Night train

The first time I took a night train was almost exactly ten years ago, from Munich to Paris. Mark and I had spent the fall together in Brussels. I was moving to France to do my dissertation research, and he was going back to Wisconsin. My train left Munich at 9 pm. I got on the train and found my cabin, which I was sharing with 3 strangers. I remember that there was a French lady who snored. We arrived in Paris very early the next morning.

That trip wasn’t so eventful, but I have always remembered it. I LOVED how you could leave from one place, go to sleep, and wake up far away. Mark also took a lot of night trains during his first study abroad trip to Germany, and he felt just as nostalgic about them.

So when we started doing our research about the best way to get to northern Sweden and realized we could take a train, we were excited… but also nervous. It was quite a bit cheaper than flying, since kids’ train tickets are discounted in Sweden, but we also knew that we’d all be stuck on a train together for 20 hours, each way.

As it turned out, we didn’t need to worry. Our trip was even better than I hoped. We are even looking forward to our return trip tomorrow!

Now for the details. Our train left Gothenburg at 6:30 pm. Simon and Anna went to school, and then we made our way to the station. Our train had arrived early, which was good, because it took people longer to get situated. We found the cabin that we had reserved. It had 6 beds– 3 on each side. Luckily, we were able to reserve the two extra beds for a small price (not the price of a full ticket). The overnight trains in Sweden are not new– they are slow, and they don’t have Wifi. But our cabin was cozy and comfortable.

Train car

Since we left pretty late, we had dinner almost as soon as we left: sandwiches, olives, pretzels, carrots– and a bit of wine for the adults. We hung out a little, explored the dining car, and then it was time for Simon and Anna to go to bed. We had them wear their pajamas under their snowsuits, so it was pretty easy. Mark and I did what we always end up doing when traveling with the kids– drinking wine and watching something on the Ipad.

Dinner 2.jpg

When we went to sleep, we moved Simon and Anna to the bottom bunks, in case they fell out, and Mark and I took two of the top bunks. I did not sleep particularly well– every time the train leaned to the side, which was often, I felt like I might roll out of bed. I did eventually go to sleep, and Simon and Anna slept great. I wouldn’t want to sleep on a train every night, but it was fine for a night (or two).

In the morning, it was time for breakfast. We beat the crowd and enjoyed a lovely view–snow! By now we were in northern Sweden (although still several hours from our destination) and Simon and Anna were excited to see all the snow. We had brought our dinner, but we bought breakfast on the train– a super Swedish breakfast of yogurt and muesli and bread with ham and cheese, plus coffee. They were also selling hard-boiled eggs with tiny tubes of caviar, which I found amusing, so we got some of those too.

The trickiest part of the trip was that we had to change trains. However, it turned out to be very easy. The train was on time (apparently this is often not the case with the overnight trains), and the other train was just across the track.

Changing trains

We settled into our seats on the other train, the Arctic Circle Train, and traveled a few more hours to Kiruna. It got snowier and snowier as we went farther north.

19.5 hours after leaving Gothenburg, we pulled into Kiruna. Simon and Anna were delighted to see at least two feet of fluffy snow on the ground.


My final verdict: This was such a fun way to travel! Overnight trains are getting harder to find in Europe, but I think they’re worth searching for. Going on an overnight train seemed like such a fun adventure to all of us. In some ways, it’s actually easier than dragging two kids and their luggage onto a plane. If you reserve your own cabin, you have your own private space, and the kids can go to bed when they want. And there was less downtime than I would have expected, given that we spent a lot of time sleeping (or trying to sleep, anyway!) and eating.


My favorite restaurant in Gothenburg

Sweden, it turns out, is probably not generally thought of as THE place for food. Many outside of Sweden (and Scandinavia) are probably unaware of the varied food traditions here, although that may be changing. Even people who eat at meatballs or lax at IKEA are probably unaware how iconically Swedish the food and those cafes are (RIP Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA founder). Those who are more familiar with Swedish cuisine may not be overwhelmed: pickled herring as an appropriate food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; rotten herring as a delicacy for old-school Swedes. Personally, I love the food in Sweden and at some point we’ll write a post or two about our food experiences. I’m surprised we haven’t yet. So consider this the first in an as-yet-unplanned-but-bound-to-happen series of posts on Swedish food traditions. This post, however, combines food with another topic we’ve talked a lot about, namely playgrounds and the family orientation of Sweden.

On Saturday, as Sarah was tackling almost-final edits of her forthcoming book, I took Simon and Anna out for the day. First we headed to the little gymnastics class they’re attending. When we left the class at 11:30, it was a beautiful winter day in Gothenburg. It was colder than normal, just under freezing. But it was sunny! Sun! I decided we should take advantage of it, so we jumped back on the tram and headed to Slottskogen.

Slottskogen is the biggest park in Gothenburg. “Slott” means “castle” or “palace,” from the days when it was pasture land for the Älvsborg Castle. “Skogen” means “forest.” That gives you an idea of what much of it’s like: trails cut through rocky forest. It includes a section showcasing traditional housing from various regions in Sweden. It has several cafes. It has the somewhat dated natural history museum. It has a zoo. It’s where Gothenburg hosts the Way Out West Festival, a major music festival held in the long days of early August. And in the southwestern corner, it has Plitka Park.  We were there for Plitka.

Never mind about the rest of Slottskogen; Plitka Park itself is a destination park. There are lots of cool areas, most of which emphasize rough-and-tumble, inventive climbing, which is the trend in playgrounds these days. There are lots of signs that emphasize inclusivity.  There’s a 40-meter covered slide!

Tunnel slide at Plitka Park

So instead of heading back indoors, we took the tram to the far side of Slottskogen, strolled through the woods, and ended up at Plitka for a couple hours of play. Despite the cool temperatures, the park was packed. Kids in the standard cold-weather gear of snow suits or snow pants and coat were everywhere, followed by parents in similar clothing.

As every parent knows, however, the plan had one potentially fatal flaw. What about food? I’d planned for us to eat at home, but we decided to stay out and enjoy the weather. So what to eat? The last time we were at Plitka, we’d taken food. Like many big Swedish parks, Plitka features a small house that’s there to give people a break from the elements, whether rain (standard), cold (not uncommon), or heat (we’re told it happens). Last time, we took our food inside and ate as we warmed up. We didn’t use the microwave that was provided, as is so common in parks and museums here. We’d brought our own utensils and plates, so didn’t use those provided, nor did we put ours in the dishwasher that was also there!

And yet! I chose Plitka precisely because I was confident we could eat there without having to spend a lot of money at a restaurant or kiosk. The answer? The common grill.  By “common” I don’t mean plain or pedestrian. Rather, I mean common as in “held, or used, by all.” Grill-as-public-good.

grill sign.jpg

I’d noticed it the last time we were there. I saw the sign on the right and saw several people gathered around.

Not knowing exactly what it said, I intuited that it had to do with the big grill that was over there. My hunch was that there were selling hot dogs. I figured they’d be cheap. As I neared, I started to realize the truth was still more beautiful than that. First I noticed that no one seemed to be in charge. I started to think that maybe this was just a publicly-available grill and that someone had staked it out and was using it. A closer look, though, showed a massive amount of charcoal. And that sign does bear the official insignia of the park and the city.

In the corner I saw laminated signs next to coolers. After seeing a few groups get into the coolers, I walked over for a closer look. The laminated sign had a Swish number. There was a box that seemed to be for money. A good sign: someone was selling something.

After convincing myself that, in fact, no one was in charge, I opened the first cooler. There were two cooelrs.jpgboxes– one with standard (“ecological”) hot dogs (grillkorv), the second with vegetarian versions. In a separate cooler were a couple of bags of the very practical little flatbreads they often use for hot dog buns here.




And of course there was the grill.

s and a - plikta grill

It turns out this is a public-good grill. The park, i.e., the city, provides a supply of hot dogs and hot dog buns. It provides a massive grill. It provides two kinds of mustard and a bottle of ketchup. It provides a lock-box and Swish number. And for 10SEK, about $1.30, you can grill yourself a hot dog. Or for 60SEK, you can grill yourself and two hungry kids two hot dogs each while the kids warm their hands. You can also bring your own food to grill.

This may seem, or be, hyperbolic, but I find this incredible. As usual, I was left struggling to explain to the kids why it was so unusual, so special.

It made we wonder why we don’t have these in the US. I’m guessing 90% of the Americans reading  thought immediately: lawyers. Somebody would burn themselves; they would sue; the massive payout would end the city’s parks program; the city itself would be erased from the map. Maybe that’s part of the story, although I think that excuse is more a perception of reality than an accurate reflection of it. The story of misinformation in the McDonald’s coffee case is a good example of the myths around lawsuits, and probably even a source of a lot of that myth. Nonetheless, if people believe it, then it can drive policy.

Personally I think food safety people would freak out about hot dogs in public coolers and open containers of ketchup and mustard. That, too, is just a hunch. And the there’s the reaction that many American readers will also have, which is some version of “gross, I don’t want to share a pack of hot dogs, how do I know they’re clean, etc.” Maybe this is an extension of a learned germ-phobia we have in the US. (You don’t want to hear my rant about how we’d rather pretend plastic gloves prevent the spread of illness than pay for food workers to have paid sick days.)

There’s also a more legitimate concern about fires spreading: after all, the little hut with this is up against the edge of the forest. But they haven’t burned down the skogen yet, either.

It’s probably all of the above: lawyers, beliefs about lawyers, food regulations, beliefs about germs, owl-based brainwashing that “only you can prevent forest fires.” All of that adds up to the reality that we’re not likely to see these in the US. It’s not a big deal, but it embodies something about life in the US. To me, it also embodies something about Swedish life: the public good aspect of it, the lack of hyper-risk aversion, the digital pay option alongside an unlocked wooden payment box.

On Saturday, someone was even warming up some meatballs on it. Grilled meatballs on a communal grill, alongside public access hot dogs paid for from my phone, is about as Swedish as you can get.


Factory work – How to build a Volvo

Last week I was lucky to join a tour of the big Volvo plant just outside the heart of Gothenburg. It’s a massive campus: almost a town of its own–Volvo Torslanda. After dropping Simon off at school, I walked down to the harbor, jumped on the Red Express, and headed to the Volvo Cars Visitor Centre. The bus runs southwest along the harbor until turning north, crossing the landmark Älvsborgsbron, the 45-meter high bridge that crosses the Göta river that runs through Gothenburg (hence Göteborg).  About half an hour later, after stops at Volvo Torslanda RA, Volvo Torslanda PVH, Volvo Torslanda PV, Volvo IT, and before stops at Volvo City and Volvo Torslanda TK, I landed at Volvohallen (notice a theme?).  My aim was to make some contacts for future conversations. I wanted to see how Volvo represented itself at the center. And I hoped to maybe talk my way onto a tour while I was out there. I managed to accomplish all of that. I’ll have more on all of that later.

For the moment I wanted to share some observations from the factory tour in particular. There’s been a lot of attention paid to factory workers in developed countries in the past year, especially in the United States. By one reckoning, it was the pro-Trump shift of (former) factory workers along the Rust Belt–Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania–that put that political Titanic in the White House. So there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the decline of manufacturing in the United States and the political implications. I’m not going to dive into the debate over who Trump voters are. I’ll say that I think they’re a diverse lot: the ones I know are an ideologically diverse group, even if they’re on the very conservative side of the spectrum. I don’t think they were all driven by racism; I  know that some of them were. In terms of wealth (and in contrast to the common discussion about them), they were above average for the United States; but some were unemployed former factory workers. And I know that for lots of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, and others, the call for more attention to the plight of middle-class white men is tough to stomach. Compared to lots of other groups, that last group is doing better and faces fewer obstacles going forward.

The piece that to date provides the best summary of my own view of the mass politics of Trump is this piece in the NY Times by Thomas Edsall. A key passage is this:

In political terms, the workers who experience the highest costs from industrial automation fit the crucial Trump voter demographic: white non-college voters, disproportionately male, whose support for the Republican nominee surged from 2012 to 2016….”

In essence, Edsall argues that latent negative attitudes about minorities and foreigners were given new breath by economic misery in just enough corners of the country to put Trump over the electoral college precipice. The title of the piece is what connects it to my thoughts from the Volvo tour: “Robots Can’t Vote, but They Helped Elect Trump.” The lead picture is of robotic welders at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. It looks a lot like what I saw at Volvo.

The last time I spent significant time in a factory was as a college student at Murray State University, in rural western Kentucky. At 19, I was excited to land a job at Briggs and Stratton, the lawn mower manufacturer. Like blood banks, sperm banks, and high-fee/ low-service deposit banks, Briggs and Stratton was in Murray because of a steady supply of relatively low-skilled labor, some of them normal adults (some of them not so normal adults…) and lots of college students to fill in the gaps. There was also a supply of various kinds of engineers and business majors from Murray State to keep the place running. As I recall, the pay was $7.25 an hour, which was by far the best pay you could find as a college student. The federal minimum wage was $4.75 when I started.

I still have vivid images of the plant. We made the small engines for push mowers: 3-5 horsepower, or so. I remember you clocked in at the ground level and then opened the door to the factory floor, which was one story down in a basement. Above your head there was a constantly moving line of hooks that carried the increasingly complete engines in a maze around to different stations. The floor of the plant was shiny concrete. Everything else was a light olive green.

Over the few years I worked there, I worked on two basic assembly lines: gas tanks and carburetors (a word that I hadn’t learned how to spell, as writing this post showed me). When I worked 24 hours/week, I put the bottoms of gas tanks through an oven. It was a four-person job: two to load, two to unload. Stamping the tank tops was a two-person job, slapping plates on an octagonal, rotating machine and pulling off the tops once the came back around, stamped, washed, and cooled. I eventually switched to the 35-hour/week line that made carburetors. It was a line of about 12 people, including two foremen, so roughly 10 different stations. We rotated every hour, usually toggling between two stations.

I liked working there. I liked the money, but I liked going to work. Nearly every person I knew who worked (besides my teachers) was a factory worker. My father worked in a uranium enrichment plant. His father worked in a paper mill. My maternal grandfather worked in a chemical plant. All had made good livings, all supported families with those jobs, and all conveyed a no-nonsense work ethic: get a job, do that job, and, more subtly, don’t get too caught up in that job. It felt respectable to my working-class sensibilities. I liked that the job involved tangible outputs. I once worked through lunch to build up extra parts for our line so that we could break the company record for our line. That accomplishment earned our line a notice of accomplishment for one day on the digital billboard in the cafeteria. It earned me personally bewildered looks from my co-workers.

What mostly stands out in my memories, however, are the people I worked with. Some were fellow college students. Especially on the 35-hour/week line, most were just regular folks working for a living. Some had planned to make a career there, some had not. Some were happy, some were not. Some were sober, some were not.

For that reason, what stood out to me when we entered the Volvo plant was the lack of people. That’s not to say that no one works there. In fact, some 4,800 people work there. And I wasn’t able to tour the final assembly part of the plant, which is probably more heavily peopled than the chassis assembly section that I toured. But the Torslanda plant cranked out some 234,000 cars last year, according to our tour guide, 60 cars an hour, 1 car a minute. Seen another way, that’s only about 50 people employed for every car produced.

Those kinds of numbers would lead me to expect lots of people. Instead, there are a few people here and there, occasionally feeding orange robotic arms and more often standing and watching to make sure they’re working properly. Imagine a huge hall full of these orange arms:

Related image

The illustration below does a better job of conveying the look of the process. (Credit: Chalmers Technical University.)

Note the lack of people in the picture above. And notice the robots in the illustration below. That’s a lot of robots. The feeling of watching it all happen is amazing, bordering on eery. The people in this scenario stand outside that cage and watch as the Orange Arms spring to life, spot welding cars together. These stations all work inside cages; people aren’t even allowed in while they’re working. If a door opens, all operations cease immediately. It’s as if they’re positively hostile to people.

The robots are big, heavy pieces of machinery. They are nearly silent. And yet they move with amazing precision, stability, and speed. I made a lot more noise stamping the tops of gasoline tanks for 3.4 horsepower lawnmower engines than they do welding together the pieces of a chassis.

The pinnacle of it all, for me, was watching as the robots attached the side panels to the floor of the car. We watched from our little tour train as a car’s floor floated above our heads. It reached an elevator and was brought down to about head height. As it came down, two arms picked up the side panels and brought them up to be mounted. The pieces then glided to the next station. All of a sudden 12 arms (by my count) seemed to come to life and started welding the pieces together. In under 2 minutes, it was done–side panels attached–and moving on to the next stage.

As we were watching this, a long, low-slung yellow “truck” rolled by us, green lights blinking. The tour guide noted that there was no driver. It was a delivery truck, using GPS to guide itself to the correct bay, where robots would automatically load it with parts that had been ordered elsewhere in the plant. It would then make the return trip. It was a small taste of a remarkably complex and, to me, endlessly fascinating, system of production. It prompted a lot of thought about the politics of manufacturing and jobs.

Here are my takeaways for the moment.

  1. I see why politicians are excited to get automobile manufacturing plants. They’re big, shiny, and clean (these days), and employ lots of people. Jobs are important. Good paying jobs are important. Good paying jobs that are accessible to people with a wide variety of skills are really important. Automobile manufacturing offers all of that, to a certain extent. I see why the entire southeast United States competes to attract car production.
  2. I also have seen first-hand that politicians can become borderline obsessed with automobile manufacturing. I went on a tour of Germany a few years ago, riding along as a country-expert with various state-level politicians and business people from North Carolina. While in Berlin, we had a meeting with North Carolina’s recruitment consultant in northern Europe (we have one). They proceeded to grill him. One senator’s question summed it up: “Alabama has a car plant, Georgia has a car plant, South Carolina has a car plant. Tennessee has a car plant. Why doesn’t North Carolina have a car plant?” The consultant was responsible for siting recruitment for all industries, but we talked almost exclusively about cars. To me, it reveals the role that the ribbon-cutting dreams of politicians play in shaping their economic development plans. Be wary of the politician who would rather give lots of incentives to one car company that employs 2000 people than do the hard work to help build 100 companies that employ 20 people each. I think that’s in Proverbs somewhere.
  3. The obsession also shows a lack of understanding of modern industrial systems. Yes, 4800 people work at Volvo Torslanda. But how many more work on everything it takes to put the car together? Who builds the driverless truck? Who writes the code for the GPS system that guides it? Who ships the parts, who rolls the steel, who designs the ads? In other words, who builds the robots? North Carolina politicians are upset that “North Carolina doesn’t have a car plant.” That’s akin to Steven Spielberg complaining that everyone else in Hollywood is an actor except him. Maybe instead of seeking to be just one more car plant, we should try to develop a comparative advantage in all the skills and industries that those car plants require to produce anything. That’s harder, less under a politician’s control than a single plant (which still isn’t easy to control), and less shiny. But it can be as productive, and more so, than a single plant. It creates a more resilient economy. That should be a primary goal.
  4. Even when communities land the much sought after car plant, they need to face reality: those are no longer the wellspring of well-paying but low-skilled jobs they used to be. If your aim is to provide long-term stability for that target audience, you need a better plan. Don’t believe me? Ask the people who used to work at Saab or the 3000 who were laid off at Volvo Cars in 2009. Some of those jobs are lost to off-shore production, more may be lost to the Orange Arms of Automation. Better, then, to build the Orange Arms. To do that, however, requires consistent investment in the intellectual and physical infrastructure that makes high-tech production and innovation possible. That means roads, ports, and railways. It means internet access. It means a quality education for all, even, or especially, as people age and the industries they’ve worked in for decades fade. It means valuing–and valorizing–jobs in services industries like healthcare and education as much as we value “manly” jobs like car manufacturing, so that people will make the switch to industries that are growing.

Manufacturing is a world apart from where it was the last time I spent any real time in a factory. That process of remarkable change will continue. And yet the politics of manufacturing remains largely the same. It’s time that the political class that loves stirring the pot around the loss of manufacturing jobs themselves catch up with the times. Continuing in the same mindset around manufacturing that we’ve been in since World War II serves only the immediate interests of political opportunists. Everyone else pays the costs for their short-sightedness. For evidence of the effects of such short-sighted politics, you need look no further than the White House.

Hosting a party in a foreign country: Simon birthday edition

Simon turned 7 on January 11, and we had promised him a birthday party. (Simon LOVES birthdays, and I don’t think it’s even mostly about the presents. He loves it when people wish him Happy Birthday! He also thinks other people’s birthdays are a big deal. I feel like at least 10% of our total family conversation time is dedicated to discussions of birthdays– dates, how old people are turning, order of birthdays, and what people might do on their birthdays).

At first, I thought that we might just invite his entire class (of about 25 kids), because I didn’t want to be exclusionary. But as the big day approached, I started to feel apprehensive. For one thing, it would be a big investment. I couldn’t invite 25 kids and their parents to our 2-bedroom apartment. We couldn’t go to a park in Sweden in January. And most of the places I found were $15– or more!– per kid. Even though I didn’t want to spend $400 on Simon’s birthday party, I considered it, because I didn’t know what else to do.

As I continued thinking about it, I got more nervous, though. Simon has been to two parties, both with his entire class. Based on this (n=2!), I have developed the following hypotheses about Swedish children’s birthday parties:

  • Cake is always served. (Not surprising). Hot dogs are also always served. (More surprising – is this really true?).
  • Games are always played. These are old-fashioned games (the same games that Swedish people play at Midsummer)– things like potato sack races and races that involve running while balancing something on a spoon.
  • The favor is always a bag filled with candy – of the Saturday-morning-candy variety, of course! (We were trying to remember, however, and we think the favor candies were usually wrapped, whereas most Saturday morning candy is not).
  • Coffee is always served for the adults. Alcohol is definitely not served.

Those are the commonalities across the two parties Simon has attended…. but of course, he has only attended two parties.

I realized that there was no way I could pull off hosting a party for Simon’s entire class. I was sure that we would break all sorts of social norms. So I backtracked… and I convinced Simon that we could just invite a few friends over for a sleepover-without-the-sleeping party. (One of his friends did this last year, and I think it is a genius idea!). Pizza, snacks, and a movie.

Today was his party. He had 4 friends over: 3 from school and 1 from the apartment building. I think it was a success! They helped make pizza, they watched the Lego movie, they ran around and played Legos, and they made ice cream sundaes with lots of toppings. (The ice cream was instead of a cake. This was my idea, and I think this is pretty genius too, because it’s A LOT easier and still very fun and exciting). We told the parents that they could stay or drop the kids off. All of the parents except one elected for the drop-off option. I think they were excited about it, but maybe they were also relieved that they didn’t have to have awkward conversations in English with us.

The party was a success. The kids had fun. Simon was happy. It was surprisingly easy. (Caveat: Mark did the cooking, but even as a non-cook, I think I can say that there wasn’t much cooking for this one. Mostly making the pizza sauce and getting the ingredients ready). I found it very freeing to not have a “theme.”

And yet, this whole experience makes me think. As we planned the party, we thought a lot about the norms we might be breaking.

We weren’t sure whether parents would want to stay or leave. (In the United States, Simon started getting invited to “drop-off” parties last year, and I thought it was the best thing ever. But we didn’t know about Sweden). So we brewed an entire pot of coffee and got a lot of extra snacks… which we still have, because only one parent stayed.

We didn’t play games. I felt okay about this, because we had a movie/sleepover theme, but the mom who stayed kept suggesting games. Who knows? Maybe she just likes games. But maybe all the kids are reporting to their parents that this was the FIRST PARTY EVER where they didn’t have sack races.

We didn’t serve hot dogs. (I seriously doubt that they serve hot dogs at every Swedish birthday party, by the way, but so far, this has been the case at the parties that Simon has attended). We served pizza, which is basically the most kid-friendly food on earth in the United States. And Swedes eat a lot of pizza. However, intriguingly, two kids didn’t want the pizza at all. One just didn’t like it. The other one asked for kebab pizza, which is the the #1 pizza in Sweden – it’s a pizza crust with kebab meat and all of the kebab toppings. (We haven’t tried it yet). When I said we didn’t have kebab pizza, he said he didn’t want any, which I found amusing.

In the end, we did it our way, and it was fun. I think that all of the kids were happy. But halfway through the party, it struck me how privileged I am to be able to host this party this way. I don’t speak a lot of Swedish. I spoke English to the kids and to their parents. All of the parents speak English, and even the kids (who have never had English in school) all speak a little English. The kids will not make fun of Simon because his mom doesn’t speak Swedish, because they think English is at least a little cool, and because their parents speak it. People might make fun of or judge American food, at least a little– after all, we have a global reputation as being pretty unhealthy. But American food is also ubiquitous, so everyone was familiar with pizza and ice cream sundaes.

I thought of the immigrant families I know in the United States. In my research on families and food practices in North Carolina, we went to school lunches with a lot of families. I remembered having lunch with a mom who had immigrated from Mexico and her second-grader. The second-grader seemed embarrassed to have his mom (and another random lady – this would be me) at school. His mom had somehow gotten the message the she wasn’t allowed to send “hot lunches” from home– just sandwiches and things like that. But the kid eating next to her son was eating a soup from a Thermos that his parents had sent from home. The mom realized that she had been wrong. She got excited. She told her son that she was going to start sending hot lunches sometimes, like tortillas and meats. And the son looked like he was going to melt into the floor. He was so embarrassed by the thought of his mom sending tortillas and food that she had cooked at home.

We are not immigrants to Sweden. We are just visiting. And even if we moved here forever, our experience would be different from than that of many immigrants. But this party has me thinking of all of the people who do leave everything behind and move to a new country, one that is often hostile and unwelcoming. And I’m thinking of the parents and children that try to make their way in this strange world, unsure of the social norms and knowing that people will think their food and their customs are odd.

I hope that people will welcome them, as people in Sweden have welcomed us.

Delightful and quirky products at the Swedish grocery store.

Swedish grocery stores are a lot like ours, in many ways (although not like ours in a few key ways – I promised someone that I would write a whole post about this one day). But they offer some unique products, so I started thinking of my top 5.

1. Saft.

I feel like this would do so well in the United States, given our obsession with La Croix and make-your-own-fizzy waters. I want to bring back an entire case when I go back, but I won’t, because they come in glass bottles and they are heavy. Safts are fruit-flavored concentrates that you mix with water (fizzy or regular). They are frequently served for kids at parties or get-togethers, and I love them too. I believe that saft originated when people would make their own fruit concentrates during the summer and then save them to drink later. When we visited my Swedish cousins at Christmas, my sisters were commenting on how they liked all of the elderflower-flavored drinks that Sweden has. From the freezer, my cousin whipped out an elderflower concentrate (saft) that she had made herself, from elderflowers that she had picked! “It tastes like summer,” she said. And it did.


A rhubard saft – one of my favorites.

2. Crisp bread (knäckebröd).

This is the one that Americans are probably most familiar with. My mom used to occasionally buy these back in the 1980s, and I remember them as being thick, bland, wheat crackers. That is all basically true, although the ones I buy in Sweden are a bit thinner than what I remember from my childhood. Swedish people are really into them and there are a TON of options at the grocery store. In some stores, they have an entire aisle dedicated to knäckebröd. I was skeptical, but now I am a convert! My favorite morning snack is a piece of knäckebröd with cream cheese and herb salt (more on that later), and lox if I’m feeling fancy. Simon’s class has them every afternoon for their afternoon snack, with butter, cheese, and ham. They never get stale or soggy – never, as far as I can tell!

Knacke brod

3. Herb salt.

A few days after we arrived in Sweden, I went to the little grocery store next to the apartment where we were first staying to buy salt. I mistakenly bought this strange “herb salt.” I  had thought it was just regular salt. (In retrospect, this seems like an obvious mistake – there are pictures of herbs all over it). When we commented to our Swedish friend about this weird herb salt that we had bought, she said, “Isn’t it great?! Swedes use it all the time.” So we tried it, and now we all love it. Apparently it is healthier, because it substitutes herbs for some of the salt. I put it on my cream cheese-and-crackers, my eggs – everything! (Okay, not everything. But many things). They even have it as an option in Simon’s cafeteria. He is a big fan, and has already told me that we need to bring several home with us. (It lasts forever, though – we are still working our way through that first container that I bought by mistake).

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4. Plättar (pancakes).

Sweden has two types of pancakes: the pancakes that I used to call “Swedish pancakes”, which are large in diameter and very thin, like crepes; and plättar, which are about the size of a coaster in diameter and thicker. This summer, we went to a restaurant where they made their own plättar. They served them with all kinds of sweet and savory topics, and they were delicious. You can also buy your own cast iron plättar pan (apparently called a plättlagg) and make your own. We have considered it, but they weigh a lot, so this seems unlikely.  As it turns out, however, they sell premade plättar in all Swedish grocery stores! This is the best easy dinner on earth. We had them tonight: some with crème fraîche and lox and capers, some with lingonberries (and again, crème fraîche), some with pomengranates or apples (and yet again, crème fraîche). Delicious. Between the 4 of us, we ate 28 (!).

5. Huge quantities of Swedish cheese.

Last but not least: one of the great mysteries of the Swedish grocery store. In general, we eat a lot of cheese, and cheese was one of the first things we looked for after got here. And there were a lot of Swedish cheeses to choose from. But except for some small containers of presliced “deli” cheese, all of the Swedish cheese came in huge portions: at least 700 grams (1.5 pounds), with quite a few being 1 kg (more than 2 pounds). This seemed like a huge commitment when we didn’t know anything about the cheese, but eventually we took the plunge. Since then, we’ve figured out which ones we like the best. (And to be honest, most of them are pretty similar). And Swedish cheese has grown on me. It has a mild flavor, a little like an Emmentaler. It can substitute for cheddar (American “cheddar,” I mean) in macaroni and cheese, and it makes a good grilled cheese, but it’s a bit more interesting than the standard cheddar or “American” cheese. Mark pointed out that Swedish cheese is very lagom (a very Swedish word: not too much, just enough), like Swedish people themselves. It’s not flamboyant like a French cheese. It’s comforting and versatile, with enough flavor to set it apart from other cheeses. Perhaps most interesting is the tool you use to slice off a piece of cheese from the huge hunk: what I call a “European cheese slicer.” It came with our apartment. I am pretty sure every Swedish house has one. The slices come out very thin. I can’t imagine living without one!

Cheese and “European cheese slicer,” my most essential kitchen tool. Unfortunately you can’t tell how big the piece of cheese is in this picture. It is BIG!

And there you have it: my top 5 products! I will continue to look for more.

Día de los Reyes (3 Kings’ Day)

Today, January 6, is 3 Kings’ Day, or Epiphany. We always celebrate Epiphany at home, usually by getting the French version of the kings’ cake from La Farm, a French bakery in North Carolina. (I highly recommend it – it is delicious!).

This year, our celebration was extra special, because we are on vacation in Spain. As it turns out, the Día de los Reyes (3 Kings’ Day) is a BIG deal in Spain. In fact, Spanish kids get most of their gifts on January 6– not on Christmas. According to a survey, Spanish kids overwhelmingly chose the Three Kings as their favorite holiday gift-giver (67%) over Santa (27%).

Who knew? We didn’t, so it is somewhat miraculous that we figured out in time to celebrate the Spanish way, but we did, thanks to a couple of fortuitous conversations with a Spanish friend and our taxi driver and a bit of googling.

So, without further delay, here is how they celebrate Día de los Reyes in Spain – or at least our interpretation of it.

On the night before, January 5, almost every town hosts a Cabalgata de Reyes– literally, a kings’ cavalcade, or procession. The one in Madrid attracts a crowd of 100,000. We went to the parade in the small southern town of Antequera, where we were staying. It was a lot more manageable, but still a big deal.

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Our parade started at 6 pm. It seemed like the entire town was there. The parade started with a lot of characters from children’s cartoons– Elsa and Anna, the minions, Cindarella– and a ton of candy. We knew there was going to be a lot of candy when we saw that every other child there was carrying a plastic supermarket bag. We didn’t have one, but my purse worked in a pinch.

At the end of the parade, the Three Kings came, each on separate floats.

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We wandered back to the apartment where we were staying, and Simon and Anna took stock of their candy. There was a lot of it!

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They didn’t stay up too late eating candy, however, because we had heard that kids were supposed to go to bed early on January 5. (Of course, “early” is relative, and probably means 10:00 for Spanish kids!).

They wrote notes for the Three Kings, left them some candy, and made sure their shoes were in a prominent place, as we had heard was the custom.

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The next morning, Simon and Anna were very happy to see that the Kings had, in fact, visited during the night. They left Spanish coloring books and some cheese snacks, since Simon and Anna clearly did not need more candy.

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Then, we got ready for the other major part of the Día de los Reyes– the roscón de Reyes, the cake that you eat for breakfast on 3 Kings’ Day. (At least I think they eat it for breakfast– we did, anyway!). The roscón de Reyes is a sweet, ring-shaped cake, filled with whipped cream (!).

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Buried somewhere in the middle of the cake are two small ceramic pieces: a (fava) bean, and a figurine, which represents the baby Jesus. If you get the bean, you are in charge of paying for the cake (or possibly buying or making next year’s cake). If you get the baby Jesus/figuring, you are the king!

We dug into our pieces. I got the bean, and… Simon got the baby Jesus. (It was a tiny bottle. A few years ago, with our French cake, “Jesus” was a snowboarder.). Simon was very happy to be crowned king and enjoyed bossing everyone around for a while.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring two other towns in this area. We noticed a lot of kids playing with what must have been their new presents: bikes, scooters, and remote-control cars, even though it was a very cold day.

I am glad that we got to experience a new holiday tradition. It was an unexpected bonus of being here at this time of year.

Blog post by Anna – Swedish Christmas (Jul)

Anna (age 4) is here today to tell you all about how they celebrate “jul” (Christmas) in Sweden!


For Christmas I got a chapstick, a circle brush, coloring books, some Elsa bandaids, and a new notebook.


At Christmas they eat a julbord. My favorite julbord foods are meatballs and greens (grönkål – kale – with cream!).


This is a pepparkaka. You eat it. It is a cookie.


In Sweden, Santa is called tomten. Tomten has a long beard with a red hat. We learned songs about tomten in school.

God Jul! God Jul! (Merry Christmas!).

Making and breaking Christmas traditions

I like holiday traditions. My mom was great at creating and maintaining traditions. She made the same cookies (gingerbread, peanut butter blossoms) at Christmas and the same breads (pumpkin with chocolate chip, cranberry) at Thanksgiving. We always went to a Christmas tree farm to pick out our tree and then we always decorated it together. She got out the same decorations every year. We always ate oyster soup on Christmas eve and read The Night Before Christmas before we went to bed. We always had monkey bread and egg casserole on Christmas morning.

I am (much!) less organized than my mom was, but I have continued many of these childhood traditions with Simon and Anna. We eat fun snacks while we decorate the Christmas tree. We go to church on Christmas eve, and the adults eat appetizers after the kids go to bed. We eat the same foods on Christmas morning that I ate growing up: monkey bread and egg casserole. We were so committed to this that last year, when our oven broke just before Christmas, we  tried making monkey bread and egg casserole in crockpots! It worked… kind of.

This year, however, everything is different. We are spending Christmas with our Swedish relatives, and we’re excited to experience their traditions: watching Donald Duck (yes, really – more on this later); eating pepparkakor and drinking glögg, followed by the Christmas julbord, with herring, ham, and Jansson’s Temptation (Swedish scallopped potatoes).

In our own apartment, as we’ve gotten ready for Christmas, things are a little different too. Mostly, this is because we don’t have a lot of stuff or space and we don’t want to acquire a lot of stuff. We’re not exchanging as many gifts this year, and a lot of the presents that Simon and Anna are getting are “consumable” (e.g., art supplies). Instead of getting a Christmas tree, Simon and Anna painted one, and then we decorated with ornaments cut out of a catalog. I love it.


We didn’t bring their stockings, so they painted shoeboxes and then glued on paper stocking shapes.


As I’ve been thinking about it more, I realize that some of my most vivid holiday memories are from years when we didn’t keep up with the traditions.

The first Thanksgiving after we moved to Pennsylvania. I was 10. We had always had Thanksgiving with our extended family, and now it was just my parents, sisters, and me. So we went bowling after dinner.

The Christmas that we decided, at the last minute, to spend in Michigan. My grandpa wasn’t feeling well, and couldn’t come see us, as my grandparents had planned. So went to them. We walked along the icy lake.

The Christmas that Mark and I spent in Sweden – 11 years ago! We opened our presents for each other on the train on the way back. The pockets on the backs of the seats were the stockings.

I hope this will be a memorable Christmas for Simon and Anna. I know it will be for me. I am thankful for my mom and all of the people who work to create and maintain Christmas traditions. And I’m excited to let go of most of our traditions for a year and see how people celebrate Christmas somewhere else.

God Jul and the “return” of Merry Christmas

I saw on Twitter this morning that a PAC supporting Donald Trump is pushing out an ad, to begin on Christmas Day, that ends with a girl saying: “Thank you President Trump for letting us say Merry Christmas again.” I despise this on-going nonsense for lots of reasons. It was always an attack on the Obamas, who were probably the most religious family in the White House since Jimmy Carter. It’s being pushed by Trump, who probably couldn’t name two books of the Bible and whose personal and professional life has been the exact opposite of what Christians profess. It’s used to whip conservative evangelicals into a frenzy (and it works, to some degree). And it suggests that the President of the United States gets to decide what we can and cannot say, which is Orwellian. None of that is new, but it bears repeating.

Being in Sweden for this holiday season sheds new light on it for me. Swedes says “Merry Christmas” all the time! “God Jul” (rough pronunciation, Goode Yule) is everywhere. As Sarah says, they just slap Jul on everything: Jul ost (cheese), Jul skinka (ham), Jul chips (chips), Jul öl (beer), or my favorite, Jul potatis (potatoes). Want to make your own at home? 1) Take regular potatoes. 2) Put in bag with some Christmas related pictures. 3) Label accordingly. Voila!

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Clearly, a bag of jul potatis.

Since we spend a lot of time walking in the dark these days, you notice Christmas decorations everywhere. The standard is something like this in the window:

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There are lots of riffs on that, but that form is standard. The other common decoration are big paper stars with lights inside them:

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I was struck this morning by all of them in the windows at the university.  As an American accustomed to the sometimes extreme sensitivity that the US has to the separation of church and state, this display of decorations for a religious holiday at government-funded institutions occasionally surprises me. And yes, sometimes it’s nice not to have to worry about saying the “right” phrase. For those who feel there’s been a “War on Christmas” in the United States, Sweden–and lots of other countries in Europe, for that matter–would be refreshing, with all of their “Merry Christmas-ing.” So is Sweden proof that political correctness has run amok in the US? Or more dramatic still, is it evidence that there is, in fact, a war on all things Christian, including Christmas, in the US? After all, apparently 64% of Swedes are members of The Church. By some accounts, that’s higher than the generally highly religious US. Given the (mis)use of Sweden by all political sides these days, I could probably go viral among conservatives making that argument. But it would, in fact, be very wrong.

It’s true that church membership in Sweden is north of 60% right now. But that’s because until 2000, every person born in Sweden was automatically registered as a member of the official state church: The Church of Sweden, an evangelical Lutheran church. The number has been dropping since the practice of automatic registration has stopped. Some surveys estimate that roughly 8% of Swedes attend church regularly.  Swedes are, all told, rather secular.

So what to make of that? Well, we know that “allowing” people to say Merry Christmas won’t make them religious. In fact, I’d say what’s happened in Sweden is the opposite. There are lots of signs of religion in Sweden: St. Lucia, Christmas, and other holidays we’ll talk about here. But for the most part they have been secularized. And that’s why the separation of Church and State has always been strong in the US: it was about protecting the church from the state, not the other way around. Anecdotally, I’ve heard conservative Christians argue that we need to do away with it: that we somehow need to affirm that the US is a Christian nation. It’s not true, to begin with. There are millions and millions of Americans who aren’t Christian. And that’s their right: one that was a founding principle (if not necessarily a practice) of the United States, no less.

But also, it won’t work. It won’t ensure that everyone who celebrates Christmas does it in the spirit that you want them to. Nor does it ensure that those demanding to say Merry Christmas to every single person will themselves celebrate “the true meaning of Christmas.” Put more bluntly, we go to church to be reminded of our religious beliefs. So if we expect Target and Wal-Mart employees to remind us of our religious beliefs, maybe that’s a sign we’ve made those shrines to consumption our true places of worship. In which case, we need to worry less about what others are saying and more about what we are doing.

Happy holidays (and god Jul)!

Knowing unknown unknowns – St. Lucia edition

December 13th in Sweden is a big day: St. Lucia Day, which Sarah wrote about. It’s an intriguing day for lots of reasons: a woman saint, a Sicilian saint in Sweden, a saint at all in secular Sweden. As she explained, there’s a fairly standard ritual involving the oldest girl (generally) dressing up as St. Lucia, wearing a white robe and red belt, a crown of electric lights (candles, originally), and carrying a tray of buns to the family. The boys assist, dressed as “star boys”, gingerbread men, or little elves. Other girls dress as an assistant Lucia, with a white robe and silver garland belt.

For a change, we were aware of the tradition. We got the outfits, bought the buns. Anna’s school kindly explained, “We’re having a St. Lucia celebration on the 12th. Anna doesn’t have to dress up, but she’d probably be one of the few who isn’t.” We got it and complied.

On actual St. Lucia’s day, the 13th, after our own little Lucia celebration at breakfast, Anna stayed home with a cold. I walked Simon to school. On the way there, I was the first to spot the troubling tell-tale indicators: white robes sticking out from beneath long winter coats, garland trailing in the slush from snow the day before. An increasingly familiar dread started to fill my soul. Were Simon’s friends at school going to be dressed up? Hadn’t we heard that older kids didn’t really do it anymore? Or worse yet, did they have a program that we were unaware of? I found myself hoping Sarah was paying attention to her phone in case I needed to call for reinforcements.

As we entered the playground, the sight of normally-dressed children alleviated my fears somewhat. I kept scanning, though, and sure enough, the first child we saw inside the door was shedding his snowsuit to reveal the gingerbread costume that seems to be the most popular for boys. Simon’s face contorted into his an-injustice-has-been-perpetrated-against-me look (relatively easy to ignore) , which quickly changed to disappointment and sadness (harder to ignore). Another norm, another miss.

I tried to walk it back: we’re going to a Lucia concert tonight, and many of them aren’t. You don’t want to get your costume dirty, because you couldn’t wear it tonight. Not everyone is wearing it. Most aren’t, even. Barely. (Note: the difference between minority, majority, and plurality are lost on a 6-year-old who feels like he’s the only one not wearing a costume.) And then he delivered the teary-eyed, unintentional dart that drove me to write this post:

“Why don’t we ever know about the special days?”

Ojdå (Oy-dough), as they say in Swedish. Oofda. Ouch. We’ve talked a lot about school here, and for good reason. Schools are one of the major conveyors of norms and traditions. They take this very seriously here in Sweden; sometimes it feels like they worry too much about that and too little about reading and math. But all schools everywhere do it. They’re always a major source of socialization and tradition (or the dismantling thereof). They’re a major point–maybe the major point–of integration (or discrimination). That’s why it’s so important that schools effectively communicate with parents about what’s happening, especially immigrants. Immigrant children come into their schools as different. That’s to be expected, especially if they don’t speak the language. But every time they miss another event, especially the ones that “everyone knows about,” they seem just a little more foreign to their peers and feel a little bit more distant themselves.

I don’t feel we’ve done a horrible job, and we are trying. But we’re well short of 100%. We’ve missed days where students brought their favorite book, dressed as their favorite character, or brought a favorite toy. Eventually we realized that this corresponded to the little homework sheet they had each week: “Write your favorite book character. Why do you like it?” “What is your favorite book and why?” Simon did the worksheets, but we didn’t realize that he could also bring the “answer” as show-and-tell. There was nothing that we saw that explained this. No doubt they said this in class, but of course Simon didn’t get that message. It’s part of what you miss when you don’t speak the language. It’s also part of what we’ve missed when our lack of BankID kept us from logging into the school’s newsletter system.

This isn’t to say that the school did anything wrong or created any obstacles in this case. Of course they didn’t. It’s an example of one of those things that seems obvious if you’ve grown up in the culture, and so it doesn’t even occur to anyone to make a note of it to those who are new. Nor do we expect the school to provide still more specialized attention to Simon than they already do.

Like so many other events at the kids’ schools, however, it got me thinking. What are the “obvious” norms or events or “special days” that we have in the US that new people in the community wouldn’t know about? And how could we try to help them learn more about them? Thanksgiving? Valentine’s Day? Birthdays? What are the “unknown unknowns” that immigrants and their children face? As we’ve said before, we don’t have the answer to it, but I think it will be the kind of thing that try to act on after we go back. If nothing else, we’ll try to be more aware and helpful, like some of the parents in Simon’s class have been so kind to us.

Don’t feel too bad for Simon, though. Sarah walked Simon’s costume back to him, wanting him to feel a part of the festivities. He was thrilled. Apparently he’d counted the number of kids who were wearing costumes: “10 kids, mom.” Now 11.