23 December 2010

'tis the season

It seems counterintuitive that the part of the year that was most difficult for me - mentally but also physically - would trigger such heavy nostalgia and even homesickness. Last December, I was sick, cold, tired, light- and Vitamin D-deprived, and generally not quite where I needed to be, physically or metaphysically. I was having lots of fun: I was in Copenhagen for COP15; I was going on lots adventures with friends new and old; I was trying new things like ris a la mande (the Danish interpretation of rice pudding) and liver pate with bacon and mushrooms (a traditional dish). Winter, nonetheless, was difficult for me. Perhaps it always has been and I had never really noticed before.

In coastal California, our seasons are subtle. All week we have had pounding rains. The road my parents live on has been closed and my neighbors' driveway washed out. Today, however, it was clear and windy, and I went on an exquisite puddle-skipping run in the sunshine. I'm really glad that I don't live in Minnesota (although I am formulating plans to visit Catherine there; I want to see where she comes from. I can only imagine the corn fields and forests) or Iowa or even New York City. The lack of light during these unusual storms that are blessing California - and filling, finally, our groundwater reserves - is proving tough enough to endure; I stare at the sky at every chance I get during daylight.

At the end of last December, I was worn out and ready to go home. A good friend was visiting me from California; together, we went to my Swedish host family's house to celebrate Christmas. They live on a farm outside of a little town in the south-western Swedish countryside. Actually, I imagine that Iowa is somewhat like where they live. Flat, with big fields of wheat. In Västra Götaland, though, there are all these low mounds of rock that they call mountains covered in evergreen trees and blueberry bushes. I don't think blueberries grow in the Midwest, but correct me if I am wrong. At the Andersson's, it was warm, cozy, and festive. We decorated the tree and ate clementines and chocolates and pepparkakor med ädelost - gingerbread cookies with gorgonzola-type cheese in a tube.

It is from Sweden that my practice of eating Christmas cookies with cheese comes. Today it was a chocolate-topped, be-sprinkled sugar cookie with blueberry-vanilla goat cheese. Hardly gingerbread and gorgonzola, but I could make that happen, too.

It makes sense to be in Scandinavia during winter. The darkness and bitterness feel good when you are wrapped in a down quilt and basking in the glow of candles and even a glowing television. The limited light is soft on your soul, and you know that the dark is okay. Solstice has passed and the days are, after all, getting longer. They are, most likely, icy, painful days - especially last year and even more so this year - but when the sun is bright, it is oh, so, so bright.

So I miss Sweden. I miss the traditions and the trains and the people and the ways things are done. I miss public restrooms where they have full-length doors instead of stalls and fika (the social institution of a coffee break) and my host grandpa's stories. I miss the canals of Copenhagen, my flatmates, my friends and their ancient apartments and modern kitchen accouterments, and never having to speak English. But the extremes of Scandinavia did send me running back to California.

I am longing after Scandinavia, but I don't want to not be here. (I don't want not to be here? How much does word order matter when it comes to meaning?) I guess I am content to pull from my memory box and filter my internal nostalgia channel. It seems like I will never run out of people, places, and things to be nostaligic about. (It seems like there should be a verb for that - 'nostalgize', perhaps). Geneviève, for example, is in Iceland. I wonder what her life is like. Listening to Regina Spektor brings to mind Peter from Belgium who I met at a hostel in San Sebastián and how we just missed going to the Guggenheim in Bilbao together. Seeing the moon rising over the ridge to my east delights me; I wish I could preserve this moment and the countless others that are just as precious. If I tried to capture them all - as for a time I did - I would go insane. So, instead, I am being quiet. I am practicing a little yoga, making my neck long and my legs strong. Tomorrow I will make glögg, and I will toast and be toasty. On Saturday, I will try my hand at rice pudding.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

There is definitely something nice about Christmas in Scandinavia with all the candles in the darkness. I, too, miss some of those traditions, but coming home earlier this year I truly appreciate how much less complicated life is in my familiar culture and how relaxing it is to be close to family.

The Swedish Christmas and Lucia songs are indelibly etched in my sound memories and are at least as dear to me as the familiar English carols! Luckily I can enjoy them in the comfort of my American home!

It was after living in forested Sweden that I came to understand I am a product of the open landscape, with those infamous corn and (soy)bean fields. When we lived in the middle of Lund without a car I realized that I felt psychologically refreshed when I got out of the city and into the countryside. Since I travel past those fields every day now I never get into a "countryside deficit" anymore. I am old enough to appreciate the comforts of the familiar, made more special by having lived away from them.