Fika—coffee break at a castle in Vaxjo.
Sweden won my heart when I looked out the window of the train and saw an ad for a floor cleaning product that featured a man with a mop and bucket. I thought to myself, ‘Real Viking men aren’t afraid to mop the floor’. Within minutes, as the train pulled into Ronneby, Sweden, it became even better. Besides brandishing mops, Swedish men are also happy to stand on a train platform waving small American flags while wearing Arizona cowboy hats and boots as a sign of sincere welcome.
A Ronneby Rotary Welcome
Let me say that a greeting such as that sets you up to really like a country and their people. Glen, my husband, and I were in Sweden as part of a Rotary Friendship Exchange. We would live in the homes of Swedish Rotarians who had already been hosted by Rotary families in Arizona for the full tilt experience of the Grand Canyon state. Now it was our turn to visit Sweden to see and do as much as possible in the best way imaginable – living in the homes of our Swedish Rotary hosts. The seven Rotarians from Arizona would spend three – four days in each of three geographically diverse cities in Sweden; Karlskrona, on the Baltic Sea, Vaxjo ( no matter how you try to pronounce Vaxjo I guarantee it will be incorrect) among the hardwood forests, and Halmstad, a university city on the North Sea.
There is nothing so heart opening towards a place and culture as living with a family. Cooking, eating and sightseeing together melts stereotypes and cultural clichés. I think it is fair to say that before I spent two weeks living with three different Swedish families I had a preconceived notion of life in Sweden. From everything I had read and seen in the movies I imagined it populated by blond, attractive and fit outdoorsy people with orderly houses filled with IKEA furniture and one or two Volvos in the driveway. This was mostly true, but it is like saying that a tomato you buy at the grocery store is the same as a tomato you grow in your own garden. Because beneath the stoic, orderly Swedes we see depicted in the movies (mostly detective series) lies an incredibly fun loving, warm and generous folk. I guess what was missing from my original, surface expectations is what you might call their Viking souls.
It was late August and we had missed the famous Midsummer’s Eve festival of the solstice in June. But we were in time for the big forest mushroom hunts of late summer, as well as a celebration I had trouble absorbing as Swedish; ‘kraftsvika’. Kraftsvika, a traditional crayfish party, celebrates the last gasp of summer where everyone wears silly conical hats, a plastic bib decorated with a cartoon crayfish and gets ruddy faced from repeated toasting of ‘Skal’ to schnapps, with each toast followed by traditional Swedish songs. The Swedes possess a vast library of such songs which came as fast as we could think of things to toast. When the small glasses could not keep up with the pace of the toasts, our host circulated with his basket of different flavored schnapps among our equally red faced, singing, group of Rotarians with silly hats perched on our heads. I told myself, ‘This is the caring-sharing part of their Viking side.’ They truly want to share all the things they love about their country.
This desire to share included their national passion for foraging wild mushrooms and other edibles from the springy, moist ground of the vast silver birch forests. Sucking crayfish heads and toasting quantities of schnapps is one thing, but mushroom hunting gave me pause. I’d read a thing or two about the perils of eating wild mushrooms. To underscore that concern, our hostess in Vaxjo told a story while we were in fact, eating wild chanterelle mushrooms at dinner. I stopped with my fork midway to the story of how a family member had been poisoned and on the brink of death from eating the wrong mushroom at a dinner party. Oh, and two others at the party DID die – perhaps they ate more of the bad mushrooms. So I had some concerns when our wonderfully outdoorsy Swedish hosts in Halmstad handed me a basket on our morning walks in the forest behind their home.
Let me say right here that there is something wired into our DNA for foraging. After a quick lesson in how to avoid death by mushroom, I followed our friends Magnus and Kerstin through a silver birch forest with my eyes riveted to likely mushroom spots. Now I know how the gold miner feels striking ore. It became a personal challenge to find those yellow, lacy, chanterelle beauties hiding among the lichen and leaves of the forest. I soon struck out on my own and an hour later was interrupted by August, the family chocolate lab that had come to retrieve me from my new obsession. Just to be sure I didn’t kill anyone, Magnus, a mushroom sage, checked my basket to make sure I had not been tricked by any ‘knock-offs’.
With my foraging DNA awakened, each morning I grabbed my basket and headed out with our hosts and their two hunting dogs to gather chanterelles. One of the dogs was good at finding the chanterelles but sometimes he ate them before I could pick them. Sort of a variation on a truffle hound. This national foraging passion makes rain a lot more appealing prospect than I would otherwise consider. More rain – more mushrooms and berries. On the third morning of gathering, I realized that somehow, in not so wet Arizona, I had to find a way to keep foraging.
The only difficult part of a Rotary Friendship Exchange is saying farewell to your new friends. It was truly like family where everyone is a favorite because you know their distinct and wonderful qualities. After 10 days of living with our hosts, we boarded the train for a five hour ride from the west coast of Sweden to Stockholm. It felt strange to negotiate the big city without our Swedish families to ease our way and point out the best things to see and do. Somehow we muddled through on our own and walked miles through cobblestoned streets touring hip museums. I am still singing ‘Waterloo’ from hearing it about 50 times at the ABBA museum. Meetings and luncheons with mayors, glass factories, boat and land tours, wildlife outings, parks, walks, Fikas (pastry and coffee!), museums, parties, …. Sadly, we had to leave our Swedish friends and hope to see them back in Arizona or ….. who knows, maybe I need to check out winter in Sweden! Thank you dear friends.