Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nordic Reflections

As the slight rays of sun sink below the spruce tops and the snow & sky merge their hues of blue on this last day of the year, I too succumb to the mortal pull of reflection.

Taking advantage of today's heat wave (20 F), I went twice the distance through the forest. Part of me is disappointed that I have yet to make it to the next village. Another part luxuriates in the freedom of not measuring my way by normal criteria. One of the joys of being away from my routine is that I do not feel compelled to break everything up into measurable sections and I do not have to look at a calendar. In the woods I am free to be present in miniscule ways. I notice how the bark differs on the two types of pines. How the tufts of snow melt sporatically and fall from the treetops like little puffs of cotton candy. How the evergreen lingonberry punctuates the snowcover with hidden growth. And how the little prop plane above (the first I've seen or heard since Stockholm more than two weeks ago) reminds me that this is the 21st C and I am not alone in the woods.

This fantasy of how perhaps one could be grounded in the Nordic forest in the same way I felt atop one of the Mayan Temple ruins twenty years ago in Tikal (Guatemala) listening to the sounds of the howler monkeys is a blessing.

I reflect on how different the snow is today: wetter with the warmth and harder to ski on. Each day, the snow has a unique texture and sound and personality. Years ago, reading Smilla's Sense of Snow by the Danish writer, Peter Hoeg, I was impressed by the variety and amount of words the indigenous Greenlanders have for "snow." Now, I am similarily struck by how the Maya have a name for every part of the corn, the plant that gives them sustenance much as the forest does here in Sweden.

I have much gratitute for a life that permits me moments of relection. And with this time in the stillness and spare palette of the North, I have reclaimed the energy that fuels me to work so that more people have the opportunity to reflect and enjoy some beauty & peace.

Happy New Year! We have been invited to fireworks over Lake Siljan just before midnight...

Skiing in Salen

Typical Ski Cabin

View Away from the slopes in Salen

So, we are back home in Dalarna (it is Wed. Dec. 29th) after a few days skiing in the Swedish mountains. Sälen is an hour and a half car drive from Mora and the closest of the alpine resorts. The spare winter light provides a calm so different from the bright tropical sunlight I am familar with in Guatemala. Too, it is a world apart here in the Swedish holiday world where parents are able to provide everything to their children.

Downhill Helmets

Ski Boot Dryer

While Mats and our friends and their kids conquered the downhill slopes (quite small if you've skied in the Rockies, but still challenging), I tested my cross-country stamina. The 6 k track took me about 1 1/2 hours, that was also the point where my big toe started to get numb. The warmer, snowy day brought out a few skiers, but the clear colder day (-18C) provided more solitude. When I hit the open remains of forest, I turned my face to the sun and felt my eyelashes thawing and felt my chest open up to breathe. Very enchanting! But I find no place as peaceful, energetically, as the forest here in Dalarna.

Cross-country Ski Trail in Dalarna

Today's newspaper reports that all the long-underwear is sold out in Mora. Yesterday I learnt that this is the coldest December here in a century. Maybe that gives me a pass on Ghostbusters...

Swedish Christmas Food & Weather Report

God Jul! (Merry Christmas!)

Yesterday, Christmas Eve Day, was another challenging temperature day. (Funny, my blog seems to be perpetually stuck on the solstice, but it is actually Saturday 12/25/10.) In Dalarna, we looked to be the coldest spot in all of Sweden: - 30 C again. I don't understand the weather patterns here. Though I know our being in a valley and winds from the East plunged us colder than the North, it doesn't make sense to my Chicago mind that we should be warmer than the ice hotel.

Anyway...due to the cold, we drank the neighbor's glögg inside this year, then proceeded to be served every form of form and drink I had been avoiding for months (wheat, sugar, diary and carbs). The menu was glögg (mulled red wine), crispbread with cheese, three types of Jansson's (a traditional Christmas casserole made from potatoes, cream, anchovies, cheese, butter, onions and more cream) and beer, aquavit and Julmust. As the only non-alcoholic choice, I drank the latter...it's a special Christmas soda like Coca-Cola, but much better with a floral or berry-like fragrance and taste.

3 Types of Jansson's

At home before the fire, we ate our Christmas feast a few hours after sunset. (Around the solstice here, the light lasts from 9 am to 3:30 pm.) First, homemade herring pickled with onion & carrots served with boiled potatoes. Then more Jansson's with ham (accompanied by strong, excellent Swedish mustard) and red beets & sour cream and homemade apple sauce. Since it's not made from wheat, we had some fine rum. At some point, Mats and his mom had ice cream, but I was already in sugar shock from all the potatoes and sat covered in blankets (it was about 14 C in the house) watching Ghostbusters until I crashed into bed. I didn't even have the energy to do more than eye the fabulous gift from my mother-in-law: the catalogue of the exhibit Zorn Masterpieces now in Stockholm on loan from the Zorn Museum here in Mora...more on Anders & Emma Zorn later.

Church next to Zorn Museum

Swedish Debate

Neighbor Mats

They are debating, in Parliament, whether or not to lower the grade at which children begin to receive grades in school, from eighth grade to sixth.

Everybody else seems to be discussing the issues raised by the charges against Julian Assange...

Tomorrow, Christmas Eve Day, we begin the celebrations at a neighbor's annual Jul Glögg outdoors at 11 am. Given it is -18 F now at 9 pm, I'd better start internal debate over what best to wear for watching one of the guests ascend into a tree laden with a sprig (I can't recall the English word) of wheat for the birds. Not that I've seen many, except some Magpies from the train. Well, warm, spiced wine should help keep the cold at bay.

Tonight is incredibly clear and I can see the constellations almost as distinctly as when we flew Eastward over the Atlantic. Somewhere above Greenland, my perspective on the few stars seemed to cohere them into recognizable shapes and I understood why people have been compelled to name them. Looking out past the wing of that plane, with the stars so little in the vast sky, with the reflective ice below so monochromatic, I felt comforted to see familiar things.

(I just realized this blog is posting two days behind. Today is Thursday, December 23rd.)

Keeping Warm in Dalarna

At 9 am this morning, it was 22 below zero (-30 C).

Let me name the ways I try to stay warm:

1.) In the 1960s, my husband's grandpa had geothermal heating installed. The house itself was built in stages, as are many Swedish dwellings. The first dwelling arose in 1926, the second in 1947 and the third in 1963.
2.) We make and watch many fires in the fireplace. Unlike most American fireplaces, the Swedish ones are in the corner and thus throw out heat more efficiently. The wood comes from birch and spruce that have been cut down on the property over many years. Since they are stored in a proper woodshed, the logs are very dry and burn well. As I've noted before, Sweden is the country where (since the 19C), they have managed their forests so well that I recall (can't check it on this ancient computer) there are now more trees per capita than anywhere else in the world.
3.) Our diet is full of fat: herring, ham, cream, butter and cheese. Usually, as can be expected on a high fat diet, while here, I lose weight...

4.) Inside, I wear long underwear, hats and, as reminded by Linda Brazill, those wool wristcovers. Mine are a special Swedish Christmas version given to me as a gift by my mother-in-law.
5.) Outside, I wear facemasks and three layers of mittens as I try to pump those arms while walking or skiing.
6.) The house is full of candles and these electric, Menorah-looking objets in the window. So amidst the dark and cold, one feels comforted and warm.
7.) We play Jussi Bjorling (the great Swedish tenor) on my husband's vintage audio system(1971, Pioneer receiver and ERA 444 turn-table for you audiophiles out there). Mats says the classical FM station here is excellent. He cites tonight's four-hour Chopin marathon!

Solstice, Full Moon, Eclipse: A Swedish View

The eclipse here wasn't until 8 am and while it was still dark, the moon, already very low in the sky due to our northern latitude, barely cleared the tree tops as it started to darken on its left side and then became murky in the lightening clouds amidst a barely light sky that could be called Swedish day break on this day, the shortest of the year.

It was about 4 below zero F (-20 C) and we were the only ones out, but then we are in the country with forest surround. Most impressive last night was the full moon around midnight, above a foot and a half of snow, so shiny, so reflective, so bright. We took pictures of the shadows it cast, long and dark and wonderfully pagan here in the North. By day, no planes fly overhead so the shapes gather naturally in clouds, between tree trunks, among the dry sparkling snowflakes that flutter like a butterfly's wing.

Last night, we watched a documentry on Forms in Nature, on Mathematics and on how very simple and ordered patterns result in untold permutations...and chaos.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Swedish Winter Wonderland

Weathervane Forged by Our Relative

Pines at Lake Siljan

We lucked out and arrived in Sweden before the big winter storm that has shut down many of Europe's airports. Although we stayed in Stockholm a few days, we were not in the inner city so I can't report what "people on the street" felt about the recent bombing. Publically, there was a rational air about the whole thing: very different than the mentality in the States.

One of the things I love doing in Sweden, despite my not speaking Swedish, is watching the news. Since I notice visual things, watching the n ews is a pleasure. I am amazed at how hip and fashionable most of the newscasters appear and in such a simple way: less make-up, more subtle jewelry and clean, often elegant lines. In minimal studio settings and even sometimes while reporting looking like normal people instead of celebrities. Even the politicians look this way. Very Scandanavian.

The other way Swedes dress well is for the outdoors. It begins in childhood where, perhaps since things like health and education are taken care of by the state, people can afford to buy decent winter clothes. All the kids wear serious (but fun) snowsuits and that extends to the adults' idea of outdoor play for grown-ups. Because people have clothes for the winter weather, they appear less daunted by it. (Of course, all that butter helps keep you warm too:)

Well-clothed Kids Play at Hagaparken

In Chicago, after two weeks of cold and a bit of snow, people were already complaining that they couldn't wait for spring! But having gotten my early Christmas present today, I can't wait to hit the forested cross-country ski trail between here and the next village tomorrow. It snowed all day here and the Spruces look seriously comical with their branches drooping as if they were opera divas in white mink-drapped shoulders. Here in Dalarna, the tree palette is minimal: mostly Spruce, Pine & Birch. All three were made for winter weather and contribute different talents to the mix. Beyond the Spruces' comic air, you have the tall thin trunks of the Pine filtering light and creating cartoonishly long shadows. Plus the Birch (here a different species I think and must look them up) manifest the wind in their dangling secondary branches. And white (bark) on white (snow) is always interesting. Perhaps that's why Ande rs Zorn (famous Swedish painter and famous for this town of Mora) painted it so magically.

Birch & Spruce

And for the record: even though the sun wasn't in evidence today: we did consume ice-cream. Vanilla for the purist amongst us and Maple Walnut for me. So far, country living ain't bad! Ask me again after we've shoveled out a driveway and long path from garage to house for a while.

Pictures when we return...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Winter Storm on Lake Michigan

Today's winter storm brought some snow and amazingly fierce winds. I have rarely seen the lake behaving so dramatically. Of course, intrepid Swedish sailor that he is, Mats insisted on driving down to the sailing beach. At least he didn't ask if I spotted anybody sailing...

You don't quite get a sense of the waves' hypnotic force, but the sound is great.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ice Forms in Sweden

Last time we were in Sweden, I took this photo from the train as we sped home from Mora in Dalarna to Stockholm and then to O'Hare. Since we do not get this form of hoarfrost (rimfrost) in Chicago, I have endless photos. The trees were especially captivating as the mist off Lake Siljan froze in their branches.

As far as Swedes and ice cream, temperature doesn't matter. Apparently, as long as the sun is out, eat away! Here it is served with Hjortron (pronounced: You-tron) aka cloudberries (Rhubus chamaemorus), a raspberry cousin, but much more complex in flavor. You can buy it heavily sweetened in jam at Ikea. But it is best when originally fresh and hand-picked by relatives as below.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Friends at the Art Institute of Chicago

Our friends and wonderful bloggers, Linda Brazill & Mark Golbach (Each Little World) visited from Madison. Linda, Mark and I went to the Art Institute. We forgot cameras, but played with iPhones.

1.) A fun picture of them in a favorite Japanese gallery.
2.) Mark looking at some photos of my dad's (Arthur Siegel).
3.) Bio on my dad.

I am always proud of Arthur's work. This exhibit, "Chicago Cabinet: Views from the Street," also displayed some images that were new to me as they were apparently donated by him when I was a year old.

Winter's Here

So I am fondly remembering summer. Playing catch-up (even though I love the snow that arrived last night & today) with some of our "Walks & Talks."

Above: Park Kids Garden at Wicker Park.

Below: Living Wall installed at Wicker Park Field House by Wicker Park Garden Club. The dynamic Doug Woods is educating us here under the hot August sun. Many of the garden club's cohesive & inspiring community can also be seen in this image.

WPGC has a terrific lecture series. The next one (on a Jensen restoration) will occur this coming Monday 12/7/10. And I will be speaking about Piet Oudolf's influences on Feb. 7th of 2011.