Sunday, December 21, 2014
R was a water baby and his love affair with all things water and spa (salute per acqua, or, "health by water") has continued since. He can spend a whole day under the sun at the sea and a whole afternoon alternating between dips in a pool / jacuzzi and enclosing himself in a sauna at a spa.
But up until a few years ago, I wasn't at all on board with any of that. Roast myself under a burning sun? Not so much. Stick myself in a blazingly-hot confined space for minutes on end? No, thanks—I'm not exactly a fan of feeling hot and sticky. (Bikram yoga is somehow something entirely different).
And having the ethnic background that I do, lying under the sun at the beach isn't really necessary—I have a year-round tan, so to speak. Sitting under an umbrella with a book is ever so much more civilized to me. But as our relationship continued, I started to actually enjoy the feel of the sun's rays dancing across my skin after a dip and I began willingly choosing to spend a little time after I emerge from the sea or pool purposefully laying myself outside the confines of my umbrella's shade to dry off and warm up.
And wonder of wonders, I've since embraced the water and sauna rituals, too (I mean, clearly.). While I used to only go to spas for the massage and facial treatments, now we do the shuffle between pool, sauna and steam bath together.
But since moving to Sweden and beginning to indulge in all the cozy spas here in Stockholm, I suddenly had a new practice to acclimate to: the Swedish way of sauna-ing.
I'm an American—your typical overly-friendly, sometimes geographically-inept American that is modest to a point. Potentially describable as prudish. So I view a bathing suit with or without a towel wrapped around oneself as standard sauna dress code.
At your more "international" Swedish saunas, like you'd find at a hotel, that's just fine. But when my lovely Swedish in-laws gifted me a day at Centralbadet (The Central Baths—built in 1904 and wonderfully ornate) here in Stockholm for my birthday, I got a taste of the more traditional way that Swedes spend their time in a sauna.
Meaning: a prominently placed sign reminding guests that bathing suits are not to be worn in the saunas "for hygienic reasons" (which I don't really understand). I peeked in the first sauna and got quite an eyeful. After pulling myself together I reasoned that as they don't say anything about towels, I could maneuver myself out of my bathing suit under my towel and then scuttle in to one of the saunas modestly covered with the same towel still secured tightly around me.
But I had a hard time relaxing. It felt so awkward to be surrounded by groups of women, mostly Swedes and Russians, chatting amongst themselves while stark naked. Of course it wasn't awkward for anyone else, just the me, the American.
Once I figured out that sitting in the co-ed (and thus bathing suit mandatory) saunas was the way to go, I could get back to sauna-ing in peace. Although I will say that when I had one of the ladies-only saunas to myself I tried to go native for a few seconds, holding my towel down but ready to yank it up should the door open and you know what? It feel overwhelmingly more enjoyable to relax into the cedar wood and feel the heat seeping directly into my skin and not through a somewhat clammy suit clinging to me.
Around lots of other people, though? That will definitely not be happening.
secret trip to NYC to surprise my family last month, December rolled around and it was time for another trip to the spa. For this go-round R found a nice little deal for both of us on Groupon which included lunch and an afternoon at Skepparholmen Spa on one of the promontories out in Nacka, meaning, a crazy beautiful view of the sea flowing out to the archipelago. And lucky us, the day of our visit last week coincided with a little snow fall so we had the most surreal and ethereal experience in the woods (and I'm happy to say the sauna was international style, so swimsuits stayed firmly on!).
The spa is about 20 minutes from the city by car and we were invited to come at 1PM for lunch and then have a few hours after to enjoy the pools and sauna. Winding roads took us to a little spa hotel surrounded by stunning seafront greenery where we began our afternoon with a lunch of carrot, ginger and lentil soup, a white coleslaw salad, deliciously nutty (gluten-free) bread and cheese, and a few slices of pork in a mustard tarragon sauce with a little broccoli and rice. There was a light Swedish beer to start and strong Swedish coffee to end. Lunch was served in the building above where you see stars hanging in the window and we had a view out to those craggy rocks and pine trees.
Then after relaxing a little bit in the lounge, at 2PM we headed down to a different building (the one you see in the first picture), removed our shoes, picked up our towel, robe and slippers, went through the changing rooms and emerged into the spa. There was a little resting area in front of a fireplace with water and fruit, an indoor pool whose edges were built like beach recliners so you could comfortably lay down in it, tropical and ice water showers, a sauna with plate-glass windows directly overlooking the sea, and then of course, a heated outdoor pool on a platform in front of the sauna's windows with the best view of all.
Below our necks we were nice and warm, and above, our hair was sprinkled with snowflakes and our cheeks flushed from the cool air. It was the oddest and most wonderful of sensations, especially given the views before us. Across the water we watched the towns on the other bank turn from dark, slightly sinister-looking landscapes into white-flecked, cozy little hamlets. And then a cruise ship sailed by, with its twinkly lights winking at us from along the sail lines.
Being so close to, yet so far away from, the city always makes me feel unshackled and wild, and that current of energy combined with the cozy starkness of the spa made our day one of my most favorite ones of this year (and amazingly—and blessedly—I've had so many to choose from!). But, I'm not sure if we could ever go back there again knowing we might not have the same amazingly perfect atmospheric conditions.
...What am I saying, of course we'll go back!
One year ago: According to the ancients
Two years ago: Some tweaks & Undecked halls & Out of the ordinary
Friday, December 19, 2014
After our abundant julbord in Biskops Arnö a few weeks ago we came home with absolutely no room for dinner but a hankering for something festive and sweet (naturally).
So we pulled out the antique cookie cutters my mother-in-law had bought at the market and set about to making Sweden's famous gingerbread Christmas cookies: the pepparkaka. They're best served in adorable shapes (I'm partial to the piglet), with or without a smear of blue cheese (seriously, sounds odd but tastes amazing), and enjoyed alongside a warm, spiced mug of glögg (preferably with a drop or two of cognac swirling around).
We turned on some Christmas carols, lit a few candles and set about to rolling out the dough and cutting out as many shapes as we could from each stretch of heavenly-scented goodness. They bake quickly, hanging out for no more than 5 minutes in the oven until they're ready to be popped out onto the counter top to finish hardening. Then we scooped them into a Santa-napkin lined wooden crate left over from the clementines we'd brought home a day earlier and straight to the coffee table in the living room they went.
With the fragrance of ginger heavy on the air and swirling about with citrus from the fruit bowl and floral from the newly-opened hyacinth plants and then all of it mingling joyfully with our steaming cups of cinnamon, cardamom and clove-y glögg, it finally felt like Christmas had come into the apartment from the city's lit-up streets outside.
One year ago: Feasting, seasonally
Two years ago: Frissons & Monday meanders: 1 & Wistfulness & Latte pappas
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
To the right, to the right:
The universal rule (maybe not in British countries and former colonies) of staying to the right doesn't seem to apply here. I religiously float to the right when I'm walking up or down staircases and on sidewalks, but for some reason Swedes generally seem to walk wherever they'd like regardless of which direction they're facing and the inevitable chaos they create in public spaces. Maybe it's the equality card coming into play?
Red, yellow, green, yellow, red:
In the U.S. traffic lights change from green to yellow before red so that drivers can begin slowing down. Here, the lights also change to yellow before green. This helps cyclists to reposition themselves on their bikes to push off and alerts drivers of manual cars that have turned off their engine while they wait out the red light to turn them back on. So helpful.
Most Swedes seem to store sponges, brushes and dish soap under the counter, hardly ever on the rim of the sink as we usually do in the U.S. With all the beautifully-designed products and accoutrements here, you'd think that wouldn't be the case, but perhaps it makes sense given the minimalistic mindset.
Another thing that's more "manual" here: can openers, which are basically curved knives that scare me to death and which I still haven't mastered yet. Most cans I open are a jagged mess with their contents spilled all over the counter and me a shaking wreck that requires a few minutes of settling-down-time afterwards when I realized that I've once again managed to not slice my hand open, even though I was sure I would.
I remember my first Christmas in Stockholm 7 years ago when we were sitting around the Christmas tree and passing presents to each other and I saw that instead of the standard "For J. From X." written on packages, a full-fledged rhyme was there instead! Swedes have a tradition of writing out proper rhyming verses on EVERY Christmas present! Such a creative and dedicated bunch! I'll have to see what I can manage this year...in Swedish!
As proof of the Swedes' dedication to this lovely tradition, one of the scheduled activities at the Biskops Arnö Christmas Market we visited earlier this month was a rimastuga (rhyming cottage) where students in writing / poetry programs were helping visitors prepare for Christmas by fashioning appropriate poems for their presents!
P.S. Not exactly related, although definitely a Swedish difference!, the New York Times just published their take on the housing situation in Stockholm, which I've mentioned before is quite a problem here.
*A few more Swedish differences: