Monday, September 30, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: OMG

Today I registered my intention to register for the Tjejvättern cycle event in Sweden next June.

That's right, I had to register to register, like pre-registering only I still have to register when registration is open. But I had to register my intent to get the magic numbers I will need to actually register tomorrow. It feels like I've fallen into a weird Swedish Abbot and Costello skit on wheels.

And they have this stress-inducing "count down to the ride" in days, hours, minutes and yes, by God, seconds on their website. I'm already worried that 249 days, 11 hours, 24 minutes and 54 seconds aren't enough for me to prepare. Which is ridiculous because it's not an actual race, just a timed ride through the bucolic Swedish countryside with 6500 other women from around the world.

I kind of feel like throwing up. Or at least I'd like to announce my intention to feel like throwing up.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


I'm from Minnesota, where the winters are long, cold, and snowy. Did I mention cold? There are already rumblings on the social networks that cold is coming and the feelings are definitely mixed. Those with allergies can't wait for the killing frost, the rest just aren't ready for it. Winterizing is something that happens every year and it happens in nearly every aspect of life. We used to change the tires on our cars to snow tires and change the oil from 10Wsomething to 10Wsomething thinner (I'm no car expert) We use special windshield cleaner fluid and carry an assortment of emergency things "just in case" like blankets and shovels and sand. We take the screens off and put on the storm windows. We insulate things we don't want to freeze, like pipes and plants. We bring out the big box of winter outerwear and make sure the boots don't leak. It'serious business in Minnesota, this winter thing.

In Florence winter isn't the life-threatening season I'm used to. It's a kinder, gentler winter. But as I approach my third winter here I have to be honest; even if it isn't -20F it's still pretty darn cold. Call me soft if you must, but when the temperature plunges down to 40F and it's so damp it rains all the time and the concept of heating has barely left the Middle Ages it's impossible to get warm.

This year we will winterize, as much as is possible. First on my list, mostly because they were on sale,  I can carry it myself and it will make life a thousand times more bearable this winter is a clothes iron.

I sense confused looks out there. I don't blame you. If you're from the States you consider a clothes dryer an essential appliance and can't even imagine life without one. Not so here in Italy. Dryers are inefficient users of energy and energy is expensive here so most homes don't have a dryer. In the summer laundry decorates every balcony and window ledge, in the winter it's a complicated system involving some time outside, then to a rack in front of a radiator (rotating everything so every piece gets some front row time.) It can take up to a week to dry thick items (so all those heavy snuggly hoodies we love in MN don't work here) and even then it still feels damp so the smart casalinga (housewife) uses an iron to finish the drying process. Who cares about wrinkles? What's important is getting the clothes dry before wearing them.

Today I bought my iron and I'm not gonna lie. I'm totally thrilled at the idea of wearing something not only dry but with that just-out-of-the-dryer kind of warmth that makes winter bearable. Bring it on, Jack Frost.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: The lost month

I think we just have to consider August a lost month when it comes to riding. Other than taking a few pictures of bikes and going to the Bianchi Cafe & Cycle Shop in Stockholm I didn't really get near a bike. Yes, there is a heaven and it's the bike shop that also serves espresso and sells  prosciutto and olive oil. You can sip your coffee while touching all the bikes in the shop and even take them for a test ride. Someone was having the time of his life surrounded by brand new Bianchi bicycles.

Even though I didn't ride, cycling was never very far from my thoughts. Impossible as nearly everyone who hosted us is a Cyclist or at least rides regularly (that would be cyclist with a little "c".) So I got my fill of looking at bikes and talking about riding.

Sometimes this was good for me. One friend gave me a pair of wheels that he had replaced "just because". I suppose just because there was a faster wheel available and he couldn't wait till this pair wore out. Possible, as this is the same guy who got all excited to get a super light cage for his water bottle. Honestly I don't see where a gram here or there makes a difference, but it does to the avid Cyclist. All I know is I have to thank him for his generous gift, which I've already tested out and, oh yeah, they're waaaaaay faster than my old wheels. I will have fun riding with them.

Which is good because I sort of got myself into a situation. The first week in Sweden we were staying with Leif's sister and I had the brilliant idea to suggest that we form a sisters group and ride the Tjejvättern. Go ahead, try to pronounce it. (shay-vet-tahn) It's a 100k race (but not actually a race) that happens every June and is open to any woman 15+ years old. So qualifying isn't tough. I was pretty surprised when Ingela said "Sure! It's a good excuse to start riding." Which pretty much means unless she pulls out I have to do it.

Well, Leif got pretty excited about the whole thing and started telling people that I would be riding in the Tjejvättern next year. I would have to say that by now hundreds (after this post hundreds + a couple more) of people have heard that I'm riding in this event. It no longer matters if my Swedish sister rides or not. I'm committed due to Leif's total excitement for me. I'm sure I'll thank him someday.

So as time goes by I'll keep you posted on my progress. My goal is to remember when I'm scheduling my work to block out time for riding every week. That's the hardest part for me. Not the riding, but remembering to make the time for it. Wish me luck...

Friday, September 13, 2013

Never, ever go grocery shopping without eating first

I broke one of the cardinal rules regarding grocery shopping. I went shopping hungry. We're lucky I didn't bring home one of everything in the store (except octopus, I still can't even look at them  as I walk by).

I thought I'd be paying the price for this mistake for days, but it turns out that 1) it's possible to eat an entire can of Pringles Sour Cream and Onion chips in one sitting and 2) Oreos only come in packs of 16 cookies here so it's not even really a dangerous number to consume in one or two days. I didn't even need the whole liter of milk.

So, crisis averted, kind of. Everything was eaten in less than 48 hours and I don't feel guilty at all. Really.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Remember the garden?

Before I tell you about my little garden-that-could I want to confess something. I think I have blog ADD. I have a million posts started and never finished. Perhaps I need to focus more, or drink more, or something. It's just that there's so much happening out there that I don't want to be stuck sitting inside typing something probably only my mother reads with regularity. And it's entirely possible that she fudges at times and tells me she's read it when in fact it's at the bottom of her list of things to do. I'm OK with that.

So, if you recall, I went to a plant sale in the spring and went slightly nuts buying green things that I was pretty certain had a very slim chance of survival but I just couldn't resist. I was doing really well; watering and weeding and pruning all summer. Everything looked lovely, especially my rose. And then, da duh DAAAAH, a month long vacation in Sweden.

Because I'm a heartless woman I just watered the hell out of them and said a quiet goodbye. Because I'm not completely heartless I did think about them several times while I was gone. When we came back I found a cluster of potted dried herbs and a rose bush that trembled and dropped dead leaves and petals every time I walked by it.

I dragged it out to the terrace, leaving a trail of crunchy leaves and brown petals behind us where I decided "what the heck" and started trimming off everything that looked dead. That left me with about five long green stalks with thorns and nothing else. Being a farm kid and life-long plant killer I thought there was an outside chance I hadn't killed it completely. 


I cut off everything that looked brown and kept the sticks that looked green. And I watered them every day...I may have hummed and offered words of encouragement like "You don't look nearly as bad as I though you would." And all this attention has paid off.

A few days after amputating all the dead stuff I thought I noticed little green buds forming along the stems, then convinced myself that I was simply so desperate for it to survive that I was imagining things. A few days later my imaginary buds had grown longer, and today they have the tiniest little leaves everywhere.

I feel like a surgeon bringing a patient back from the dead. A surgeon who walked away from the operating table a month ago and suddenly remembered (probably during a golf game) that I had left something undone and rushed back to see if there was any miracle working to be done.

I'm curious now to see if it will actually bloom or if I've killed it enough where it only has the energy to sprout a leaf here and there. Or (and this it totally my guilty conscience talking here) if this experience will only make it stronger and next year the blooms will be even bigger and more beautiful. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A month? In Sweden? Whatever did you do?

At the end of the trip we were still talking to each other.
Can't ask for much more from a month long vacation.
I should have put up a sign here, chiuso per ferie, or closed for vacation since that what all the businesses in Italy do for the month of August.

I didn't head for the coast as most Italians do but for Sweden and a month long road trip that covered both coasts and the lower third of the country. It's not like we set out to plan a trip like this, it just worked out that we had a car and friends insisted we come for a visit. We haven't been able to visit much on our other trips so this time we decided we'd do things right and visit as many people as possible while we were there.

I had the brilliant idea to take a picture of the city sign for each place we visited and for the most part I think I got it done, but there were times when I just couldn't remember. I blame Leif, not because he did anything but because I can't think of a good excuse for myself.

So without further ado, our trip in pictures and words. I hope either of them makes sense. I'm still feeling a little jet lagged, although I'm pretty sure that jet lag is impossible when travelling by car.

The trip started in Florence with a champagne breakfast.
Hey, it was in the fridge and wouldn't keep
till we got back. Not my fault.

Leif's home town. Base camp, so to speak.
We were actually able to go to the beach this year, unusual
for a Swedish August and the best part is that it's only
two blocks from the house.
Sorry, no picture of the sign.
We watched Leif's nephew for the weekend.
So kind of like work but more fun.
Again, no sign. There are probably supposed to be all kinds
of dots somewhere here. Besides over the i's.
A visit with Leif's Alpha Romeo friend Arne.
I'm sure we talked about something besides cars, but
I can't remember what.
Yet another sign I missed. Hmmm.
Adventure golf with Leif's sister and nieces.
I didn't totally suck and the sun was shining
so a great day all around.

I felt so great getting this hole in one shot, until
Ingela told me that the ball doesn't actually go
through the spiral. Totally surprised me there.

The bonus hole, getting the ball into the chicken's mouth
so it can "lay" the ball on the other end.
Stayed with Leif's sister and family in
Skänninge. No matter how you say it,
I'll bet you're getting the pronunciation wrong.
And sometimes the signs are in the old
spelling. Yeah, learning Swedish ain't gonna be easy.

And now the road trip begins in earnest.
We visited no one in this city but it had to be included

...they have an honest to gosh castle
with a moat. A must see.

Then a nice coffee stop on our way
in the city that does candy canes
the right way.
FYI polkagris are little peppermints.

Like Minnesota, lots of towns are on lakes.
This one is on a BIG lake. (not the biggest)

Our first stop.
We were lucky to stay with cycling friends Glenn and Lena
in a beautiful little town. They gave us the most
perfect Italian dinner. Made me homesick.
Also I've sort of agreed to do a bike race in Sweden
next year. More on that another time.
Off the next morning and stopped here...

...for a coffee with Ola. We're lucky that people
don't mind us calling out of the blue for coffee.
Here we stayed for a few days. Well, not
at the bus stop, of course. With friends.

We ate sushi (my 3rd time) and wore multiple layers.
Not as warm at the coast as inland.

Met with Leif's Danish friend Martin.
Again for coffee. We were adequately caffeinated
the whole trip.

Our host Peter. He was patience itself with us and
we were lucky to stay with him.

After days of cold and almost rain we headed back, stopping
once again in Gränna for coffee and the tastiest
little pastries. Candied almonds around
pear butter dipped in dark chocolate.
I wish I had bought a million of them.
You'd think I'd remember these signs,
especially since it's only 20k from home base.
Coffee (again) with our friend Fredrik who visited
us recently in Florence. Somehow I missed
getting him in the picture. Shy guy.

This was a visit we wish we wouldn't have had to make.
A former colleague of Leif's passed away.
The service was in a lovely church.
FYI, when they say that there will be sweets
and cake with the coffee, there will probably be
another cake besides the one you see on the table.
Totally surprised me...I was filling up on the
goodies I could see.

Next we traveled "up north". But not really, because
Sweden is incredibly long and this town is only a
third of the way up there.
Grill master P-O at work. A cyclist friend of Leif's. I'm aware
I say that alot, and he does have friends who aren't cyclists.

Several bottles of Italian wine were
consumed in the quest for the perfect meal.
Mission accomplished.

We stopped in Motala on the way back.
Swedes love candy. It's no secret or generalization.
The sign on the door says 500 different kinds of goodies.
The sign on the building boasts 600. I didn't count them.
These stores are everywhere.

Back to Skänninge and Leif's sister to share
our anniversary dinner of hamburgers and
prosecco with my father-in-law.
He's a closet romantic, he brought me roses.
Then to Sturefores for coffee (!) with the neighbors.

As luck would have it there was a bike race in Linköping
the night before we left for Stockholm. We even ran into
old team mates of Leif's. Not literally of course.

Our home away from home (away from home) near Stockholm.
Whose sign I never got a picture of, which is funny because
they're everywhere. 

Leif and Royne waiting for our steamship to board for the
trip through the archipelago. Part of it, anyway.
Sitting at the rail so we don't miss anything.

The island we went to for lunch.
I had fried Baltic herring with mashed potatoes
and lingon berry sauce. My goal this trip was to
try as many typical Swedish dishes as possible.

Sadly, I can't even remember the name of the town.
But you guessed it, another cycling friend Magnus and
his wife Greta. There's also a cat, but she was camera shy.
The main reason for staying so long, the wedding of dear
friends Per and Helena on a beautiful day in Stockholm.
Their happiness covered the city in sunshine.

Leaving the reception. We have yet to perfect taking our own pictures
in a way to show off my carefully considered wardrobe.
I mean really, there was no mirror so Leif had to take a picture
of me in each outfit till I found what I wanted.
A quick one night stop and dinner with our priest, Leif's brother and family, childhood friend Gregor and his fiance Mona, and Fredrik. I totally forgot to take any pictures so imagine yet another bottle of prosecco being shared with dear friends and family. The next morning we packed up the car (with less discussion about what goes in and what stays than one might think) and headed down south for our last visit before leaving Sweden.

A beautiful lake just north of Horn, where Leif's mother grew up.
Reminds me of Minnesota.

Lunch at the Swedish version of McDonaald's called Scan.
Probably not my brightest moment. It stuck with me far too long
and made it's presence known rather unpleasantly.
But the fries were great!

A beautiful little town, perfect for a final visit.
Our host Sten pouring one of his home brews.

He sort of looks like he's conquered the world, doesn't he?
Wonderful day seeing the sights.

Coffee at the top of the cliff. A perfectly silent and beautiful spot.

Leif and Eva, a former colleague and friend.. Oh, also wife
of Sten and our gracious hostess.
I have no pictures from this town, but Leif worked here
for two years at Volvo.

On our way to the beach. They have thatched roofs! I made him
stop numerous times. They just don't do thatch in MN.

The beautiful white sand beach at the Baltic Sea.
That black dot behind me is Leif. I swear.

Me doing my bit to thank Sweden for keeping its beaches free
(take note, Italy) by cleaning up my section of beach.
For me, this is where the trip became surreal. Like watching a movie 3/4 of the way through and then fast forwarding through the rest. It's a blur, other than my displeasure with Germany for charging more per liter for water than for gas.AND fixing all the taps in the bathroom so they only give warm/hot water. Something's wrong there. Also, the autobahn is definitely not the road to take if you want to enjoy the scenery. At 120kph everything you see is out of the corners of your eyes as you whiz by. But there are a few highlights.

The sign says "Last exit in Sweden" I suppose in case you really
don't want to go to Denmark.

The first of three bridges connecting Denmark
to itself and the rest of Europe.

Copenhagen. We never actually went into town. But now I can
say I've driven by it.

The second bridge. I seem to have forgotten to include
the third bridge. It's smaller. Denmark charges you
to use these bridges. Kind of a bummer but at least
they let me use my Swedish crowns.

As I said, the scenery goes by so fast it's impossible to sight see
I got bored. Here we are traveling at the speed of light.
At least it felt that way.

This isn't exciting till you know that the seat is twirling
around. That's right, it's being sanitized for my
protection as I stand there, totally amazed.

We went through Innsbruck. Quite a trip. There aren't those
big signs like in the US "YOU ARE NOW ENTERING MINNESOTA"
Just discreet little signs with writing too small to read inside
a circle of stars. Impossible to photograph.
Two days, four languages, five countries.I wouldn't recommend trying this if you're really interested in seeing the sights. But as experiences go, something that had to be done.