Mingling with a Swedish Family at the Traditional Crayfish Party

One of the best ways to know about a local culture is to mingle with a local family on a festive day. I accidentally joined a traditional Crayfish Party held every summer in Sweden with my friend’s family, and here’s the story:

Back in August 2006, I stayed in Amsterdam to pursue my study. On summer holiday, I came to Helsingborg, the southernmost town in Sweden, to visit one of my best friends Jiun, a Malaysian nationality married to a Swedish husband named Christian.

Jiun said, “Today is Christian’s mom’s birthday. We are going to have a party at her place.”

I had not met her mother-in-law before. I felt kinda awkward with the last minute invitation. But how could I say no? They had been nice to show me around and took me to other cities nearby during my visit. I even stayed at their place.

Hopefully the summer party would not turn icy.

Rainbow-colored paper garland tied up on tree branches at the apartment courtyard utterly made a statement on where the party’s at. A long table covered with a red cloth was ready to use, although some dishes were still on the way from upstairs.

About half an hour later, boiled crayfish with crown dill, salmon carpaccio with couscous, cheese, grapes, crackers, bread, several bottles of beer, sparkling water and a bottled juice were ready to serve.dining table

A woman wearing a floral-pattern shirt appeared, showing her joyous smile to all of us. She was Mrs. Malmquist, Christian’s mother. On that day, she was the happiest woman in the world with the presence of a very small number of guests: Christian, his brother, Mrs. Malmquist’s black schnautzer, Jiun and I. The family also proudly said that their mother was the master chef of all the dishes on the table.

“Hello everybody!” She deliberately greeted in English, knowing that I’m not a Svenska (Swedish) speaker.

Coincidentally, her birthday was in concurrent with the crayfish party, or kräftskiva, held yearly in August nationwide. The story behind the Swedish festive event was a tool to melt the ice between she and I.

schnoutzer

Once only consumed by royals in the 16th century, crayfish has been a Swedish traditional dish since the mid-19th century, leading to fear of its extinction. The government restricted its fishing allowance in the early 20th century to only 2 months in a year starting from August, making crayfish consumption a rare moment and deserve a celebration. Although the restriction was abolished in 1994, the tradition lives on.

Still, the population of crayfish in the country is not enough to feed the nation. Nowadays, most crayfish in the market are imported from Turkey, China, Spain and the US, so everyone can enjoy it all year round. The ones we were about to eat, she said, was from Turkey. 

Then, we raised a bottle of beer and sing the merry drinking song as part of the tradition before grabbing the food. I was excluded from the singing part, since I could not catch a single word from the lyric.

The clinking sound took turn when the bottle necks brushed each other gently.

“Skål!” Or cheers in English.

Jiun asked me how to say skål in Dutch.

It’s proost.

We toasted one more time, in Dutch.

crayfish

Peeling the crayfish was more challenging than I thought. Twisting and pulling the crustacea tail from the head seemed to be simple, but the juice splashed on the tablecloth, my shirt for several times and even my eyes before I sucked it. I pulled it with force after twisting, that was a big mistake.

Once I managed to make that noisy SLURRPP sound of juice sucking, I finally won the battle! I loved the subtle yet profound taste of the dill, fusing with the soft meat and its broth. Not to mention other dishes I could consume effortlessly. Drinking beers after the meal felt like a reward after the battle.

Fortunately, I could contribute something to share, a bottle of chocolate-flavored beer from beer hunting in Helsingør this afternoon. Thank God they liked it! Because I didn’t, and I was glad I didn’t need to carry it back to Amsterdam.

It was my first time to eat Swedish delicacy at home of a real Swedish family, not at IKEA. The Malmquists always engaged me in the conversation to make me feel welcome in the new environment. Mrs. Malmquist asked me how I met Jiun. That was another interesting subject besides the history of crayfish.

party time

When I was a college student in Malaysia, I met Jiun in a French class at Alliance Française in Kuala Lumpur. We have become BFF ever since; our correspondence was still on until I returned to Indonesia and moved to Amsterdam the year after for continuing my study. However, there were times when we lose contact. Until we accidentally met on MSN Chat, updating each other’s information. So we decided Sweden as the new meeting point.

As the breeze gently blew my face and hair when evening came, the sun was still shining upon us without the usual burning effect. That’s the beauty of summer in western countries, when the daylight doesn’t end that soon. Moreover, there was no interrupting drizzle, rain and coldness for the whole week during my visit.

I thought to myself. Sometimes the universe works in a mysterious way.

I should have taken a Dutch lesson instead of French, whereas Jiun should have taken Swedish. Why on earth we all have to move to another continent just to see each other again after so many years?

Either way, I was happy that she’s more than just fine. She’s found her Mr. Right and the new family who accepts her the way she is.

Both crayfish party and reunion went perfectly, from weather, food to people.

Advertisements

Mr. Smiley, The Royal Swedish Hospitality

One morning at The Royal Palace Square in Stockholm. A perfect time to enjoy the breeze, deep fresh air inhalation, and the sound of silence in a place that attracts millions of tourists every year, where the sound of chattering crowds in numerous languages would eventually – inevitably – arrive within an hour or two. A very few people walked around the square aimlessly, in distant, drowning themselves in a grandiose palace that stood gracefully before their naked eyes.

Meanwhile, I felt like I owned the stage: the square. I imagine being one of the royal family members wearing a beautiful gown, stepping on the cobble stone pavement wearing the signature Cinderella’s glass shoes, covered with the red carpet heading to my chariot. All the guards bow on me, I bow on them back as a sign of respect and gratefulness to their service and loyalty.

royal palace cannon
the royal cannon

Speaking of the royal guards who have been protecting the Royal Family since 1523, I think I have to end my princess diary daydreaming. Having passed by the alley to the main square, one of the guards on my left side suddenly attracted me in the way I would never have expected. No, no. It wasn’t like encountering the sexiest man alive or a rock star.

Indeed, he undoubtedly has a very well-built posture and robust under the blue uniform he was wearing, the kind of physical condition that a guard or a soldier should have at least.

Although the shadow from the front peak of his “pickelhaube” prevented me from looking at his eyes, I could see both ends of his lips slanted upwards, forming subtle smile, which was calming and soothing, delivering a warm welcome to the imposing residence of the Royal Family.

It was an expression of his enthusiasm in serving the country. He was born with it. Smiling is part of the job description. That’s why long hours of standing still didn’t turn him to be a grumpy man.

May be.  Just may be.

there he is. though not that obvious, he's quite a smiley guy
there he is. though not that obvious, he’s quite a smiley guy

Who is this man really behind that subtle smile, when his shift is over? A divorced man, a father of two or still in a mission to get Mrs. Right? My curiosity wasn’t that far until I wrote this. Suppose I knew more, it would be an additional information that could spice my story up.

Then, along came the Brit chappies in their mid 20’s. One of them was trying to make a conversation with this blue-uniformed young man – let’s call him Mr. Subtle Smile, or Mr. Smiley, in short – while keeping the distance to respect the Royal Guard’s territory as he got used to with The Queen’s Guard in his country of origin.

With a pronounced English accent, he asked for Mr. Smiley’s approval to take a picture somewhere near the spot where he stood. Without saying a single word, Mr. Smiley created an imaginary horizontal line with his white-gloved index finger, showing the border line where he and his chappies could strike a pose. My guess was they were allowed to stand about 1 to 1.5 meters from Mr. Smiley’s position.

royal guards at work in the morning
what’s in those bags?

The chappies made fool of themselves with funny gestures, poses and silly mimics to each other in front of the camera. They took turns to take pictures to make sure that everyone got captured in his “foolishness”. Other people who passed by turned their head to look at the chappies. They chuckled, smiled, laughed. Or at least got entertained a bit.

Despite being entertained, I was more curious to see Mr. Smiley’s reaction towards the silly chappies rather than what they did. In this situation, unfortunately, Mr. Smiley couldn’t do much. While on duty, he was prohibited to make “unnecessary” movements and sounds, from leaning his body to one side of the leg, scratching his back, to covering his mouth with his palm while laughing.

But I know one thing. He couldn’t hide his feeling that these chappies in front of him were actually hilarious and entertaining.

So he smiled. This time was a big smile. Not that subtle Monalisa smile. And not that joker-styled exaggerated smile either. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that all the muscles around his lips, jaws ans cheeks contracted harmoniously to form a crescent smile that really came from the heart. He tried so hard not to laugh and finally succeeded.

pretty lady in her uniform
pretty lady in her uniform

For him, smiling was the safest way, even the only way to express his emotion without distracting his job. For me, a picture of a fierce (body)guard in my head instantly faded away.

I’m asking myself now. Was he smiling when I passed by, before the chappies had made silly poses? Or I was still daydreaming?

No matter what the answer is, If he looks like smiling even though he didn’t mean to, it implies that I labeled him right: Mr. Smiley.

I considered him as an additional Swedish hospitality. A guard doesn’t always need to have a sullen face or a sharp-knife eye gaze, after all.

Last but not least, trust me on this. Changing guards is not the only thing that makes a bunch of Royal Guards are worth waiting for….

... as well as this lady....
… as well as this lady….

 

Medieval Break Time at Kaffekoppen

As soon as our ship disembarked in Stockholm at 8.30 am, the clock was ticking. We had to remind ourselves to be back to the ship before 2.30 pm as it would sail to Copenhagen after that. If only we could “freeze” the time a little longer. Visiting Gamla stan, means old town in Swedish, was the wisest decision we made in an inevitable situation since it’s reachable in about 20 minutes on foot from the harbour.

Kaffekoppen

That morning, solitude conquered the old town discovered over 700 years ago. Passing through the alley, surrounded by warm-colored medieval buildings with beautifully carved gates, signboards and statues, the shop windows were still dark with no one behind closed doors. The sound we heard merely came from the morning breeze and ourselves speaking a language that (hopefully) only us could understand.

We walked at a snail’s pace as if we had all the time in the world. The map was nothing but a huge piece of paper with scaled graphic images folded in our hands. Following our own hearts lead us to major attractions in the area, such as Nobel Museum, Stockholm Cathedral and The Royal Palace quarter.

I said to myself, “Get yourself a cup of coffee!” Giving ourselves a reward, we sat on wooden chairs in the outdoor area of a café in the main square of Gamla stan. It took me 5 minutes to find the name of the café, that actually placed on my left side, hand-written on the window with gold marker, almost invisible because of light reflections from the sun. “Kaffekoppen”, it says.

The indoor dining room turned me back to the time when medieval era was in reign, shown in a modest way. Unlike the building’s eye-catching salmon pink façade dated 1650, the walls and ceilings are left unpainted. The source of lightning is candles placed on each dining table and the main display (while some others are not burned for safety reasons), apart from sunshine passing through the window and the opened door. The pantry has Romanesque-styled groin-vaulted ceiling, but using bulbs for functional purposes.

a lady in solitude – i swear i didn’t mean to snap her!

The presence of the later version of vintage decorations, from old packaging of Omo, Mars, Lipton, old photographs, used bottles until sketches of a coffee cup signify a harmony between medieval and modern art.

I heard a senior barista instructing her new assistant how to run a coffee machine – in English. May be a good proficiency of Svenska is not compulsory to work in a touristic place. I assume that the new assistant is a foreign student doing a part-time job to support her living.

It reminds me of good old days of a student’s life…. meeting people and making friends with people all around the world while earning some money!

cappuccino made with love

Our drinks came in an impressive presentation. Served in a bowl as big as that of chicken soup, my mochaccino was the best I’ve ever tried in my entire life. No kidding! I also zipped my dad’s cappuccino, topped with a foam and made with love. Like any other Swedish coffee, it kept us awake to continue the walking tour.

the best mochaccino ever!

Later on, we searched something less appealing but undeniable very important: toilet! Not necessarily to go that far, it took a few more steps to the cafe’s basement where lies a cellar vault with empty seats. Nobody wanted to miss the nice weather.

There’s only one “double-you-see” (or WC, a synonym for toilet. Non-English speakers may pronounce it differently), so please be patient and line up!

cellar vault

While waiting for my turn, I observed another intense medieval ambiance delivered by dim lightning from candles. Now I can imagine how legendary figures, from Robin Hood to Rembrandt, merely counted on candles to do their activities at night before electricity was invented.

underground exit door

The rear part of the room are guests’ wall of fame, where the bricks are full of scratches from sharp objects, forming letters, numbers, and heart shapes to mark their presence and a shout out about their relationship status.

Indeed, exploring a medieval town and house was the best thing that happened to us. And we hated it when a glimpse of life in middle ages had finally (unfortunately) come to an end. In present time, we only had 2 hours left to wander the rest of the alleys and visit more shops, while heading back to the harbour where the ship docked.

A German bible quote from Psalm 37:5 on top of the café’s entrance gate reveals the moral of our quick journey to the Swedish capital, “Befiehl dem HERRN deine Wege und hoffe auf ihn; er wird’s wohl machen” (Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it)

May we didn’t simply follow our hearts and mind to choose the right destination. May be it wasn’t really a coincidence. May be, we unconsciously heard Him whispering in our hearts, obediently followed His voice without questioning, felt it right when our two feet stepped forward and didn’t look back. May be that’s why we didn’t need any map. May be…that’s what I think.

I Remember: Why We Travel

“man-made” beach, helsingborg

I remember some jealous commentaries from European people about what my country, Indonesia, has: beach, sunshine and heat.

A friend of mine in Helsigborg showed me the so-called “Tropical Beach” that draws the end of Swedish territory. Nothing special about it, until she told me this, “The beach is artificial. The government creates it to make its people’s dream come true: to have their own beach, which is not possible in nature.”

A German girl envied me living in the city situated just 1.5 hours from Bali by flight, meaning that I can go sunbathing and enjoy magnificent beaches anytime I want in a shoestring budget (and she can’t).

Also, a Dutch woman asked me why I thought of living in Holland if the country I come from is beautiful where the sun shines all year-long.

Was I proud about it? No, I wasn’t. On the other hand, beach was not my thing even though I live in a tropical country with thousands of beaches I can choose to visit. I disliked the sun burning my skin. I couldn’t stand the heat and humid air that makes me sweat. I feel it most of the time and it bothered me.

When I came to Holland, something struck me. Volatile weather change, strong wind, rain, and snow has lessened the chances for the sun to get its turn to appear. Majestic antique buildings stood arrogantly, as if they knew we would count on them to warm our bodies by entering heated chambers they offer. Indeed, it was my first time to feel it all year-long, not just 2 or 3 weeks on a family holiday.

A couple of years later, my friends and I looked for milder weather, more sunshine and went to the beach in Rhodos Island in Greece and Benidorm in Spain. Still being skeptical about how getting myself roasted could be fun, I followed what the majority decided.

A magnificent view of clear blue sky and shimmering seawater reflected from the sunlight indulged me with unlimited space to be wild and free. The sun opened its hands wide open to embrace me with warmth that I had never felt for a long time and the breeze soothed me, giving me calming effect physically and mentally.

lindos, greece

It was an awakening experience. Suddenly, something popped up my mind, “Hey, I think I have that too in my country!” Why didn’t I get the same sensation as when I was Greece and Spain?

Have we ever ask ourselves why we travel in the first place? Stress-relief from a job? Experience and see things what our hometown never has? Get a better living or education? More business opportunity? Be closer with someone we love? Run away from a trauma? There’s nothing wrong about the reason behind it, unless we invade the locals and make their life miserable.

However, let’s think reverse. I just did. There are times when we don’t appreciate things around us because it’s just there effortlessly and we see it everyday, like sunshine and beach in my case. Many of us don’t feel enough and satisfied with the place we live. We think other people’s land is greener than ours. Our imagination runs wild, wishing there were snow, pyramids, a river as wide as Amazon, nature phenomena like aurora borealis and midnight sun in our hometown and so on.

Sometimes we need to learn the hard way that it takes months or years to realize that our hometown has more than we know. Perhaps, what we need and want is just right there, but we are just not aware until we lose it.

It took me years to understand the kind of jealousy with beaches and sunshine until I dealt with rain, dark sky and wind that infiltrated though my skin pores to the bone until I trembled from coldness throughout the year in Holland, where the real sunny time actually only happens about 2 out of 12 months. Going for a quick grocery with sandals and shorts was a luxury I could’t have since I needed to arm myself with winter clothing to face unfriendly weather.

May be another reason why we travel is already inside your head (or not), and expressing it in words is the only thing left: to let us know that other people’s land is not always greener than ours and to be more grateful with what our hometown has given us, although there’s no obligation to like everything there. The thing we waste could be other people’s (unattainable) luxury.

For the last few years, I’ve been appreciating sunshine, beach and heat more than before. Heat from the sun doesn’t bother me that much any longer. I’m still not a beach person until now, but I’m able to enjoy the sunny beach responsibly, protecting my skin with sunblock and no sunbathing at noon, and I cherish that moment.

Last but not least, I remember what my friend said in response to my amazement why some people don’t travel if money, time and fear are not their obstacles. “May be they have found what they want in life without looking too far and are happy with it.”

I guess he has a good point about it.

So how about you? Why do (or don’t) you travel in the first place?