Weird Swedish Food… Filmjölk

“Check the expiration date. Well then ask the waiter. No, seriously, there’s something wrong with it. I think it’s gone bad. Seriously, taste it.”

It was the morning after I arrived in Sweden. My boyfriend and I had stayed in a beautiful Stockholm hotel and were having a lovely breakfast. That is until I decided I wanted some yogurt and bravely ventured up to the buffet alone. Swedish signs stood next to the mystery foods mockingly. I stood there frozen by indecision. “It looks like yogurt. All five of them look like yogurt. Maybe they’re different flavors. I’ll just pick the plain one and put berries in it.” Sorted.

The taste is hard to describe. Its flavor is close to what I would expect yogurt kept two weeks past its expiration date would taste like. It’s sour, stinky and inedible. However, I am the only one in this country to think so. Swedes universally love filmjölk. They eat it for breakfast. They eat it as a snack. They throw fruit, knäckebröd or jam in it (probably to get rid of the taste).

This fermented milk product is as loved by Swedes as Kalles Kaviar. And frankly, it’s just as nasty. Perhaps it was my upbringing eating mega-sugary foods in America that has deprived me of the ability to enjoy this simple pleasure. Or my lack of adventurousness when it comes to food.

Then again, I’m not really keen to eat anything that tastes as if it will lead to a case of food poisoning.

Coming home at last

Goodbye slow walkers who block the sidewalk, sewer smell in the morning and stifling heat!

Well, for two weeks at least.

After 14 months away I am finally going home for a desperately needed visit. My travel arrangements are set, my souvenirs for folks at home are bought and my bags are packed _ with sweaters. Lots and lots of sweaters.

A year in 95 F/35 C temperatures means my blood has thinned _ a fact evidenced by my blanket-sized woolly sweater I wear in my over-air conditioned office. The temperatures in New York City, though not cold by any standard, will be celebrated with layers of sweaters and hats and pants. Nantucket promises to be even chillier with its ocean breezes and early morning fog. And you know what that means? Yeah you do. Long johns.

But more than my celebration of days without perspiration, it is a chance for me to see my nearest and dearest. For weeks I have imagined nothing but hugging my dad for the first time in over year, of laughing with my two sisters as we drive up to Nantucket, and drinking a beer with my mom while we battle over heath care in the U.S. I have been reading up Mom. Watch out.

It is a chance for me to hug my best friend for the first time since we parted in tears, spending a week in her apartment gossiping about all that we’ve missed and all that we have planned. And I get to spend a week in NYC properly catching up with my closest friends over BBQ dinners and bottles of wine.

(Incidentally I will be consuming a bottle a day to celebrate being able to buy $10 bottles and the departure from a country that charges $30 for a bottle of crap from Australia. No offense Australia.)

The trip to NYC is also an opportunity to revisit my most favorite of places, a city in which I feel infinitely comfortable and content. I will walk through Central Park, roam the city streets to see what has changed in this past year, and finally drink a well made cocktail. I anticipate these activities will take up about 20% of my day.

The other 80% you might wonder? I will be spending that in every brightly-lit, well-stocked and sale-sign-adorned shoe store I can find. I will try on every shoe they have. I will annoy and frustrate sales clerks. And I will love every minute. Because I have a primal need for this kind of shoe therapy; I have spent a year with the same old ratty, torn, unraveling shoes because of Asians’ miniature feet. (Well they’re not all mini. Ladyboys have huge feet. But I couldn’t bring myself to shop at their store. I’m already freakishly tall here. I don’t need to raise questions.)

So 12 hours out and one day of work to go I am antsy, distracted and more excited for this trip than any other I have taken. I wonder how much I have changed having spent a year immersed in another culture and another lifestyle. I wonder if my perception of the U.S. is different and if reverse culture shock will hit me square in the face. I wonder if being home will make me realize how much I’ve missed, or if it will reaffirm my choice to live overseas.

But for now I can think of only one thing: that first step on U.S. soil and seeing the NYC skyline _ the undeniable sign that I am finally home.

Political crisis goes into overdrive

The government has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. Thousands of violent protesters stormed the Interior ministry and attacked a car carrying carrying the Thai prime minister. And now there are reports that armored vehicles have begun patrolling the city’s streets.

The chaos that has been steadily intensifying for the last few weeks is becoming a very real threat, not only to the government officials who are being attacked, but also to the people of Bangkok. Rumors are circulating that yet again the airports might be overtaken (though the protesters have denied they will take such action) and that the protesters could turn violent. There are also murmurs that there will be a military crackdown, a possibility seemingly supported by the armored vehicles on the streets.

This kind of political turmoil is commonplace in a country that has had 18 military coups since the 1930s. But the recent unrest has even some seasoned expats concerned that the protesters this time around are playing by completely different rules.

Yellow-shirted pro-royalist protesters _ who shuttered Bangkok’s two airports for eight days _ demonstrated to have allies of disgraced and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra removed from power. A court then ordered the removal of Thaksin’s allies and the Parliament installed current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Red-shirted protesters _ who are responsible for the turmoil in recent weeks _ are now arguing that Abhisit came to power illegitimately. They are also backed by Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He has been calling in daily from exile to encourage the red shirts to continue their protests. And thus a vicious cycle continues.

The difference between the protests last year and the recent demonstrations is the lengths to which the red-shirted protesters are going to make their point clear. They want Abhisit to step down and for new elections to be called, and they refuse to stop until it happens. But with the prime minister refusing to step down, the protesters have upped the ante and made it clear that they are a serious threat.

On Saturday, they stormed the site of the East Asia Summit in Pattaya, where leaders from 16 Asian nations were meeting to determine how best to deal with the global economic crisis. They smashed windows, swarmed the lobby chanting and waving flags, and forced the evacuation by helicopter and sea of the Asian leaders. On TV, military personnel could be seen standing aside to let demonstrators pass. The red-shirts declared it a victory. Observers declared it an embarrassment.

Now, with the streets of Bangkok filled with a regrouped mob and armored vehicles, it’s a waiting game to see how far the protesters will go. The police and the government have been completely ineffective in stopping both the red and yellow shirts and there is little faith that if the military steps in, they will be able to do much to quell the unruly group.

Updates from me will come as I get them, especially on how daily life is being affected by this crisis. For now, the reaction among my colleagues and friends is that it is just another step in Thailand’s political turmoil. But many have given a slight pause and the doubt in their face makes it clear that this time around, no one knows what the outcome will be. Tourists, however, have taken note and there are reports that this latest bout of disorder will further cripple the country’s already battered tourism industry. To those hoping to visit soon, I would wait and watch.

An Asian city to love…

Would it be pathetic to throw in the towel on Bangkok after just eight months? Because I have my eye on a new Asian city. It has better weather, feels more like a proper sky-scrapered/center-of-commerce city and has more expats. And those are just some of the highlights that exclude great shopping and dining, great nightlife and a very cool, mountainous terrain. Goodbye Bangkok, hello Hong Kong.

On the ferry to Kowloon

On the ferry to Kowloon

OK, so I’m not actually leaving Thailand despite my threats. But a recent weekend in this former British territory was enough to make me want to give up cheap street food, tuk-tuks and abundant sunshine.

Hong Kong is as close to New York as you can get without actually being there. With seven million people, it is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, but you wouldn’t know it. The city winds up and down hills _ slightly reminiscent of San Francisco _ with a beautiful mountain backdrop looming up behind it. It feels distinctly like a Western city _ with it’s British traffic signals, proliferation of expats and world-class shopping _ but still retains its Chinese flair.

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But Hong Kong is like the Prada of international cities; it attracts a monied elite with its pricey restaurants, shops and real estate _ and it knows it. Everywhere you walk, there is an abundance of shops that will kindly and swiftly take your money. Hotels that beckon with its modern boutique charm will silently siphon away your dollars. And trendy restaurants that mimic the most exclusive ones in NYC will subtly appetize and main course the bucks right off of you.

And if you’ve been living … oh say … in Southeast Asia for eight months, you don’t care. “Here, take it!,” you say. “You can have it all.” As long as I can continue to experience this little taste of a more familiar life, I will live like a pauper until my next paycheck. And despite your bank account’s protestations, you might decide to have high tea at the Peninsula Hotel at $60 a person. You might also be so desperate for your overpriced tea and cucumber sandwiches that you persuade the manager that even though your sandals are not “Peninsula-appropriate,” you should be allowed to partake in the mini fruit tarts and fluffy raisin scones. (They were delicious by the way).

Tea at the Peninsula Hotel

Tea at the Peninsula Hotel

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Hong Kong, like all cities, is constantly in flux. Real estate has long been a valuable commodity, especially on the island, and it prompted authorities long ago to create more land. The initiative, which has been heavily criticized by many, has whittled the size of Victoria Harbour to half it’s original size, and robbed the Oriental Hotel of it’s once beautiful harbor views. But the land reclamation projects continue, a fascinating process that can be seen from the ferry terminal to Kowloon.

Land reclamation on Hong Kong Island

Land reclamation on Hong Kong Island

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For all of its draws, it’s no wonder that Hong Kong is a popular destination for tourists and expats alike. I have long thought that my tenure in Asia would be limited to two years and to Bangkok. But the longer I stay and the more countries I visit on this fascinating continent, the more Asia seems to burrow into my heart. And if given the chance, I think I could call Hong Kong home.