Sunday, November 30, 2008


JoeYesterday was the official start to the Christmas season in Uppsala, as the downtown lights coming on for the first time. The event was also marked by a profusion of street vendors throughout downtown, as well as a more official Julmarknad in St. Erik's Torg (an old square below the cathedral), and a number of sales. Eager to see Uppsala's version of Black Friday, we headed downtown in the afternoon to catch a bit of the excitement.
The streets and shops were indeed packed with people, and the lights were all on, so it was quite festive. It was around 2:30 when we got downtown, so we still had 30 minutes until sunset. We made the best of it by sampling some of the street food, stopping for a free cup of glögg offered by the Army Women's Reserve Corp, and a couple of donuts from the "American Donuts" stand (they were… closer than anything else we've had here). Then we hit a couple of shops, mostly looking to pick up a bit of seasonal decoration for the apartment—and did we ever succeed! On our way to the market, we ran into one of Jennifer's coworkers who mentioned that Uppsala's fanciest restaurant, Domtrappkällaren, was serving his favorite dish (stekt strömming med potatismos och lingonsylt) on paper plates from it's kitchen door. As it happened to be on our way, we decided we should risk it, and indeed it was really good.
The market itself was just the sort of Christmas crafty stuff you would expect, some of it nice, some of it a little cheesy, all of it out of our price range. So we watched the litte kids taking pony rides, listened to the choir singing on the church steps, ate a hot dog purchased from the Amnesty International booth, and basically soaked up the atmosphere.
Last night was also the last night of a month long art project in Uppsala, an attempt to brighten up the dismal November evenings by putting up a series of light-themed artworks around town. As it was now a couple of hours after sunset and the vendors were all packing up, we decided to walk past a few of the light displays. The highlights were the University building, dramatically lit in shifting colors; Valvgatan, an old building with a large archway over a pedestrianized street which was glowing with blacklight; and an art gallery down by the river, which was projecting artwork onto the river wall accompanied by atmospheric music.

By then it was getting on towards 6 o'clock, and in the cold and the dark things were really winding down, so we headed home. It was a lot of fun, though.

Going to Gävle

JoeJust in case there are any early Sunday morning readers out there, here's a quick heads up. Today is the official Invigning ceremony for the Gävle Julbock, and we're heading up there in an hour or so along with our friends G. and D. There are fireworks scheduled for 4 pm local time (that's 10 am Eastern). No idea what the crowds will be like, but if possible we'll try to stand in the line of sight for webcam #1 and wave, sometime around 4:30.

I set up a script to capture the webcam images, so if it works, I'll post our photographic evidence once we get home.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Magic Songs in the Borg Cube

Jennifer The Uppsala Kammarkör had another concert last Sunday, and I now know two of its tenors, my officemate S. and Swiss postdoc G. The title of the concert was "Magic Songs" after excerpts from a piece with the same name by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, and the theme was magic-inspired music from around the world. Included in program were a tune by 16th century composer Tielman Susato rearranged by Jan Garbarek, and a short piece by Estonian Arvo Pärt. The concert opened with Raua Needmine, a challenging piece by V Tormis (challenging in this case to the singers; two of the baritones looked like they were going to pass out at one point, but we enjoyed the piece hugely). The eponymous Magic Songs were intended "to make magic work in the real world," and included chants for calling wolves, keeping bees warm, making bears dance, making stones sing (there were some lovely vocals for that one, with one note sustained while others fell in turn, making me think of meteorites), and finally, an all-purpose chant to make magic work. The concert ended with a yoik, the Lapp song that captures the essence of a human or other living being. In this case the living being was joyful, and as the choir sang they bent their bodies about, almost as if they were singing a traditional American gospel.

Glad Tacksägelse

JoeThanksgiving is not an official holiday in Sweden, but despite this fact Swedes have a traditional Thanksgiving Day menu: split pea soup with ham, and pancakes with cream and strawberry preserves. If that doesn't sound much like a Thanksgiving Dinner, that's because it isn't really, it's just that Thanksgiving happens to fall on a Thursday, and that's what Swedish families are supposed to eat on Thursday. I don't suppose that there are too many people these days who actually cook split pea soup and pancakes every Thursday, but that doesn't stop it from being a cultural touchstone. The lunch restaurants where I go to class and where Jennifer works both put this on the menu every Thursday, and there are always plenty of takers.

Turkey, on the other hand, is a dish generally reserved for Easter in Sweden, and the rest of the year it's pretty hard to find. That being said, I did manage to find a single turkey leg, so this weekend we're roasting the sucker and serving it with mashed potatoes. For tonight, though, we're sticking with tradition: split pea soup. Oh yes, and pancakes, too.

And so it begins

JoeConstruction on the annual Julbock, the world's largest straw goat, has begun in the small city of Gävle (about 100 km north of Uppsala). According to the newspaper, they Goat committee this year has opted to forego the highly successful flame-proofing used in the past two years. They say it's because the chemical caused the straw to absorb water and turn a dull brown instead of the goat's natural proud yellow coloring. I suspect it's because they secretly want the goat to burn every other year or so.

Either way, the webcam is up, as is the goat's blog (only in Swedish this year, by the look of it). You can keep an eye on the goat's progress off to the right.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Låt det snöa, låt det snöa, låt det snöa

Joe Turns out that the snow we got on Saturday was just the start. Sunday evening saw some more, but then things really took off on Monday, and now we've got about 30 cm of the stuff. The picture above was taken Tuesday morning—I guess some people don't have their snow tires on yet. Biking to school Monday morning was dicey in parts (and I did watch a couple of people wipe out), but fortunately the majority of my route goes through the woods, so I didn't have to contend with traffic outside of a couple of blocks at each end.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Snow Day, Sort Of

JoeWe woke up this morning to our first real snowfall of the year—not a blizzard, by any means, but a decent 5 cm or so. We had planned a lazy Saturday anyway, so it was a great day for us to have some snow. What's more, by the time we got up the clouds had cleared, so everything was bright and sunny, quite the welcome change from two weeks of unbroken dismality.

Härkeberga Church and Konditori Drott

Jennifer Last Sunday morning I got an email from P., a friend from work, inviting me take a little trip with her, her husband, and two boys out to Härkeberga Kyrka. A few months ago we had talked about the art of Albertus Pictor, whose images had had a strong influence on ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." The famous image of Death playing chess is found in another church near Stockholm (Täby Kyrka), but his paintings at Härkeberga are well-preserved and quite lovely.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Winter Tire Day

JoeToday was not National Winter Tire Day in Sweden. That's celebrated on December 1 every year, and it isn't so much a holiday as it is the day when all cars in Sweden are required to have winter tires. That's not to be confused with Studded Tire Day (October 1), which s the earliest you can start using studded tires for the year. What's more, I don't own a car, so I'm not likely to celebrate either of these days in any particular fashion in the coming years.

Today was, however, Winter Tire Day for me. The temperature over the last couple of days has dropped below freezing in what feels like a long term way, turning all of those muddy ruts in the forest path I take to school into frozen muddy ruts. What's more, it looks like there must have been some transitional precipitation last night, because this morning everything was covered in a sheen of ice. Tonight, the ice is covered in a light dusting of snow. In short, it's perfect bicycle weather.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Joe We're finally starting to recover from this year's bout of Post-Halloween Eating Disorder (PHED). Most years it's all the candy that really does me in, but this year there wasn't as much of that—unless you count the night of the pumpkin carving party, for which our entire dinner consisted of candy and beer. Instead, having spent way too much money on pumpkins, this year we ate Jack-O-Lantern for the better part of a week.  Oh sure, there's always the roast pumpkin seeds, but that just wasn't going to cut it this time.

Oddly, I can't seem to find winter squash in the local stores, so the pumpkins afforded us an opportunity to make a batch of pumpkin risotto with spinach and Italian sausage, a perennial favorite that we've been missing this fall. That was so good that we made a second batch when we had G. and D. over for dinner and cards that weekend. And of course, it wasn't bad just cut into chunks and baked, although that does get boring fast.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Changing by degrees

Jennifer "Hey, what's the temperature out?" I hollered at Joe this morning from the bedroom, as I was trying to decide whether to wear warm socks, or really warm socks.

Sounds of a keyboard being typed on. "37," he hollered back.

37? I thought to myself. 37. Umm, 37, 37. "Uhhh..."

"You need that in Celcius?"

"Uhhh... yeah. Yeah, I do."

37F is 2.7C, a number I now find much easier for calibrating clothing. I feel that I have reached some sort of minor milestone here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Now that's a walk in the woods

JoeFriday night I attended a National Dish Dinner with a group of International Masters students from my department. Sometime between the borscht and a famous Chinese dish whose name translates directly as "Sugar Vinegar Cabbage," the subject of orienteering came up. K., the sole Swedish student in the program, was going to be a volunteer at a large orienteering competition here in Uppsala over the weekend, and he was explaining the competition. Apparently anyone can compete: you just show up, they hand you a map, and you head off into the woods. M., the Italian, wanted to know if you were allowed to use a GPS, and K. explained that you weren't allowed to use them, but most people brought one along so that they could check their route against the map afterwards. When M. asked what would prevent you from looking at your GPS during the competition, K. thought for a moment before suggesting, "Morals?", to which M. simply shook his head and said, "That's so Swedish."

For me, though, that wasn't the most Swedish part of the whole thing. K. was going to be working at the "Water Distribution" center, which he put in air quotes. When we all gave him puzzled looks, he explained that the "water" was actually aquavit: "You're trying to find your way in the woods, and you get mad at the trees and mad at the map, and so you just come to 'Water Distribution' and then you feel better."

When someone suggested that getting drunk was not the best solution to getting lost in the woods, K. admitted, "Every year, we lose a few competitors."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Alla helgons dag

Jennifer 2 novembre was Alla helgons dag, which in Sweden is dedicated not to saints, but is observed more generally as a memorial for the dead. The day is a röd dag in Sweden, which means that it is an official day off of work, but it fell on a Saturday this year. Friday was therefore technically supposed to be a half day, but somehow everyone stuck around for the whole day. I'm glad I did, because it wasn't until afternoon fika, surrounded by the jack-o-lanterns from Thursday evening, that my advisor suggested that we go to a cemetery sometime the next day, preferably in the evening, because many graves would be decorated with candles. So off we went to the large cemetery (last seen in this blog from the #2 bus) near Uppsala Cathedral.

Three Museums

JoeWith a little time off in between study periods, I felt like I needed to take the opportunity for a little sight-seeing. Late October is not, however, the ideal tourist season in Sweden, at least not if you like things like being outside, or going to places that aren't closed for the year. The solution? Stockholm, of course, where most of the museums are open all year, and nearly all of them have some protection from the elements. So this Tuesday I headed down to Uppsala Centralstation to catch a train to the metrop, for some serious museum hopping.