Friday, February 29, 2008


JoeThis week's foray into Swedish culture: the annual book sale. Every year, starting on the last Tuesday in February, all the bookstores in Sweden have a great big sale. I guess it started in the 1920s as a way for stores to sell off their overstock from the previous year, and over the years it has evolved into a bit of an event. Not surprising, in a country where the average person spends 55 minutes a day reading. Apparently many people save up, and plan their book sale purchases for months in advance, and publishers will run special, cheap printings of classic hardcovers just for the sale. Naturally, I couldn't let such an event pass me by, so I wandered down to our local Akademibokhandeln (Sweden's largest bookstore chain, and Uppsala's best English language selection).

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My daily bus ride


View Bus to Work in a larger map

I've always liked using public transportation. Public transport is a cheap and easy way to see people, and all sorts of people take the bus here. It is not uncommon to see kids younger than 10 taking the bus by themselves, and some of the city busses also serve as school busses, when you can get groups of up to 50 8-year-olds crowding on. (Actually, err, I will probably try to avoid that bus in the future.) In Uppsala, you are allowed to take bring your pet with you on the bus, and there are also spaces reserved for baby buggies, which are loaded in the back doors, and fastened to the wall.
I love my bus ride into work. Every morning I walk over cobblestones to Stora Torget, the main square, which is ringed by bank buildings (Nordea is the reddish building to the right) and the old city hall (the white building, built in 1883). I have my choice to catch either the #6 or #7 bus, which follow the same route for a while, one of which leaves about every 6 minutes in the morning.

A block past the square, we pass over the river, and if the sun is shining, the view up and down the river is stunning.

As we head up Drottninggatan, the hill turns steep and Carolina Rediviva, the old university library (which houses the 5th century tome "Codex Argenteus," the only surviving text in Gothic) is at the top of the hill—it's the building at the very end of the street in the picture to the right (because of the hill and the way the streets run up there, it's surprisingly difficult to take a decent picture of it!) According to rumor, the building itself is sliding backwards down the hill at some fraction of a millimeter per year, because the hill is made of soft alluvial clay and is therefore unstable.

Drottninggatan dead ends into the library (the picture at right is taken from the bus), so we hang a sharp left at the worst 3-way intersection in all of Uppsala. It's a fairly busy crossing point for University students walking and on bicycles, and last year, for reasons that are not clear, someone decided to take away all the traffic signs at this intersection. Fortunately most cars are going fairly slowly at this point anyhow, and everyone makes way for the busses that are charging up the hill... except, of course, for the pedestrians, who, acting on their privilege as a sacred species, occasionally put the bus's brakes to a severe test.

Having turned left off of Drottninggatan, we are now on Dag Hammersjöldvägen, and on the left, on top of an even higher hill, is the huge pink castle, now used mainly to house municipal employees, but which also hosts the formal ball for graduating doctoral students and professors who have been promoted. (The morning cannons for commencement are fired from here as well.)

If you can tear your eyes away from the castle, and instead look to the right, you (and the castle's inhabitants with westward facing windows) get a great view of the formal part of Botaniska trädgården, the University's formal garden with topiary and fountains (in the summer) and botanical samples from all over the world. The yellow buildings at the far end are the Linnèanum, which served as the hosting point for the 2007 city-wide celebrations of Carl Linnè's 300th birthday, and continues to house some part of the University's botany department.
Two stops later, when I get off the bus at the Evolutionary Biology Centre, the first buildings I see are the Museum of Evolution Zoology, the building on the left, which houses the public exhibits and is where F. had his Disputationsfest. The building on the right has classrooms, a part of the library, and the EBC's cafeteria, where Joe and I had our Valentine's Day lunch of split pea soup and pancakes (click here to see what's on the cafeteria's menu this week... Swedish only, I'm afraid!). 

When I cross the road, directly in front of me are the low brick buildings of the EBC's research departments, and hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work I go. (The Department of Physiological Botany has helpfully put up a picture of the EBC from the air, which gives a better feeling for the whole complex.)
The ride home is always in the dark at this time of year, so there's not much to see until one gets back to the river, where sight of the lights still hanging on the trees over the river is cheering after a long day of staring at DNA sequences.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Café Linné

Joe When Jennifer was first introduced to semla a couple of weeks ago, one of her coworkers mentioned that there was a little place called Café Linné just across from the Linnaeus Trädgården which was famous for having huge semla. Today we finally made the trek over to see for ourselves, and of course things were more complicated than they seemed. There, across the street from the garden was the Café Linné, and on the corner next to it was another Café Linné. A quick glance inside each revealed that they both offered outsized semla, so we were reduced to picking more or less at random. We settled on the Café Linné Konstantina, not to be confused with it's doppleganger, the Café Linné Hörnan.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Language Notes Part 1

JenniferEverybody new that I meet asks me where I am from. I always say "Michigan," and they almost always ask, "Oh, you're American?" I would have thought that it was obvious I was American the moment I opened my mouth and spoke, but apparently not. Joe points out that to them I'm just one more person who can't speak Swedish, so I speak English, with some kind of accent. (And apparently several people who I had talked to before thought I was Brazilian, because of the pennants of two São Paulo soccer teams hanging in my office, which are visible from the hallway.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

28 Days Later

Uppsala, Sweden: Day 29. Our journey continues, despite the heavy fog that has descended upon the city this evening, swallowing all sign of not only the cathedral, but indeed the buildings across the street; while pleasant in a Whitehall sort of way, it spells almost certain doom for our plans to view the lunar eclipse at 4am. Meanwhile, supplies brought along from America are now exhausted, so we are reduced to trading with the natives to meet our basic needs. We've managed to find sources for most necessities, but some are, sadly, lacking. The lactose-intolerant among us had a dicey couple of weeks there, when it looked like certain remedies, easily obtained over the counter in the US, were wholly absent here in this, the land that invented lactose-tolerance. Fortunately, the ready availability of probiotic drinking yogurt and fil helped to ease the transition, and a plethora of lactose-free dairy products can be found at all the markets (supplied, no doubt, for the convenience of any visiting Finns, who rank among the least lactose-tolerant people in the Western world). More lately, we have located a source of over-the-counter lactase enzyme, which while painfully expensive is, nonetheless, a welcome supplement.

Monday, February 18, 2008

River Walk

JoeThe weather broke a little earlier than expected, which really should have been exactly what we expected. We've been, umm, dissatisfied with the quality of the weather forecasting we've been getting, so Jennifer asked a while ago at work if there was a better source, and I guess they all just laughed and said that there just aren't any reliable forecasts for Sweden. Yesterday afternoon the temperature was climbing fast enough that even though they kept revising the forecast high temperature for the day we were always over it. I think we topped out at 8° or something absurd like that.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A visit to Ikea

JenniferIt may astonish you to learn that I have never been to an Ikea before now, because, well, who hasn't been to Ikea? Even people who are not Scando-files have been to Ikea. Well, today, we went to Ikea Uppsala, a roughly 15 minute ride on the city bus through industrial parklands and auto dealerships, more or less in the area of our adventures getting to Migrationsverket. (Sure, it's technically the #14, but, really, it's the Ikea bus. See the picture? The bus says says so right on the front!)

Winter Rose

Joe Every once and I while, I'm thankful for MTV, or in this case a local version, ZTV. I had it on the other night for a little background noise whilst I was banging my head against the computer over a bit of javascript which it turns out was never going to work in the first place (who knew that all modern browsers would view an XMLHttpRequest to another domain as a major security threat?), when this little Scandipop gem came on:

Friday, February 15, 2008

Now that's more like it

JoeThis is a little closer to what I expected from Uppsala in winter. We had a cold snap at the end of the week (it's been below freezing for two whole days!) and we finally got a little snow to go with it. If our luck holds, we may get to keep it for the weekend. Perfect for a trip to Ikea for some meatballs, or maybe a semla-the-size-of-my-head at Café Linne. Does the snow explain the groups of men wandering the downtown area singing while carrying grocery bags full of beer cans? No, but then again, I don't really expect that anything will.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Can't Get Enough Of Your Fika

JenniferAs Joe mentions, Valentine's Day isn't pushed here as much as it is in the States, but nevertheless, it provided an excuse for another excessive fika, which was held in the Floor 1/2 break room, and spilled out into the hallway, where extra tables were set up with plates of yummy custard-filled tarts and gummy raspberry-flavored candy hearts. Even better, the social committee (the good souls in charge of this sort of thing) had put out vacuum pump carafes of good coffee (that is, brewed coffee, not the stuff from the big black machine). Red paper tablecloths covered the tables, each of which had three or four tealights burning in the ubiquitous glass holders. The lights were turned down low, and a boom box in the hallway blared Barry White and Frank Sinatra love tunes. Posters in the hallway encouraged us to "Take the opportunity to talk to someone new!" (Which I did.) Oo la la!

Really? All this, at 9:30am? Maybe it's just me, but I'm not at my most romantic at 9:30am. It was fun, if a little surreal. Especially when the talk turned to crayfish, and the horrible things that can happen to you if they are not properly purged before you eat them.

Happy Hjärtans Dag

Joe Well, it's hjärtans dag, which means it's also the 17th anniversary of the first time I asked Jennifer out on a date. Our anniversary doesn't seem to get as much media attention here as it does in the States, but we decided to celebrate anyway. We had lunch today at the cafeteria of the Evolutionsmuseet at the EBC where Jennifer works, for a traditional Swedish Torsdag meal of split pea soup and pancakes (with creme fraiche and strawberry jam, of course). We had planned on spending  little time checking out the Svensk Fauna wing of the museum afterwards (as opposed to the Utländsk Fauna wing) but this is Sweden, so the museum was closed this afternoon for no discernible reason.

On the walk home I stopped by the Svenskundervisning för invandrare (SFI) office, which is supposed to be open for drop-ins from 13–15 on Torsdag afternoons, but they have also closed for the week with no visible explanation. Is something going on this week, or do official offices just close in Sweden for a holiday that no one here seems to celebrate? Ah well, at least I managed to get myself a city library card, and, as a result, a copy of the most recent Steven Erikson book, Reaper's Gale, which hasn't been released in the U.S. as yet; if you have any interest in fantasy at all and I haven't already recommended the Malazan Book of the Fallen to you, then I have been remiss in the extreme—he makes Robert Jordan look like a mouth-breathing hump, with all due respect to the dead… what was I talking about? Oh, yes, well obviously the library was still open, so it wasn't a complete governmental shut-down.
For dinner we had a salmon fillet glazed in a honey mustard sauce, with apples sautéed in rosemary butter and a bottle of South African Pinotage. The salmon here is excellent of course, and not really more expensive than any of the other meat. Also, it turned out we each bought chocolates, so for dessert we had one of our few remaining Zingerman's salt caramels, some cognac truffles, and some cayenne pralines (which in Sweden appears to just mean 'filled chocolate candies', not anything involving pecans, which don't seem to exist here). Actually, I'm quite full. Oh, and we watched SVT's coverage of today's skidskytte in Östersund (we're still marveling at getting 2-4 hours per day of cross country skiing coverage on television).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

So, where do you get softener salt?

JoeTurns out, it's easier to find dishwasher salt than it is to find garbage bags (long story—it took me a couple of days to find trash bags because they don't put them in boxes—Okay, it's not so long a story). But look, the salt light turned off! Are my dishes any cleaner? Sure, why not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Revenge of My Nemesis

JoeI'm feeling more comfortable with the washing machines now. I managed to figure this new one out without recourse to a dictionary for help with the instructional chart. Call me crazy, but it just doesn't seem like washing a load of clothes should have quite so much required reading material.
Today's little laundry revelation: I'm a laundry outlaw. A sort of illegal immigrant of the laundry world. I've been washing clothes without registering for a session first. Mind you, the English guide to this apartment failed to mention the bokningstavlan, but I suppose ignorance of law is no excuse and so forth. Anyway, I went down earlier to do a load of laundry, and the door was locked. This had never happened before—I'd just been walking right in—but this time I was forced to stop and look around. That's when I noticed the swipe pad for the electronic lock next to the door. This apartment building uses these little key fobs to give access to common areas, as well as to get you in the front door, in fact I'd just swiped it a moment before to get into the basement, so it wasn't too big a shock. This time, though, it didn't open the door, but rather activated another thing I hadn't paid any attention to (pictured above).

Monday, February 11, 2008

To the post office!

JoeToday I mailed my grad school application, so now I proceed to the final stage: keeping my fingers crossed for two months. In the meantime, I've had my first encounter with the Swedish postal service, Posten. Like the USPS, Posten is not quite a private company and not quite a branch of the government. In the mid-90s Posten started a process of "rationalization." I don't know what exactly they mean by that, but I do know that while there were post offices in Sweden when we visited in September of '06, they are all gone now. Yup, they closed all the post offices. To buy postage you can go to a bunch of different places, mostly newsstands and tobacconists in the city, or gas stations and grocery stores in the country, who happen to have a little blue and yellow post sign hanging out front. The tobacconist I picked had a few envelopes, a postal scale, and a box of stamps, which was plenty for me today. After selling me the envelope and weighing it with the contents, he sold me some stamps and pointed me to the post box out front. Very low key. There seem to be plenty of postal employees still though, many of them pedaling around town on Posten bicycles with baskets full of letters.
I can hardly wait to go and pick up some mail at the local gas station.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Working Conditions Part I

JenniferIn some ways, the working conditions here are a little different than I'm used to. In Part I of this discussion, I'll cover Creature Comforts.
First, the the coffee break, or fika. Every day, at roughly 10am and roughly 3pm, is fika. Fika may or may not involve snacks. The time of starting and ending is not exact; by some mysterious process, people suddenly emerge from their offices all at once and converge on a common room. This is a time for socializing, and although I have overheard some work-related topics discussed, most talk (at least in my presence) has so far involved odd Swedish customs and foods, the execrable accent of Danes, and the curiosities and absurdities of the US primary elections. By a process probably analogous to the start of fika, there comes a moment roughly half an hour later when everyone suddenly stands up and goes back to work. 

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Don't take that elevator!

JoeYou know, it's the little things that take the most getting used to. Like elevators, for example. Sure, there are elevators all over the place here, but they're, I don't know, different. For one thing, most of them don't have any memory. You hit a button, and they go where you want them to, but if you hit another button in the meantime? Nothing. Or you're waiting for an elevator and you press a call button, but someone's already using the elevator, so the button doesn't even light up. You have to wait until it's done with what it's doing, and then you can call it. Is this really important in my life? No, but I spend a lot of time ruminating about it nonetheless as I wait for elevators.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Grocery Shopping

JoeNow that we have a kitchen again, it's back to the cooking. What with the packing and moving and all that, I haven't really cooked much at all since, I don't know, November, so I imagine it's going to take awhile to remember just what it is we eat every night. Meanwhile, though, there's the grocery stores to figure out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bride of My Nemesis

JoeOur temporary apartment came with an interesting new feature: a tiny, countertop dishwasher. Specifically, it's a Husqvarna 95i Harmony dishwasher, interesting mainly because I hadn't previously realized that Husqvarna manufactured anything other than sewing machines and chain saws (although, in retrospect, I suppose it makes sense that they would make something in the middle there). The only problem with the Husqvarna 95i Harmony dishwasher is that it's never been marketed outside of Sweden (well, except for in Finland, but that hardly counts) so there doesn't appear to be an extant copy of an English instruction manual.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Fat Tuesday

Jennifer Today is Fat Tuesday, and in Scandinavia, the day is marked by the consumption of special pastries called semla, which are cardamom yeast buns cut in half, smeared with a layer of marzipan, then filled up with whipped cream before the top is placed back on. The whole pastry is about the size of a large hamburger. Today's afternoon coffee break featured about a dozen boxes full of them, and everybody had one with their coffee (I have not yet seen anyone refuse or even pretend to protest the consumption of any sweet treat).

Monday, February 4, 2008


Joe We finally moved in to our temporary apartment this afternoon. It's a one bedroom with a decent kitchen and a fair amount of space, probably better than we can hope for in a long term place. What's more, it has a great view of the castle and the cathedral, and it's right in the middle of downtown, only a block from the main bus stop at Stora Torget. Not a style of living we can sustain long term, but it looks to be nice for now.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

My Nemesis Returns

JoeSunday afternoon at the Hotel Uppsala, and it's time to wash clothes again. Now that we're living a little closer to the real world, the laundry is no longer free, and let me tell you, at 10 SEK a pop the pressure is on. Despite the directions (Jennifer points out that it's never a good sign when your directions end with the phrase, "Good Luck!!"), things went a little more smoothly this time, as I apparently guessed correctly which buttons not to push. I'm glad I talked to the desk before attempting it, though, as there was a very specific sequence of events needed to get things started: put clothes in machine, add soap to box, select appropriate settings, put 10 SEK coin in box on wall, come back and press start button. If you haven't got the machine set when you put in your money, well, you just lost two potential trips to a public toilet, matey.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

I survive a Disputationsfest

Jennifer The older universities in Sweden have some interesting centuries-old customs; one of them peculiar to Uppsala, the firing of the cannons at commencement, I have already covered. Another is that the defense of a doctoral dissertation (or disputation), if it is successful, is celebrated with a Disputationsfest.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Frozen Tundra, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Byråkrati

JoeAs I mentioned before, briefly, on Wednesday as I was suiting up to depart Akademihotellet for good, our Personal Numbers showed up in the mail. This was somewhat unexpected, as we had applied for them just the previous Thursday, and had been told that we should expect to wait 10-14 days for their arrival. Nonetheless, it was good news, because as Jennifer described at some length a few days ago, it is difficult to actually accomplish anything in Sweden without your personal number.