Stockholm, Sweden (Day 6-10)

Zara is excited to go back to Stockholm.
Zara is excited to go back to Stockholm.
Braving the snow to see the views as we near port.
Braving the weather as we near port.

DAY SIX

Things were going well as we arrived in Stockholm on the MS Romantika.

Tim decided to take Vanessa for one last visit to the children’s play area on the ship. After Romantika docked and they hadn’t returned, I got worried and went to find them. Vanessa, it turned out, didn’t want to leave the play room. She resisted putting her shoes back on and started showing signs of a meltdown. Given that she’d had plenty of sleep and it was only 10 AM, this was surprising. I haven’t mentioned any other tantrums until now because she didn’t have any until now. We were getting spoiled and clearly she needed to whip us into shape.

She proceeded to have a huge fit all the way back to our cabin. Of course neither of our keys worked as we tried to get back into the room to retrieve our luggage as she yelled in the narrow, claustrophobic hallway. We frantically got a housekeeper to open the door for us. In our cabin, Vanessa kicked off her shoes, pulled off her socks, fought her jacket and tried desperately to avoid being secured into the stroller. Eff it, I thought, she can go without her shoes in the stroller. Pick your battles, right?

As we wheeled her and our luggage back into the hallway, one man stared at us in concern. The staff manning the exit looked at us uneasily but fortunately didn’t pick up the phone to report our screaming barefoot child.

The walk from the ship to the terminal seemed liked an eternity. It’s a good thing it was a covered walkway because it was snowing outside. By the time we got to the terminal, Vanessa came to her senses and decided she wanted her socks on after all. Poor thing, she looked a little defeated as we put her socks and shoes back on.

Vanessa after her tantrum.
Vanessa after her tantrum.

Tim spent a few minutes trying to find a reputable taxi while we watched the snow fall. He found one willing to take us to our hotel for an agreed upon price, consistent with what we were told to expect to pay. We piled into the taxi and the driver handed Vanessa a lollipop (part of his ruse, it turns out). Tim had showed him a map, which included a printed address to our hotel in a well-known area of Stockholm. The driver also had a GPS system, so there was no excuse for how he claimed to think we were going to a different street than we were. He pretended to be confused but drove the few blocks farther to the hotel with no trouble finding it. Then he said we owed him almost double what we had agreed. Bastard.

This is how taxis rip off customers. They are deregulated in Sweden and they can charge whatever they want. Tim argued with him and told him he was in the wrong business if he couldn’t find his way around as a taxi driver. The guy wouldn’t budge. Bastard.

On Djurgarden.
On Djurgarden.

We arrived back in Stockholm on Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is a Christian holiday that falls on the Thursday before Easter.

In Sweden, Maundy Thursday, or skärtorsdagen, is a hybrid between Easter and Halloween. It is known as the day of witches (or hags) and is connected to old folklore. Children dress up as hags with blush on their cheeks and freckles penciled onto their noses. They wear colorful scarves and aprons. It is utterly adorable. The little hags go around asking for treats with little baskets and brooms.

Getting in the spirit of the holiday, we dressed up the girls in scarves and aprons and did their makeup before hiking over to Djurgarden Island where Skansen is located. It’s an open air museum and zoo up on a hill and it had specially activities scheduled for Maundy Thursday.

Skansen is simply fantastic. It is full of traditional Swedish buildings from different parts of Sweden before the industrial era. There are farm animals, a children’s museum, a zoo with exotic and native animals (we saw reindeer!), amusement rides, food stalls and activities like pony rides and horse-drawn carriages. The island provides lovely views of Stockholm. It has lots of trees and grass, making it feel far from the city. And yet, it was within walking distance from our centrally located hotel.

After checking out a few things we found where they were making hag brooms. Each of the girls got their own broom and Vanessa delighted the broom makers by excitedly hopping around on her broom. She did not, predictably, agree to keep her hag outfit on. Or her coat.

The broom makers of Skansen.
The broom makers of Skansen.
Waiting for her broom!
Waiting for her broom!
Hopping on her broom!
Hopping on her broom!

The weather was overcast and in the 30s. A big difference from the near 80 degrees we left in Northern California. Because Vanessa refused to wear her coat (but had her Viking “horns” hat on) she got chilled. An employee attending the fire for cooking your own sausages noticed and said, “Perhaps the little Viking is cold?” She kindly offered us a wool blanket to wrap her in while Vanessa ate her lunch.

Is there anything cuter than babies in makeup?
Is there anything cuter than babies in makeup?
We found some Dala horses but they were a little too big for our suitcases.
We found some Dala horses but they were a little too big for our suitcases.
Reindeer.
Reindeer.
This is my kind of zoo, highlighting Swedish animals.
This is my kind of zoo, highlighting Swedish animals.

That night at our hotel, which was awesome, by the way (despite its awful name: Clarion Collection Hotel Wellington), we had dinner smörgåsbord style. Yes, the hotel served guests breakfast and dinner this way. Not as a restaurant but as part of the room price.  It was a relaxing way to dine with small children because we didn’t have to order food, wait for it to arrive, wait for the check, etc. Plus, there was an area with couches and games (the lobby, duh!) that Vanessa could go to when she inevitably finished her meal much earlier than us. This is because we spend the whole first part of the meal getting her food and helping her eat. It’s when we finally get a chance to take that first bite that she announces she’s ready to get up. Of course.

The food was good, with enough familiarity to be comforting and exotic enough to be interesting. There were sprouts at every breakfast and whipped cream, unsweetened, accompanying every dessert.

Yay for Maundy Thursday!
Yay for Maundy Thursday!
Walking from our hotel to another day at Skansen.
Walking from our hotel to another day at Skansen.

DAY SEVEN

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We liked Skansen so much we went there on Friday, too. The funicular was operating so we had a nice ride instead of the exhausting trudge of getting both girls up the hill using our own power. Vanessa got to ride a pony and we went inside two of the traditional buildings, a small house and a schoolhouse. They were full of old furnishings and had women in traditional dress sitting in the rooms. It was cool.

The lazy way up the hill.
The lazy way up the hill.

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Riding a Swedish pony.
Riding a Swedish pony.
Inside of a Swedish farmhouse on Skansen.
Inside of a Swedish farmhouse on Skansen.
Zara missed out on the pony rides.
Zara missed out on the pony rides.

The weather was sunny and clear, by far the best weather we had on the trip. My favorite part of Skansen is the old-fashioned buildings. They range from primitive huts to elaborate buildings, most made of wood. Many of them are simply beautiful. Some had sod roofs, just like Al Johnson’s restaurant in Door County, Wisconsin, but I didn’t see goats on any of them.

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A church.

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Skansen was full of stylish Swedish parents and their attractive children.
Skansen was full of stylish Swedish parents and their attractive children.
Vanessa feeling sad (hungry). Notice the bee hives to the right.
Vanessa feeling sad (hungry). Notice the bee hives to the right.
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The majestic Nordic Museum.

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Tim said, "Stand right there." I didn't notice the sign until after.
Tim said, “Stand right there.” I didn’t notice the sign until after.

DAY EIGHT

The 333 year old Vasa.
The 333 year old Vasa.

The Vasa Museet

On Saturday, we slept in, had a nice breakfast at the hotel and then made our way under a cold grey sky to the Vasa Museet. This museum houses the Vasa, an ornate warship that sunk shortly after beginning its first voyage in 1628. It was King Gustav II Adolf’s vessel and, as king, he wanted to appear powerful. The ship was a piece of art, laden with carvings and beautiful paint.

Jean Baptiste Colbert said of the Vasa:

Nothing can be more impressive, nor more dedicated to glorifying His Royal Majesty, than for his ship to bear the most magnificent decoration that has ever been beheld on the oceans.

Unfortunately, the Vasa was just too pretty. On her maiden voyage she keeled over and sank in the middle of Stockholm harbor after sailing just over 1400 yards.  So maybe nothing can be more impressive than a beautifully decorated ship but nothing could be more embarrassing than to have said ship immediately sink as your kingdom looks on expectantly.

Apparently it was a simple breeze that knocked her over. I say good for the Swedes for turning lemons into lemonade 333 years later. They pulled her up, sailed her back to land and put her on display in a great museum.

Enjoying our hotel room.
Enjoying our hotel room.
Happy Easter! Glad Pask!
Happy Easter! Glad Pask!

DAY NINE

Easter Sunday was our final full day in Sweden. I had hoped to have lunch at a popular food hall but they were closed. It was a rainy day and we got wet walking to the Biologiska Museet, the Biology Museum. It is housed in what I considered to be the most beautiful, interesting building in Stockholm.

The Biologiska Museet. Isn't this building amazing?
The Biologiska Museet. Isn’t this building amazing?
Detail of the Biologiska Museet door.
Detail of the Biologiska Museet door.

The museum itself wasn’t much, with three levels of taxidermic animals native to Sweden set in dioramas. Vanessa liked it quite a bit. She loves animals and is very bright. “Mommy, that’s a badger coming out of a hole and that’s a lemming over there,” she told me excitedly.

(As much as I focus on her difficult side, which makes for an interesting travel blog, Vanessa is actually lovely to be around. She is energetic, engaged, social, intelligent, and super cute.)

After the museum, we went back to our hotel where our luggage was being stored and then walked about a mile to the Arlanda Express. Tim thought it’d be good if we moved to a hotel near the airport on our last night so we’d spend less time traveling on the big travel day. This was a smart move because it took us a while between getting our luggage and arriving at the airport hotel.

The walk from our hotel to the train station took us through downtown Stockholm. There was a much bigger variety of ages and ethnicities than what we saw at Skansen. It was a fun, but tiring, walk.

IMG_9438One thing that is noticeable about Stockholm is its wonderful aesthetic. The old buildings are gorgeous, some understated, some ornate. Many of the window displays were tasteful and creative. Textiles are big there. In Ahlens, a large department store, among the pillows and curtains, there were bolts of fabric in lovely patterns and colors. Imagine Macy’s or Nordstrom’s with fabric by the yard.

Dala horse
Dala horse

There was one last thing we had to do before leaving Stockholm: get our hands on Dala horses, Dalahästs. I had been shopping around, comparing prices. None of them were cheap but the most affordable ones I found were in a Swedish grocery store called Hemköp. In fact, they were half the price of the ones I saw at Skansen. Maybe they weren’t hand painted in Dalarna but I couldn’t afford to be picky. Luckily, we passed a Hemköp on our way to the Arlanda Express. I waited outside with the girls, who were both asleep, people watching while Tim picked up a couple of horses for me. In true Tim style, he returned not only with the horses but pockets full of Kinder Eggs. I half expected to see a bottle of beer in there, too, but there wasn’t.

I didn’t notice this but Tim picked up on the fact that all the beer in Swedish grocery stores is 3.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) or less. Sweden has a government alcohol monopoly on everything higher than 3.5% ABV. There are government-run liquor stores where you can get stronger, heavily taxed, alcohol. Even beer that Tim is familiar with from other countries, that normally has higher ABV, is specially brewed at 3.5% ABV for export to Sweden. This explains part of the reason people were carting boxes of beer and liquor off the ferry when we arrived back in Stockholm.

Our last night in Sweden was mellow, with dinner in the airport hotel restaurant and a romantic comedy on television. Obviously we really know how to have fun.

Imminent rain.
Imminent rain.
Taking a break from the wet.
Taking a break from the wet.
A minute later, sunny and nice.
A minute later, sunny and nice.
All tired out.
All tired out in the lobby of our hotel.
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Zara sleeping in the chair on our flight lasted exactly five minutes. Just long enough for us to feel smug and take a photo.

DAY TEN

Our trip home went pretty well. We did have to get up at 4:30 in the morning, which is never fun, but it wasn’t too bad. Vanessa only fought it a little. Our flight had a change at London Heathrow.

At one point while at Heathrow, I got quite angry. As we were going through Heathrow’s security (we already went through Stockholm security–why do we have to do it again?), a female employee started badgering me about infant food/formula before I had even fully walked up to the place you put your stuff into bins. I told her I didn’t have any and she repeatedly asked me, obviously not believing me.

As she asked, I was digging in my bag for the liquids I did have, infant medication and contact lens solution. This woman, who honestly didn’t appear to be very bright, took the infant medication over to some other person and came back to tell me it was over the limit. It turns out that Heathrow has different restrictions for liquids than the U.S. or Sweden. And if the bottle size was over the limit, even if the amount of liquid in the bottle was clearly under the limit, you couldn’t take it through security. This, I thought, was mindlessly stupid and rude. Our airline security has come to this? I can’t take water with me, I have to take off my shoes, my jacket, my scarf, my baby, and now I can’t even take things that other major countries allow through security.

It didn’t help that the lady told me this information and then held the bottle at me like I was supposed to give her permission to take it away from me. When I objected to her taking my infant’s medication, she said I should have gotten a doctor to write a note (as if that would really make any difference in security). Well if I had known they had different rules, I might have done that. But I didn’t know I needed to. So that was an extremely helpful comment on her part. Not.

She kept repeating that she was going to take the bottle away. Did I have a choice in this I didn’t know about? Then she zoomed in on my contact lens solution. It was too big, too, of course, even though it was the travel size you get in the U.S. She repeated her inane announcement that she was taking it from me. I finally said in a bitchy voice, “I heard you the first time. I do speak English, it turns out.”

For those of you that know me, it takes a lot for me to be rude to strangers. I was thoroughly pissed at this point and was loudly objecting to the fact that they were taking my things that had passed through security in the U.S. and Sweden. Thanks a lot, Heathrow. You owe me 20 bucks.

Going through security caused me to get all sweaty and gross. I was looking forward to a shower when I got home. When Zara threw up on me during the flight from Heathrow to San Francisco, I really looked forward to a shower.

To amuse Vanessa during the landing when she had to go against every fiber in her body and actually sit in her seat, I blew bubbles with my gum and let her pop them with my finger. My mouth got tired of all the blowing but it worked to keep her entertained during a tedious part of the trip.

The traveling we did in January has paid off, Vanessa was much easier to travel with this time.

It was glorious to walk outside of SFO after our long trip and feel the warm spring air. As much as I enjoyed the more wintry weather of Sweden and Estonia, the pleasant California climate was a sweet welcome.

By the time we got back to our house, we had been awake for 23 hours (minus a cat nap on the plane). Besides being exhausted, we were grungy and hungry. In a fog I made a quick dinner, knowing it’d help us sleep if our stomachs weren’t growling. After a refreshing shower, we tumbled into bed and slept hard. That is, we slept hard until Zara woke up at 2 AM. Ah, jet lag, you merciless mistress.

I am of Swedish descent on both sides of my family, so it was especially fascinating to see a little bit of Sweden. I felt a swell of pride in my ancestry when I saw the elegant buildings and the beauty of the Swedes. In my travels so far, everything before this has seemed abstract, like this is other people’s history, not mine. But in Sweden I experienced a certain ownership to the place.

There is a story in my family about a great-great-great Swedish grandfather who was the town blacksmith. One day a bear came into town and my great-great-great grandfather, the story goes, hit the bear on the head with his hammer and scared the bear away. From then on, his name was Bjorn (bear in Swedish). My great-grandmother, a Bjorn, married a Larsson (now Larson, because the folks working at Ellis Island were in the habit of eliminating repetitive letters in names). And that’s who I was until I married a Beck.

We had a terrific trip, better than I had hoped with our two toddlers. Vanessa has been to ten countries now and Zara has been to six. Not too shabby for a two-year old and a one-year old!

Next up: Great Britain, Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia this summer.

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Estonia (Day 4-5)

After learning the hard way what time to be at our ferry, Tim and I made sure to arrive early at the ferry terminal for our rescheduled trip from Stockholm to Tallinn. Vanessa is obsessed with pirates, so to her we boarded not just any old sea-fairing vessel but a pirate ship. She has a rich imagination.

The ship is called Victoria I. She is huge with eight decks and provides a variety of places to go and things to do. Think mini Vegas with lower quality entertainment and shopping. There are bars, nightclubs, restaurants, a sun deck, and shopping. Our little cabin was cozy–of course–and a marvel of efficient use of space. Three beds folded out from the wall and the couch turned into a bed. 

   Victoria is all about the duty-free shopping. Due to the high cost of alcohol in Sweden, it is a popular way for Swedes to purchase more affordable wine, beer and spirits. (When we returned to Sweden, we saw people with boxes and boxes of beer on little carts.) The duty-free store had a noxious sea of perfume and cigarettes and candy, too. 

For the first few hours of the journey, the ship navigated past many islands, most with cabins or homes on them. They were lovely to behold. When traveling, I often ask myself, Why do people live here? Sometimes it can be a puzzle to me (middle of the desert in Nevada) and sometimes it’s more obvious why people live where they do. Stockholm is a cosmopolitan, exciting city and if you lived there, you could escape to a summer cabin on one of these beautiful, nearby islands. 

   

 

Tim’s mom, Barbara,  asked me before we left on this trip if I was taking any motion sickness medication. “Nah,” I said, “we went on an overnight ferry across the Adriatic from Italy to Croatia and it was fine.” 

“Well,” she replied, “the only time I got sea sick was crossing the Baltic during a storm.” Barbara is well-traveled and has gone on at least a few cruises, so that got my attention. We brought scopolamine patches just in case. 

  

As the boat made it out into the open sea, we noticed rocking. Outside it was windy and snowing. So we sent out a thought of thanks to Barbara as we afixed our scopolamine patches behind our ears. I hoped the girls wouldn’t get sick and, luckily, they didn’t.

Vanessa and Zara enjoyed playing in the kid’s activity room. There was a ball pit, toys, art supplies, tv, and, best of all, other kids.   

 

For dinner that night, we mostly just ate snacks we had brought on board. I spread all the food we had out on the couch and we had a fun little picnic. 

That night there was more trouble with jet lag. Vanessa woke up in the middle of the night and that caused Zara to wake up. After hanging out for awhile, Vanessa cuddled up to me and eventually fell back asleep. Tim took Zara out for a walk in the carrier and when they returned she quickly joined her sister in the land of nod. There was no crying and they weren’t awake for a long time, so things on the sleep front were definitely improving.

   

 

I set the alarm for 8 AM because the ship was due to arrive in Tallinn at 10 AM. When the alarm went off jet lag hung over me like a dark cloud. I was nauseous and devestatingly tired. Tim looked like he felt the same. (The girls didn’t stir until we woke them up right before 10.) We pushed through the jet lag, downing cappuccinos and blearily packed up our stuff. 

It was exciting to see land and birds after the open sea. I kept thinking, If there’s a disaster with the boat now, we could be rescued quickly. Maybe I’m more anxious than I thought? 

  

Tallinn had a mixture of tall modern buildings, older communist-era apartment blocks and old-looking church spires.

   

After disembarking, Tim told me he thought we could walk to our rented apartment. Sweden has a problem with rip off taxis and we weren’t sure what the taxi situation was in Estonia.  It was cold and rainy but we didn’t have to go far and everything seems easier without those heavy car seats we had on our last trip. As Tim and I hauled our bags and children through the rain past a number of waiting taxis, I felt like an intrepid traveler.

The apartment we reserved is in the old town of Tallinn and just like all the other old towns in Europe I’ve been to, it was marked by narrow, bumpy cobblestone streets, and buildings with so much character it was hard to walk by without stopping.

Our stay in Tallinn was quite pleasant. Our apartment was spacious, modern and brand new, even though it was in an ancient building on an ancient street. The girls slept through the night. We had some amazing food (the sauces alone were fantastic: cherry sauce, elderberry sauce, blueberry sauce, mustard sauce…). The old town was full of little streets, souvenir shops, tempting restaurants and cafes, and medieval buildings. I even got to do a little shopping. After checking different shops for prices, I bought Russian nesting dolls and Estonian linens.

   

               

Estonia, I learned, is where the Skype application was developed. It is considered to be a wired country (lots of WiFi). So in case you are imaging a place with technology to match its ancient buildings, you are mistaken. Plus, the hipster scene is alive and well in Estonia. One waiter we had wore a plaid button down shirt, black-rimmed glasses and sported a well groomed mustache curled on each end like a sardonic smile.

Other people are visiting Tallinn. I heard East Coast accents, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian. But 25 percent of Eatonia’s population is Russian, so they probably weren’t visiting. 

All the service people we encountered spoke at least a little English. I don’t know a word of Estonian. It seems rude to visit another country and not even know how to say basic things like hello, please, and thank you. I rely on other people having done all the language work. I’m so terrible at languages that I’m probably doing them a favor by not butchering their native tongue. How’s that for rationalization?

  

    

It was sad when we had to leave but we were motivated to get back to Stockholm in time for the Easter hagging on Maundy Thursday.

We stopped at a big grocery store, a hypermarket, called Rimi, and bought food and drink for the return trip. I had Zara strapped to me, my winter coat, and a tired Vanessa tagging along as I hurried through the overly warm store. That might explain why three Kindereggs ended up in my basket. Did I attempt to pay for these purchases with my credit card? I did not. Tim stepped in to pay as we checked out.

  

Our second overnight crossing of the Baltic, this time on MS Romantika, was relaxed and lacked the excitement of the first crossing. 

There was a lot more going on in the kid play area. It was manned by two young male employees in charge of making the room fun. They had face paints and balloon animals. One of the guys, Mohamed, seemed to be a kid himself. He played energetically with the kids and set bad examples like jumping off the railing that led up to the ball pit slide. He picked kids up, tickled them, and laughed loudly. Maybe I’m paranoid but I didn’t want him tickling Vanessa in the ball pit. Thankfully, it wasn’t an issue.

  

Tim went duty-free shopping and gave me a jar of pickled forest mushrooms which will be fun to try when we get home. But I can’t help but wonder how much regulation there is for mushroom products like this. They won’t be poisonous will they? Tim also checked out some of the ship’s entertainment. He said the band was pretty cheesy. For example, they had a keytar. I happen to like keytars but he had a point.

That night we all slept soundly as the MS Romantika steadily brought us back to Stockholm for our next adventure.