Monday, December 19, 2011


There’s a crucial aspect of Sweden’s geography that I’m starting to realize very few people back in the States grasp.

Although, considering that on visits back more than two old acquaintances have asked, “How’s Switzerland?” maybe I’m expecting too much? I digress.

Sweden has extremely high northern latitude. Our town, which is in the southern third of the country, is virtually the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska.

Why does it matter? Well, aside from the obvious climate effects of 15 percent of your country actually lying north of the Arctic Circle, it means the solstices are very pronounced.

During the summer, we enjoy long days with early sunrises and sunlight into the late evening. That comes with the tradeoff of dark days in the winter months, of course.

And after the summer solstice in late June, that shift from light to dark happens more quickly than you might imagine. While commuting to Stockholm every day during the late summer and early fall, I snapped a quick photo from the platform every Thursday morning at 6 a.m. from August 18 through September 29. These photos show the week-by-week progression towards darkness over seven weeks:

And the days have been much darker than that the last couple of months leading up to the winter solstice this Thursday — the shortest, darkest day of the year. The good news is there will only be more and more light each day from here on out until Midsummer.

On Thursday, the projected sunrise in Sacramento is 7:21 a.m., with a sunset at 4:49 p.m.

Here in Falköping, the sun won’t rise until 8:52 a.m. and it will set at 3:17 p.m. That’s three fewer hours of light on the darkest day.

I guess I should just be thankful we don’t live further north, where polar twilight or polar night engulf parts of the largest Nordic countries for much of the winter. Some towns will be lucky to have a few hours of twilight reflecting off the snow during the worst four weeks of the year from early December to early January.

The sun won’t even rise Thursday in Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, but apparently they have to put something on the weather websites, anyway.

So when you think the days feel short in the U.S. in late December, just remember that they could always be shorter.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Tuesday was St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden and other Nordic countries.

December 13 is the day to commemorate Lucia, a martyred Catholic saint. In a traditional Swedish celebration known as a luciatåg, a girl wearing a white dress and a crown of candles leads a procession of maidens.

Many processions also include star boys, and those performed by young children often feature gingerbread men and Santas as additional characters.

The celebrations revolve around singing. Sweden followed the Julian calendar until 1700, and December 13 was the shortest, darkest day of the year. The main song is about St. Lucia bringing light to the darkness.

People eat gingerbread and drink mulled wine, but my favorite food associated with the day is lussekatter, saffron buns that are eaten throughout Advent but particularly on this day.

Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice by weight, quickly became one of my favorite baking flavors when I moved here. I didn’t even really know what it was in the States.

Lucia is a winter tradition I hadn’t experienced yet, because I was working in Stockholm at this time last year and two years ago I hadn’t quite arrived for my first visit.

We spent the morning with a group of elementary school children from the school where Amanda’s mom works. They performed a procession in a church next to their school, about 20 minutes south of our town.

The parents loved every second of it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Swedish Pizza

It is inexplicable that I’ve lived here for almost 16 months without blogging about Swedish pizza.

It’s been a staple of our diet since the day I moved to Sweden. I’ve estimated I probably eat six pizzas per month, on average.

Swedish pizza — which isn’t actually Swedish at all, but I’ll get to that in a minute — is healthier than their American counterparts. The crust is thinner, and the cheese and toppings aren’t always loaded on as heavily.

Pizza is also arguably the best bang for your kronor when it comes to eating out in Sweden. You might not have guessed it, but McDonald’s, Burger King and the like are insanely expensive over here. A pizza can run anywhere from $9 USD to $13 USD, making it one of the cheapest dinner options around. Swedish pizza is never sold by the slice, and in most scenarios the only size — around 12 inches across, but remember, it’s also thin — is the perfect amount to be a “personal pizza.”

Italian immigrants who came to Sweden to work in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought pizza here with them. Today, virtually every Swedish pizzeria is owned and operated by immigrants from one of the many countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. We’ve discovered only one, near Amanda’s family’s summer house, that is run by Swedes.

The most popular Swedish pizza (by a longshot) is kebab pizza. In the Middle East, where kebab originates, it’s supposed to be lamb meat. Here, it’s some nasty blend of lamb (if you’re lucky) with beef, chicken, pork, turkey and even goat, fish or other seafood, roasted on a vertical spit. It really is just shaved “meat.” I wouldn’t touch it with a three-meter pole, but most Swedes love it.

Kebab pizzas are smothered in both a yogurty sauce and a hotter sauce. Most Swedish pizzas are topped with some type of sauce, typically Bernaise.

The first Swedish pizza I ate during my original visit was a Quattro Stagioni (“four seasons”) with ham, mushrooms, mussels and shrimp each covering one quarter of the pizza. It was probably my go-to choice for my first six months here.

My favorite pizza these days is the Africana, which usually includes chicken, bananas, peanuts, curry powder and sometimes even shrimp, often with a pineapple ring in the center.

There’s even a place in town that serves it with a liquid form of curry. Remember what I said about sauces?

Bananas aren’t even the “weirdest” topping to someone accustomed to American pizza. At the lone “Swedish pizzeria” we know this summer, Amanda’s friend Nathalie ordered a pizza with meat sauce and asparagus.

Amanda’s Napoli pizza of sundried tomatoes and mushrooms was also loaded with broccoli and spring mix.

No matter if you’re sitting down or taking it home, every pizza in Sweden is served with an included order of “pizza salad,” a sour but tasty combination of shredded raw cabbage, oil, vinegar and spices.

Some people eat it before and some enjoy it as a side dish. Others put it on their pizza. I didn’t like it in the beginning, but it quickly grew on me.

Many people ask me whether I prefer Swedish or American pizza, expecting to hear the latter. But there really are a lot of things I like about Swedish pizza.

There’s a joke that every town and city in Sweden, regardless of total population, has one pizzeria for every 1,000 residents. In our city of roughly 15,000, that’s probably spot-on. I’ll have to count someday.

Anyway, my point is that there’s something almost endearing about how imperfect each pizza is. Even the spelling of the pizzeria can have flaws.

Every Swedish pizzeria is unique — Pizza Hut is the only chain with any level of Nordic penetration — and you never know quite what you’re going to get.

But you can almost always bet it will be delicious.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where's the Snow?

When we left Sweden to celebrate Amanda’s 22nd birthday in Italy last November, there were no signs of winter.

We departed Italy a few days later into perfect skies.

When we landed in Gothenburg — one year ago today — 30 centimeters of snow had fallen.

A year later, it’s only barely cold enough for snow and the precipitation is nowhere to be found. Meteorologists say there hasn’t been this little snow in Sweden at this time in more than 100 years.

There’s a thin layer of snow on the ground in northwestern Sweden, but not nearly enough to open any of the famed ski resorts I’m looking forward to experiencing in the coming months.

Two months ago, the same meteorologists promised the third straight winter with below-normal temperatures. Admittedly, they did forecast a mild fall with temperatures dipping quickly by the time winter officially arrives on December 21.

Maybe I've been spoiled. My first two winters here have been the two coldest, snowiest since World War II. Still, I hope things turn around just as suddenly this November as they did last year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SJ X 2000

It would be downright impossible to commute almost 700 kilometers (435 miles) each way without high-speed trains.

SJ, Sweden’s national rail company, has operated the electric X 2000 since 1990. It may have been pretty fast when it was introduced, but it’s practically archaic by today’s high-speed standards (though it still blows Amtrak out of the water).

X 2000 trains are grey and kind of resemble the Silver Bullet train in Coors Light commercials. Powered by a 4,400 horsepower electric locomotive that draws current from an overhead line, they travel up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) per hour over the same rail as slower passenger trains and the slowest freight trains, though they typically average only 150 kilometers (90 miles) per hour.

Here's a quick video I shot:

What enables the high-speed trains to travel more than 25 percent faster than conventional trains is that they tilt. Each axle is spring-bonded to a soft bogie, which allows each car’s axle to individually follow bends in the track. To reduce sideways force on passengers, each coach also uses a hydraulic system to lean into curves. The tilting means faster speeds through turns and less force exerted on the track, which reduces wear and keeps maintenance costs down.

The major routes, which operate in a triangle between Sweden’s three big cities, are relatively straight and flat, which has allowed X 2000 to remain competitive with airlines.

I find travel by X 2000 to be pleasant and comfortable. The trains are Wi-Fi equipped and have power supply sockets at each reclining seat. A bistro in the middle of each train serves small meals, snacks and overpriced drinks.

As I mentioned, the X 2000 is one of the slowest high-speed trains in the world. It barely classifies under the EU’s 200 km/h definition. I’ve traveled on much faster trains in Spain and France, which, like Japan, China or Italy, have networks with commercial max speeds of around 300 km/h (185 mph).

When the Swedish government decided a couple decades ago that investing in designated high-speed infrastructure would be too expensive, they came to the conclusion that tilting trains and improving the existing track would be the next-best thing. The cost turned out to be only $500,000 per kilometer, versus $9 million per kilometer for constructing Spain’s AVE high-speed network, for instance. While slower than other countries’ high-speed systems, Sweden’s has proven to be a far better value than building from scratch.

And X 2000 definitely beats Sweden’s traditional alternatives...

SJ 3000

As someone who, for better or for worse, gave SJ an absurd amount of money for an annual pass a valued SJ customer, I received an email this week hyping the SJ 3000.

It will begin operation in early 2012 and is designed for medium distances.

Unlike the X 2000, the SJ 3000 does not lean into curves. It apparently compensates for the reduced speed there by accelerating and braking more quickly, so the travel time is about the same.

One of the only new features announced is SJ Onboard, which allows riders to view traffic information and entertainment — but they have to do it through their own laptops. I’m not sure what kind of a benefit that really is.

There’s supposed to be more legroom and the Bistro is more modern. From a centrally located wheelchair lift to accessible restrooms and toilets, the SJ 3000 sounds to be more disabled-friendly.

The new trains are also even more environmentally-friendly. The trains are made of recyclable materials and feed 12 percent of the energy they use back to the grid. Each coach will have recycling bins and energy-saving LED lighting.

Here's a video SJ recently posted on YouTube of the 3000:

I guess I’ll find out soon enough if they’re anything to blog home about.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Another Commute Comparison

Four weeks down and this ridiculous commute is getting easier every day. I guess that’s the great thing about routines.

I’ve traveled 682 kilometers — 424 miles — every weekday for a month. That’s 13,640 kilometers — 8,475.5 miles — in four weeks.

The earth’s circumference is about 24,900 miles at the equator (a little less around the poles) so I will circumnavigate the globe by train every 11-and-a-half weeks. I can’t even begin to process that right now.

Anyway, since the daily distance comparisons I made in my first commute blog aren’t so reasonable because they follow interstate highways and many of those U.S. routes don’t even have train service, I think I finally found a comparison that will put this grind in better perspective.

One of Amtrak’s longest passenger routes, the California Zephyr, winds 2,438 miles from Emeryville, California through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa en route to Chicago, Illinois.

Since I commute around 2,120 miles every week, in my first four weeks I’ve covered almost the same distance on rails as the California Zephyr does from Reno to Chicago, back to Reno, back to Chicago, and back to Reno again. Two roundtrips.

At least my Swedish train journeys are much faster than an Amtrak would take to cover the same distance.

Next time I blog, I’ll explain why.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

TV ads

Ikea furniture, Absolut Vodka, Volvo cars, H&M clothing — Sweden may be synonymous with many things, but clever television advertising isn’t one of them.

Amanda and I don’t watch much TV, but when we do we usually mute the commercials because they’re so boring.

Maybe I was just spoiled growing up in a country where corporations spend millions of dollars and countless hours on one 30-second spot for Super Bowl Sunday, but the ads just seem dull here.

There are exceptions, of course. Here are a few of my recent favorites.

ICA Reklamfilm Midsommarfest i butiken 2011

I should preface this by explaining that ICA, one of the largest and most Swedish of the many supermarket chains here, is not making fun of Down syndrome.

The company launched a controversial ad campaign a few years back featuring Swedish actor Mats Melin as “Jerry.” According to one report, the ads were designed “to challenge prejudices about mental disability.” Different people think different things about the commercials, and it’s hard to say whether the ads have any effect on changing perceptions about those with mental disabilities.

This ad is a funny parody of Midsummer, traditional floral wreaths and all. Somehow, ICA commercials are consistently able to convey humor and the week’s sale prices at the same time.

Com Hem Bredband - snabbt stabilt och jättejättebra – Juditune

Fast, stable and very, very great. That’s essentially the broadband from Com Hem, a triple play telecommunications provider that has featured redheads Judith and Judith in many of its recent commercials.

I think autotune is the greatest things to happen to music in my lifetime, so I was obviously already onboard when Com Hem jumped on the bandwagon. Amanda and many other people I know hate this commercial, but I enjoy it.

Tele2 - Sound Studio

This commercial literally made me laugh so hard one night I cried. And that was probably the 40th or 50th time I had seen it.

Frank the Sheep originated with Tele2 Netherlands and spread to Sweden, Tele2’s original European market, because sheep is pronounced very similarly to “cheap” in Swedish.

Frank is pretty ignorant when it comes to Swedish. This ad gets me EVERY time.

“That wasn’t good? Felt good!

Who speaks Swedish anyway? Heh… Swedes.”

And I’ll leave you with a classic for a popular Swedish beer that aired at least a few years back.

Falcon Fisherman

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One Year Later

I arrived in Sweden a year ago tonight.

Today, I can say without an ounce (or perhaps I should say gram?) of hesitation that moving to here is the best decision I’ve ever made.

My shortcomings in the Swedish language aside, I’ve established a pretty respectable life here in 12 short months.

I wake up next to my dream girl every morning in the perfect apartment, in an ideal small town with exceptional train service. No member of my outstanding support system lives more than 20 minutes away. It’s taken a lot of effort but I finally feel like I’m starting to be able to call a few friends “close.” I have an amazing job that pays well and is secure until at least next summer.

I’ve grown accustomed to a lot of things I never thought I would, too:

  • Strong coffee, and lots of it
  • Incessant conversations about weather
  • Trying to argue in a culture that avoids even minor confrontations at all costs
  • Lunch replacing dinner as my main meal of the day
  • No shoes indoors
  • Planning everything in advance, whether it’s doing laundry or visiting a friend
  • Complete and total division of work and leisure time, with zero overlap under any circumstances
  • Outrageous food and drink prices
  • Queuing (that’s European for “waiting in line”) for everything
  • Striving to come across as modest and humble in a country where bragging is practically a jailable offense

As far as my Swedish is concerned, it’s obviously going to take greater self-discipline, but I think what it’s really going to take is a commitment to spend more time here this year.

After having lived in Sweden for only a few weeks last fall, I took a solo vacation to Glasgow. We went to Sicily for Amanda’s birthday in November. I visited Germany and Denmark with my brother in January. Then I spent more than 10 weeks over three separate trips in the United States. All told, I spent 85 of my first 365 days as a resident of Sweden, outside of Sweden. That’s less than 77% of my time actually spent in this glorious country. Pretty difficult to focus on learning a language under those circumstances, but that goal now sits alone at the top of my list for the next 12 months.

I’m looking forward to what my second year here has in store.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2,100 Miles a Week

People used to call me crazy when they learned I drove 50 miles each way to work in Fairfield, three or four days a week, during my first two years at Sacramento State.

Even my 60-mile roundtrip to Auburn the last few years shocked many of my friends.

Both commutes pale in comparison to the daily grind I started this morning.

For the next year, I’m going to attempt to travel more than 400 miles daily, five days a week.

That’s more than 2,100 miles every week. Leaving our apartment before 6 a.m., getting home after 9 p.m.

There are exactly 341 kilometers of rail between Falköping and Stockholm, which is about 212 miles. To put my commute in perspective for a Californian, the following drives are each between 210 and 220 miles:

Eureka to Santa Rosa on US-101
Reno to San Francisco on I-80
Redding to San Francisco on I-5 and I-505
Sacramento to Visalia on CA-99
Fresno to Los Angeles on CA-99

Other trips in the same distance range include Boston to New York (215 miles), Phoenix to Yuma (211 miles) Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando (213 miles), Dallas to Oklahoma City (206 miles), Salem to Seattle (219) and Lansing to Chicago (218 miles).

It’s almost like commuting from New York City to Washington, D.C. (227 miles) or Toronto to Detroit (232 miles). And back. Every day.

The trip can be as short as 2 hours, 20 minutes each way depending on train type/speed and number of stops, but the average ride will be almost three hours each way. Most people wouldn’t wish that on their worst enemy.

Granted, there’s a huge difference between traveling 200 miles by train and making some of those aforementioned comparable drives in a car. They really shouldn’t be compared. This guy is the only one I could find who commutes a similar distance on roads. But six hours a day on a train is still borderline insane.

Fortunately, mobile broadband is booming in Sweden so I’ll have internet at all times. With a computer and web access, there are far fewer things I can’t do that I would do anywhere else.

My MacBook Pro and 3 stick are going to be my best friends.

Friday, June 24, 2011


We kicked off our summer vacation last week by spending eight days at Amanda’s family’s cabin on the west coast. The house is 150 meters from the Kattegat sea, which separates Sweden and Denmark.

The house is 220 kilometers — only about 140 miles — southwest of Falköping in a tiny summer community called Olofsbo, which is a few minutes north of Falkenberg, a town of 25,000.

Olofsbo is home to around 1,000 houses, most of which are small summer cabins, and two campsites. Houses in the front row, like Amanda’s family’s, look out onto a long, sandy beach.

Below is an aerial view I found through Google Images, with our cabin’s location indicated by the red dot:

This was my second time at the cabin and first since moving to Sweden. We spent a few days there in January 2010 when I first visited the country but that was in the middle of one of the worst winters on record.

Everything obviously looked very different 18 months later in warmer weather.

Falkenberg is a much nicer town in the summer, too.

Tonight we’re celebrating midsummer with family out on the farm and the rest of the weekend will be devoted to packing for our U.S. visit. We look forward to seeing all of you back home very soon.