Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lucia Dag 2009

JenniferLast Sunday, 13 december, was St. Lucia day, which as you all remember from last year is an important holiday in this quite non-Catholic country. The day is marked with singing, and candles, and the consumption of glögg and lussekatter. School choirs earn a lot of money on this day, as they shuttle around from workplace to workplace giving carol concerts. Ours started at 09.30 on Friday the 11th, and this year I went early to ensure a good view in the high-ceilinged, echo-y central stairwell of the evolution museum. The concert was lovely, and was followed by a division-wide fika with the aforementioned glögg (yes, mulled wine at 10.00) and lussekatter (which do ameliorate the glögg somewhat).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Do straw goats dream of midnight swims?

Joe For those who haven't been keeping watch, the Gävle Goat has managed to survive the season so far. However, according to a report in this morning's Gefle Dagblad, there was something of an incident last night:
Tried to drown the little guy
December 13, 2009
The small straw goat of the Science Association of Vasaskolan, which sits each year a bit from the big goat in Gävle, was exposed on Saturday night to an attack. Just before half past four in the night it was discovered that a group of people were in the process of trying to push it into the creek. When they realized that they were discovered, they ran from the scene. The little goat survived, but is now in the wrong place. The police described it as vandalism.

With apologies to Frost (and a tip of the hat to Jennifer for the inspiration):
Some say the goat should end in fire,
which is not so nice.
Yet every year the goat must retire:
it may as well be on the pyre.
But two goats can perish twice;
So though the little one is dear,
The Gävle river does entice—
It's quite near,
And would suffice.

There was another amusing and relatively harmless incident last weekend. Again, here's the report from the Gävle newspaper:
Bock alarm was vandalism
December 8, 2009
The fact that the Gävle goat is out on the Web means that there are many watchful eyes. At two o'clock in the night by beating a person to alert the police about the webcam captured something that looked to be an attempt to set fire to the goat. When a police patrol arrived at the scene, it appeared that someone emptied a powder extinguisher against the goat leg - probably the cloud of powder looked like smoke in the webcam. The police described the incident as criminal damage.
For this one, I also managed to capture a time-lapse video of the incident. There are actually two fire-extinguisher attacks, at approximately 15 and 37 seconds in, followed by the response by local authorities:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Have You Any Matches?

Joe Advent is here indeed, and you know what that means: giant straw goat time! Yes, our caprine friend has reappeared in Gävle, and this afternoon I hopped a train (it's only a 45 minute ride) to give him a quick visit, and to check out Gävle itself.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Första Advent

Jennifer Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and it has come none to soon to a city of people who could really use some cheering up. The darkness is closing in, and the weather has been miserable; even the older, more stoic Swedes of my acquaintance have admitted finally that this has been one of the worst Novembers they remember. But of course this is Sweden, and no one will dare to put up the cheerful jul lights and decorations until Advent. (No one here is religious, but no one will go against tradition either. In the workplace, the Friday before Advent is close enough, so my department decorations went up a little early.) We brought our jul things out around noon, and I was reminded that no holiday is complete without some annoying item that requires assembly—getting these paper advent stars properly bent into shape around a light bulb is enough to make a saint swear. Anyway, we had the tree up and decorated, and all the other decorations up in an hour or so.

Then it was off to town, and the Julmarknad, with people selling jul-stuff from stalls—pine wreaths and boughs and bunches of mistletoe. Other stalls were selling home-made julklappar, like home-knit socks and hats, hand carved pop-guns and animal figurines, jams and preserved fruit, honey, special goat cheese from one of the local dairies... there were also tables of charities giving out cookies and selling hot dogs, and other vendors selling candy and ice cream. We got our traditional stektströmming och potatismos med lingon from the fancy restaurant, a bargain at 45 SEK.

Then we walked up the hill to the castle to watch the fireworks (start time at kl. 16.30, by which time it has been safely dark for an hour at least), which are set off from the Botanical Garden. They have fireworks every year on first advent, but this was the 20th year in a row that the local newspaper was sponsoring them, so it was advertised that this year's display would be quite special. Did I mention that the weather has been bad? Well, it would have been much worse for spectators if it were raining hard, but I can only imagine that the fireworks engineers were frantically discussing whether to carry on, on account of the fog we had all day, and which was getting noticeable worse as the evening cooled off. They went ahead with the show, and it was very good indeed, though some of the higher mortars were quite lost in the murk. They coordinated everything to music—the first was something classical that I can't remember, than a catchy pop tune from last year, then finished off with "It's Raining Men," which struck me as funny, especially when the 6-year-olds behind us started singing along to the chorus. The finale included a long row of short-height magnesium stars that lit the place up almost like real daylight for a few glorious seconds, and was probably the highest number of bursts I have seen in the sky simultaneously. Even the Swedes hooted and hollered in appreciation. A fine end to a quite lovely day. Happy Advent, everyone!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bowling night

JenniferOur social committee here at the Evolutionary Biology Centre decided to have bowling as the Autumn Event. For some reason, bowling has become popular in Sweden in the last few years, and Uppsala dutifully has its 9-lane bowling alley, a place called bowlaget. The bowling here is strictly for entertainment purposes—lanes are somewhat shorter than regulation, the place is black-lit with flashing lights and relentless remixed hits from the 80s, and the bar is slick and swanky and staffed by black-clad thin young men who are much cooler than you are (80 SEK for a beer). It makes quite a contrast to a place like Kelley's Bowl in St. Joseph (where I worked for a few months in order to earn cash for my first trip to Europe, 'way back in 1985), with its serious people who brought their own balls, and dozens of well-lit lanes that were nevertheless totally obscured by cigarette and cigar smoke by the end of the evening.

There's also an attached restaurant, which serves a traditional three-course bowling menu. The autumn offering is wild mushroom toast, steak with celery puree, and cloudberry pannacotta for desert (395 SEK, including an hour of bowling). Or you can go for the luxury meal (475 SEK), which gets you brioche for an appetizer, lightly smoke venison sirloin with port wine and cranberry sauce, and chocolate fondant with berries and ice cream. These offerings are also just a wee bit different from the snack bar at Kelley's, where for I think $1, your snack bar attendant (that's me) would throw a pre-packaged sandwich into the microwave for you.

Bowling techniques ranged from a pure power (from a tall botanist, who threw the ball so hard that it didn't even hit the floor until half-way down the lane) to attempts at finesse (student E., who stood carefully at the line, but consistently hit the alley). Highest score I saw was 160, the lowest was under 20. Everyone had a good time—after all, the point of bowling, as far as I can tell, is to share a beer with friends, and a laugh about how bad you are.

(The name "bowlaget" is a sort of a pun. "Systembolaget" is the name of the state-run liquor monopoly, where one goes to buy all alcoholic beverages, and this name often gets shortened to "bolaget" which sounds a lot like "bowlaget.")

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shopping for… pumpkin?

JoeA couple of weeks before Halloween, Jennifer's office mate tipped us off to a grocery store that was selling pumpkins. I rushed across to town, and indeed there was a small wooden crate in front of the store labelled "Pumpor." Its contents? Three pie pumpkins, about half a dozen small decorative squash, and one perfectly good looking acorn squash. As these were the first pumpkins I'd found this year, I quickly grabbed the two most likely looking, as well as the acorn squash, and headed into the store. Once I got to the counter, though, things started to go wrong. The clerk peered at my squash assortment suspiciously for a moment before going off to consult with a coworker, returning shortly with a frown on her face.

"They were right outside the door," I volunteered.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cold fusion

JenniferThis was a holiday weekend in Sweden, for this year's observance of All Saints Eve. The exact date of All Saints varies from year to year, as it is celebrated on whichever Saturday evening falls between October 31 and November 6. On this day, Swedes remember their dead, and visit graves and leave on them flowers or pine branches or other small memorials. They also leave lit candles or little firepots, and the sight is quite beautiful.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unclear on the Concept

Joe The second class period of the semester started here yesterday. One of my stated goals for this term is to sell off the least useful of the textbooks that I bought last fall. This isn't as straightforward a proposition here as I've come to expect in the States; the University doesn't have a bookstore, and neither of the bookstores in town with textbook sections bother to cater directly to the current course schedule, instead just maintaining a general collection of texts used in classes over the years, loosely arranged by subject. And, more to the point, neither of them deals in used books. There are a handful of online textbook exchange services; all are in Swedish naturally, and none of them appear to be frequented by the computer science students, so they aren't really useful to me.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Falling back

Jennifer We had to change all our clocks today, as Sweden has just gone off Summer Time, a week before the US goes off of Daylight Savings Time. This time change is the one we always used to like, because for a day, it felt like a stolen hour, like getting away with some sort of minor indulgence, with no consequences. In Michigan, Joe and I would look at each other and laugh, and say things like "Can you believe it's only noon? haha!"

This year is different. Today over lunch, we looked at each other, then outside at the grismal day, and I sighed and said "I can't believe it's only noon." Joe agreed and added that this time change is too bad, as it makes it feel like there's an extra hour in the day.

As I write this, it's about 4:40pm, and it's quite dark outside. Clearly there's only one thing to do: make chocolate chip cookies. If that doesn't cheer us up, nothing can!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Joe Our goal today was simple: we wanted to get out to Suomenlinna, the island fortress which guards Helsinki's harbor. This is not actually a difficult thing to accomplish from Helsinki, so we opted for a slow start to the morning. Consequently, it was just gone 9 when we showed up to the hotel breakfast buffet. We've never actually had a Finnish breakfast buffet, butof course it was not too different from what we've come to expect everywhere else. There were no waffles or pancakes, which isn't so unusual but worth noting, and the only additions were some very dark flatbread, some Karelian rice pastries, and a crock pot of hot porridge. The Karelian pastry is a thin pastry shell wrapped around some cooked rice; say what you will about the Karelians, but they don't appear to be big fans of the concept of flavor.

Back to the Baltic

JoeIt's 4:45 PM, and we're sitting on the sun deck of the Viking LIne cruise ship Gabriella on a cold, dark, somewhat misty afternoon in Stockholm harbor. The last time we took this trip was a year ago July, and like bad generals throughout history, we've learned the lessons of the last war a little too well. We hustled to the gate to board as soon as possible, in order to deposit our stuff in our cabin and grab a seat on deck before the mad hordes descended—only to find that we were the only people on deck, and all the chairs have been put away for the season. Eventually we wandered down to the aft sun deck, which last time was crowded with Swedes busy taking advantage of the tax free liqour to get schnockered—today, there were just a few lonely smokers. But now we're getting underway, and a few hearty souls are starting to show up to lean over the aft rail and watch Stockholm slide into the murky distance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not Quite Dag Hammarskjöld

Joe The other day we went down to the main university building to hear Ban Ki-moon give a brief speech. He was, no doubt, in country on some sort of official business (probably to do with the fact that Sweden holds the presidency of the EU at the moment…), but I'm sure that no Secretary-General of the U.N. could visit Sweden without stopping to pay respects at the grave of Uppsala's most beloved son: Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General, who died in a plane crash in Rhodesia while trying to broker a peace treaty.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The red badge of courage

Jennifer My ex-officemate S., who is into various sorts of gaming, started a mångkamp last year for students and postdocs in our department. The idea is that every participant comes up with some sort of event for everyone to compete in, and this then gives people a chance to share their interests (and also provides an excuse for people to stick around after work and socialize). Past events have included things like ping-pong (there's a table in the basement), poker, egg-balancing, cake-baking, Guitar Hero, Pentago... you get the idea.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A pleasant, lazy weekend

Jennifer I am taking an online class this term about the life of Linnaeus. It occurred to me suddenly last week that I hadn't done any work yet, and it is already three weeks into the term, so I decided that this weekend would be devoted entirely to catching up with the reading, a good task for what I had thought would be a rainy, coolish couple of days.

Of the course the weather was gorgeous.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An Afternoon at the Castle

Joe With the sudden approach of Autumn, we've been left scrambling to manage a few last second acts of tourism. Things were looking grim after a tiny transportation snafu ended our planned trip to Finland ("What, exactly, do you mean by, 'The ship is out of service for September'?"), but then fortunately our friends G. and D. called last weekend to ask if we'd like to go to Drottningholm for a picnic.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Time of the season

Jennifer What with our short vacation in early August, and the visit from Joe's parents, and the hustle and bustle to start the school year this week, our posts have been a little sparse of late. Meanwhile, summer is over and autumn is here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Heinous Blog Failure!

Joe …or rather, "heinous blogger failure," as I fear I cannot blame our recent disappearance on technical difficulties. No, just a combination of getting ready for my parent's visit (they arrived this morning), and the horrible Norwegian Flu (just a cold, really) that we brought back from our trip to Östersund in late July… which, unfortunately, hasn't even been written up yet! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, this simply will not do. Well, pictures of our recent trip will go up today, and hopefully some explanatory text as well, although I hope you'll forgive me if it's all a little rushed. As with Göteborg, I'll backdate entires to when they happened for the sake of clarity.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mora or Less; or, "Vasa the matter w' you?"

Joe Suddenly it seems that the summer is nearly over, leaving us with a long list of things we meant to do and little time left in which to do them. With that in mind, we set off this past weekend to check one item off our list: a trip on the Inlandsbanan railway through central Sweden. So on Friday morning we got up bright and early (note to self: 8:30 AM only seems an acceptable departure time when one does not remember to consider the two hours of prep and transport that lead up to it…) and hopped a train to Mora, the southern terminus of the railway.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Jennifer Here's another Swedish specialty: smultron, or the woodland strawberry. I had been hearing of this fruit ever since I got here. Swedes adore them. Advertising that wishes to convey a sense of summer often shows a bunch of them strung on a piece of grass. I first asked about them a long time ago: what are those tiny strawberries I see in pictures? "Oh, those aren't strawberries, those are smultron. They are very very good." Where can I buy some? "You cannot. Some people claim there are cultivated varieties but those are not real smultron." Where can I find some? "They are very rare, and quite special. You might not find any."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

BAGECO and my night at the castle

Jennifer I've covered now the FEMS conference in Göteborg, but I should also mention the conference that I went to June 15-20 in Uppsala. The name of the conference was BAGECO, which stands for Bacterial Genetics and Ecology. This conference was quite a bit smaller than FEMS, maybe 400 people or so, and geared more specifically toward my interests than was FEMS (which included lots of clinical and industrial stuff), and I met some potential future collaborators. Post-doc E. from my department also attended, and we had a good time talking at lunch and during the breaks.

Monday, July 6, 2009

FEMS, fun, and handball

Jennifer  I presented my research at two conferences in June— I'll take the second one first, which was the FEMS conference in Göteborg. FEMS stands for "Federation of European Microbiological Societies," and the group has a conference every other year, much as ASM ("American Society for Microbiology") does. (Some of you may remember that I went to Toronto in 2007—that was for the ASM conference.) The meeting is big, with an announced attendance of 1700 participants. The participating countries were a little differently distributed than they were at ASM—FEMS had far more African and Middle Eastern delegates, but perhaps fewer from the Far East. Since I hail from a Swedish university, I officially counted as a European delegate (I had my picture taken with the US flag as well, see the gallery). The conference ran from Sunday afternoon to Thursday; I dutifully stood by my poster during the Monday afternoon coffee break, then gave a short oral presentation about it on Wednesday. I got some good questions, and caught the interest of some other microbial ecologists, so I will count this conference as a success.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tiny Boats

Joe Wednesday afternoon found Jennifer with some unexpected free time, so we decided to make a trek to Göteborg's Sjöfartsmuseum. This is a very different affair from Maritiman: the Maritime Museum looks and feels like it was built by money from the industries of the harbor, back when there was money to be made there. It's full of exhibits about fishing, shipping, and the harbor itself, none of which appears to have been updated since the early 80s (at best). In other words, it's a fascinatingly quaint museum, with room after room of lovingly crafted little dioramas, most without a shred of English explanation.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

frutti di mare

Joe We didn't actually know much about the area we would be staying in before our arrival in Göteborg, beyond the fact that Liseberg was located just across the street. Fortunately, sometime on Tuesday Jennifer noticed that our location at Korsvägen put us just a few short blocks away from one of the city's more famous spots: Götaplatsen, a square surrounded by the art museum, symphony hall and city theater, with the broad Kungsportsavenyn running down hill from it towards the old town.

What Götaplatsen is most famous for, however, is the large statue of Poseidon at it's center. It's a Carl Milles statue (the same fellow responsible for the fountain on Rackham Mall at U of M) in which Poseidon crushes a large fish while the rest of the ocean's denizens cavort about him. When the statue, which is a nude, was revealed in 1931, the good citizens of Göteborg were a little put off by his, erm, somewhat oversized attributes. So much so, in fact, that they eventually had his… attribute replaced with a rather more modest one.

City Museum

Joe My plan for the afternoon was to go to the Aeroseum, a relatively new aircraft museum located in what had been a secret, underground hangar on the (now ex-)military base outside Göteborg. It was also on the north side of the river, if somewhat further outside of town, so it seemed like a good idea to combine the trips. I had a carefully orchestrated route between the two museums, involving two city buses and a regional bus in between, which should have gotten me there in just under an hour. Unfortunately, I cut one of the connections a little too closely, and missed the last bus by a minute. Since the next bus wouldn't be along for an hour, I decided to pack it in and catch the next tram back into the city.

So I wound up spending the afternoon at the Göteborg city museum, instead. There was no photography allowed, hence the lack of gallery. It was a decent museum, though, housed in the former headquarters of the Swedish East India Company, about which… OK, I know nothing, because the wing with the 17th and 18th century exhibits is closed for renovation until next spring. So I browsed the prehistoric room, looked at the remnants of the only Viking ship ever recovered in Sweden, and read about the founding of Göteborg. The problem with that last bit is that the city is staggeringly young: it was founded only in 1621 as a fortified trading city, replacing a couple of earlier settlements further up river which had become a little too isolated. The museum did have a nice model of the city from the time before the defensive embankments were demolished, which helped to give a better feel for the way things are laid out. Oh, there was also a somewhat bizarre exhibit of the 700 chairs the museum has collected over the years.

They're boxy, but good

Joe My Tuesday morning destination was the Volvo Museum in Arendal, at the extreme western edge of Göteborg's working harbor, which lines the northern bank of the Göta. According to our guidebook, "you really need a car to get there," which was not strictly true—a tram to the middle of a residential neighborhood north of the river, followed (after a brief but lovely sit in an air conditioned waiting room) by a half-hour bus ride into the harbor itself, left me just 100 m from the entrance.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Boats in the Sun

Joe We're back in Uppsala now after a busy week in Göteborg. Obviously I didn't manage to keep the blog up to date for the bulk of the week, so I'll just have to play a little catch up now. Incidentally, I've decided to cheat, and backdate the next few posts to the days they happened on, not when they are being written—it just seems like they'll make more sense that way. Anyway, when we left off, it was Monday afternoon…

By the time I had taken the boat back from Nya Älvsborg, it was 2 in the afternoon. Seeing as I was already in the harbor area, I decided to indulge my inordinate fondness for maritime museums by making a quick stop at Maritiman, Göteborg's floating ship museum. It also claims to be the world's largest floating ship museum, with as many as 20 ships available for viewing at a time, but I suppose we'll just have to take their word for that. The twin highlights of the collection are two Swedish naval vessels: the destroyer Småland, and the submarine Nordkaparen.

New Elf Mountain

Joe On an island at the mouth of the river Göta lies Nya Älvsborg Fastning, where I spent a pleasant few hours wandering about this morning. It's the "new" fortress only in relative terms, as it was built in the 17th century to replace the old Älvsborg fortress, which the Swedes had recently decided they needed to tear down. The old fortress, unfortunately, was good for nothing except as a revenue source for the government of Denmark: when the Danish king was running low on funds, he'd simply send his navy over to capture Älvsborg fortress, and then ransom it back to the Swedes for a lot of money (indulging in an age old Viking tradition, there). So in the end the Swedes decided the cheapest thing to do was just tear the place down and build a new one. To this end, they hired the leading fortification expert of the day and set out to fortify the island of Kyrkogårdsborg. Alas, construction took so long that by the time the fort was in service, it was also completely obsolete. Despite this fact, the new fortress worked out much better than the old one, fending off not one but two Danish invasion fleets.

Karaoke, Swedish style

Jennifer One advantage of living temporarily across from Liseberg (Sweden's biggest amusement park and its most visited attraction every year) is that there's always something to watch from the window. The park has a stage as well, and this evening we were treated to "Lotta på Liseberg," a sing-along pop show, in which some lucky lottery winners (that's the "lotta" part) get to do sing on a stage with a big audience and live-music accompaniment. It was also broadcast on TV, so we opened the window to listen live. If there's any thing in the world more Swedish than a drawn-by-lots karaoke (it's fair, and it's singing), I can't think of it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Joe This evening I felt like exploring the neighborhood, so I set off to investigate an interesting looking building we can see from our window. Unfortunately, I quite missed it at first, leading to a much longer walk than I intended; fortunately, I accidentally stumbled on to the Göteborg University campus, which was quite nice. There were lots of people laying about on the lawn and sunning, and a nice näckrosdammen.

I've gone to Valhalla...

Jennifer... it's right next door to the hotel, you see. Today was a little light, conference-wise, so we seized the chance to wander around the corner to Valhalla Idrottplats, home of Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC, currently third in the Swedish league. Today they played Linköping FC, who now lies second. It was a really good game, and a nice park, and I will probably write more about it later.


Joe When we first got to Sweden, and spent weeks in hotels, I sort of OD'ed on breakfast buffets, but apparently that was long ago enough, because this morning felt like a pleasant return to tourism. The Gothia's buffet is absolutely typical for a Scandinavian hotel: open-face sandwich fixings; muesli and yogurt selection; bacon, sausage and eggs for the foreigners; bread and rye crisps; fruit. With the exception of the scrambled eggs (powdered!?!) it was pretty good, and of course fulfilled it's critical role in that we now have sandwiches and fruit to eat for lunch today. There is, after all, just no way to get lunch for less than 60 SEK per person, unless you have you own kitchen, and that adds up fast. (Good news is that there is a massive ICA grocery store on the next block, so affordable eating should be relatively easily accomplished.)

Jennifer is off registering for her conference, and then it looks like she has the afternoon off, so we're off to watch the Göteborg v Linköping Damallsvenskan match which, coincidentally, is going on just around the corner at Valhalla IP. Hopefully the seats are in the shade, because it looks to be bloody hot again today.

To Göteborg

Joe We're in Göteborg now (or Gothenburg, if you prefer), on Sweden's wild west coast. We'll be here for the next week, while Jennifer attends the FEMS conference. We took the train over this afternoon—one hour to Stockholm, then another three to get to Göteborg on the high-speed X200 train, which it must be said is quite comfortable, even if the high speed internet is only free for first class customers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

One More Midsummer

Duka din veranda till fest
För en långväga gäst
I landet lagom är bäst
Vi skålar för en midsommar till
Färsk potatis och sill
Som om tiden stått still
        -"Sverige", Kent
This past Saturday was that most Swedish of holidays, Midsummer. It's a day when everyone abandons the cities for their familial stuga in the woods, to bask in the nigh on 24 hours of glorious midsummer sunshine while eating plates full of herring and potatoes, pausing only to sing traditional drinking songs and down yet another glass of aquavit.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hedgehog sighting

Jennifer I eftermiddags såg jag en igelkott!

I have wanted to see a real live hedgehog for a long, long time. Since 1985, in fact. That's the year my grandparents took me to Europe, and we spent a lot of time in Germany with my aunt, and apparently Germans love hedgehogs because we saw lots of hedgehogs... as stuffed toys. I've been to Europe a couple times since then, and never managed to see a real one. Joe saw one a few days ago as he was biking to the grocery store, and I was quite jealous.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Gallic Troubles

JoeThose of you with particularly long memories may remember a time when I was a regular contributor here, a time I like to call "before the spring semester." Well, the semester's over now, and I appear to have survived it, so perhaps I'll be appearing here a little more frequently in the future. I've had a week now to recover from my surfeit of projects, papers and exams, and metaphorically things are looking much brighter now (although if you've read Jennifer's missive on the weather, you'll know that the brightness is, alas, only metaphorical).

The weather

JenniferSo that's it—I've nearly snapped. I made it through autumn with its chills, winter with its alarmingly short days, and a spring that was long and cold and in which the icy slush seemed to stick around forever. After all that, two weeks in June has almost done me in.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fika småpratar: A Freudian slip

JenniferAt afternoon fika today I attempted to speak Swedish, and was describing one of my samples. I'll report the content of the conversation in English, with the Swedish in parentheses:

Me: "I have a sample that comes from... Wolf Island." ('Jag har en prov som kommer ifrån... Wolf Island.')

Grad student N.: "Every beer?" ('Varg Ö?')

Friday, May 22, 2009

A game in Stockholm

Jennifer Joe is awfully busy with homework and tests and group projects and things like that these days, so last weekend I trundled off into Stockholm by myself to watch a soccer game. Good thing I checked the home team's website just before I left and found out that the game was not being played where I thought it was being played—that pitch had been usurped by the European women's championship rugby tournament. Instead, it was being played in an even cooler place, Stockholms Stadion, which was built for the 1912 Olympic games.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fika at the Soldier's Holt

Jennifer Not a five minute walk from our apartment is Soldattorpet, which means "The Soldier's Holt." The Upplands regiment of the Royal Army had several companies; Upsala [sic] Company in turn had eight soldiers, one of whom was sponsored by the village of Norby, which is now the suburb of Uppsala that we live in. In or around 1680, Norby set aside a small area of land for its soldier to farm and live on (a "torp"), and this particular torp has had a soldier living on it up until the 1940s. A local nature trail, one of Linnaeus' botanical walks, has a trailhead right beside it, and apparently Soldattorpet a popular place for people to sit after their stroll through this end of Stadskogen.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fika småprater: Evaporated milk

JenniferDet finns ingen "evaporated milk" i Sverige. Well, that's not entirely true, of course, but it is an odd specialty item that you can only find in the foreign section of some grocery stores, or Asian markets. For some reason evaporated milk came up at fika last Wednesday, and the Swedes had never heard of it. Sweetened, condensed milk, yes: evaporated milk, no. "It's not sweet?" they said, puzzled.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Comrade J! and May Day

[A post attempted in the vein of Wodehouse;
here's a link to Comrade Bingo in case your memory is hazy]
JenniferLast Thursday, Sista April, was a big holiday in these parts, in which all the Uppsala University students engage in entertainments like spraying champagne about and pelting each other with baguettes. The older and more restrained alum show up as well, in their student hats, and reminisce about the good old days, though they generally prefer to filter their champagne through the kidneys first, rather than pour the stuff directly into the drains leading to the river. As previously reported, Monty and I had met up with such a bunch in Engelska parken, where the alum of a certain age loll on the grass. It was there that we met up with my old pal Kipper (post-doc K.) and her claque, eating their s. and sipping their ch.

Friday, May 1, 2009

De mest Uppsaliensk dagen för alla

"The most Uppsala-esque day of all"
JoeSo our MP declared last night, standing on the burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala as the majbrasan burned merrily below. In translation, her next assertion ("I resten av Sverige är det Valborg, men i Uppsala är det sista april") doesn't make much sense, but as we mentioned last year, the day before Förstamaj is a special day in Uppsala, full of traditional celebrations like hat throwing, river rafting, and picnicing—but mostly very, very full of drinking.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

En mycket glad påsk

Jennifer For Påsk we were invited to the home of our Swiss friends G. and D., who planned to make a traditional Swiss Easter dinner for us and another couple, A.-C. and A., who are from Brittany and Austria respectively. For some reason it didn't occur to me until the week before that we should bring cascarones*; fortuantely we had already decided that we would make quiche, so between that and a few more egg-heavy meals, we managed to have 21 cascarones ready to go.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Narrow Escape

JoeWe just now had our first visitation from the witches, and it was a close call, let me tell you. My impression was that they were not supposed to come by until Saturday, and not wanting to have a house full of candy when it wasn't necessary I had not, therefore, been stocking up. Nevertheless, I was downtown in one of the nicer grocery stores this afternoon, so I figured it was time to stock up. Not a moment too soon, as it turned out!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tre Gånger Större

Joe Winter has finally ended in Uppsala, and with the melting of the snow Spring's bounty is revealed: in the gardens, crocuses in bloom; on the streets and sidewalks, a 3 cm deep layer of gravel; and in what used to be an empty lot in Bolanderna, Uppsala's new mega-IKEA. This weekend was the store's invigning, a fact which I learned from my Swedish instructor, who is always eager to let us know about things we should do to be more Swedish. Mind you, this isn't the first time IKEA has come up in class: on the very first day the teacher wrote the name Ingvar Kamprad on the board as an example of a famous Swede (he's the founder of the company, hence the I and K in the name), and we learned numbers by discussing how many IKEA's there were in various countries ("Det finns arton IKEA i sverige.").

Sunday, April 5, 2009

First derby

Jennifer Last Wednesday night, 1 april, we went into Stockholm to go to a soccer match. Our local team that we cheered for last year is no more. They had such a bad season that they were relegated to the lower division, and I would have supported them there, but then the team went bankrupt. Therefore, if I am to get my football fix, we are going to have to go into Stockholm a little more often than we did last season. The stadium of the Stockholm team we've picked, Hammarby, is quite easy to get to, despite the little adventure we had last year getting to this very same game.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fika småpratar 2: A naughty word

JenniferSome while back, when my officemate S. and I were the last ones to leave fika, I dropped the F-bomb on him. Yes, there is an F-bomb in Swedish, but it's not what you think it is—the English F-word, here in Sweden, is nearly meaningless, and is used by parents in front of their children, and by teeny-bops in front of their grandparents. This constant and casual use has two effects on the poor English speaker: first, she becomes quite inured to hearing the F-word; second, and much worse, it robs her of a precious descriptor. V. and I were commiserating about something truly horrible that the GenBank repository for DNA sequences had changed about their file formats, and I used the F-word to describe them. He didn't react at all.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

That's some Sirius bandy

Jennifer I've made it to two bandy games this season, both in Uppsala and featuring local team Sirius. Bandy, you might recall, is a fairly Scandinavian-specific sport, played outside, on a soccer-sized field covered in ice; the players wear skates and carry clubs that they use to smack around a soft-ball sized orange ball that's made of golf ball material. On the evening of 10 december 2008, in heavily falling snow, German student M. and I drove over to Studenternas IP, paid our 60 SEK, and found a good place to stand just behind the fans of the away team, who had arrived in a bus, ready with their drums and banners. It was quite cold, but the glögg and lussekatte at halftime helped, and any sport that requires the halftime services of both a snowplow and a Zamboni must be good, right? Sirius won handily, beating the visitors from Örebro 7-1. An Örebro supporter (who was at least two sheets to the wind) turned to congratulate M. and me on our team's win. Geniality among the fans is another hallmark of the sport, something I appreciate.

Sirius did much better than expected in the regular season, finishing third in the league, and earning a play-off spot. On 18 mars 2009, we went to Sirius' semifinal game against league winners and last year's champions Edsbyn. Most bandy games are rather sparsely attended, and we should have gone much earlier to this one, which ended up having 8900 fans.The stadium organizers were clearly not ready for so many people, and had not opened up the north and south stands: the east and west ones were already packed, and we got rather pressed into a corner, while trying to find a place. So... the fans started getting into the stands anyway, crawling through rails or leaping over them, as dictated by youth and vigor, a near riot by Swedish standards.

But "a near riot by Swedish standards" is not, by any means, a riot in the usual sense. With all these people crowding in next to each other, no one was actually touching each other; no one pushed, no one rushed. And when they inevitably did bump into one another, it was okay: the bumper was too embarrassed to admit they had bumped, the bumpee, too embarrassed to admit they had been bumped into. In some places you might worry when two burly strangers collide and spill each other's beers, but here, the two immediately look away from each other. No words were spoken or exchanged (heaven forbid!) between strangers. (This shyness is so extreme that it leads me to wonder how on earth these people ever manage to reproduce, but that's a topic for another time perhaps.)

We ended up in the southern stands, in the extreme southwest corner of the field, a not so great vantage point from which to see what turned out to be the worst bandy game I have seen. Good thing we had thought to bring along a thermos of Irish coffee with which to pass the halftime; the respectable looking couple behind us were openly pouring whisky into a camping cup and sharing it. (It's a little more traditional to try to mask the alcohol in a thermos.) In the northeast corner, in a brilliant marketing ploy, someone had set up a giant hot tub, from which a number of lucky people watched quite intently. They had about as good a view as we did, and were a little warmer (it wasn't that cold, really), but the end result was the same: Sirius crashing out of the tournament with a 1-7 loss, in a mirror image of the game from december. Sic transit Sirius.

Oh, there was one advantage of being in the corner: we got to be on TV! That's Joe, in the yellow jacket to the left, and half of J!, to his left, in the white hat. Don't confuse Joe with the ball boy (who also in yellow but on the ice) or J! with the player taking the corner (who is also wearing a white hat, but is on the ice, has skates, and a club in his hands)...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teaching Part 2

Jennifer Many of you who may be reading this have been or are teachers yourselves, and the rest of you are acquianted with at least one teacher, so you know pretty well the highs and lows of this noble profession. Teaching university students in Sweden is much the same... but different. See the paragraph at the end of this post for more general observations about students overall (it turned into a little bit of a rant, thus its banishment to a footnote).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The March so far

JenniferI asked my officemate S. today whether there were any specific phrases or poems or songs in Swedish about the month of mars, because it seems to me that mars in Sweden is a time of change and upheaval, of good and bad, and there are no half measures. Till exampel: last year in mars we had the fire that destroyed the lab; I went to my first bandy match; I got sick and had to visit a doctor for the first time; we had to move at the end of the month. Some of what happened last year can be accounted for by acknowledging that it was the second month of living in a new place, but so far, the twists and turns and highs and lows of mars 2009 are on a par with the last one, and not just for me.

Monday, March 16, 2009


JoeIt's exam week again here at old Uppsala U. Not so much for me, actually; my semester is a little strange, with two classes that have no exams and another two that last all semester instead of just one half, which leaves just two normal classes. Of the latter category, the class that ended last week also happened to have it's exam on last Wednesday, before classes for the period actually ended. Long story short, while I've still got plenty to do for the period, my exams are, thankfully, over for now.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Fika småpratar 1 (small talk from fika): Sauna

JenniferJoe and I have each been unusually busy of late, and so not only have we not had much time to write, but frankly we haven't been doing too many fascinating things. I will therefore take the opportunity to start what I think will be a series of shorter posts, covering the odd topics that tend to come up at fikas.

I may have mentioned before that we have a sauna in our work building; I still have not used it, nor has anyone that I know. "It's mostly those botanists who use it," I was told at fika a couple weeks ago. "Oh, by the way," post-doc K. said, "Did you know that there is a Sauna World Championship? There is. You can watch a video. I think they have had to drag people out, because they pass out before admitting defeat. These Finns are crazy," she said, shaking her head.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Vasaloppet 2009

"I fäders spår för framtids segrar"
In the footsteps of our forefathers for the victories of tomorrow, motto of Vasaloppet

JenniferVasaloppet was this morning, the 90 km cross-country ski race commemorating the return of Gustav Vasa and his followers to the city of Mora (Joe wrote a summary of the history of it last year). We did our Patriotic Duty and got up early to watch the mass start, which is quite entertaining when the "mass" numbers thousands and thousands of people—it takes well more than ten minutes just for everyone to get past the starting line, and of course there are tangled poles, improperly fastened skis coming off, bags of discarded outerwear that must be navigated around, and so forth. (In the picture above left, the clothing is being shoveled into a front-end loader after the starting area cleared out.)

The serious competitors are seeded and placed in the front of the pack, so that they can focus on their race and not be distracted by the far more numerous skiers who are perhaps hoping merely to finish. TV reporters find most of the people willing to be interviewed at the back of the group, including a couple fellows dressed as faux Vikings, in furs and horned helmets (and, incongruously, bright red fanny packs); a guy who had to do the race wearing a Swiss hockey jersey because he lost a bet on a hockey game; a pensioner whose starting number was 19,082 and who was skiing this race for the 30th time (his best finish was 6,265th). Performance-enhancing chemicals, in the form of blueberry soup, are freely handed out along the course, and race officials estimate that thousands of liters of the stuff are consumed. This year we had some blueberry soup for breakfast, in a gesture of solidarity. I guess the soup works as a stimulant for athletes working hard in the cold; however, for this observer (ensconced on the couch under a blanket in a nice warm apartment), that cup of blueberry soup was a one-way ticket to nap-ville.

But I did manage to wake up in time to see the winners, who finished around three hours after starting. In the picture at left, the female winner is being greeted by a rosy-cheeked handsome smiling youth dressed in historical costume, who is about to hang a laurel wreath around her neck as she skies past. The finish line remains open for 12 hours past the start time, and as I write this, at 8 hours past, skiers are still streaming into the finishing gate in downtown Mora, each pumping a fist in the air in joy, or relief, or both...

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rättslig Igen

JoeThe end of January was also the end of of our first year in Sweden, a fact which carried a significance beyond the purely personal: Swedish Residence Permits are only issued for one year at a time, so we had to apply for another year. The application process had the sorts of ups and downs we've come to expect from the Swedish bureaucracy. You can apply online, so there's no need to wait in line; on the other hand, to get help with the online forms you have to send an e-mail, and getting a reply takes a little while (four weeks, to be precise). There are customized instructions for each kind of application; this would be helpful if we could figure out what kind of application we needed to make, as Jennifer is sort of an employee, sort of a visiting researcher, and sort of a student.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fear of Falling

Joe While my first try at Nordic skating had kind of a rocky ending, it was nevertheless a lot of fun. So when word came down that Jennifer's coworkers were planning a Saturday afternoon skating excursion I joined up right away. I was especially glad to hear that this time there would be a number of beginners in the group.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Teaching Part 1

Jennifer One of the nice things about being a post-doc is that one doesn't have to teach. One of the downsides is that it's easy to underestimate how much research can get done in a given time, and it seems like there is always too much to do. So when my boss asked me at lunch last last week, "Do you think that part of your project would be suitable for a class project, for students of evolutionary genomics class?" I thought about it for a second, then said "Sure! They could test these new primers I made, that would be useful," and I went on to enthusiastically describe various parts of my project that could be easily accomplished by a student in two weeks. See, I had thought that this would be a class with a laboratory already in place, and that I could just turn over the ingredients, maybe check in on them once or twice, and then get back the data they had gathered for me. What a deal!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Language notes part 4

Jennifer I am enrolled in Swedish classes again, this time not from Folksuniveristet, but from SFI, the official bureaucracy in charge of teaching immigrants how to speak and be Swedish. The advantage of SFI is that it's free. The disadvantage of SFI is that you have no idea what you are going to get.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Groundhog Day

JenniferLast year Groundhog Day passed more or less unnoticed by me; this year, I had thought to describe the peculiar custom. It turned out to be a busy day, though, and I didn't get a chance to bring it up. But I watched the ceremony on my computer live via a webcast, and recorded part of it. As my officemate S. was on his way out, I stopped him.

"You know, it's Groundhog Day," I said.
"Oh?" he said.
"Yes," I said.
"It's real?" he said.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Joe On Wednesday night we attended our first EBC whiskyprovning. This is, apparently, a tradition which predates the EBC itself: this particular group started meeting nearly 15 years ago, and they still get together three or four times a year. In addition to Jennifer and myself, German A. from her lab and F. (star of last year's Disputationsfest post) were in attendance, as well as six of the core attendees, who I can only remember now as Per, Almost Per, Micke, Håkan, Definitely Not Per, and Per.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Downtown ski day

Jennifer A week ago Friday, early in the morning, I had seen snow machines at the back of the castle, industriously hosing down the hill with snow. There hasn't been much snow since our big storm in November, but why would anyone by making snow at the back of the castle? I figured that they were doing it to take wintery pictures or something, and thought no more about it. That same day, at lunch, the newspaper I was reading had a headline that I thought I must have misinterpreted. "Does this say that they are building a ski run at the back of the castle?" I held up the newspaper to the lunch crowd. "Yes, it looks like it," they said, and rustled through the pages. "Yes, and they will even have a race." "Why on earth are they doing that?" I asked, incredulously. "It's a block long! The winning time will be five seconds!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Knut's Day

JoeYesterday was St. Knut's Day here in Sweden, named after King Knut IV of Denmark (r. 1080–1086). More popularly known in English circles as Canute (but not to be confused with his great uncle, Canute the Great, who famously commanded the tides to stop), Knut is now mostly remembered for his death: he was cut down in a church, while assembling a large invasion fleet of England. The first part of that earned him sainthood; the second marked the end of the Viking Age.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Skating Party

It's known the skating pond conceals
A family of enormous eels
Edward Gorey, The Iron Tonic
JoeYesterday was an exceedingly Swedish day for us, as we went on a långfärdsskridsko with our Swiss friends G. and D., and one of Jennifer's coworkers, N. To put it as simply as possible, we went ice skating, but it was an ice skating experience unlike any I've had before. Just to set the stage a bit, when N. asked earlier in the week if I skated, I answered confidently that I knew my way around a pair of skates. I'm not a great skater—there weren't constant opportunities for ice skating growing up in southern Alabama—but in my teen and college years I did my best to make up for lost time. Why, I thought to myself, I own a pair of hockey skates! I once skated for the better part of an hour with my hands clasped behind my back! Can I skate, indeed. In retrospect, the fact that those hockey skates had been sitting unused in my basement for the better part of fifteen years should have given me pause, but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself there.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Twelfth Night, or What the Hell?

JoeIt's Twelfth Night tonight, the traditional end of the Christmas season (except in Sweden, actually, but that's a story for next week), the night before Epiphany, which also happens to be the last of the twelve days of Christmas. I could have this wrong, but my understanding is that when numbering the nights of Christmas, they come before their corresponding days; that is, tonight is the Twelfth Night of Christmas, and tomorrow is the Twelfth Day of Christmas. When I get confused is when I count backwards, because this means that Christmas Day is not the first day of Christmas, although Christmas Day Night is the first night of Christmas (and, as a result, I think I'm going to insist on calling Christmas Eve Night "the Zeroth Night of Christmas" from now on).

Friday, January 2, 2009


Joe It's been a while now, but with all the excitement Christmas we neglected to mention one of our Jul week activities: on the solstice we went to Gamla Uppsala and had a picnic. It was a thing we had talked about doing for a while, but the solstice came on the day after my last exam was due, so I hadn't done a lot of preparation in advance. Nonetheless, Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, if somewhat late (the sun came up at 8:50 that morning), and it seemed like we should take advantage of the weather. So I tramped off to the store and got some cheese and crackers, Jennifer made a thermos of tea, and then we hopped a bus to Gamla Uppsala.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

... och Gott Nytt År 2009!

Jennifer In the week before New Year's Eve, the local newpaper ran a story about how toxic fireworks are (cobalt! strontium!), and then had short "citizen on the street" interviews with four people, all of whom claimed that they would not be setting off fireworks for New Year's. I checked that newspaper vigilantly for mention of when and where the city's official fireworks would be but without luck. The grocery stores we frequent had only sparklers for sale. I had therefore categorized New Year's as a "fireworks-optional" holiday.