On The Shortest Day

Yesterday the sun didn’t show itself and the fog never lifted. Unsurprisingly I had a difficult time staying within our four four walls. The forest was calling me.

After following a path I’d only walked once before, I found myself in a part of the forest that appeared far more ancient than any of the other places I’ve wandered in this part of Sweden.

Most of the trees had branches formed like witches fingers, and were enveloped in linchen that hung like old skin.  I felt as though I was wandering from one John Bauer painting into another. I didn’t want to leave my new wandering grounds, but the dark was quick in coming. I’m going to be sad to see the days lengthening, I treasure the early dark.

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My First Lussekatter

The celebration of Lucia has always been ‘around’ in my life as it were, since I was seven years old and started attending a Rudolf Steiner school. I discovered the candle crown through the illustrations of Elsa Beskow and John Bauer.

Now, Lucia is a festival which has quite complicated origins, but it’s dedicated to a Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr from Italy who was executed during the Diocletianic Persecution.  Simply put, it’s a celebration of light, as St Lucia is traditionally thought to ‘wear light in her hair and she occupies the role of bearing light in the dark of the long Swedish winters.

In homes across Sweden, the eldest girl gets up before the sun and bakes lussekatter (saffron buns). She dresses herself in a white robe, ties a red sash around her middle, places a candle crown on her head and delivers coffee, the fresh lussekatter, and pepparkakor (gingerbread) to her parents, accompanied by singing siblings.

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But Lucia has a darker side too, a side which I found myself all too eager to explore. In old Sweden, Lucia night, also known as the longest night of the year, was a dangerous one. In Pagan lore on this night all animals were possessed and developed the ability to talk. Up in the north of Sweden, there was a legend that Lucia was in fact Adam’s first wife and she consorted with the devil.

Now, you may have already made the connection, but lussekatter translates to Lucifer’s cats. These especially vibrant (that’s the saffron), S shaped buns represent a curled up cat, and are traditionally handed out during the Lucia processions which take place across Sweden. Traditionally there’s two raisins – the eyes, Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and was herself blinded before being executed – one at either end of the lussekatter.

I would have loved to have made my own lussekatter, but time wasn’t on my side today, and shelling out for a packet of saffron wasn’t within my means. (Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, is sold at the cash registers at supermarkets and pharmacies here in Sweden.) So I bought a lussekatter instead.

As advised, I warmed it up gently before eating. I can say now that saffron isn’t a favoured spice of mine. The bun wasn’t unpleasant as such, it was wonderfully soft, buttery and slightly sweet, but the saffron gave it a slightly off taste, a taste that cannot compete with kanelbullar or pepperkakor. I was thankful for the accompanying glögg!

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Girl With Cold Hands : Jul Gift Guide

This Jul will be my first in Sweden, my first with Sebastian and his family. I can promise you…I haven’t trembled with excitement like I’m doing now since I was a child, and still believed it was Father Christmas who carefully arranged the presents under the tree, while his reindeer waited patiently on the roof of our lilliputian cottage.

Naturally, I wanted to do something to celebrate life, this blog and all of you! So, as a thank you for following me on my Swedish journey I have reduced the price of every product in my shop! You will have from today until the 13th of December to place orders.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the getting of gifts, please let me help alleviate some of the stress. Below you’ll find options galore for the loves in your life. My personal favourite is The Whispering Forest Acrylic Block.

For Her

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After The Cold Of The Silver Night Chiffon Top – $26.64

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From The Forest Laptop Skin – $23.68

tb,1200x1200,flat.2u1.jpgAutumn Mornings Tote Bag – $13.99

For Him

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Woodpile Travel Mug – $18.74

mwo500xipad_2_snap-pad600x1000ffffff-u1The Family iPad case – $44.71

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Not The Road Home Graphic T-Shirt – $27.62

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Midday In Winter Drawstring Bag – $24.66

For Them

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The Whispering Forest Acrylic Block – $22.99

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Her First Day To Breathe Framed Print – $68.91

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Forest Dark Hardcover Journal – $15.78

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.

Jul I Sverige : Making Orange Clove Pomanders

On arriving in Borås last Sunday after our trip to England, the city had decorated for Jul and was a sea of illuminated paper stars. It was so beautiful I could have spent the whole night drifting through the streets, taking in the gentle light at almost every window. In England we have a bad habit of going horribly overboard with the decorations. The Swedes, on the other hand, keep things simple.

I always look forward to when the sun dips below the horizon at the end of another day, but now it’s another, special kind of anticipation. I’m waiting for the glow from the stars in the windows of the apartment block just across the way from us. They will light up the nights until January.

Our own decorating has been delayed…but today I started in my own little way, by making an orange clove pomander. For as long as I can remember, my Mum has made these most fragrant of decorations around this time, and they’ve always been my favourite winter adornment. I’ve forever been weak for the intense, spicy, warming scent of cloves combined with the sweet, fruity, lush perfume of oranges, and seen as though this is my first Jul away from England, I thought it important I continue the tradition myself.

I’m admiring my pomander now, nestled among some evergreen and pine cones which I collected from the forest earlier today. I’m reflecting on how much I enjoyed the slow crafting process, when I was focused on nothing but carefully pressing one clove after another through the giving skin and flesh of the orange. I hadn’t felt so relaxed in months. As a Pagan, bringing the natural world into the home all year round is important, but especially so in winter when I pay homage to the old traditions that celebrate my most favourite time of year.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Couldn’t Stay Out Of The Forest

The snow came, at least for a little while. In the few hours before sunrise and sunset, I would find myself in the forest, losing track of time entirely. When the snow started to thin out on the ground, the days heavy with fog made up for it.

When I look outside in the morning and am greeted by fog, I’m unable to stay indoors. I had a stuffed ‘to do’ list waiting for me to complete it the other day, but I’ve missed too many foggy mornings over the years because of my need to stick to a rigid schedule. No more will that happen. I don’t own a watch and I rarely take my phone out with me when I go into the forest. After a hurried breakfast I grabbed my camera without so much as a backward glance at my ‘to do’ list and headed out into the forest, hoping with all hope that the sun wouldn’t try to break through and obliterate the mystique.

I took a path I’d been wanting to explore further, and I walked and I walked and I walked, my eyes darting this way and that like a curious wolf pup seeing the world for the first time. I deeply relished the peace that came with moving further away from people.

I’ve always had that encouraging – yet stubborn – attitude of ‘just a bit further…’ I wanted to see what was over the next rise, where that stream was hurrying to, if the house behind the handmade gate was abandoned. I wear my curiosity like a cloak, and always take it with me to the forest.

I eventually turned around, somewhat reluctantly, when hunger started to knock against my stomach’s walls. I thought I’d been gone for an hour or so…and was shocked to discover almost four hours had passed since I’d left home. To say I’m thankful for my forest adventures is an understatement. They’re an essential part of my daily existence. I can’t imagine a life without them.

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Jag Förstår/Jag Förstår Inte : My First Day Of Swedish For Immigrants (SFI)

Honestly, I didn’t think today would ever come. It was only last night, when it dawned on me that I would be rising before the birds, that I started to visualize myself behind a desk, pen poised over immaculate notepaper, ready to begin proper with a beautiful language that I’ve been listening to (and silently mouthing) for ten months.

In Sweden school starts early. I needed to be there at 8am which, looking back now was a good thing. It didn’t leave me time to get eaten up by nerves. When I entered the classroom, the smile and ‘välkommen’ from my teacher (Martha) were so full of warmth that my psyche felt cushioned. Surety blossomed from my heart up. I thought to myself ‘this is where I should be, I don’t need to run, I don’t need to be scared.’

I’ve always loved languages, but mastering them hasn’t come easy. Well, it hasn’t come at all. It’s something of an embarrassment to have reached thirty years of age and to only be able to speak my mother tongue.

To begin, Martha asked us, one by one, to introduce ourselves. I was in awe of the fluidity of the Swedish that poured from my classmates. The majority of them were from Syria, but you wouldn’t think it to listen to them speak. Their Swedish accents were practically flawless.

Martha – whose parents came to Sweden from Hungary – rarely broke away from Swedish to speak English, and when she did, it was to only say a few words. It felt so refreshing to hear her speak because she spoke slowly, enabling me time to digest one word before moving onto the next. I found I could understand so much more than I’d previously thought. I’m used to Swedish being spoken at one hundred miles an hour.

We spent some time learning which other languages were spoken by the class, and my jaw progressively dropped lower and lower as the list on the whiteboard grew. I was surrounded by people who could speak Armeniska, Kuriska, Arabiska, Ryska, Grekiska, Portugiskia, Kinesiska…I didn’t get a chance to write them all down. And we were hardly twenty in the group.

Today was about setting the foundations for the rest of the course, and I was relived for the calm ‘easing in.’ Though I did I find myself greatly encouraged by the fizzling enthusiasm of my classmates, and humbled by how they approached me with kind smiles and warm, firm handshakes.

I stopped being able to envisage myself speaking a foreign language a few years ago. I just sort of lost hope that I’d ever master another tongue and haven’t really dwelled on the thought because, as I mentioned, I never thought the day would arrive when I’d actually embark on the SFI course. But today, as I cycled away from my first lesson, I thought to myself ‘actually Katie, you might just be able to do this.’