Stockholm, Sweden: On Places and People

Journal    July 4, 2014
We Paid 200 krona and pulled our yellow pedal boat from under the
bridge.  Six of us steered into a deep harbor bobbing among speed boats, double deckered tourist barges and wakes from large cruise ships.   On one side the now mint green rusted roofs of  Gamla Stan bore down on us.  Karl made peanut butter and honey sandwiches that we ate in the sun.  Baby Thea stood on tip toe at the helm of the boat, looking out to sea.
You can’t believe what glacier water lakes feel like on skin parched by the Arabian sun.  Max climbed the 7.5 meter diving platform above the icey lake on lidingo island and paced, squatted, paused before he joined hands together above his head and dove into the blue below.  Opting for a much calmer arctic experience I was content to wade among the reeds with the naked babies holding bags to catch small fish.    

“The lakes were carved by glaciers” our friend and geologist tells us.  This makes complete sense as we gasp and force ourselves deeper into the impossibly blue water.  Not turquoise like the shores of Oman, but ultramarine, nearly navy in its darkest places.  

When I think of our few days in Stockholm last month my memories are flooded with four images:  green trees and fields, cold dark water, endless pale light and the sweet faces of our friends.  Sweden is 80% wilderness and in the summer months the sun shines on all of it for almost the entire 24 hour cycle.  After swimming in lakes and walking through forests and talking for hours it didn’t occur to us to make dinner until nearly 9 o’clock most days.  On our last night Max and I walked the green path to the grocery store and passed straight backed bike riders with straight white teeth.  A mother and son on an evening bike ride from one leafy treed neighborhood to another. 
We ate hot dogs with spicey mustard one afternoon and dangled our feet in a large fountain.   We had walked passed barn faced Scandinavian houses to the Vasa museum where an incredible 17th century blunder turned out to be the incredible 20th century discovery of a near perfectly preserved warship.  The Vasa, completed in 1628, was only 16 feet wide to its 172 foot long hull.  On its maiden voyage a faint gust of wind toppled the ship in the harbor and it quickly sank.  The warship, complete with 172 canons, was discovered late in the last century and has proved to be a unique relic of shipbuilding in the region.          
I once read an article written by a father who traveled extensively with his son.  He said that he traveled with his young son in order to increase the memories they had together, to have more shared experiences and more things to discuss as the child grew older.  These experiences proved to be foundational in their relationship.  Although we had kept in touch via email, it had been years since I had seen this dear friend living in Sweden.  We had created many memories in the past, but it’s hard to duplicate that kind of immediacy via letters, emails and phone calls.  It was such a joy to share new experiences in a place that was foreign to both of us – my memories of freezing Swedish lakes and cool sunlight fused with cooking and drawing side by side, the palm of her son in my hand as we walked to the bus stop.   


My New Lizard Family

“I’ll just settle in to an all night vigil with my eyes open.” I yell to Max who is laughing at me from the shower. 

Above my bed, where my head would rest and mouth inevitably fall open as I sleep, there is a small, pink, blue-veined lizard.   I have seen an increasing number inside the house over the past few weeks – under dog food bowls,  scurrying up corners where walls meet.  Some are as small as pennies and others large enough to fit nicely inside an Altoids box, long tails hanging over tin sides.  The dog is quite confused with his new housemates and just yesterday accidently pulled the tail from one before backing away to let the critter waggle its way under a dresser.  I have seen a few shriveled and brown, petrified after being trapping under rugs or shoes. 

And I know why they are infiltrating our home.  I hardly blame them.   The heat outside is unbearable.  

I ran errands around town yesterday and I sweat all day.        

Water collected, pooled and dripped from behind my knees, the nape of my neck, my back, my upper lip.  At the same time my eyes are beachbone dry in response to constant air conditioning blasting me from shopping malls and car dashboards.  

As the lizards empty out of the streets and into my home (they are, right now, nestling in behind my laundry basket) there is a new kind of nightlife around the neighborhood.   Many families have left for the summer and only their house staff remain behind to care for plants and pets.  Despite suffocating heat, construction is at full throttle to tear down and rebuild before Omanis and expats return in September.  In Amman we saw SUVs roll in with foreign license plates in June and Jordanians identified Gulfies escaping the heat for a few months.

“In Jordan?”  I asked with a raised eyebrow.  It sounded ridiculous.  Why would you trade in one hot desert for another?  But at 75% humidity today in Muscat compared to 12% in Amman and a 10 to 15 Fahrenheit degree difference in temperature, I understand now. 

When I walk the dog at night it is like taking a bath standing up.   But I see Filipinas gathering at the ends of driveways, some wear pajamas and some walk dogs.  During the day these same women carry groceries in from Land Rovers wearing crisp uniforms but the hot nights bring with them a sense of easiness.  They meet together on street corners and I hear snippets of what could be gossip or longing for home. 

At night the construction sites turn into makeshift man camps and I shuttle quickly past with dog to avoid the midnight showers I can hear behind flimsy walls.  Buckets of warm soapy water are filled and dumped and excess runs out of the construction site and down the hot pavement.  I catch a glimpse of a thin frame in a lungi, waiting for his turn with the bucket; I look away to concentrate on missing the steaming soap puddles at my feet.

I’m mostly ok with the lizards in my house.  I don’t mind them on the ceiling, behind the toilet and underneath the couch.  But directly above my bed is where I draw the line.  I have waking nightmares of tiny lizards flinging themselves from the walls, lizard hands and lizard feet splayed wide, and landing in my mouth, my hair, my ears. 

Max shoos him around the ceiling of the room and I can fall asleep knowing he is resting above the air conditioning unit instead of a short free fall from my pillow.  I let the dog out one last time before bed and flames claw their way into my house.  But I leave the door open a bit longer to see if any of our lizard friends want to join the pack. 

I am not heartless. 


Signs of Summer (For Me At Least)

1. I think about swimming all the time

2. But I hardly ever swim because it's too hot to swim.  That's right, too hot.  Salty bath water doesn't feel quite as refreshing as the imagined icey rivers and lakes of my Rocky Mountains. Or even as refreshing (and more realistically given my suburban upbringing) the city pools packed with children but still colder than anything in Muscat.

 3. On my last day of library class one tiny first grader stared up at me through thick bangs and said "I don't even care."  Out matched by a lime shirtdress on the last day.  I'm happy to say that I cared to the end, but I understand that classes in June are hard for a five year old.

4. All of my clothes are washed at "boiling" these days

5. Somehow, nestled amid shops selling thick Persian carpets, I found a used book store.  An honest to gosh used bookstore full of spine lined paperbacks.  It even has a buyback policy.  I bought six books today and told the women at the desk I'd be back in a week.  Aaahhh, summer reading.

6.  I am actually reading.  Librarians read, don't get me wrong, but a large chunck of our job is all about the gist.

"Oh yeah, I've read about that book. It's supposed to be a really interesting look at/take on/refute of___________.  I think you'll like it."

If we had professional mantras, this would be one of them.   I know a little about a lot of books and to just dive in, whole hog, to one book at a time for pleasure is well, really pleasurable.  So far this summer I've covered killer Bengal tigers and river dolphins, shifting sexual identities in the Middle East post Arab Spring, a trip through Jerusalem's old Mandelbaulm gate, and a spooky modern day fairy tale about time, stories, and childhood.  Bring it on summer.

7.  I spent an entire day, sun up to sun down, last week marbling paper in my very own kitchen.  Finally!  says I.  I've wanted to learn for almost four years and this week it all came together.

8.  My best intentioned plans of developing a new library curriculum over the summer have so far been thwarted by painting and new episodes of "Moone Boy".

9. I am packing to visit my family.  I love to be away and I love to come home.

As most of our moves and trips home have coincided with the hottest months over the years, home itself has come to be a sign of summer. 


“Turn Around”

The big ear on the outside of our head should be closed.
It is so good at hearing that the inner ear goes deaf.
What if you had no hearing at all, no nose, no mind-stuff!
Then one could hear well the three syllables: “Turn Around.”
Our sounds, our work, our renown, these are our outer.
When we move inwardly, we move through inner space.
Our feet walk firmly, they experience sidewalks well.
There is one inside who walks like Jesus on the Sea
                                                                         - Rumi
Sketches from my journal

 “Allah, Allah, Allah” they chanted together, swaying back and forth from their knees, eyes closed.  I had never seen anything like it before.  Muslims engaged in a kind of call and response liturgy where physical performance played such a large role in accessing the divine.  Sure there are the five daily prayers with rituals of washing and kneeling, but this chanting followed by endless twirling was something completely new to me.  

Sufism has been described as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God” (1) – largely through mystical interpretations of scripture and seeking transcendent personal experiences.   It is often traced back to early Islamic practices but some claim it precedes Islam as a way of thinking about the world, the self and God.   There are brands of Sufism in North Africa where musically induced trances play a significant role in the process of turning away from all else but God, and in Turkey, Whirling Dervish Ceremonies or “Sema” allow practitioner to transcend death of self, the material world, and be reborn. 

The Sema ceremony was created by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, mystic and theologian who immigrated to Turkey where his influence can still be seen among practicing Sufi orders.   During the ceremony men wear black cloaks, symbols of worldly attachments that are removed toward the beginning to reveal flowing white robes.  They wear tall, tombstone shaped hats that symbolize death of the ego.  The ceremony includes a ritualized procession around a circle and culminates in whirling around and around on one foot.  The act of revolution allows practitioners to “turn towards the truth, grow through love, desert the ego and arrive to the ‘perfect.’”  (So says information our Turkish friends gave us.)

“But why is one hand lifted to the sky and the other facing the ground?”  I whisper to Max, who, for some reason, generally has answer to these kinds of questions.

“It is to receive blessings and enlightenment from God with the one hand and give to those in need with the other,” he says.      

The only picture I took - it seemed a bit indecent and I tucked my camera away
We watched, completely enraptured, as the dervishes spun around, their left foot planted like an axel, skirts spread out wide around them.  We visited a fairly progressive lodge where women were allowed to participate and watched as sweat trickled down the face of an elderly woman in front of us.   The ceremony, while spiritual in purpose, is intensely physical.  The young man in front of us, who couldn’t have been more than 18, tilted his head to heaven, eyes closed and never faltered in his perfect revolutions.  The look on his face was of completely serenity – and surrender for that matter. 

This experience proved the perfect counterpoint to what had for us, admittedly, been a form of worldly worship based on food and architecture and history and gave us a lot more to think about.  Which is what any good trip is about anyway.   

(1) Ahmed Zarruq, Zaineb Istrabadi, Hamza Yusuf Hanson. The Principles of Sufism. Amal Press. 2008.


Tesheker Ederim = Thank You (for the food)

Aryan - Yogurt Drink
hhhmmmm Sulut Nuriye - filo dough soaked in sugar milk

If standards are sufficiently low and I make it to Heaven, there will be Eskander.  And perhaps also thick clotted cream with jellied quince, milk and hazelnut soaked pistachio pastries called Sutlu Nuriye, sticky almond helwa made from paste of ground nuts and honey, but certainly Eskander.  Before we left for Turkey a friend had recommended this dish made of spit roasted lamb, grilled peppers and tomatoes served over a bed of butter fried flat bread and under a rich buttery tomato sauce and an ice cream scoop of creamy yogurt.   Simple, really, but so incredibly rich and tart and satisfying all at the same time. 

Tantuni, Kebab, Eskander
Our food tour started in a 16th century "Khan" designed by the great Sinan that functions as a workshop today.
A pickl-a-torium!  There's nothing they won't pickle in Istanbul. 
We had a midday pickle juice pick me up. 
We took the redeye to Istanbul and had only a few moments to drop our bags at the hotel before booking it across the Bosphorus to meet our guide for a culinary tour of some of Istanbul’s neighborhoods and backstreets.  I had a sense that Istanbul was our kind of food town and it exceeded any expectation we had.   We walked (later waddled) from one closet sized food shop to another sampling Simit - a pomegranate glazed breakfast bread covered in sesame seeds, Ayran - a frothy yogurt drink served in cool bronze mugs, Mennimem – a slow cooked dish of eggs and peppers, Tantuni – a turkish styled taquito filled with ground beef, spices and a grilled pepper, rice stuffed eggplant and mussels, pickles, olives and later in the week, spicy red pepper salad with buffalo yogurt, white fish with caramelized onion, warm bready Pides drizzled with butter, dried carrot leather and Turkish delight.  Not unlike the small portion style grazing in Spain, Istanbul’s “backstreet” food is flavorful, simple and fresh.   I broke up tours of byzantine churches with small kebabs, tile museums with sips of herbal apple tea and mosques with pomegranate sweets from the spice souk. 

All this is to say that Turkish food is divine and we sampled a good bit of it.    


Solomon, I Have Surpassed You

Islam, Christianity, Shiny-shiny  - it's all there in the Hagia Sophia

Every day of our week in Istanbul I ate honeycomb with salty cheese for breakfast, wandered backstreets and side streets and main streets, saw amazing Byzantine and Ottoman history, ate more great food, took long baths, drew and painted, read a fantastic book about Istanbul* and then went to bed early to do it again the next day.  It was incredible. 

On our second day Max and I found a nook in the Hagia Sophia Byzantine Church (then Aya Sophia Mosque) and spent some time drawing, talking, reading, writing, thinking.  The current incarnation of this massive church was built in 537 by the emperor Justinian and upon its completion he stood inside, looking up (as the story goes) and said aloud

“Solomon, I Have Surpassed You”

Max let me reenact the moment inconspicuously in the corner as I’d been imaging for weeks, but was still a little embarrassed.  I read about this a few months ago and I haven’t been able to shake the image of  Justinian, dressed in finery and jewels, reveling in his excess.  The hubris, the insertion of himself into the grand biblical narrative, his historical envy and obsession with legacy!  I’m not saying I think it’s awesome, but that it’s fascinating.  I have wondered a lot about what motivated these people to create such incredible structures when the scope of those who would enjoy them was relatively small – they certainly wouldn’t have been able to show it off to their friends on facebook the next day.  But perhaps their intended scope was much, much broader than I first imagined - back to Solomon and forward into eternity.        
This is an even better juxtaposition of Islam and Christianity
I thought about excess a lot as we toured the Topkapi palace that afternoon.  The palace was completed in 1465 for the Sultan and the juiciest part of the tour is the Sultan’s Harem.  But, as I read, this wasn’t a Dionysian free for all, a bacchanal of epic proportions.  The rules of the Harem were set and strictly enforced by the Queen Mother.  People wrote this as if to make things less strange, but as I wrote in my journal that day it's not LESS weird if the harem is controlled by the 'Queen Mother'....it's definitely more...
Ceiling in Topkapi Palace

Another Ceiling in Topkapi Palace
One afternoon I toured the Chora Church (later the Kariye Mosque and currently a museum) which is perhaps the finest example of Byzantine mosaic work in the world.  It was spectacular.  I tackled it with an archeological guide book and spent the better part of an hour in one corner trying to understand how light worked on miniature golden tiles and what each scene represented.  It was beautiful, intricate and excessive – even by today’s standards - and my brain melted a little bit trying to understand the time, energy and craftsmanship it must have taken in the early 5th century when it was built. 

One of several AMAZING mosaic ceilings in the Chora Church
We felt like Kings on this trip.  Not that we indulged, in fact, we didn’t.  Not in the traditional sense anyway.  We mostly ate elevated street food, bought discounted museum passes and walked everywhere.  But to explore these amazing buildings, be so close to history, eat (many) simple but filling meals, be free from morning to night to wander and draw and read and make new friends – that is real decadence.
Blue Mosque Courtyard
Yeni "New" Mosque

*"My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk.  I'm still not finished but it's really great