Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Death in the Family

Earlier this week I learned that my aunt's husband passed away on Friday. Our relationship (me and my uncle) had always been tense. There are just some people in this world that no matter how hard you try you just can't be comfortable with them. No matter how much it might mean to someone important in your life it is impossible to like or trust some people. Maybe the situation says more about me than about him. I don't know.

It has been hard for me, not because I feel any great sense of loss, but because I have never been so far away from my family at a difficult time like a death in the family. I am that kid who takes off work for every great-aunt or uncle's funeral. I feel a little helpless here so far away. I can't cook or help with music or clean something or drive people around (all things that seem to make a house in mourning run smoothly). I could send a card but it might take weeks to get there. Seems a little cruel to send a card knowing that it will arrive just about the time my aunt starts to feel a little less sad. I did manage to find a way to call her, but other than saying "I'm sorry for your loss" there wasn't much else I could do.

Maybe I'm  more struck by the fact that he is the first person from my parents' generation to pass away in our family. The older generation (my grandparents and greats) has always been that for me, older. In my memory, my parents and aunts and uncles were once young. They weren't always grey-haired and wrinkled and creaky. They had smooth skin and didn't wear polyester. They moved and thought quickly. They were slightly inappropriate at times. They laughed and had fun, and in fact they still do. They aren't old like my grandparents' generation always seemed to me. They were just like I am now. They are far too young to start dying.

Here I thought this would be about handling death at a great distance from home, and it's probably more about handlling my own mortality, right here, right now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Haunted Bathroom: The Gripping Conclusion, I Hope

I have been a little anxious lately. This is no secret. My bathroom is cursed. If the bathtub drains the toilet won’t stop running. If the toilet works right then putting water into any other fixture in the house backs up disgusting black water and even more disgusting, um, stuff into the tub. Don’t really know what those chunks are and I don’t think I want to find out. I just want them to go away. To all of you Americans saying “call the landlord” this is Italy. Maybe the roof and the stairs are his responsibility, the rest is up to us.

My dreams all take place in or near bathrooms now. Two nights ago I dreamt that I was at a fitness center and when the receptionist (who was Lana from the Campus Ministry office at Augsburg) showed me the bathroom, it was in a different building and in the basement. Not a nice bathroom. The kind of bathroom where you hover, you don’t want to sit down. As I prepared to hover a scorpion scuttled out of somewhere and trapped me in the corner. While I was deciding what to do and trying not to panic, a guinea pig that could have been the twin brother of the gopher from the movie Caddy Shack ran across the floor and distracted the scorpion. He will be forever in my heart as a hero. How do I know it was a “he?” Because he winked at me right before he ran in front of the scorpion.

Last night we decided to take matters into our own hands. The downstairs neighbor loaned us a super-sized, bright red plunger and suggested we try that before we move to more extreme measures. I’ve lived in lots of older houses in my life, I know what needs to happen. I was pretty sure with only two of us we were about four hands short, because for a plunger to work every other drain has to be plugged shut so the pressure stays in the pipes. We needed both of us in the bathroom, one to run the plunger and the other to stop as many drains as possible. This meant leaving the kitchen sinks unattended, but we had no choice and they were farthest away from the problem.

For some reason Leif decided that 10:30pm (or 22:30 for you 24 hour clock freaks) was the perfect time to start the project. It was like the most demented game of Twister ever. Leif got to handle the plunger. I don’t remember taking a vote or drawing straws, but that’s what happened. That left me with three drains to plug; the tub overflow, the bidet drain and the bidet overflow. For those who have never seen me I only have two hands. Luckily (I guess) they are all in the same general area (see illustration). The plumbing fixtures, I mean, obviously my hands are never more than two arm’s lengths apart. So this is how it worked…I used my right hand to plug the tub overflow and my left hand to plug the bidet overflow, firmly planted my right foot on the wet marble floor and put my left foot on top of the drain plug at the bottom of the bidet.

And then the fun started. Leif plunged his little heart out. Every once in awhile it would slide away from him, he’d hit one of those “anti-slip” bumps (that are slipperier than hell by the way) on the bottom of the tub and water would spray everywhere. I learned quickly that as fascinating as it was to watch the fun and try to see if it was working, a face full of yucky black water wasn’t worth it. I had my hands full trying to keep the towels I was using as plugs to stay in their respective drains and failing, which meant I was getting sprayed pretty regularly anyway. We decided that the drains in the hand sink should be stoppered too, but because we had no more hands we had to fashion a plug using a boot and old jacket wedged under the faucet.

We decided that the disgusting water should be taken out, not allowed to go back down the drain and replug the pipes, so we used my precious one cup measuring cup to bail out the tub into the toilet. It was the only functioning drain in the apartment after all. We sopped up damp sediment from the bottom of the tub with toilet paper, because we ran out of paper towels. We tried pushing the water and air down in to the pipes…we tried suctioning the water and (hopefully the plug) out of the pipes with the plunger. By the time we called it quits for the night (oh, about 11pm) we were both sweating and covered in dirty water and the drains were still clogged. We brushed our teeth with a thimble-full of water and went to bed.

This morning I dreamt that our bathroom was now outside our apartment. Like porta-potties at a concert, the three glass telephone booths that were our bathroom stood in a neat row. They were covered with daisy printed kitchen curtains for privacy. Directly in front of them my high school graduating class was performing a half-time show to music performed by one of our classmates and his boy band. With great fanfare they all turned to the “bathroom” and out stepped my brother, squeaky clean from his shower, wearing his swim trunks and a frilly, June Cleaverish apron. “Great shower!” he said (I sensed sarcasm, but I could be wrong). And I woke up. I felt anxious all morning. I was afraid to use any water because it had nowhere to go. I couldn’t figure out when or how much it was gonna cost to get the drains fixed, and quite frankly I am getting a little tired of the dreams. When I left the apartment to babysit for a couple of hours, Leif had a very determined look in his eyes. I wanted to tell him to wait for me, but knew he wouldn’t listen.

I got a text message from him right before I started back home. “Alfonso came with the 'snake' and the mission is solved.” When I got home he told me that he had (naturally) started working away at the drains this morning. Of course our neighbor could hear this. His apartment is directly below us. If he didn’t hear the noise from inside, he couldn’t help but hear from his terrace. Our bathroom window is immediately over their dining table. Alfonso either graciously decided to help, or just couldn’t listen to the mayhem and Swedish anymore. He brought his snake upstairs and they managed to get the drains working again. Leif tried to describe the plug. Let’s just say that judging from it’s size and the fact that it resembled concrete that it probably dates from just after WWII. He had already cleaned the bathroom and taken out all the nasty stuff so that when I got there it was like nothing had happened in there. If only he could clean my memory as well as he did the bathroom.

I am looking forward to taking a shower with more than a gallon of water tonight. To washing dishes with a full sink of water. To doing a load of laundry. Ok, I’m not going to use the bidet, but I am comforted knowing that if I wanted to, I could .I’m hopeful that tonight I will have dreams of anything but bathrooms.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Il Bagno Stregato or The Haunted Bathroom

Every old house seems to have one room that doesn’t work quite right. You know what I mean. That room where the walls aren’t quite straight and the ceiling sags. No picture looks straight, no matter how many different angles you try it at. Windows that are almost impossible to open and close but suddenly let loose and slam shut in the middle of the night. Doors that mysteriously open and close before your very eyes. Rooms where a pencil dropped in one corner will slowly roll across the floor and end up on the opposite side of the room. We’ve all witnessed this, if not in our own home, certainly in some elderly relative’s home. We have all walked away from somewhere saying “That house is haunted.”

I have observed my bathroom here in Florence since October and I’m pretty sure my bathroom is haunted. For those who started reading this blog from the beginning you will be familiar with my first night alone in the apartment. For unknown reasons the toilet wouldn’t stop running and the tank is mounted 9 or 10 feet off the floor. We have been jiggling the handle to stop the water ever since.

It would have moments where it would work right, never for more than one or two flushes. Nothing we could point to and say it was getting better, or that it fixed itself. Suddenly about a month ago it started to work correctly, no more water running endlessly through the bowl. I have been raised by my very German father to question everything. So naturally I wanted to know why it suddenly started working. Not from mere curiosity, mind you, but with the idea that I could actually fix the darn thing if I could just figure out what made it work now.

I probably shouldn’t have asked the question out loud. Leif looked at me, puzzled by my curiosity. He didn’t have to say a word, I could read it all in his face…”It works, don’t mess with it. Who cares why, just enjoy the moment while it lasts!” I flushed again, watching the water swirl around the bowl with my hands on my hips, daring it to work right again. Which it did. He just watched me. Apparently Swedes aren’t as curious as Germans when it comes to understanding the way things work. I tend to work through problems out loud and he wasn’t used to that yet, so as I ran through a ridiculous list of possibilities he walked to the door, said “Maybe it’s the humidity,” and left the room.

Well, that stunned me into silence for a moment. I had no snappy come back for that one, because anything I said could probably be taken as argumentative. But really, humidity? Come on…I think the very essence of the inside of the toilet tank is it’s absolute, 100% humidity. In fact, without the water it ceases to function as a toilet. But I didn’t have a better answer. And it kept working, so I stopped questioning. Well, I didn’t question out loud anymore.

We were gone for 10 days at the end of June, and when we came back, exhausted from our Midsommer festivities, one of the first rooms I visited was the bathroom. Unpacking, you know. And there, behind the door, just sitting there not moving, was a lizard. Not the cute little salamanders we are used to in Minnesota, not even the slightly larger lizards that are everywhere here in Florence. It was a big blob of lizard-shaped blackness on the light colored floor. OK, not Gila Monster sized, but big enough at the end of a travel day for me to jump several feet off the floor, run into the bedroom and tell Leif, who was still in the bathroom brushing his teeth that there was a big lizard behind him and could he please do something about it? Yeah, I know, pretty chicken move on my part, but it surprised me. So first he calls down the hallway to me that it’s dead (not a pleasant thought, but at least it couldn’t run away), then he says “Oh, no, it’s not dead,” all casual-like. I think he’s got the thing under control and then I hear, “Hmmm…it’s gone, but I don’t know where.” That’s an answer that had me entering the bathroom very carefully for the next few weeks.

Oddly enough, when we lost the lizard the drains stopped working correctly. Every drain, not just the bathroom sink or the bathtub, but also the kitchen sinks. Even the washing machine had problems with the drains. Every drop of water we put into any of these places backed up into the tub. Smelly brown water with pieces of I don’t know what suspended in it would slowly rise in the tub, and then drain back out even slower leaving an odd odor in the bathroom and a yucky layer of debris on the tub. In true apartment dweller fashion we stuck a coat hanger as far down the bathtub drain as we could to unclog it and came up with nothing. But, hey, at least we tried.

We decided to wait out the drains, see if the problem corrected itself. Yeah, I know, these things never fix themselves, but we are optimists and just smiled as we took our showers and washed our dishes in the bare minimum of water needed to get mostly clean. I couldn’t buy drain cleaner on my own, because I just don’t have the Italian required for reading the labels of possibly hazardous liquids to know which one will eat the clog but not the pipes in our 80 year old apartment building.

All was going well till Leif told me one day last week that his friend Peter was coming to Florence for a visit and would be staying with us. It’s one thing for us to put up with the plumbing eccentricities of our apartment, but we just couldn’t ask a slightly futzy visitor to accept standing in calf deep water during showers. At least, I thought we couldn’t, but he is Leif’s friend, not mine, and he thought it would be fine. I spent the day before he came mentally preparing a "care and feeding of the bathroom" speech that would inform without disgusting him. I never got the chance to deliver this speech, luckily.

Peter arrived in Florence just in time for the first big heat wave of the summer. 90 to 100 degrees every day and the humidity was probably just as high. He took four or five showers a day, and after the first couple of showers I started to wonder if the drains would work fast enough to empty the tub for his next shower. Imagine my surprise when I checked the tub and it drained fine. What the…? How is it possible that for three weeks it would take almost an hour to drain the tub after a shower and now it swirled out as quickly as it came out of the shower head? It even made that nifty whirlpool at the drain and that satisfying sucking sound that means water is moving quickly. Every sink drained the way it was supposed to. I have no explanation for this, except that possibly the missing lizard finally decomposed to the point where it became dislodged and has, in fact, left the building. Hallelujah!

I’m sure you think this is the end of the story and all is well with the bathroom. Ha! I told you at the beginning that this room is bewitched. Peter left on Thursday afternoon. That night I used the bathroom and pushed the little button that flushes the toilet. After the rush of water in the bowl subsided, I started to walk away. I had to turn back though, because I heard that sound I hadn’t heard in over a month…the sound of water gently flowing into the bowl long after it should have stopped. As we say in Minnesota, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Feeling Beige

I have noticed lately that many of my friends have mentioned either feeling blue or depressed. I don’t know if it’s the weather? It has been an unusual year…hot when it should be cold and cold and rainy when it should be warm and sunny. I think part of it might be the political situation in Minnesota. For those who don’t know, the elected government of Minnesota is throwing a very public hissy fit instead of doing their jobs. All non-essential state workers are laid off until the legislature can agree on a budget. Of course, these officials continue to get paid. I know that if you live in Minnesota you are either directly affected by the lay-offs or are close to someone who is. No one is untouched by this. Anger, frustration, apathy and depression are natural reactions to this event.

I've been feeling strange here too. I’m not gonna call it blue, because that’s too strong a color for what I’m feeling. I think I’m feeling beige. The inoffensive and bland color of the mother of the groom at weddings, the ultimate neutral in a fashionable wardrobe. No marketing expert says “we need more beige in that ad if we want to sell, sell, sell!” Beige is a color without direction. A color, oddly enough, filled with tension, just waiting for a stronger color to pull it along for the ride.

That’s kind of how I feel. I don’t feel bad, necessarily. I just know that I could feel better. I have been here for four months now. Four months is a long time to tread water, waiting to figure out what direction I want to go. My life in Minnesota was filled with purpose. I worked, I went to school, I had friends and family to do things with. When there was no actual purpose I created it by starting one of my famous “to-do lists.” It may have been filled with completely bogus things but it made me feel like I was accomplishing something and that was important to me at the time.

I moved to Florence to experience a different kind of life. Merely transporting the life I had in Minnesota to Italy wouldn’t be a different life, it would be life in a different place. It should be more than eating different food and taking naps and new holidays to celebrate. It should reflect the person I have become and the hopes I have for the future.

And so the infamous “to-do list” is a thing of the past and is only resurrected in times of need like when I have to pack for a trip. And I don’t really miss it, mainly because when the pace of your life is set on “turtle” instead of “rabbit” you don’t need a list to remember things. The turtle pace reminds me that nothing is so important that I need to obsess over it, which is what my lists were. Obsessing over details to the point that I never enjoyed the extra time it was supposed to create for me. Those extra minutes were spent refining the next edition of “the list.” If the list included “find cure for cancer” and “abolish poverty” I could forgive the intensity I focused on the lists. But truly, take out the garbage on Monday, buy a birthday card (with another note lower on the list to mail it) and find big bowl for church dinner next week are not world changing events, not even in my own little world. But when I’m feeling beige, that list seems like a beacon in the darkness. A red line of purpose to follow.

I struggle daily with the feeling that because I don’t have a job, I don’t have a purpose. In the past, my worth to my ex-husband was measured in dollars. It didn’t matter what I was doing or how much I worked, what mattered was the money I brought home to contribute to the lifestyle he/we wanted. I want something different here. I need to be willing to let go of the security of a weekly paycheck in order to find a kind of work that fulfills me and keeps me interested and challenged in a positive way. Oh, and let’s me eat. I am working hard to let go of the idea that my worth to myself and to my partner is measured only in cash. I know it isn’t true. But nineteen years of listening to my contributions and debts to our marriage reduced to dollars and cents (oh yes, cents, which he graciously rounded down) is hard to let go of. Earning money, when I feel beige, is an alluring green that’s hard to resist.

I was talking to Leif about this recently during dinner. I told him that I was worried that I wasn't contributing enough because I wasn't working regularly. He looked at me closely and said that the changes I am going through won’t happen quickly. He told me that anyone moving to another country, learning a language and redefining themselves should allow themselves a year to figure things out. “Think of it as a sabbatical,” he said, “there is a reason there is a name for taking a year off to think.” Hearing him say that it was OK to take a year to figure things out unclenched something inside me. Because, unfairly, I think I was expecting him to eventually see me as a dollar (well euro) sign too. Totally wrong of me. And for all you feminists out there, I don’t need his permission, but since he is supporting me during this year, his willing cooperation makes it possible for me to do this.

So I will embrace my beige-ness. Beige is a quiet place to rest while I figure things out. Beige won’t over stimulate or influence me into a decision I’m not ready for or that is completely wrong for me. Beige goes with everything, so I have a rainbow of choices for my life. I’m feeling better already.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Using My College Degree

After the long trip to Sweden (I swear, the last time this country will be mentioned for awhile) we had one day at home before packing our bags again and heading off into Chianti for a short job. I would be babysitting while Leif would be taking the adults off to wine tastings. Sounds a little unfair at this point, doesn’t it?

I was nervous about this. First and foremost, I seriously question my own parenting skills. I got my children to the age of eighteen alive, they are responsible for the amazing people that they are. Second, I haven’t babysat much since I was quite young. Not that anything has changed much except the toys. Now, though, parents expect even an “occasional babysitter” to have all sorts of qualifications like CPR and life guarding and references. I suppose I can get a CPR certification and I can avoid jobs with pools, but how do I get references? Ask my kids to write a letter stating that they don’t feel scarred for life by my parenting skills?

Thankfully no one asked for any of those things on this job. I watched two great American kids, seven and ten, for three days. I wasn’t sure what it would be like, especially when the first morning the seven-year-old came slowly down the stairs with his eyes glued to his Nintendo DS (honestly, I don’t know what that is, but he told me that’s what it was). I was sure that I would spend most of my time watching two children immerse themselves in a fantasy world instead of enjoying Italy. The ten-year-old was in charge of the iPad and the Blackberry so that they could stay in touch with their parents the entire time they were gone.

What happened after the adults left was amazing. The kids put away the games, used the Blackberry sparingly and used the iPad to make a journal of our days for their parents. Wow.

They have a pool at home so they were comfortable in the water and we rotated in and out of the pool and the strong sunshine to the shade of an umbrella covered patio. We played endless games of Uno. We must have played over a hundred games in the three days I was there and I only won three. So I suppose that proves the saying “lucky in cards, unlucky in love”. Because if I am unlucky in cards, then I must be lucky in love, which I am. It was great for the kids…like a football player has a touchdown dance, these guys had their own “I won” dances (with songs too) that they videoed for the adults to watch later. I refused to dance when I won, so they did one for me.

A couple of hours into the first day they started to get restless and I said “Do you guys want to draw with me?” fully expecting them to look at me like I had suggested cleaning the oven or something. Instead they said sure and got out their papers and crayons and I took out my drawing kit. From the second they saw my pens and some of my drawings they couldn’t get enough of drawing. They drew pictures of the landscape for their parents and the others. I let them use everything in my kit and they had the best time learning about color and line and how water works with my watercolor pens to make something different from what they are used to.

The second day I was there we were in the middle of one of our drawing sessions and having a conversation about the importance of drinking water (even when drawing), when the seven-year-old turned to me and asked “Were you made for babysitting?” with this completely serious look on his face. He really wanted to know if this was true. At that moment I felt like Mary Poppins or Maria von Trapp, without the great singing voice. I didn't know how to answer that. It's possible that I was. Maybe I should get him to write me a reference.

We spent those three days going on adventure walks (to discover new bugs for the seven-year-old boy), we swam, we played Uno and when they got bored they would ask to draw with a very hopeful look in their eyes. By the time I left, they were asking for specific lessons in color and shading. Well, what she said is “How do I make it not look flat?“ which is achieved through shadow and light. They are each going home with a portrait  of themselves I made while they were drawing and a stack of their own drawings that will help them to remember this trip as they saw it on those days. And I hope the enthusiasm to continue drawing during the trip and when they get home.

So I would just like to say now, for all those people who thought my degree in art would never find a use in this life…ha! It may be an unconventional way, but I am using my college degree to mold little minds and open their eyes up to see the world in a different way. Feels pretty good, I have to say. I think I can offer babysitting services with the option to add drawing/painting lessons, piano/music lessons, cooking/baking lessons...who knows? Sorry Dad, it looks like I may end up being some kind of a teacher after all.

Friday, July 1, 2011

My First Midsommer Fest

One last post about Sweden, I swear. I have to write about Midsommer, because for me this is the most exciting part of the trip. I have never celebrated this holiday before and the Swedes I have talked to about this seem to have differing opinions.

One woman said that I (like many Swedes) will hope for the sun but will most likely spend the day in the rain. She said it won’t be disappointing, but it won’t be what I expect. Except I don’t know what I think I will see. People in traditional Swedish dress dancing around a pole, maybe?

One man said that it is nothing special. You eat hot dogs and pizza. Maybe drink too much. I think he either goes to the wrong parties or has unrealistic expectations. And then he told me to look out for the little frogs, whatever that means.

Leif described Midsommer as everyone dancing and singing around a decorated pole that is a fertility symbol. There would be traditional foods like herrings and strawberries. He wiggled his eyebrows at me and said that the lucky girls get invited to go for a late night walk in the woods.

As you can see, no one truly agreed on what I should expect. So when the morning of the festival began bright and sunny I was excited. Maybe it would be a beautiful day after all. I had been told that we were going to spend the day in Sk√§nninge, which is not pronounced like it looks, but like “whanning-gah.” Sort of. Swedish is a language filled with many vowels and I am only beginning to learn the first few rules of pronunciation. The first rule is always have a Swedish mother-tongue person standing next to you as a reference tool. The second rule is don’t get frustrated, sometimes even Swedes can’t explain why a word is pronounced a certain way, it just is.

Leif’s sister Ingela brought an armful of flowers into the kitchen and told me we had to make the flower wreaths for our hair. She handed me a spool of thread, pointed to the flowers and told me to do what she did. I hadn’t really planned on being creative, but I did want to wear some pretty flowers in my hair, so I sat down and waited for her to start. First we took some blue flowers that were symbolic of their region (like the Lady Slipper is the state flower for Minnesota) and tied those together. They look sort of like blue bachelor buttons. Then a lavender-pink flower, then some daisies, then back to the blue flowers and repeat till it fits around your head. The name for daisies in Sweden translates to “priests collars” which I think is a very poetic name. Less poetic is the translation of their name for Queen Ann’s Lace, which is something like “dog biscuits.”

My wreath didn’t look too bad for a first attempt; it faintly resembled a circle and didn’t fall apart. It was a little sparse in places but I figured I could put that at the back and at least I wouldn’t know it was there. Ingela made a wreath for her six year old daughter and a little posy for herself because we were running out of flowers. Then it was time to pack the cooler and get ready to leave for the “event.”

Apparently we weren’t staying in Sk√§nninge but going to another place where Leif’s older niece was going to perform in a play after the dancing. So we drove out to the middle of nowhere and in a little park we got ready to celebrate. We were the only ones there for awhile and I wasn’t sure if there would be much going on, but then people started to come from everywhere. I think it’s like the 4th of July in the States where every town has their own celebration, no matter small they are. It rained on and off while we waited for the fun to begin. First rain and wind cold enough for jackets, then sun and still so that all the layers had to come off and I could feel my nose getting sunburned. Then back to rain and jackets. So I guess that part of the prediction was true. There will be rain.

I will do my best to describe things…it all happened kind of fast and some of the translation didn’t keep up so my impressions are sometimes confused. I sincerely apologize to all my Swedish friends for taking your favorite holiday and completely misrepresenting it.

The pole, or fertility symbol, is shaped like a cross, with a hoop hanging from each arm. All of it is covered in green leaves. I later found out that there are usually flowers woven into the greens, but not on this particular pole. Everyone ignores the pole until a man with an accordion starts warming up and a person with a microphone (a woman in our case) in traditional dress tells everyone to get over to the pole so things can get started. The crowd begins to separate into circles around the pole and the music starts. Everyone from babies to grandparents line up to dance together and celebrate summer’s arrival. I think.

Here’s where the little frogs come in. The first song is about a little frog with no ears and no tail (there are actions to all these songs, did I mention that?) With only a little stretch of the imagination, this is the Swedish version of the bunny hop. Then there is a song where each consecutive circle turns in a different direction, but I can’t remember what the song is about. Then there is one about a car going in the ditch, again with actions that include a rush toward the pole and a sudden drop to the ground. I’m not sure, maybe the driver was trying to avoid the little frogs from the first song. Then there was a song that was about animals and seemed to be a strange marriage of the Hokey-Pokey and Old McDonald.

I’m sorry if I can’t be clearer about this. I was watching probably a hundred people in modern dress dance in circles around a clearly ancient symbol in the middle of the woods to the accompaniment of an accordion that played exactly like my father plays. While all the songs were considered traditional, I’m pretty sure no one was singing about cars a hundred years ago. I’m pretty sure the final dance to the ice cream give-away was also not part of the original celebration. I was also slightly distracted because I was patiently waiting for my date to ask me to dance around the fertility symbol with pretty flowers in my hair, which he finally did and then my day was perfect.

Oh, yes, we did eat herrings (three kinds) and new potatoes with sour cream and fresh chives and meatballs and strawberries and one small glass of schnapps. And darn it, the prediction about hot dogs was correct, but I chose not to have one. As for the invitation to explore the woods, well…

The Swedish Bike

There are so many bike trails in Sweden I can hardly believe it. As we drive from town to town you can see the paths follow the highway. I think the only place a biker really has to get on a street with a car is when they get to the centers of towns or the little residential street. And even there, if you know where to look, you can find bike paths The little town that Leif grew up in is crisscrossed with walking/biking paths that often don’t even follow the road but slip behind or between houses to connect one part of town with another.

On Thursday we were supposed to do another excursion with the car (still sounds way more sophisticated than road trip, which sounds like we are looking for cheap liquor and the possibility of jail time) but his brother got sick and had to cancel. His father didn’t want us to miss anything, so around 8am he suggested a ride on the bikes. He had been missing his rides while we were there and this seemed a good time to go. After all, the sun had been shining since about 4am. It was a beautiful day.

So Tord on his bike, Leif on his road bike, and me on his mom’s bike headed out. This was not an even playing field. Leif’s road bike was the obvious king here, but Tord had the advantage of riding this course every other day all summer AND he had three gears. I had a one speed bike with a foot brake and a certain amount of rust. I was twelve the last time I rode my purple and silver Schwinn. This was gonna be hard. Just remembering where my feet needed to be when I put on the brakes was tough, because if they weren’t in the right place I couldn’t get my foot down fast enough to stop myself from falling over. I wasn’t going to succumb to gravity again.

We headed out on the bike paths through town. I was pretty impressed with myself as I got used to riding sitting up (feels strange) with my hands holding a curved set of handlebars (way more comfortable on my wrists right now, but sure to become annoying later) and learning to pedal only so fast and no faster, or I just spin my feet uselessly. The sun went behind some clouds the instant we wheeled the bikes outside, but the rain waited till we were far enough away that returning home made no sense at all. It just kept raining, sometimes hard, sometimes just a sprinkle. Leif was the only one who brought a rain jacket. It is my opinion it would have been too hot to wear a jacket anyway. We rode to Linkoping (I think) where they suddenly left my comfortable bike trail and headed down a dangerously narrow road that I was pretty sure contained hills.

It was beautiful country, really. As I said before…so much like Minnesota. Pine trees and poplars and birches. Farms and animals. Made me sorry I hadn’t brought my camera. Then I remembered the rain (which was still falling, how could I forget?) and decided this was much better. It isn’t as flat as Minnesota though, and I approached the first hill with a little bit of fear in my heart. Why? Because I really wanted to impress my cycling boyfriend with my ability to ride and I know myself well enough to know that hills are not where I shine. At least I assume so, I have spent the last three years planning routes based on their lack of hills. So, yeah, my fear of hills is mostly in my own head.

We hit the first hill and…wow…I didn’t fall over or roll backwards. I didn’t have to walk the bike up. Of course, it wasn’t a big hill, but bigger than I usually want to tackle, even with all 21 gears. After that first hill the ride became fun again. OK, I won’t lie, I still approached each hill with just a little bit of uncertainty. It’s hard to drop a lifetime fear of hills in one short bike trip. But I do feel a whole lot better about riding my bike outside of Florence now when we go home.

We rode up and down the hills, through farms and forests and finally got back to the village as the rain stopped. Naturally. We all got out of our wet clothes and had our elevenses coffee and cookies. As we ate Leif and his dad talked. I could only listen, of course, because they were speaking Swedish. As we finished our coffee Leif said that his dad was impressed with me. He said that they had never seen their mother’s bike ridden that far or that fast before (she was a smoker before she passed away). Leif said that this ride was my official welcome into the family and the bike would be waiting for me the next time we visited.

If we weren’t all stoic Northern Europeans we might have had ourselves a little cry at that point.