found out. It also goes well with cheese....strong cheeses like Gorgonzola and cheeses with garlic or herbs added. Incredibly yummy, in fact. Everyone should try it. You can buy the cookies at IKEA if you must, throw your favorite cheese on it and enjoy. I was skeptical but now I'm a firm believer. It was also fun to be part of a family tradition. It's not easy to do that from hundreds of miles away.

And finally, Christmas candy, represented by the ubiquitous Julskum. I've described this before I think. Really sticky, kind of marshmallowy candy shaped like a Swedish Santa (kind  of like a slightly scary looking gnome in a red suit.) Like glögg, there is a limited edition flavor of the year. This year it's something that roughly translates to wintergreen apple. I was not impressed. I like the regular flavor best, especially the way we had it this time. Karin made homemade chocolate sauce for the vanilla ice cream. That's right, made with real ingredients like cream and butter and cocoa and sugar. And when you dip the julskum into it, well, it's pretty much heaven. Sugar covered in warm, creamy chocolate. I'd suggest waiting till the kids go to bed so you don't have to share.

Leif tells me that while I think of salmon as a solid year round Swedish dish, many Swedes feel it's a very Christmas dish. We had it twice. Once baked in what Karin called an ordinary way and a (I suppose) typical sauce made with creme fraiche or maybe yogurt, dill, lemon juice and red caviar. I really love salmon made this way. The second time we had it Leif's sister used a recipe that she's had for years but never actually tried. Salmon baked with blue cheese inside and a sherry/dill cream sauce. It smells like old socks when it's cooking but tastes great.
Before the big storm hit. Already lots of snow.

In fact, I thought I was smelling me (and desperately trying to remember when I last showered) while the salmon was baking as I was cooking tiny pancakes called plättar. These aren't Christmas either, but I was pretty proud of my little pancakes. I'm so good, in fact, that Leif's niece Rebecka thinks I should live with them so that I can make them every day. She's seven and probably easily convinced of things but I'll take the compliment in the spirit it was given.

We didn't have an actual Christmas dinner so there was no ham, or bread with the ham water, or herrings of many flavors, or beets prepared five different ways. But I think I've managed to give you just a hint of what it means to be Swedish at Christmas, at least while you're eating.