Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Hanging Out

It wasn’t all running madly about on our trip.  Sometimes we just hung around the house and relaxed.  Isn’t that what vacations are for?

For example, we played a lot of cards while we were there. 

One of our favorite card games is Phase 10, a progressive rummy sort of game.  We brought two decks with us to Europe, one for each stop, and we spent many happy nights viciously using the Skip cards against people we know and love, because that’s how we roll.  What’s nice about the game is that it is long and complicated enough to spread out the winners – over the course of the trip pretty much everyone who played won at least once – but short and simple enough to be played in an evening without interfering too much with conversation or suffering unduly after a glass of wine or cider.  And that, dear reader, is the definition of an ideal card game.

We also tried Mah-Jongg on our last night in England.  In my first practice hand I scored a 216, and if I play that game for the rest of my life I will probably never do that well again.  For comparison, most of my subsequent hands scored around 30.

Of course, not all games are so quiet.  There was foosball, for instance.

And fencing.

And a fair amount of just knocking about, making noise.

In craft-related activities, Kim bedecked our friends’ children with feathers.

There were also beads.  Lots of beads, in many configurations.  There were jewelry beads.

And there were perler beads.  For those of you who have not hung around with kids for the last decade, perler beads are essentially short plastic tubes about a quarter inch long and roughly the same in diameter.  They come in a bewildering array of colors, and you arrange them in patterns on plastic trays with little spikes sticking up that hold the beads in place, and then you iron them until the beads melt together.  Hours of entertainment!  And tchotchkes to keep when you’re done!

The UEFA Cup was being played while we were in Sweden, and we watched a few games.  And at this point all the Americans out there reading this are saying “What?  Is that a stock car race?”  But no!  It’s the European international soccer championship, and we watched Spain win.  Like the card games we favor, this event goes well with wine. 

The Swedes had a house full of musical instruments, which we did our best to make good use of.  Mats and I spent several evenings keeping each other in tune – him on the sax, me on the piano – and playing odd songs, much to the amusement of Maria.  I have infected Sweden with “I Am My Own Grandpa” and am now beyond the reach of their courts, so there.

In both Sweden and England we walked around in the woods surrounding our friends’ houses – they live in really lovely areas and it was nice to see them up close, even for this indoorsman.  Kim and Mats even took the kids geo-caching at one point.  I’m not entirely sure I understand what that is or why people would want to do it, but they had a grand time so my guess is that the shortcoming is mine.

At one point Julia tried to teach me how to chop wood, since it was cool and damp enough while we were there to warrant a nice cozy fire and they have both a fireplace and a stash of suitable wood in the back.  All I will say is that if civilization collapses and the supply of natural gas runs out, I am doomed.  On the plus side, though, nobody got hurt and that has to count for something.

When we weren’t relaxing or running about trying to see everything there was to see, we spent a lot of our time eating.  We like food.  Food is good.  And there is a lot of it there.

Sometimes we ate at home.

We introduced the Swedes to the concept of grilled cheese sandwiches – how this concept has not made it to Scandinavia I do not know, since it involves three staples of the Swedish diet: bread, cheese and butter. 

But American food translates only so well over in Sweden, it turns out.  For one thing, Swedish hot dogs – which are tasty, though different from the ones in the US – are very thin and about nine inches long, but the buns are only about five inches long.  I told Sara that someone could make a fortune selling buns as long as the hot dogs, but she said that most Swedes regard the buns as little more than organic oven mitts for holding the hot dog and that many don’t even eat the bun at all. This strikes me as just wrong - never mind cultural relativism: you're supposed to eat the bun! Oh well.

We were in Sweden for the Fourth of July, so we tried to put together an American-style meal.  We had hot dogs (with the tiny buns), watermelon, cucumber salad, and an assortment of potato chips, and the kids roasted marshmallows.  Swedish marshmallows come with a crunchy layer of sugar on the outside, which makes them ideal for roasting.

Of course, you can’t eat at home without grocery shopping, and I went to the supermarket in both Sweden and England.  I love grocery stores.  I enjoy walking around and seeing all of the various foods – so different from what you can find in the US.  It’s fun to see what the closest equivalents are to what you’re familiar with, and what things you consider basics that don’t exist in other countries.  The one thing that amazed me in both places was that they had shopping carts where all four wheels could spin.  Theoretically this meant you could maneuver the cart into tight spaces with no difficulty, but in practice it meant that I was constantly fighting to keep the cart from drifting off into oncoming traffic.

We also ate out.

Sometimes we just ate outside.

This is David demonstrating his strength by eating an entire mouthful of the oxalis that grows near his house.  It is very sour.  Really, do not try this at home unless you are Swedish.

Also: Swedish soft-serve ice cream is very tasty but basically Cool Whip with actual dairy products in it.

Mostly, though, when we ate out we were eating inside, just not at home.  We stopped for pizza in both countries, for example.

Pizza in Europe apparently only comes as a single-person meal – you don’t get a large and split it among a family of four (or one teenaged boy) the way you do in the US.  Everyone gets their own, which is about the size of a medium in the US but only comes in thin crust. 

In England we got hooked on cream teas, which are not “tea with cream in” but a whole meal consisting of two scones, a large dollop of clotted cream, an equally large dollop of strawberry jam, and a pot of tea (which, theoretically, you could then put cream in).

This one was at the Kitchen Cafe in Tavistock, on the outskirts of Dartmoor, which was quite possibly the most fascinating restaurant we found in Europe.  You park your car in the carpark (which, linguistically, makes sense) and then walk up half a block to the shops.  There you find a small sign that says “Kitchen Cafe" and an arrow pointing inside a door and up a set of stairs.  You go up, turn right, cut diagonally across an enormous empty room – the sort of thing that you could host fundraisers in – and there you find two doors.  You go through the left-hand one into the kitchen, where a number of women have set out examples of what you can order.  These are 1) cream teas and 2) Cornish pasties.  You place your order, go back out and into the right-hand door, which leads you to the dining room.  Eventually they bring you your meal.  It was good.

It was all good.


Julia Lawrence said...

If you didn't think much of your wood chopping, it's only because you didn't see anyone else learning to chop wood. The first time I tried, I was at it for about 30 minutes before I gave up, having produced one small splinter and nearly injured myself twice. At least you actually managed to produce fire-sized pieces of wood. We finished burning it all a day or so after you left, when it turned cold again.

David said...

I'm going to need a lot more practice before I audition for the part of a woodsman, but I suppose there were actual usefully-sized pieces produced, now that you mention it. Thanks!

Katherine McKay said...