How to be a Viking.

My life has taken some unusual turns right now. I’m writing this on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I will see my dad’s entire family for the first time, ever – the last time we had a complete family reunion, my cousin Pablo wasn’t even born yet. Despite the joy that it will bring me to see my family, some of whom I am ashamed to admit I haven’t seen in years, it’s not a happy occasion. But more on that later.

Despite the turmoil over my grandmother’s illness that seemed to make me permanently melancholy over the last ten days, some thing don’t change. I have great friends here and I like to get out and do things. Last week my friend Reto, who is doing an exchange semester from Switzerland where he is working on his bachelor’s degree in Bern, gathered us on the roof of our dorm for grilled sausages and beer. It was a lovely evening.

“There’s a reason why I invited all of you here tonight,” said Reto, or at least something like that.

We were surprised: we thought this was just a party on the roof, not an occasion.

“I saw a poster for something called the Extreme Viking Challenge, and I thought maybe you would want to make a team for it.”

Before he even described what the event was, I knew I was in. Some of my other classmates were less sure. But after he described the six-kilometer course through the woods that included obstacles and climbing walls, and told us that if we could complete it we would become true Vikings and earn a place in Valhalla, everyone said that they would at least come watch those of us who were foolhardy enough to attempt the race.

I checked the weather no Friday night: rain in the forecast for race day. Given that organizers had already promised plenty of mud, I tried to psych myself up and think about what I could wear that would be the least miserable in the conditions. The next morning we took a bus to a random stop in the middle of some farm fields and walked down a dirt road in search of the race, following intermittent signs scattered among the barns, tractors, and a sawmill.

By the time we got to the venue – actually a paintball range, complete with mazes of bunkers, towers, and a gutted schoolbus – we were already wet and cold. The organizers offered us camoflage onesies in case we didn’t want to get our clothes muddy, but I couldn’t imagine being weighed down by a full-body cotton suit, so I turned it down.

When race start rolled around we walked into the woods, slipping even without trying to run. I was cautious as we finally took off down the road, but still somehow was in the lead even though I was jogging; I guess everyone else was even more worried than I was about both the mud and the upcoming obstacles. In short order we hung a sharp left over a ditch into the woods, and the fun began. First, crawling up a web of tires hung over a huge boulder face.

A man in a bright pink shirt scrambled up them faster than I did, and as we set off into the woods I tried to match his pace. He was nimble jumping over downed limbs and avoiding branches that seemed to conveniently hang just at face-level; it was easier for me to follow him. The course was marked by one or two lines of surveyor’s tape strung along between trees and stakes in the ground, which sometimes stopped or changed direction abruptly. While the man in pink had to follow the route, I could just follow his very bright shirt.

After mucking around in the woods we came out in a large cornfield, where I was able to catch up but we were weighed down by the mud that stuck to our shoes in larger and larger clumps – it was like wearing snowshoes. On the other side we tried to kock the mud off, only semi-successfully. After some more fun in the woods we were again in a field, and this time we had to sling a log over our shoulders and run out around a rock in the middle and back again.

I wasn’t cold anymore: I was having a blast.

The rest of the course was just as advertised. One section was a real swamp, with water that came up to my knees. Somehow, the man in pink manage to power through and keep running. The grass was so knotted that it tripped me up, and there was a lot of deadfall that I had to climb over – I was afraid I wasn’t nimble enough to jump without knowing how deep the water was on the other side. In a few places, I was worried that my shoes would be sucked off by the mud.

The obstacles were much more fun. Besides a few walls, there were also large barricades made of logs stacked one on top of another; fun to climb over. At one point we came back into one of the original fields and snaked back and forth over a series of obstacles. Logs one after another as a long line of balance beams running the length of a ditch; nets to crawl under, ensuring that we get intimate with the mud; running through tires; throwing ourselves up, onto, and over a collection of concrete retaining walls. One was high enough that I didn’t make it on my last attempt.

When we re-entered the woods there was more. Nets to climb up and over, wires to traverse, monkey pars (slippery in the rain!) to swing across, more pathfinding through the forest, and finally, a rope swing across a small “pond” (or really more like a giant, muddy, intentional puddle). The rope was so slippery that I fell off halfway across. And then: I popped out back on the road and slid my way to the finish. I had never caught the man in pink, later revealed to be a serious mountain biker, after he left me in the swamp, but I was the second person to finish and I was quite happy.

That gave me the chance to go back and watch a few of my friends as they made their way through the zig-zag field. I cheered especially hard for Katie, who is a tiny, tiny English girl and was at a distinct disadvantage for all of the height-related obstacles. I actually helped her over a couple of the taller concrete walls.

The sense of accomplishment we felt was very real: Katie and Daniel, in particular, I don’t think had ever done anything like this. It wasn’t just something that was fun for me to do, the crazy girl who goes running and rollerskiing and exercises more than the other masters students think is comprehensible, but it was fun for all of us. And it was fun to do together. I think it brought us together.

Reto, whose idea this was in the first place, enjoyed the course so much that he went out and did it a second time. After we changed into dry clothes, we sat around waiting for him, eating snacks. The organizers also ran the paintball range and offered us the chance to play, but we decided to take a rain check (literally) and come back on a sunny day – the longer I sat waiting for Reto, the colder I became. The warmth I felt while I was racing was replaced by all-consuming daydreams about a hot shower.

Just before we left, I was offered my prize for being the first woman across the line: a swig of fine Viking cognac. Contrary to belief, the bottle was already half-empty when I poured myself a glass! Not bad for a rainy Saturday, and it sure beat sitting in my room being glum about the weather.

Arholma. Our home.

Winter is coming, they say. I’m not bothered by winter – in a lot of ways I can’t wait – but this is Sweden, and they’re probably right. Every sunny day, every bright weekend, we have to make the most of it. We aren’t going to get so many more.

That’s what I thought about last week as the weekend drew nearer. We didn’t even have homework yet, how lucky was that? Before the dark and rain and busy schedules came, we needed to get away. So I mentioned the idea of heading to an island in the Baltic, which was accepted by my classmates, and then went about the task of selecting which island. The Stockholm archipelago has between 30,000 and 35,000 islands, islets, and reefs. Many of the larger islands are served by ferries and have hostels, and each and every one looked like a wonderful place to spend a three-day weekend. After waffling for a long time, I arbitrarily picked the island of Arholma, because it was one of the northernmost choices, almost exactly due east of Uppsala. I made reservations for ten at the whimsically-named Bull August hostel, and as soon as we got out of class on Friday at lunchtime, we were all giddy with delight.

Of the seven MEME students here in Uppsala, six were coming, plus our classmate Inga, a Latvian who is on exchange in our Evolutionary Processes class, and Paul, a MEME from the first cohort, who was bringing his friend Sophia, also starting her masters here in Uppsala. We split into teams to shop for groceries and alcohol before heading to the station and getting on a bus for Norrtalje.

Since my camera was buried under sliced cheese and lunchmeat, I borrowed Min Ya’s camera to take this photo. It was beautigul in the late afternoon light! This part of Sweden is quite rollingly flat, and reminded me of home a little bit: lots of fields, some forests, big red barns. Of course, a lot of things didn’t look like home either. But it was nice to chat as we watched the landscape pass by on the other side of the window. After transferring buses in Norrtalje, we went on to Simpnas, a little town on the coast. We tumbled out of the bus and onto a ferry and were literally laughing and smiling like little children: that’s how happy we were. We were at the sea! On a boat! On vacation with no obligations! It’s hard to explain exactly how deeply happy I was at that moment, but I think it’s a feeling that we all shared. A photo I stole from Min Ya (L-R: Andrés, Romain, Daniel, Paul, Katie, Inga, me):

When we got off the ferry, we were surrounded by people going home: there were happy hugs, and an ecstatic black lab who was reunited with its owner. The island’s residents hopped on their bikes, which were parked in a big collection on the other side of the harbor, and cycled off down the main dirt road. I had no information about where the hostel was other than that it was an 800 meter walk from the ferry. After looking at a map posted on a signboard to get the general idea that we needed to go south, we began lugging our backpacks and grocery bags down the road. It was quiet, except for us – as always, boisterous, loud, probably pretty obnoxious to anyone who is not a MEME themself…

I got to explain the phrase “cow marshmallows.”

The first view of Bull August was just as lovely as I had expected from the website. That night, we cooked up some pasta and ate it outside on the lawn before retiring to the kitchen to play cards and enjoy some of the dearly expensive wine we had brought with us. Freedom!

There was an Ornithological Expedition, led by Inga, scheduled for 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, but it didn’t leave on time, a casualty of the evening’s activities. Around 8:45, I quietly crept out of the girls’ bunkroom, slipped on my running shoes, and began jogging south to the other end of the islands. After a few more hayfields, I entered an almost completely wooded area that I assumed was part of the nature reserve that covers a large portion of the island. 15 minutes later, I made it to Granö, a ferry dock on the southeastern edge of the island. With a grand total of six square kilometers, there wasn’t too far for me to run.

I turned around and when I was almost back to Bull August, I met the Ornitholodical Expedition, consisting of just three people: Inga, Daniel, and Romain. Although I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and it was much too chilly to be dressed so lightly (this is Sweden, after all) when you weren’t moving, I turned on my heel and joined them. As we walked along the road, Inga pointed out birds to us, but we also tried to identify some flowers, and, in Daniel’s case, eat them.

We turned on a side road that ended up just being the driveway to a farm (there aren’t really any roads other than the main one…) but continued our birdwatching nonetheless – and also saw a bevy of tiny frogs in the moss on the side of the road. They were really cute. Taking advantage of the right to roam laws and mentality in this great country, we cut across a hayfield and through the woods before ending up on the dock facing a small, calm, perfectly flat channel and another small island. We lay down on the wood planks and soaked up the sun (I was cold). It was perfectly quiet – something we encountered over and over again but never ceased to be amazing.

After heading back to the hostel to eat breakfast and collect our later-sleeping companions, we packed sandwiches and embarked on an expedition. The goal: swimming. Other than that, we didn’t have much direction. We wanted to go to the eastern coast of the island so we could look out into the sea, not at the mainland, so we walked towards Österhamn, the eastern village of the island. Then we turned north. A driveway petered out into a dirt track through the woods. We kept going.

There were mushrooms for Daniel to inquire about, and lingonberries and blueberries for the rest of us to eat. The heather was deep and cushioning whenever we stepped into the trees.

The track wound back and forth, albeit gently. Still, we had no idea where on the island we were going to end up, and we began wondering if we were heading straight north instead of to the shore. Romain ventured off into the woods to try to cut over to the water and returned saying that we were close. Around just a few more corners, we found it: the sea.

To backtrack all the way to Simpnas, the atmosphere here wasn’t what I was expecting. The air didn’t have that salty tang that I associate with the ocean, be it Atlantic or Pacific – and that’s what I wanted. But the Baltic, my classmates pointed out, is not an ocean. It’s a sea. And so it’s not even that salty. In my head, I had forgotten how separate the Baltic is from the Atlantic proper – Denmark really rears its little head in there and cuts off the connection. Instead, it felt more like I was at one of the Great Lakes. I wondered if the water would be as cold.

Well, it wasn’t as cold as Superior, but it was pretty chilly. Daniel was the only one who was enthusiastic enough about swimming to actually backstroke his way around in our little bay. After jumping in and then wading a bit, I retreated back to the rocks to absorb the sun and warm up. We wrapped ourselves in towels and ate our lunch looking out at the water and the inevitable small island across from us. The wind came up and I began to get cold, so I put my clothes back on and explored the rocks a little bit; Romain went all the way around the next point to see what he could see.

Eventually it began to look like rain so we walked back through the forest to the hostel, and dug out the kubb set. Kubb is a Swedish lawn game that I learned back in Eugene from my friends Brian and Andrea; at the time, I thought, “this is great! I’m going to get to Sweden and already be an expert!” Anyone who knows me will laugh at that assertion, because the game involved throwing wooden sticks and we all know that hand-eye coordination has never been one of my strong points. But after taking a long time to attempt to explain the rules – you have five blocks and so does the other team, and you take turns throwing your six round sticks to try to knock over the other team’s blocks – we decided that it would be easier to just play.

We had a blast.

I think the woman who ran the hostel was laughing at how bad we were.

But that was okay.

While I was initially the expert, everyone else quickly caught up. Mainly, we were wildly inconsistent in our throwing abilities. After three round-robin tournaments we decided to challenge the German children who were also staying at the hostel, and did manage to beat them, thank goodness. Even with a language barrier, we’re better than six-year-olds! As the game ended it began hailing so we scurried inside.

That evening, we grilled sausages and played more card games. Talk eventually turned to philosophical questions that kept a few gentlemen up until five; I went to bed much before that. Ever since that “Sartre at 100” class I took my freshman year at Dartmouth, talk about philosophy kind of turns me off.

On our last morning, I woke up just a little bit earlier and tried to go for a real run. First I headed back to the port to see what time we needed to be on the ferry. Then I followed the dirt road north. Having been to the dock at the southern end of the island, I wanted to see the other end. Plus, the woman that ran the hostel said that the northern end was her favorite: the south, she said, was boring.

Can you believe how blue the sky is on Arholma?

“Arholma Nord” is another lodge/guest house that was a little out of our price range, but that’s where I was headed. They had tacked signs onto the trees along the road: 1000 meters. 800 meters. 400 meters. 200 meters. Like the previous morning, this wasn’t going to be a long run. I tried to blend in as I jogged through the compound and towards the water. The buildings were situated around a little inlet, so I didn’t get the wide-open sea view I wanted. Undeterred, I decided that I would just climb over the rocks until I got to a suitable place along the shore. So, as some tourists’ children watched before resuming their games, I headed off-piste and scrambled across the smooth boulders than sloped down into the water.

Up and down, avoiding big drops, looking for the best route: it reminded me of Grant Brook in my backyard in Lyme, where I had grown up hopping from rock to rock up and down the stream to keep myself busy. Only children have to develop a bit of ingenuity. But more than that, the rocks reminded me of Acadia, which has got to be one of my favorite places in the U.S… well, okay, I have a lot of favorites, but it’s really nice.

I found a spot on a point looking out into the sea, blocked by only a few small rocky islets. I sat in the wind and watched a boat go by; I watched huge birds pull fish from the water; I lay down and closed me eyes. Then I sat up, not wanting to waste the scenery. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I couldn’t see any people, only a single boat dock sticking out from behind a wooded outcropping around the corner. In a few hours, I’d be leaving the island. It seemed unbelievable.

Rather than cut back across the rocks, I decided to try a route through the woods. I cut over to where I had seen the dock, and found a house, but no driveway. Instead I followed the trace of a trail – more than a deer trail, less than anything else.

At times, I would lose the trail completely – poof, it was gone. But I could feel where it was, which direction I needed to go. It’s not a feeling I have really experienced before. But I’d keep going, and then the trail would magically re-appear again. Sometimes I was jogging over mossy rocks, others dodging the small trees and picking up caked mud on my calves. Eventually I was dumped out into the parking lot (if you can call it that – after all, there aren’t cars on the island) of Arholma Nord. I waved goodbye to the north side of the island and ran back down the dirt road, all the way back to Bull August, dragging my feet at the idea of leaving. The sheep in the fields stared at me; can I stay here with you? I thought.

When I arrived back at the hostel, Inga was out on a birding expedition and a few people were still asleep. I drank coffee with Paul and made myself an improvised breakfast based on the few things we had left: bread and nutella, an apple sliced and sprinkled with this amazing chili-salt-lime spice powder that Daniel had brought to Mexico. I don’t know how to describe it, but I also don’t know how I have lived without it up until this point in my life.

Everyone eventually stirred to life, and after packing up our bags and cleaning the rooms and the kitchen we waved goodbye to our hostess (I’m quite sure she was glad to see us go) and walked off down the road, with a few hours to kill before we had to be on a boat. Our first objective was to find the large tower that we had seen peeking through the trees, and hopefully climb it. We took a path around the east side of the island, but the tower hid itself from view. The boys got ahead of us but we resourceful girls noticed a trail with a sign, and guessed that it must lead to the tower. Leaving out backpacks at the bottom – there is no crime on Arholma – we climbed up the hill. I was wearing clogs, and Katie flats. It wasn’t ideal. But it also wasn’t long. At the top, we found the tower, although it was locked.

We sat, taking in the view and the last bit of quiet we’d have for a while.

Romain came climbing up out of the woods; from the road below, he could hear our voices. So there were five of us, in no hurry to get up and leave. After having known each other for just two and a half weeks, we have become remarkably close friends. We are very lucky that our group is as open and wonderful as it is; it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to land in this program without these connections.

(Romain took the picture of us girls, on Min Ya’s camera.)

Eventually, we made our way down the hill and over to the ferry. And then we left – back on a bus, then an hour at the bus station in Norrtalje, where we ate greasy, cheap gyros, and finally back to Uppsala. I was exhausted – but so happy.

“How was your weekend?” Our other friends and classmates asked. But I didn’t know where to start.

“It was great,” I’d say. “Incredible.”

They would nod.

Sunday Suppers in Flogsta.

Early on in this program, the seven of us heading to Uppsala for our first semester decided that we would have to have some group dinners. Ideas abounded: we would each cook something from our country! We’d have cocktails to match! It probably won’t end up being so fancy, but nonetheless we started our adventure on Sunday. Naturally, I volunteered to be the first cook. Really I don’t have many surprises up my sleeve.

I cast about for something suitably American, but was at a loss for what to cook. Hamburgers? Everyone has those. Fried chicken? I can’t cook that. I gave up on the all-American theme more or less.

It was a rainy day and after getting coffee for a long time around lunchtime, a few of my classmates came over to our dorm, eagerly awaiting dinner already. As I began preparing food, they sat at our table drinking tea and playing cards and chess. I kneaded bread; Katie taught some friends Fan-Tan, which she called “sevens”. It’s a favorite game of my family and I was so happy to hear that someone else knew what it was. I joked that if you cheat you’ll get thrown in the river, but nobody apparently knows the game’s (possibly revisionist and made-up) history so I drew no laughs.

It was my first time baking with fresh yeast rather than active dry, and I was totally winging it. The bread rose fast, much faster than expected; I tried to warm up the oven, but it is a tiny oven and took forever so it wasn’t quite warm when I put the bread in. Then, the stove’s periodic electrical mischief kicked in and the oven turned off completely for a decently long period of time. When I finally noticed, I had to turn on the other range and move the bread around. It never cooked at full temperature, but turned out okay, despite having a rather burnt bottom from all the preheating…. I’m learning. Use less fresh yeast, and be careful in the ovens.

Next I tackled pastry for an apple pie. Once again, I was guessing at proportions; things are measured in liters and grams here, not cups and tablespoons and pounds. The dough was wet. I put it in the fridge and then managed to roll it out without sticking too much to the counter. Into the pan it went, apples on top, crust on the very top, and into the wildly-fluctuating oven. It was a long-baking pie.

And all this time, people were trickling in and out of my kitchen. I was asked if I wanted help, but I didn’t; I just wanted to continue to be entertained by my neighbors and classmates as I worked. The atmosphere inside could not have been more different than the dreariness we saw out the window.

Finally, dinner. I put together a simple salad and boiled some potatoes before seasoning them with butter and dill. And I took the two massive, but cheap (sometimes I really love you, Sweden) slabs of salmon out of the refrigerator and slathered them with a homemade mustard glaze (more on that later). Why salmon? Well, as mentioned, it’s cheap – one of the cheapest protein sources you can find, although they do sell whole chickens for 37 crowns, about 1/4 of what you’d pay for a pair of chicken breasts. Secondly, I thought it would be fun to make some nod to the local cuisine. And finally, back when I was swinging through Colorado this summer, my friend Ed found an amazing salmon recipe which we cooked for my aunt Liz and her partner Paula. It was easy and delicious, and so it seemed perfect for me to cook for a crowd.

Into the oven it went. I joined a card game while it cooked – Uno, or what had to be the longest game of Uno in history, actually. We played with a single deck of regular cards, with aces reversing, kings meaning draw four, queens draw three, and jacks as wild cards. We would go through long stretches where there were no cards in the draw pile because they were all in our hands. A few people got down to Uno but would then shoot back up to 20 cards in their hands. We had to take a break for dinner.

Once again the salmon was a hit – as I said, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with drowning your dinner in a sauce that’s essentially butter and brown sugar – so thanks, Ed, for stumbling across such a great recipe on the internet.

One of the funniest things that happened was that I had asked whether anyone would be willing to bring drinks – of any sort, booze or not. Daniel offered to go to the store on his way over and arrived with a bottle of wine. When we opened the bottle of wine… it wasn’t good. Sweden has strict laws about who can sell strong alcohol, and normal grocery stores can’t sell beer or wine over 3.5%. (Hi, Utah!) When we read the label more closely, we saw that Daniel had bought non-alcoholic wine. Truly, it was disgusting. The Spanish and Portuguese members of our group were particularly appalled, but I certainly couldn’t drink the stuff either! It’s still on our windowsill, getting more and more foul.

After dinner, we finished our card game and then ate apple pie. It was well-received, even by Romain, our very pickiest eater. I was extremely flattered that he even agreed to eat a piece of my pie, quite frankly.

We finished by playing a few more card games; we didn’t want the evening to end. Despite only having known each other two weeks, our little group is coalescing very strongly and we get along so well. If the first supper was any indication, it’s going to be a very lovely term here in Sweden. I can’t wait for next week’s cook.

Salmon with Brown Sugar and Mustard Glaze

Adapted from Bobby Flay; original recipe here

  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 shallots or 1 onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup yellow mustard
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • Vegetable oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 one-pound+ thick fillets of salmon

In a pan, melt the butter and then saute the onion and garlic until soft, five to ten minutes on medium-low heat. While they are cooking, place the salmon in a 9×13″ baking dish that has been lightly greased with vegetable oil. You can also grill the salmon, if that’s your thing; in either case, also rub the salmon with salt and pepper.

To the saucepan, add the brown sugar, honey, mustard, and soy sauce. Continue to cook for roughly a minute, stirring, then remove from heat. Let cool slightly then pour over the salmon. Cook at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes (actually, maybe don’t believe this time estimate: my oven was messed up), or until the salmon is cooked through and the juices run more or less clear.