Something very strange happened to me recently. It was almost as I if was reenacting 2008. It's hard to believe it's been that long, that it's 2012 now and it's been nearly 4 years ago since I hopped on that plane to Stockholm, Sweden. I remember that day very well because that morning I woke up with my eyes all red and very obviously infected. What bad luck. Can you get an eye infection from crying? Because I admit I had been crying. He was going to Hong Kong and I was going to Sweden and he said there was no way we could continue our relationship over those distances. I rushed to the doctor to get antibiotic eye drops and got on that plane. In the distorted half-dreamlike world of my first jetlag and trying to get my legs in a strange country, thankfully heartbreak passes quickly.
Months later he would ask me to come back with him, but I had fallen in love again and I couldn't accept. I had fallen in love with Sweden and I wasn't going back to the dreary plains of Central Illinois. Not for anyone in the entire world.
I lived in a big red house and had a big room. It was a room of my own, which was a huge luxury to me coming from the standard American college dorms. It had big windows so I could so easily track the dramatic death and re-birth of the sun that occurs in such northern latitudes. The kitchen was quite big and there was plenty of room for everything I wanted. It was in that kitchen that I really learned how to cook.
The month I moved there, August, is perhaps the best month to be there. The sun is still lively and sets late, the temperature ideal, and the woods and gardens full of bright juicy berries and apples. I would fill my bicycle basket with every type of apple you could possibly imagine from the Apple Genetics Garden, some tiny and bright red, others that looked average, but had pale pink flesh. And I would bike home through the woods, home to make an apple crisp or some other delicious home-baked treat.
one of the pictures I took in my first days in Sweden
Later I would also live in Stockholm with someone I loved, in one of the tallest buildings in the entire city, where I could watch over it, red, pale pink, and muted yellow. I thought for a time that I would give up my country and my language to live forever in Sweden with him.
When that dissolved, for a long time afterwards I would have intermittent regrets. Particularly when things weren't going so well. Our time together gained a mythical romantic veneer. It wasn't even about him anymore, it became about this entire country, this beautiful perfect life there I wanted back. Except it never existed. Looking through my photo albums, perhaps I predicted that this would happen. There is one photo of Vaksala Torg in Uppsala, taken in February. The muggy sky casts its gloom over a pile of dirty snow. Distant people passing by are looking at the ground. Why would I take such a picture? I remembered then that I had taken it remind myself how much I hated it there at that moment. That I was lonely, unhappy, alienated, and bored then, just as I would be many times after I left.
But it was never that which I thought about when I took the daily journey in the subway, feeling like I was buried between concrete walls. It was the woods, the gardens, the red houses, the Fyris river, Lake Mälaren, and the magnitude and depth of winter there- dark, fresh pure snowfall, with candles in the windows of nearly every house.
But the fact that I knew this wasn't the whole reality of life there was perhaps at the core of why I didn't go back, why I put it off for years. But this year my sister decided to study in Uppsala too, so I wanted to visit her.
On the plane I hoped to sleep, but the man next to me was a giant and kept poking me with his elbow every time he moved. I watched the 2002 version of Solaris, in which people are pulled in and tormented by old memories made flesh by some incomprehensible extraterrestrial life form.
Perhaps it was perfect that I didn't think about the dates of my trip very well and I ended up in Uppsala for Valborg, the quasi-pagan May Day celebration turned drinking binge that engulfs the city for days. I was less than enthusiastic about this, having experienced my first real hangover only a few weeks earlier. I thought I was some kind of immune mutant, but I was wrong. I am still amazed that there are people who tolerate having such a headache every weekend. I was more enthusiastic about fika, the national coffee/pastry past time. Something hilarious has happened on the Wikipedia article for fika:
In contemporary Sweden, where a significant percentage of the population is on LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) or similar carbohydrate restricted diet, you may nowadays be better of staying away from the sweet things altogether; a cheese tray may be preferred, and the traditional "seven kinds of cookies" would probably be perceived with suspicion or almost as offensive.
I certainly didn't notice that and enjoyed my terrible murky sludge-like coffee and Kanelbuller, a cinnamon roll that's actually not too sweet, but wasn't as good as I remembered.
A "fika" at Ofvandahls
I do think LCHF has had an influence on the country though because quite-excellent high-fat dairy products are available everywhere, a far cry from my recent trip to Florida where I had to go to several grocery stores to get anything decent. I stocked my sister's fridge with my beloved gammaldags mjölk (old-fashioned milk), which can be as high as 4.5% fat. It's like drinking ice cream. But better. It tastes fresh and creamy and like spring grasses. I've been many places, even Switzerland where I drank raw milk, but no milk is better than that.
However, sitting there in the cafe, I realized that it wasn't as fun as I remembered. Neither was drinking champagne at 9 AM while sitting out by the river waiting for the so-called Valborg raft race. The rafts are quite amusing, there was a Dr. Who one with the weeping angels and at least two Nintendo rafts. However, it was not a race by any means. The rafts lined up, as well as they could being made of foam and piloted by drunken people, and queued to go down the falls. Divers were standing by for the inevitable raft collapses.
I visited my old home. It looked the same, but it wasn't home anymore. I could see silhouettes of strange people inside. It reminded me of the time I went back to my childhood home. It felt strange to see someone else's cars and decorations all over it. Now, as in then, I choose not to linger. There was nothing left for me there. Everyone I knew was gone. What can you do in such a place, but stand awkwardly? It's less useful for remembering than a photograph. I didn't want to take any now. I didn't want any pictures of this place that wasn't home anymore.
Back when it was home
I also spent some time at my old student nation, Kalmar, which is certainly much nicer than the places where most students in the US hang out. You can join which ever of the thirteen nations you want to and each has a pub, a cafe, a restaurant, a small amount of housing and often hosts balls, fancy dinners (called gasques), clubs, and sometimes plays/concerts/other arts events. They are run a little like the infamous Park Slope Co-op in NYC though, which is that you have volunteers doing everything. Want to be a chef? Just sign up for this list and now you are tonight's chef. Same for baker, waitress, bartending, and just about any type of staffing job. I was a waitress for a brief time, but I was a terrible waitress to say the least. That's how it is when things are run by volunteers. They work OK and are sometimes awesome... sometimes.
Other times it is nice to eat go somewhere and eat something made by an actual chef. Which is exactly what we ate in Stockholm. Back when I lived there, these we places I looked into from the outside, dreaming of the day when I might go to them. So the Stockholm that we went to was a new one to me.
After a morning filled with drinking increasingly bad coffee and eating pastries (I was well-stocked with Pearls IC, gluten-ease, and super enzymes). we went to Dahlgren's Matbaren for lunch. We sat the bar so we could talk with the people who worked there and see the kitchen, where it looked like they were breaking down a lamb and making delicious looking sauces from scratch. We had some incredible bright-yellow butter on home-made Knäckebröd. The fried sole I had was perfect, surrounded by crisp early spring vegetables that I dipped in a lemony dill aioli. My sister's lamb on rye was even better though. The lamb was cooked absolutely perfectly and had a wonderful balance of fat and succulent savory meat.
Our waitress, Jessica, was from Australia and we talked about how different Swedish lamb tastes compared to earthier grassier lamb from her home country. Our meal was filling, almost too filling, and we made the mistake of ordering a plum sorbet, not knowing that we would be presented with a basket of buttery perfect madeleines and peanut-chocolate fudge.
Later we wandered through Skansen, a historical park of sorts where we witnessed some pony and jug-bashing ritual we didn't understand and gaped at various otters and bears. Later that night I took my sister Frantzén/Lindeberg for her birthday, one of Stockholm's Michelin-starred restaurants. I had wanted to try New Nordic cuisine for some time. Of course I tried to go to Noma, but as far as I know, 10,000 other people were also on the waiting list.
Unfortunately, when we started the meal I was still quite full from lunch, which augured poorly for my performance as a gastronome. The meal there also started out uncharacteristically heavy. Even the amuse bouches were a two-punch of onion and liver. Either way, I started feeling kind of overwhelmed by the richness of the dishes. The oyster with cream didn't help much. When a chunk of bone marrow came out, unadorned with anything that would cut the overwhelming fattiness, and in fact covered in caviar. It seemed like everything in the restaurant so far was drenched in it. It reminded me of this one time I thought I got such a good deal on ikura and I ordered more than I could handle, forcing all my friends and my then-boyfriend to endure it in every dish to the point where everyone was annoyed by it. First world problems. But it seems quite common in Sweden, where they sell caviar in a tube so you can squeeze it onto everything, though I can't say it's good caviar and is unfortunately adulterated with a variety of other junk including rapeseed oil.
Then there was a memorable tartare, which they seared with a blow torch next to the table and then dressed with tallow that they said was from an 11-year old dairy cow named Stina (!?), as well as smoked eel and more caviar.
Beef tartare with strong flavored tallow from an older dairy cow + eel + bleak roe + smoked eel
The cow thing took us into "Portlandia" territory, reminding me it is very strange to be in a country where nearly all the young would be classified as hipsters by most Americans and where I feel quite unstylish and clunky. However, none of them were there dining at the restaurant with us. The crowd there was decidedly older. I understand the price deters many young people, but in Chicago you do find twenty-somethings at restaurants like Next. Perhaps this was a testament to youth unemployment or to the fact that Sweden doesn't have much of a "dining out" culture. Indeed, nearly all my old Swedish friends I reconnected with did not have jobs, despite being older than me. The music the restaurant played seemed like it was for young people that just weren't there.
Land of Feeling by Here We Go Magic: A song from the restaurant I've become quite addicted to
Another song from the playlist: Beach House- Norway, a favorite of mine
The tartare was delicious and I knew it, but I couldn't finish it. This never happens to me. I was worried. Then they brought out bread. It was sourdough that had been fermented for three days. With rich hand-churned fresh butter. God, it was incredible, but I knew that if I had more than a sliver, I would not be able to finish the meal. There was also a salad that contained every possible local in-season vegetable you could possibly dream of, a dazzling array of morels, cow-parsley, celeriac, salsify and thirty-seven other ingredients, drizzled with butter. Amazing, but over-stimulating in every way possible, though less so than this really ridiculous lamb dish I had at Alinea recently.
But then I was refreshed by a dish that was possibly that greatest that I have ever tasted, though it was not the most photogenic. Turbot baked slowly for 4 hours with white asparagus and a sauce of pine, lemongrass, and mint. The fish was like silk and it melted in my mouth like white chocolate. As did the asparagus, adorned like a snowy Christmas tree with the flavors of forests. It was absolutely perfect. I used to not appreciate fish much, but these days I think I have been converted. It prepared me for a dish of chicken with something ominously delicious called "chicken butter" which seemed like a mixture of chicken fat and butter. I've also never had cock's comb before and I was pleasantly surprised that it just tasted mainly like fat.
Later the sous-chef, Jim Löfdahl, took us inside the kitchen, which was surprisingly tiny. The music made sense then. It was the music for the people who worked there, chefs, sous-chefs, and cooks all young and handsome. Jim told us that the band Miike Snow, who are fans of the restaurant, put together their playlist for the night.
The next day we flew to Amsterdam on a whim. I don't really know why. To visit my friend Rosanne and to not linger too much in Sweden perhaps? We stayed at a very self-consciously hipster hotel called Lloyd Hotel. It's not just a hotel, it's a "cultural embassy." It really was even more strange than I imagined. The "lobby" for example is a series of lofts. One of them had a "forest" of words with a blood-stained carpet. Another on top of that was filled with strange patchwork chairs, but mostly with a rug that looked like the swamp thing, though on the last day we noticed that loft had been furnished with a large strange dining table with places set up for thirty. Climbing up though the lofts, I started to get vertigo and worry a little. Our room was at the top. I only really care about food, so I had chosen the "1 star" room. The hotel has rooms of every star value and it's up to you to chose your poison. Our room reminded me of the time when I was little and I thought the house was going to be robbed, so I hid in the bathroom and I wondered if maybe I would have to live there forever. Also it was a bit like a mental institution, but thankfully the beds were very comfortable.
Dutch people are very tall and it seemed the designers there had purposefully designed everything in the hotel so I couldn't reach it. Luckily everything bad about the this room was made up for by the restaurant, which served me an epic meal of fried cheese, regular gouda cheese, crispy lettuce, fresh mint tea, pomme frites, and sweetbreads. I am very against hotel food, but this was very good. I also fell prey to the breakfast buffet. It's not easy to find good breakfast food in Amsterdam. My friend Rosanne said this was a meal people eat at home. But Lloyd Hotel had an admirable spread of good coffee, LOTS of delicious dutch cheeses, bloody red roast beef, fresh-squeezed orange juice and something delicious that I later learned was called full-fat quark. I had seen this before in Austria and had avoided it because the name reminded me of an unsavory Star Trek character. That was dumb. It was amazing- tangy and creamy, like icing.
Damn good hotel food
We saw some fancy paintings and some canals, of course. Ate some delicious Indonesian food, which is hard to find in the US. We had a dinner of steak and pomme frites with Rosanne at a restaurant called Pastis. We went to two breweries that made me wish I were in Belgium instead. I also became very picky about coffee all the sudden, which was bad since it led to the sudden realization that nearly all coffee in Scandinavia and The Netherlands is really really terrible. In the case of Sweden this is sad because Swedes have some of the highest coffee consumption in the world. No wonder they need chokladbollar, which are really just giant chocolate butter balls, (or cheese for the LCHC-conscious Swede) to enjoy their fika.
Back in Sweden I met my Swedish friend Jenny at Johan and Nystrom, which I found through reading staff tweets from Frantzen/Lindeberg (a good way to gage the local food/drink scene). It was certainly better than anything else I had drank during the trip.
It was time to re-visit old hangouts. Would they be as I remembered? First stop was Akkurat, which is almost certainly among the best pubs in Sweden and arguably among the best in the world, which is something since Sweden is not exactly known for beer, having had its craft brewery movement stifled by ridiculous regulations. One of the best Swedish craft breweries is Jämtlands. Akkurat was one of the few places with their beers on draft. It was easy to notice that these memorable beers with names like Heaven and Hell were no longer on tap.
Maybe their relationship soured, but that was OK, because while I was in NYC too soured- on excessively hoppy beer. And I started getting into wild beer before I took my year-long beer hiatus since I thought (perhaps erroneously) that beer was causing problems for me (I'm still not sure about this and I"m trying to see if I can get away with certain styles). If you like kombucha, you will like sour beer. And I REALLY like kombucha. And Akkurat, is turns out, has a huge cellar just for aging these "wild yeast" beers. Even I didn't want to buy a $50 bottle of beer, but a vagabond American beer aficionado at our table let us take some of his and I was quite content anyway with my Tilquin Gueze. After 1.5 beers, my terrible alcohol tolerance meant we were required to go to my old drunk-food spot, Soldatan Sveik, which plys a mixture of fatty Scandinavian and Czech home-cooking. I had raggmunk, which are potato pancakes with bacon and lingonberries.
It was all good, but I knew then I wouldn't miss it, at least with the aching I once had. Friends were gone, people had moved on. I saw Martha Wainwright in concert once in Uppsala and came to love this song, which to me is about the people that disappear from your life, perhaps the inevitable result of a world of transients.
I didn't belong there anymore. When I left before it was a waterworks at the airport again, leaving someone I loved behind that last security checkpoint. But this time, I walked through calmly, more concerned with duty-free than tears. Even Chicago, so new to me now, felt more like home. So many things had happened to me in the time since I was there. This was no Solaris, my mind was too changed to even conjure up a simulacrum of my past loves. I had new longings and none of them were in Stockholm. You can love someone and think it's forever, you can think you've found a home, but time takes its tolls on delusions. You just have to wait, and hope, and never stop looking. And also eat whatever the hell you want when you are vacationing in Europe :P