Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Special Events

One of the benefits of having friends to visit when you go on these trips is that you get included in family events.  We enjoyed that privilege in both Sweden and England.

The big summer holiday in Sweden is Midsummer, which is something of a floating holiday these days, sort of like Veterans Day has become here in the US.  Everyone knows that it happens on a specific date (in the case of Midsummer, on the summer solstice) but you celebrate it when you’ve got time, generally toward a weekend.

We went to Sweden in 2004 and spent Midsummer at a huge outdoor festival near Stockholm, which was a lot of fun.  This year Midsummer fell during our time at Hasselbacka, in western Sweden, so we got to see it from the other end of the spectrum.

In the afternoon all 17 of us at Hasselbacka piled into various cars and headed down the road to the nearby little village of Sillerud.  This is the first thing I saw of Sillerud when I got out of the car:

There are many explanations for what could be happening here, most of which do not provide any comfort.  When you are in a foreign country, there are definitely some times when you find it more foreign than others.

Sillerud is a small place, and if you park on the road and go up the hill they have what amounts to a sort of living history museum where a number of old-fashioned buildings have been preserved.  It’s a sort of park now, from what I could tell.

We got there during the preliminary part of the day and thus had time to wander around the buildings  - an old house, a flaxing room, and so on – and check out the various attractions.  There was also a man selling hot dogs, which it turned out we couldn’t buy because the ATM I had found in the airport had given me only SEK 500 bills.  It was kind of like going to an American flea market and handing out Benjamins.  Moa paid for our first hot dogs, and eventually the man accumulated enough change (and we accumulated enough things we wanted to buy in addition to hot dogs) that we could pay for our own stuff.

At some kind of pre-arranged signal, everyone gathered around the Midsummer Pole, which is a triangle roughly eight feet on the base and four feet high, with a two-foot diameter ring dangling from each end and the whole thing mounted on a twelve-foot high pole and covered with greenery.  A couple of musicians parked themselves in the center and most of the hundred or so people in attendance formed a circle around them.

There followed a number of dances involving circling to the left and right, jumping up and down, making odd hand motions, and generally being silly in traditional ways.

After a while the musicians declared that they were done and we all went back to our picnic tables to eat.  We also took the opportunity to have photos taken at the Midsummer pole.

We then adjourned back to Hasselbacka for the next phase of the holiday.  Like most holiday celebrations the world over, this involved food, drink, and conversation.

And singing.

The way it works is that you sit there among your friends and family, working your way through the vast quantities of food that are put before you, and every so often someone will begin to sing a song – generally short and punchy – after which you down a shot of aquavit or vodka.  Or wine.  Whatever.  The singing gradually gets more enthusiastic as you go. 

Eventually we packed it all away and it was sauna time, after which we hung out at the cottage and had a good time.  It was a very nice way to spend a holiday.

In England, the school year goes much later than it does in the US.  Here in Our Little Town, the girls were out of school on June 8 and this struck people as being rather on the late side.  Ginny and Magnus had their last day of school almost a full month later, on July 7, and we got to go see the place.

They go to what in the US would be called a private school but is called a public school in the UK.  Public schools are called something else.  England and America are, as George Bernard Shaw once said, two countries separated by the same language.  But it’s a lovely school.  The grounds are green and expansive, and the main building is a giant Tudor structure that might well be original for all I know.

We got the brief tour of the building, and then we settled in for the main event – the last day of school is Prizegiving Day.

The thing about British schools is that they don’t seem to have been infected with the American virus that says “everyone gets a prize of some sort.”  I found this refreshing, actually.  Prizes are there to be won, by effort and by standing out from the common herd – not just for showing up.  So there is a fair amount of anticipation among the students on this day, because they know that only a few of them will be going home with hardware.

And it turned out that both Magnus and Ginny won.

Ginny won one of the prizes given out for her year, though unfortunately I forgot to write down which one.  There were only a couple of them, so it was an honor in any case.

And Magnus won the big math prize.

It’s actually quite a large trophy, when you get up close – and not held together by anything other than gravity, so you have to be careful when you handle it. 

Afterward there was a very nice reception on the grounds.  This was largely geared toward the adults, with wines and other refreshments.  The kids spent most of the time careening wildly down the nearby hill.

At the bottom there were treats, but really – how much incentive do you have to give kids to run down a grassy hill on the last day of school?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Dartmoor and Lyme Regis

Though it might seem so to the casual visitor of this blog (or at least the casual visitor who has managed to slog through all this stuff about last month’s trip, which I imagine cannot be all that casual – it takes a certain amount of dedication to work your way through someone else’s vacation that way.  What can I say?  It’s my blog, and I write what interests me), our time in England was not spent entirely on historical sites.  Just as we spent several days in rural Sweden, so too did we spend a few days in rural England.

Granted, much of that was spent at historical sites – Muchelny, Okehampton, Tintagel – because we enjoy such things immensely.  But not all of it.

Our destination out in the countryside was Dartmoor, a huge expanse of incredibly lovely and largely empty land in the southwest of England.

We stayed at the Bellever Youth Hostel, a comfortable little place that was built in the 1930s if I recall correctly and which was surprisingly busy the whole time we were there – it’s genuinely in the middle of nowhere, about as far from anything as you can get in a place as densely populated as England, but it was full to the rafters both nights we stayed there, mostly with Dutch tourists.  But it was clean and well maintained, the common room had tables where we could play cards at night, and they had comfortable beds, decent hot breakfasts, and good hard cider for sale in the commissary.  If that meant putting up with a thundering herd of morons in the hall at 7am one morning, well that’s the price you pay for such things.  We were planning to get up around that time anyway.  It was almost as if they did us a service.

On our first morning there, we decided to go for a walk.  There were a few maps of the surrounding country that we could borrow from the main office (which was also the commissary, strangely enough), and the trails seemed fairly clearly marked.  There were a couple of options, and we decided to take the medium-length one, which promised to be about an hour.

From this we learned not to trust such promises.

The hike started off quite well.  We headed down the road the hostel was on (yes, that is considered a two-way road in England) and then up the hill along the horse path. 

The flowers were in full bloom and the greenery was thick and lush, probably a result of the monsoon rains that had been drenching England for weeks at that point.  Fortunately for us, the weather was mostly clear on our walk.  Unfortunately, the ground was saturated.

We didn’t get too bothered by this until we broke out into the clear and headed toward our target: Bellever Tor.

That’s it in the background of the first two photos, and it’s behind me in the last one.  It’s an ancient landmark, and the path leading up to it is wide and well worn.  It’s also seriously, seriously muddy.  Every horizontal stripe you see on that path is a stretch of mud that goes from side to side and is anywhere up to ten feet from front to back.  You could minimize the mud by going around on the grass or trying to pick your way through on the rocks, but even these were only marginal improvements.  By the time we got to the top, our shoes, socks, and pants were soaked and muddy.

But it was so worth it.  The rock formations are spectacular, even if climbing up on them was complicated by wind that was gusting to near gale force.

And the view from the top was even more spectacular.

We hung out at the top for a while, soaking it all in.  You can see why this site would be an attraction, the sort of place that would draw human attention over the millennia.  Ginny declared it “the most impressive thing ever.”  But even so, eventually we had to head back.

It was a long walk back to the hostel.  The whole thing took about double what the original estimates had said and the wet shoes took their toll on morale.

But we persevered, eventually finding ourselves in a dense pine forest.  The needles were a foot thick under our feet and there was no light coming through the branches, but the whole forest was maybe fifty yards wide – it had been planted in the early 20th century and we could see the other end from where we started – so we bounced our way through and back to the hostel, where we found some dry clothing to put on and comfortable chairs to sit in for a while.  Thus were our spirits restored.

Later that day we headed out to Tintagel, but we took a short detour a mile or two up the road from Bellever to go to Postbridge, where they have a clapper bridge.

It’s an interesting bit of engineering, really, and well worth the half hour out of our way to go see it.  It is apparently a form of architecture native to the area (though independently developed in other parts of the world as well), and this particular example dates back at least to 1380.

The next day we left Dartmoor and went to Lyme Regis.

Lyme Regis is a small town at the bottom of a large hill on the southern coast of England.  It is famous for two things, one of which is the Cobb.

The Cobb is a long, curving seawall that extends out into Lyme Bay that dates back in one form or another to at least the early 1300s and features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a book I have not read and, having slogged through Pride and Prejudice, don't really plan on reading.  The current version, from what I could find out, mostly dates back to 1824 which makes it practically still shiny out of the box by English historical standards.  You can see it in the center of this photo.

One of the things that one does in Lyme Regis is take a walk on the Cobb.  

Two things make such walks complicated.  First, you will note that the Cobb slopes rather sharply to the seaward side.  In keeping with standard British safety regulations, there are no rails or barriers of any sort at the seaward edge, just a few small signs warning you that the Cobb can be slippery when wet (next to the ocean!  who knew?) and that one should therefore take due care when walking on it.  And second, the day we visited was very, very windy, which should also be fairly obvious in these photos.  Which just complicates point one, really. 

But it is, after all, terribly scenic, and if you go to Lyme Regis without walking on the Cobb then you have definitely missed out.

The clouds in the above photo were typical of our day.  There was blue sky out about a quarter mile to sea and inland about a quarter mile, but along the actual beach it alternated between brilliant sunshine and driving rain roughly every fifteen minutes or so.  We therefore stopped for lunch, in the fond hopes that this would stabilize in a more sunny direction.

Eventually it did, and after a brief detour into a coffee shop and several places that sold rocks (more on that below), we worked our way back to the beach.

The other thing Lyme Regis is famous for besides the Cobb is that it has a beach full of fossils for you to find.  You can do this one of two ways.  The easy way is to head toward one of the many fine establishments that sell rocks (vide supra), because most of the rocks for sale contain fossils – ammonites, mostly, but others as well.

The more interesting way is to find them yourself on the beach.  If you head up the beach a bit from the Cobb the rocks get bigger, and inside those rocks are just millions of fossils.  They’re pretty much everywhere.  There is a reason this is called the Jurassic Coast.

You can try to chisel them out if you want.  Sometimes you can just pick up a rock and break it, either with a hammer (which the rock stores will gladly sell you) or by pounding it against another rock, and often there will be more fossils inside.  They just hive off the cliffside facing the beach, so every day and especially after every storm there is a fresh supply of the things.  You can spend a happy afternoon at Lyme Regis doing nothing but breaking rocks.  No chain gang required.

My favorite relic on the beach, however, was man-made.

This is what is left of a narrow-gauge hand-powered railroad that at one time ran along the coast.  You can see the Cobb off to the right, jutting out into the sea.  Apparently the railcars were used for mining at one point, but the whole thing fell into disuse and was left to decay.

And decay it has done.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Fun in the Water in Sweden

We spent a lot of time on or near water while we were in Sweden.

This is surprisingly easy to do, actually.  It would be difficult not to be near water in Sweden, which has a coastline that covers slightly more than half of the nation’s borders, an archipelago that surrounds its capital, and if you do the math a lake roughly every kilometer or so (Sweden is just slightly bigger than California and has roughly 97,000 lakes if you don’t count anything less than two acres in area).  If you want to avoid the water in Sweden, you have to try fairly hard.

But there’s being around water and then there’s enjoying the water.  We made good use of it while we were there.

As noted in the previous post, at Hasselbacka the girls spent a fair amount of time in the lake, along with the other kids there.  The grown-ups would go in once in a while, especially after the sauna, but mostly it was the kids.  But the lake was cold, and not even young kids could generate enough body heat and motion to stay in for very long.

The solution, therefore, was obvious:  don’t go in; stay on top.

Tabitha and Lauren just love kayaking.  They get this from Kim’s side of the family, since nobody on my side has ever once said, “Hey!  Let’s get into a narrow boat with only a double-sided oar for company and head on out into the open water for an hour or two!”  This was never considered to be fun when I was growing up, but for Tabitha and Lauren it is the dictionary definition of a good time.

Fortunately for them, there is a kayak at Hasselbacka, and they made good use of it.  First Lauren:

And then Tabitha:

They cruised around the lake for the better part of an afternoon toward the end of our stay in rural Sweden, and were completely psyched about it.  This gesture, apparently, is the kayaker’s indication of triumph.  We saw a lot of it.

They liked the experience so much that we took a day in Stockholm and went kayaking again.  This time we went up to a place that rented kayaks so that more than one person could go at a time.  I politely demurred, on the grounds that I prefer to be in places where when I screw up I can still breathe – I am quite happy to remain on the shore and wave to people as they go by.  Kim would have gone with them except she was feeling a bit under the weather that day.  Helena and David were off visiting other friends.  So it was Lauren, Tabitha, Mats, Sara and Maria, out on the waters surrounding Stockholm.

Safety first.

And then it was time to wedge into the kayaks themselves – Sara and Lauren in one, Mats and Maria in another, and Tabitha on her own.  They pushed off from the dock without incident, and headed off.

Kim and I hung out at the dock, which was nice.  Kim went for a couple of short walks while I read my book, and we had some quiet time together.  There was a group of Australian tourists that came by for kayaks while we were there – mostly college-aged men and a couple of women – and they spent an entertaining half hour busting each others’ chops and posing for photographs before they finally made it onto the water.

Meanwhile, the kayakers were pounding their way up the shoreline – Tabitha’s boat was more of a racing design and she stayed fairly far ahead of the group most of the time, from what I heard, and Lauren proved to be a strong paddler herself.  They were gone for well over an hour.

And then it was time to refuel.

On the way home Sara took us through one of the largest tunnel systems in Europe.  That was phenomenally impressive, from a civil engineering point of view.  I’ve never been in a tunnel system that had entrances and exits – plural, many – in the tunnels themselves.  And artwork – large installations of public art that surrounded some of the exits and made them more noticeable.  It took us the better part of half an hour at highway speeds to get through it all.

While we were in Sweden we had a few days of more or less down time, which was nice.  And we spent a lot of that down time down by the water, which sounds like a line in a blues song but was actually a happy thing.

One day we decided to go over to the nearest lake to Mats and Sara’s house.  So Maria, Helena, Tabitha and Lauren all got on bicycles and pedaled over, while Mats, Kim and I walked through the wooded area behind their house and met them there.

We hung around for a while, bouncing around on the rocks and just enjoying the view.  And then we headed back.

On one of our last full days in Sweden we went to Flottsbro, which is a public beach not far from Mats and Sara’s house.  It’s on a huge lake, at the base of a skiing hill.  For a while the kids ran around in the water while the grownups hung out on the shore.

And then we discovered the bridge.

Or, more accurately, we discovered the swing underneath the bridge.  Flottsbro sits on an isthmus between two lakes (see? - there are lakes just everywhere), and there is channel that runs from the one to the other.  It’s a pretty wide channel, actually.  About halfway down, there is a bridge.

And tied to the bottom of the bridge, is a rope swing.  You have to edge your way out on the beams of the old bridge underneath to get to it, but it is a popular spot.  Mats took the kids to the bridge and they immediately set about making good use of the rope – swinging far out over the channel for a while, and then, eventually, taking the plunge.

Lauren, Maria, Helena, David, and Mats spent the better part of an hour or two doing this – swinging, jumping, climbing back up, edging carefully out to the swing again, and repeating the process.  Lauren told me that “this is the funnest thing ever ever,” and we had to make up a secret handshake to celebrate.