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.

Lonely summer in Stockholm

Parking on the street? Check. A seat on the subway? Check. Empty tables at outdoor cafes? Check. Uhh … what is going on?

Empty subway platforms during rush hour

In a country where a generous six weeks of vacation is the norm, it is only natural to assume that there will be times at which the city feels empty. But here in Stockholm, it seems the Swedes all schemed to choose the same month to go on vacation and leave the city’s restaurants and shops shuttered. July was that such month, where the city’s inhabitants, having shucked off their winter coats and saved up their holiday time, all left. Perhaps 40 percent of the shops on my street closed. Rush hour looked more like nap hour. And my office felt like a graveyard, save for the few of us stuck there desperately dreaming of ways to pass the time.

I have enjoyed the city’s emptiness. There are tons of perks and Mondays feel like Sundays. But try to get anything done in summer and you’re going to be s#&% out of luck. Looking for a job? Forget it. Waiting to hear if you got into graduate school? Sorry. Need to see the chiropractor for a neck injury? He’s at the beach!

In America, where your number of vacation days is similar to what you would take off to battle a severe flu, we are experts at portioning out our holiday time to relieve us from the doldrums of each intense season (Blinding snow? Hello Caribbean. Blistering heat? Oh hello London).

But these Swedes are a hearty bunch. They battle through the arctic temperatures and depression-inducing darkness, and save up the days for summer, the time of year that turns Stockholm into an outdoor paradise. Then they motor off to their summer homes in the archipelago to enjoy an uninterrupted month (or more) with family and friends. And it is all done without a hint of remorse or concern that things still need to be done. It is such a part of the culture that only the government would have the power to alter this practice. And they won’t do anything about it; the prime minister is on vacation.

Reflections on America…

I have been back to the United States three times in the two years I have lived abroad. Each visit has held different surprises, moods and feelings. During my first trip back after more than a year in Bangkok, I felt a strong kinship with and longing for the places I had called home. My second trip in January and my first since moving to Sweden was spent in snowy Philadelphia with family, and was simple in its comfort and warmth. But my latest trip back to Philadelphia, NYC and my most favorite place, Maine, was both unsettling and profound.

I have noticed my feelings change toward the U.S. since I left in July 2008. I initially felt a deep longing that has morphed over the last two years into a sadness at what it has become. The most difference, of course, is the effect the financial crisis has had on American homes, businesses and people. And it has left me with one resounding conclusion; America is broken.

I called NYC home for three years. I became an adult there, worked there, laughed there and suffered there. It holds a special place in my heart and during each visit, I felt a strong connection to the streets, the people and the energy. It felt like the center of the world and its unique character made it all the more enigmatic and thrilling. But this visit was different. During my five days there, I noticed the bitterness and anger, the faulty subways, the grime, the shuttered stores, the political wrangling, the distrust, the wariness, the suffering. I felt nickled and dimed at every turn; tips here, taxes there and a surcharge thrown in. It felt like climbing a mountain against unyielding winds. It was a struggle and not one that I remember from early 20s, trying to make it in the city as a journalist.

Perhaps being a few years older and living in Europe has changed my perception. In the land of five-week vacations, free health care and more than a year of paternal leave, people here aren’t hardened. Their extra vacation pay, work-paid cell phones and subsidized massages make it easy to smile and laugh. The all-inclusive price tags and the efficient subways mean that very few are inconvenienced or stressed. Life here is just easy.

One thing about home that has not lost its ease and comfort, however, is time with family. The longer I am away, the more I realize the profound love and friendship we share and just how much I cherish our short time together. Their presence, laughs and stories recharge my heart for the long absences and makes me long for the America I love and genuinely want to live in. But for now, America is not a place I want to be – a statement that hurts as much as it relieves in its assuredness.

For now, I count myself lucky for the visits home every few months and the comfort of the life I have made in Sweden. I feel fortunate to have left the struggles of my early 20s in NYC and enjoy the comfort of home-ownership, low taxes and love. I desperately hope the America I grew up in and loved for all those years recovers and returns. And not just for me, but for everyone that calls it home.

A Saturday in Stockholm’s Archipeligo

Stockholm’s archipelago is gorgeous; the jutting and receding coastlines of the islands are dotted with multi-million dollar property that everyone would love to get their hands on, if only they won the lottery. Or founded IKEA.

The sheer number of islands that make up the nearly 40 mile- (60 kilometer-) wide archipelago is astounding: 24,000. The wide waterways that wind through the islands are home to pleasure boats, ferries, cruise lines and shipping boats as it is a major shipping route. The scenery is lush with green and purple trees, vast rock faces and … well, opulent wealth that characterizes these islands. The ferries that take the two-hour journey to the further regions is stocked with Stockholm’s elite, traveling to their summer homes, and with screaming children. I believe they belonged to willfully ignorant parents hoping for a peaceful day trip, but it remains speculation as they were nowhere to be found on the large boat.  

As it was my first time in the archipelago, we took advantage of a sunny, if not chilly day, to pack a picnic lunch, sit in the sun and watch the boats go by. It was perhaps the most lovely scenery I have seen since I arrived in Sweden and a place I hope to go back to. When it warms up. Which it won’t. Cause it’s Sweden.

Weird Swedish food… Tunnbrödsrulle

It’s like a kebab. But not. Or maybe like a sandwich. But no, not really. It’s a wrap. But it’s not healthy. Help me out, what is a hot dog, pink shrimp salad, mashed potatoes and lettuce wrapped in flat bread?

It’s really f&%ing hard to eat, is what it is.

It is Sweden’s contribution to the world’s greatest hangover foods. A kebap (that’s what I’ve settled on, a kebab and a wrap) that can satisfy even the strangest of cravings. The bread, tunnbröd, is like a Swedish tortilla and it is filled with unruly mashed potatoes that are seemingly plotting their escape through the bottom and come closer to freedom with with every bite. You have to start by digging out the unnaturally pink and mayo-heavy shrimp salad with a fork to even have a shot at getting in a bite. And surrounded by all of the potatoes and shrimp, the hot dog seems insufficient and awkward as it pokes out the top of a meal with a circumference the size of a large movie theater soda.

But this seemingly disgusting combination of flavors, called Tunnbrödsrulle in Swedish, is actually… tasty. That is if you can stop laughing enough and shaking your head to take a bite.