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.