My First Jul In Sweden

‘We celebrate on the 24th, watch Donald Duck and eat ham with mustard,’ Sebastian told me months ago when the subject of Jul first surfaced. As my first Jul in Sweden approached (at an unfathomable speed), the all encompassing magical festive spirit – which had been laying dormant ever since I still believed that he existed – awoke.

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Sweden and England share some similarities when it comes to celebrating Jul. One being the mammoth decision of ‘whose house this year?’ I was quietly ecstatic when I learned we would be heading North to Hagfors to spend Jul with Sebastian’s family.

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The sky was crowded with stars when we started our four hour car journey, and I watched the road side in the hope of seeing at least one of the 400,000 moose that roam Sweden. But the giant beasts were wise and stayed in the shadows. Only mice, deer and fox made themselves known to our headlights.

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When we arrived in Hagfors, Pia and Peter had illuminated the dark garden. I could feel the spell of a new experience taking hold. Inside in every room white candles burned, lit paper stars hung from window frames and straight legged straw Jul Goats stood to attention.

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Pia had gone for a minimal colour palate with her decorations – red, white and grey with accents of green here and there.

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A petite Christmas tree was guarded by Father Christmas and two Jul Goats. I could see some of the presents stacked underneath were tagged with my name…

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On the morning of the 24th (Swedes celebrate Jul the day before we do in England) I woke up to a breakfast of Risgrynsgröt, a semi-sweet rice porridge served hot with milk and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It was delicious in its sweet spiciness, and I found enough comfort in one bowl to see me through into the new year.

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We made a brief but memorable visit to the home of Sebastian’s Grandmother’s  where I found myself amidst dozens of merry, polite Swedes. I was introduced to members of the Svedlund clan, including Riccardo who originally came from El Salvador and married into the Svedlund family, and Julia, a biologist with a burning desire to have a career as a novelist. We ate handmade pepperkakor while talking about the Swedes obsession with coffee and the sad reality of the job situation in Sweden.

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Sebastian was always animated when her talked of the Swedish julboard, and I knew a little of what to expect, but the quantity and variety was staggering. Alongside three different types of herring, I found myself plating up halved eggs topped with shrimp and caviar (it was my first time eating caviar and it went down like a dream), salmon, prinskorv (prince sausauge), köttbullar (Swedish meatballs, every family has their own recipe), beetroot salad, pork ribs, Janssons Frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation) and julskinka (Christmas ham). Pork is something of a sacred tradition with the julboard. A few pigs always made it past the fall slaughter, and would instead be slaughtered on the shortest day of the year – the 13th of December (Lucia Day).

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Come 3pm we had all congregated around the TV in the living room for the annual viewing of the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special, ‘From All of Us to All of You.’ It dawned on me that the entire day had been arranged as so not a minute of the show would be missed. Jiminy Cricket had the role of presenting fragments from Disney cartoons including Robin Hood, Lady And The Tramp and The Jungle Book. It’s the same format year in year out, that is except for the ending when they present something new that Disney have in the works.

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After Donald Duck, Sebastian’s step-father disappeared and returned in his guise as Tomten. He moved slowly across the garden, a lantern swaying from one hand. Little Tyra wasn’t in the least bit afraid. She welcomed Tomten in, and as the sky darkened, he handed out our gifts one by one. When it was time for him to pick up his lantern and leave, Little Tyra presented him with an orange and a clementine for the ‘long’ journey home. I rediscovered Jultide magic this Jul in the far north, and I intend on holding it close and never letting go.

Things I Brought Back From England : My Lopapeysa

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I moved to Sweden in February of this year with one suitcase of belongings. For a (then) 29 year old with a book addiction, a passion for Nordic knits and an obsession with Northerly knick knacks (Replica dragon heads from the Viking era, that kind of thing…) one suitcase didn’t really cut it, and I’ve been pining to be surrounded by my ‘stuff’ for months now.

It was okay at first. Everything in Sweden was gloriously new, and I didn’t really have the time to think stuff I’d left behind. But gradually I started to long to be surrounded by the precious things I’d collected during my three decades. I wanted Sebastian’s apartment to feel like our apartment.

One of the items which immediately found a place in my suitcase was my lopapeysa (a traditional Icelandic sweater.) It was 2011 when I found it in a thrift store in Reykjavik for 300 krona. I was coming to the end of my three month stay in Iceland, and was dead set on getting myself one of the unmistakable knits.

Brand new they were above and unfathomably far from my budget limit, so I needed to utilize my thrifting skills. I knew this was the one from the moment it caught my eye from across the store. Despite my devotion to the dark side of fashion, it (surprisingly) didn’t bother me (too much) the fact that it was white and varying shades of brown. Sebastian tried it on and said he looked like a 70’s Dad…which made me wonder, for the colours are quite attuned with that era…

Wearing it for the first time, I felt proud and more connected to the country than I’d felt at any other moment during my travels. In Iceland everyone in the city and out in the wilds wears a lopapaysa all year round. Interesting fact: the decorative yoke around the neck thought to have been based on Greenlandic women’s costume.

It’s strange that, just a short time ago, my sweater was in another country, folded in a cardboard box in the loft space above my parents kitchen. It’s a comforting feeling to have it here within arms reach.

Our Holiday In The Motherland : Our Last Day & Walking In Studley Royal Park

Do you remember the film The Secret Garden? The 1993 version? It was my favourite thing to watch as a child. I received it on video one Christmas, and kept it at my Nanna’s house, convinced that if I took it home my brothers would end up breaking it. I don’t know what happened to that video tape. I hope it’s stacked away inside a cardboard box, snuggled up next to White Fang and Call Of The Wild – two other valuable films from my early years.

Much of The Secret Garden was shot in Fountains Hall and the grounds of Studley Royal Park, a World Heritage Site within short walking distance of Ripon, the third smallest city in England, and from where the majority of my family hail. The park’s most valuable feature is Fountains Abbey, one of England’s largest and best preserved Cistercian monasteries. Founded in the 12th Century by a small group of monks, Fountains Abbey would grow to become one of the wealthiest and most influential Cistercian abbeys in Britain. That is until  1539 when Henry VIII commanded the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

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As a child, my Dad would spend hours roaming Studley’s steep-sided valley, and pitching himself over fences to avoid paying the entrance fee to the Fountains Abbey. When my siblings and I were growing up, my Dad would often bring us to Studley (rarely Fountains because it was too expensive, and pitching four kids under ten over barbed wire fences wasn’t that simple). He would point out significant spots, like where he was once chased by an irritable stag after snapping its photograph and blocked up ‘hidden tunnels’ which, he claimed, were once used by the Abbey’s monks.

Bringing Sebastian to this most important of places felt somewhat necessary. Our family has explored the acres of parkland for over half a century, and I felt that Sebastian, as the latest addition to the Metcalfe clan, ought to experience this valuable part of our history for himself. I held the belief that it would, in a way, enable him to understand me – and my family – on a deeper level.

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On our way into the park, I had my fingers tightly crossed that we would encounter at least one of the five hundred deer (Red, Fallow and Sika) which freely roam the park. The gods were on our side that day, and within moments of us crossing the cattle grid into the grounds, we lurched to a stop as there, standing mere meters from the side of the road was a doe and foal. I couldn’t have wished for a moment more perfect.

There was no visit to Fountains on this occasion – you need a full day there and we didn’t have that – but we did make our way through the valley. We passed by ancient trees, many of which are over three hundred years old, most standing, some fallen, their great roots exposed to the sun…a sun which had been shining for us since we’d first arrived in England.

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It felt somewhat surreal, but gorgeously so, to be walking the familiar route as a thirty year old English woman with her Swedish partner. I remember the walk taking forever when I was small, sometimes we didn’t even make it to the end before our little legs were tired and we needed to turn back. But Sebastian and I were at the boundary of the park before we could work up a sweat. My Dad retold tales from when he was a lad, and it was all almost too much for my emotions to take.

Sebastian went on to meet my Nanna, and I was so proud that he was able to decipher her thick Yorkshire accent. Bringing Sebastian to where my family originate was the most beautiful way to round off our short but blissful trip to the motherland.

 

 

 

 

Our Holiday In The Motherland : Climbing Roseberry Topping

In my previous Holiday To The Motherland post I mentioned that when we first found out that we’d be going to England, I made a mental note in my head of all the places I wanted to take Sebastian to…Roseberry Topping was also on that list.

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This iconic, strangely shaped hill (though as a child I always, with great pride, called it a mountain…) can almost be seen from my parent’s home. We used to drive past it every day for several years, and I would press my nose against the car window, achingly hungry for the view, desperately eager for the adventure of the climb.

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When I did eventually climb it, it shook up my soul. I wanted to go higher, higher, higher. Little did I know then that explorer Captain James Cook used to climb Roseberry when he wasn’t working on his parent’s farm, and it was during these climbs that he came to the realization that exploration was to be his life’s work.

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Roseberry has many different names, but the one my heart has always liked best is Odin’s Hill. Roseberry was sacred to the Norse settlers, and, in theory, where they worshiped the one eyed god. The Viking connection had always been of great significance to me, and to take my own Nord to the peak would be, I imagined, almost like closing a circle.

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And it was. I was glowing as we hiked. Everything felt as it should as our breathing became more laboured, and we needed to look more carefully at where we were placing our feet. Despite having made many ascents to the peak, the view is always something which chokes me up.

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From the top, we slowly turned clockwise to take everything in. From one view point we could see the vast industrial landscape of Teesside. From another just rolling moors for mile after mile. From another laid forests, fields and the blue swell of the North Sea. As we sat at the peak, squinting into the sun and eating hunks of stollen, I felt beautifully complete. Roseberry does that to you.

 

 

 

 

Our Holiday In The Motherland : The Blakey

When Sebastian and I knew that we would be going to England, I immediately made a mental list of places that I wanted to show him. The Blakey or as it’s more commonly known The Lion Inn, is a freehouse which has sat on Blakey Ridge, the highest point of the North Yorkshire Moors (1,325 feet) since 1553 when it was built by monks who had the unenviable job of carrying coffins across the moors to Whitby Abbey.

In winter, the pub is frequently cut off from the rest of the world. In 2010 there was a lock-in which lasted nine days before the snow plough was able to make it through the drifts. Nowadays, when the weather turns, people from miles around make the journey to The Blakey, hoping that they’ll have the opportunity to bed down in the bar.

I went to school in the valley below Blakey Ridge, and quickly came to know The Blakey as the local (for the teachers especially). I was eight when I sat behind it’s thick stone walls and ate, for the first time, one of their colossal Yorkshire Puddings, and found myself judging it against my Nanna’s Yorkshires. I was smitten with the ancient stone fireplace and the low beams. The cosiness settled in me and never left.

It was dark, true dark on the moors as – like the monks centuries ago albeit in a car – Sebastian, my parents and I made our journey from Whitby to The Blakey. I felt a shiver thread up my spine as we made our ascent to the ridge. I felt like I was returning to an old friend. It had been several years since I’d visited, but following a short, cold march from the carpark I quickly discovered the ambience of the place was just as I remembered it. Some would say it’s ‘The Slaughtered Lamb all over again,’ I say it’s ‘the Yorkshire I know and love.’

Within a few minutes of us arriving, my parents got talking with a local who happened to live down the road from us 20 odd years ago, and whom let us know that my Dad’s old boss from the dairy he’d worked at when I was born had recently died…that’s Yorkshire for you!

My Dad recommend Sebastian to try Old Peculiar, one of England’s most cherished ales which has a fascinating history behind it. I’ve never seen him relish a drink quite like this one. We sat close to the fireplace, our backs to one of the deep set windows, and talked about the past. The Blakey does that to you. It makes you want to go back to when life was simpler.

Sadly we left just as the bar man was building up the fire. Next time I think we’ll take a room for the night. I’d hope to hear the chanting of spectral monks as they make their way with coffins across to the desolate landscape to the sea.

Our Holiday In The Motherland : Meeting The Parents & Whitby

It’s been quiet around these parts for a while now, and heck, how I’ve missed blogging. But I’m settling back into something of a routine now, after a brief but beautiful visit to England with Sebastian.

It was a visit crowded with firsts. Our first holiday abroad as a couple. Sebastian’s first time on a plane, his first time to England and, perhaps most fear inducing of all, his first meeting with my parents. Unsurprisingly they were quickly won over by his Swedish charm, gentle eyes and killer smile. The man who’d needed several beers and a double whisky before saying hello shed his nerves like old skin, and laughed with my family like he’d been a part of it from the very beginning.

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I first talked to Sebastian about Whitby when we first met online last year. We rambled on about horror movies and I bragged about the small coastal town being the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. I’d always been so proud that the little seaside town was on my part of the English coastline, and I was dead set on giving him the tour during this voyage.

The town was my special place from a very young age. When I was small enough to think that I was the luckiest girl in the world to get £1.50 pocket money a week, I would regularly be taken to an exposed clifftop caravan site to stay with my Grandmother who’s fanaticism about Whitby rubbed off on me in a big way.

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The slender, cobbled streets were tucked up with shops (back in the day we referred to them as ‘the hippy shops’) filled to the very rafters with colossal chunks of quartz, intricately crafted dreamcatchers and exquisite silver jewelry finished with jet, a form of fossilized wood found in the cliffs.

I would spend hour after hour threading my way through the crowds, finding precious trinkets that I could afford, many of which I still hold onto today. When I was about ten years old, I started to truly appreciate the link between Dracula and the town, and started making a twice yearly pilgrimage to the Goth Weekend.

In among ‘the hippy shops’ sat plenty of squat, traditional English pubs, with rafters so low most had to tip their head at some point, and ale so dark and thick it made foreigners want to toss their passport into the fire and settle in for the long haul. The old fashioned bakeries offered rustic, home baked English goodness like flapjack and rich fruit cakes, and the cafes set battered boards outside with painted menus offering fish and chips with a cuppa and a slice of bread and butter. That’s how it’s done in Yorkshire.

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Whitby was our first port of call on our holiday, and when I arrived with Sebastian last week, (after an illuminating get to know the parents/boyfriend car trip where Sebastian fell head over heels for the Yorkshire countryside, and we all realised that when a Swede says fox hunting it actually sounds like something especially rude…) I wasn’t surprised to see nothing had changed since my visit last year…or my first childhood visit twenty odd years ago. And there was something specially comforting about that.

I couldn’t help feeling a little puffed up as I guided Sebastian around the town. We demolished small mountains of chips, mounds of mushy peas and huge portions of fish freshly caught in Whitby and battered to perfection at The Angel Hotel. I showed him the spot where Bram Stoker sat and took in the view of Whitby Harbour, and was inspired to write his most famous work and we appreciated the Whale Bone Arch, a set of blue whale jaw bones which were erected to honour the men of Whitby who had risked their lives in the seas in and around the Arctic.

We climbed up the weathered 199 steps – he counted them all, I’d done it before – and wandered through the ancient graveyard enclosing St Mary’s Church. I stood with him and together we showed our appreciation for the ruins of Whitby Abbey with slack jaws and wide eyes. I encouraged him to follow me over a fenced off section of a cliff walk, and scramble down an old ladder and craggy slope to reach a part of the coastline only visited by sea birds.

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As the dark started to pour in from the sea and we walked for the final time through the cobbled streets on East Cliff, the eerie atmosphere I’d always known and loved about Whitby began to intensify, and I started to play a scene in my head, that of the doomed Russian ship the Demeter crashing on the shoreline, and the Count disembarking from the vessel in the form of a great black hound.

It didn’t come as an enormous surprise when Sebastian told me that he’d fallen under Whitby’s charm, but I did feel my entire body tingle, and I agreed with all of my heart when he said we ought to have a second home there. I’m remaining optimistic that, for a few months a year, we’ll be spending afternoons braving the winds on the clifftops, and returning to a cozy living room to drink tea and eat fish and chips in front of a crackling fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Livslogga #18

I’ve been in Sweden for almost a year now, and I can firmly say that one of my favourite days was when me made a trip to Borås Zoo. In recent years I’ve become a bit obsessed with bears, so was madly excited when we arrived at their expansive enclosure. It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to photography brown bears, and it was nothing short of exhilarating.

The forests that encircle Hagfors, the small town where Sebastian’s family live, are populated with bears. You experience a wholly different feeling when you’re walking through the trees in that part of Sweden. You know that there’s every possibility that something bigger and more dangerous than yourself is following your every move.

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Livlslogga #13

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I took this photo on my second day in Sweden. Sebastian and I took a trip to the John Bauer Museum in Jönköping. I first visited back in 2010 but when I went back early 2016 there had been a total re-vamp and it was an entirely new, intriguing and extremely special experience. If your interested has been aroused, I wrote a piece about the museum for Routes North. There’s nothing quite like sharing the art you love most with the one you love most.

Livslogga #3

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In April, I made my first trip to Värmland with Sebastian and Little Tyra. Our final destination was Hagfors, a little town in the woods where Sebastian grew up. I had my camera in my hands for almost the entire four hour journey, and caught this shot as we were nearing Hagfors. The beauty of it all still makes me want to cry whenever I look at it.

My Favourite Photos From July

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Sebastian and his step-father Peter picking harvesting blueberries in the forests of Hagfors. The contraption they’re using is called a Jonas Berry Picker. You rake it through the bushes – while gently coaxing the berries – and it plucks them for you.

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Sebastian’s hand after blueberry picking.

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I tried smultron berries for the very first time. Another name for them is Hideaways. They have a unique, very purfumey taste.

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The first blueberries we picked this season in a beautiful, hand painted basket I picked up from a second hand store for 30 kroner.

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Sebastian’s mother Pia and his step-father Peter cleaning blueberries. It’s actually an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable activity…believe it or not! And it’s ever so satisfying when you have a big bowl of shining, leaf free berries ready to be bagged up and frozen.

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Deep in the forests of Värmland…it looks like a gnome has come along and taken a slice out of this mushroom.

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My very first kanelbullar! Rough but still beautiful and, not meaning to blow my own trumpet, but they tasted divine.

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Caught while hurrying to a friend’s house…

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Relishing the rare sun that shines in Borås.

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Sebastian and I walking through the woods of his childhood.

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I feel so blessed to have been welcomed into Sebastian’s family. Here we are out walking in the woods of Hagfors.