Surprise (to Me) Humanity in Altar Carvings at Historiska Museet

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

If you go enough places in a short enough span of time, weird preferences emerge. Mine is that I’m kind of… over… cathedrals, something I’ve explored a little before. They are beautiful and historic and many things, yes. But I am not Catholic, and too many of my friends who were raised Catholic had some really terrible times because of it. It’s hard for me to walk into a building created with money gathered by means I probably would consider questionable at best and have a jolly time looking at the lovely ceilings. In my last couple of trips, I’ve backed off of considering historic churches as a better use of my time in a place.

Sweden is now nearly 500 years from their last Catholic days. Even before I learned that, moving through their religious spaces felt… different to me. Part of it was recognizing some visual vocabulary from my own Lutheran upbringing – the way hymn numbers were posted on the walls, for instance, gave me some unlikely flashbacks to a certain church in Columbia, Illinois in the late 80s and early 90s.

But there was also a different sort of humanity in the altarpieces I saw. I noticed it for first time at the Historiska Museet, the Swedish history museum. This exhibit included pieces from the 12th to 16th centuries, before the reformation, but it still felt… different to me, as compared to contemporary religious art I’ve seen in other countries.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

My last proper art class was my freshman year of college, and I honestly didn’t enjoy it very much. I always fear that I’ll be talking out of my ass when addressing things like this on the blog. But small details, like the perfect pattern of carved curls above, keep me wanting to bring these little humble bits to you.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

Like, I have to imagine this looked like someone the carver was not on good terms with. Like the “stereotypical Pole” carved into the ship at Vasamuseet or the man-faced dog at Waiting for the Interurban, this face is too specific not to be aimed at someone. I’d do the same, were I in this line of work.

Religious carving and painting at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

I loved the combination of this over-it Jesus and his pissed-off, gilded companion. I truly don’t know if I saw these little moments differently because I was alone, because it’s a visual tradition that’s a little more familiar to me, or because I was able to get uncommonly close to these centuries-old pieces. There were occasional guards, but most of these had no protective glass or plastic. I was able to circle and get (respectfully) close, seeing carving marks and paint strokes in a way I seldom or perhaps never have.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

So often, I find the faces in pieces like this to be stylized enough that the humanity is gone, which I think robs these stories of a lot of immediacy. I liked this hopeful Mary and her grape-holding baby, the shared roundness of their chins. There’s a warmth I haven’t often seen, or at least not been able to perceive.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

I also enjoyed how strange and graphic it got sometimes (which also reminded me of the Memling Museum). The ribs on that demon, the little seal ears of their giant friend, the blasé boredom of the blond woman in the front. “Naked devouring?” she’s thinking. “Sure, if we really must.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

I think people who believe in demons and such are kinda fascinating. I wonder if they still picture guys like this or if their visualizations have changed with more modern influences. Do they look like the dog-gargoyles from Ghostbusters? Like horror movie monsters?

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

Because the good guys could be awfully strange-looking too.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

Maybe it’s a result of the different kinds of artisans in Sweden, or Sweden’s current more secular ways – or just my own mood that day. But I enjoyed this room of altarpieces in a way that religious art has rarely touched me. Historiska Museet was a bit of an accident for me – “Oh, hey, it’s 2 pm and I seem to be near a major historical museum” – and ended up being a grand surprise full of Vikings and art and layered queer history and all manner of surprises.

I had a similarly enlightening time at Iceland’s national history museum. Time to track down the American version, I think. It’s a strange thing to travel over the top of the world, only to be reminded of how weird it is to get to my age without visiting my own country’s capital.

In time.

The Height of the Winter Arts: Skiing at Stockholm’s Royal Palace

I haven’t lived somewhere with a properly dramatic winter since my last semester in college in Boston, which was… oh, December 2003. Been a while. Seattle got somewhat winterlike now and then, with the occasional snow that went past fleeting and decorative into dramatic and sometimes hilarious. Even there, I missed the pragmatic and sometimes really fun ways people dealt with Really Serious Winter. Since moving to California, that longing has only grown and probably is my current most tedious recurring topic of conversation.* So while a trip to Sweden and Denmark in February justifiably raised some eyebrows, it ended up being so wonderfully well timed.

You can’t stay inside for five-odd months at a time, so the people of Scandinavia just… take it in stride. Sometimes literally – one of my favorite sights was seeing people walking their big, hardy dogs or pushing children in very well-insulated strollers down sidewalks covered in stomped-down snow. I didn’t grow up with sidewalks, so I don’t know if people of my area of the Midwest would’ve done it if they could have. Either way, I was just charmed to see people going, “Well, we need sunshine, the dog needs to pee, and the sprog has to get used to it sometime,” and thus they don their many cold-weather layers and take a wander through the neighborhood.

I saw skaters on neighborhood ice rinks. People playing hockey. Sledders and so, so many joggers. And then, only on one day, skiers in almost the center of the city.

A snowy slope and skiers behind Stockholm's Royal Palace

My first morning in Stockholm, I had a long wander, as is my tendency. I pick a destination, usually a museum some moderate distance away (an hour’s walk is a good bet). Then I meander my way there in the most interesting way I can manage. That day, I started from my AirBnB in upper Norrmalm and walked past Vasapark, through more central downtown and the Central Station, and then stopped at destination number one, an art exhibit at Konstakademien (Konstnären, the natural feminist slant of which kinda blew my mind, to a point that I’m not sure if I must write about it here or if I couldn’t possibly properly represent it in words). After that, I crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan and paused to take pictures and choose my own adventure.

It was then that I heard screaming.

It’s a strange thing, hearing screaming and seeing that no one around you is alarmed.

So, curious but not afraid, I began to follow the sound. I walked along the water, up some snowy stairs**, and found myself behind the Royal Palace, which was my primary destination for the afternoon. I’d arrived a little prematurely and just in time to see something that was, to my eyes, amazing and strange and wonderful.

Screaming in joy. Because… skiing behind the Royal Palace. Huh.

In Seattle, people once sledded down Denny Hill on a mattress.

This was a little better.

Were I a skier***, I too could have had my chance, and for free at that. Well, if I cobbled together meaning from this tent correctly. Never guaranteed.

A free skis tent behind Stockholm's Royal Palace

But I am me, even when I’m in Sweden. I was not dressed for it, and I also hate skiing, something that remains true even in some unlikely, extraordinary place. Instead, I watched and had one of so many moments on this trip where I felt full and glowing with the joy of having made good decisions and being in a place so right in that moment.

I think I need to make a point of getting to snow and cold next winter. “Tahoe,” people here have said to me, confidently, when I’ve told them of this longing. So Tahoe perhaps. Or maybe another wonderfully timed deal, from Norwegian Air or some other airline willing to take strange people to unseasonal places. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll keep this admiration for people who embrace winter and do it right, whether that means putting your baby in 14 layers of clothes and blankets and taking a walk to grab fika, or just keeping your winter sports gear at the ready in case the snow is just right in the park or, you know, behind the Swedish royal family’s official administrative offices. As you do.

*I’m trying to stop, friends, I truly am. The approach of spring should help. I hope?

**You can probably preface any outdoor surface I describe in this post as “snowy,” so I’ll let it be implied from here.

***Reader, how I am not. How much I am not.

The Stars My Destination

Long-exposure photo of stars and the horizon in Santa Margarita, CA

After driving for a long time on long country roads, black expanses set off by glowing yellow markers on either side of miles-long double yellow lines,

Long-exposure photo of a field at night in Santa Margarita, CA

it is a pleasure to get where you’re going, to walk in a darkness illuminated by the sounds of crickets and shifting pigs, to walk away from the porchlight to the faint glow in a gently hazy sky.

Ranch cabin at night in Santa Margarita, CA

To find a friendly fence post, to do three- and 15- and 30-second exposures (in roughly the opposite of the order of the photos here) and get a dreamy preview of what awaits you in the morning.

I miss the stars. My one non-city night in Sweden and Copenhagen was overcast, so no stars then either. But tonight, and perhaps tomorrow? I’ll remember the constellations that are too often, for me, swept away by light pollution.

It took two hours to get out of the Bay Area via the interstate. These stars are won.

How to Get to Europe for $318: Taking Norwegian Air from Oakland

Stockholm Harbor, a boat, and swans on iceIn November, Sweden and Denmark were not on the hazy, voluminous to-travel-to list I keep in my head. The top contenders right now are Peru, Mexico, Montreal, Washington DC, Thailand, and (of course) France. But almost everywhere that doesn’t limit the rights of women, sexual minorities, or anyone considered gender variant is a contender, so it’s hardly a limiting list. I liked Iceland for sure; I idly wondered sometimes if other Scandinavian countries had the qualities I liked about it. But that’s as far as it went until one fateful day late last fall, when a friend who knows these things told me to get on the Norwegian Air site like right now, because there were round-trip fares from Oakland to Stockholm for around $318, if I picked my dates right.

What.

Cue a fairly adrenaline-chased hour, in which I frantically wrote to my boss, played with dates, tried to envision an unclear future*, and ultimately decided to book a trip and get it refunded in the following 24 hours** if it indeed would not work with work (which was and remains the major priority in my life right now). I found I almost literally could not resist traveling that kind of distance for that little money. As of this writing, a similar ticket through Norwegian is more than $1,000. Other airlines come in at $1,500 or more. Because it’s a freaking flight across the world. 

Fortunately, my company is founded by and filled with insatiable travel fiends, and I was given the green light. At the end of what I thought would be a fairly ordinary workday, I suddenly had plans to travel to Sweden in the coming winter. Stunned and with plans to make, I tried to wrap my head around what I’d done by researching, starting with this unfamiliar airline. I learned that Norwegian has a different balance of services and fees as compared to most airlines. Thus, it required some strategy.

Norwegian Air progress map, with bonus USB

The A La Carte Model

In the US, we’re not completely unfamiliar with this. It’s pretty common on your average airline (Delta, American) to pay for blankets and snacks or to pay to check a bag. Then there are airlines like Spirit, where you might find a ticket somewhere for $6 but have to pay a couple hundred dollars or more for the amenities (carry-ons, water) to make your trip tolerable.

Norwegian falls somewhere in the middle. In the couple of months that passed after I booked the ticket, I did buy three add-ons:

  1. I paid $45 to select my seat on the way there, because I figured there was a chance I might see the Northern Lights during the flight. I didn’t, but it was worth it, for me, to pay for the possibility. Getting to the airport three-plus hours before the flight would probably accomplish the same thing for no extra money.
  2. I paid $45 ahead of time to check a bag on the flight back. I did this so that I wouldn’t have to look at any individual souvenir and wonder if it was worth paying for a checked bag later. I considered this a gift to myself, because I know my tendency toward overthinking.
  3. I paid $15 for Fast Track through Stockholm airport security. On travel days, I’m nervous and unhappy until I’m through security and at the gate; this was, to me, a small price to pay for an easier travel day. It was ultimately pointless, as the regular security line was almost as short as the Fast Track lane, but the motivation was sound.

Things I opted not to pay for: $42 each way for drinks and two meals; a seat assignment on the way back.

One thing to keep in mind while booking is that they have different classes of service; indeed, the Norwegian booking path was one of the most complicated ones I’ve ever seen. I booked the cheapest level, which includes basically nothing; if you go a level or two up, meals, checked bags, a greater weight allowance for carry-on bags, and other things are included – but, of course, you pay for it then too. You can learn more about their fees, in a variety of currencies, here. Like many airlines in the style of European low-cost carriers, you’ll pay twice as much to check a bag if you only decide to do it on the day of travel. And Norwegian Air’s bag check is a highly involved procedure, you see.

Sky outside Stockholm from a plane

The Best Time I Weighed My Carry-On Like Six Times

Have you ever traveled during the winter? Your bags bloom to twice their usual volume. Have you ever tried traveling during the winter with a 10-kg/22-pound carry-on allowance? This is not your usual luggage Tetris.

I realized immediately that I’d be doing laundry while there. I was ok with that. And I wasn’t tempted to check a bag on the way over, because I would be staying at four different places across my nine days, which would include multiple train and bus rides. My travel backpack and the cloth shopping bag I use on trips would be more than enough to deal with while going between spots. So economy of space (and money) was the name of the game.

The night before my departure, I managed to get my bag within the acceptable weight range after about five iterations. I did cheat in the end, stuffing the pockets of my coat with socks and tights and wearing my heaviest shoes and skirt. My coat felt like a pea pod, but it got my bag where it needed to be. In addition to the 10-kg main carry-on, there’s a 5-kg limit on a smaller carry-on, in the vein of a laptop bag or purse. It helps, but it’s not much when trying to envision a sensible wardrobe for Scandinavian winter. Something very helpful: they weigh your bags only at check-in, meaning you can stuff all available space with heavy water and snacks after you’re past security.

I read several different accounts of the strictness of airport bag weigh-ins with Norwegian (they weigh, they don’t weigh; they care, they don’t care), but I decided to leave nothing to chance. (See: departure anxiety.) The day of, I arrived, carrying my uncommonly lumpy winter coat. I watched as person after person in front of me had their bags weighed and, often, found overweight. A quietly impatient (but very pleasant) ticket agent oversaw the whole thing, moving between two desk spots to give one group and then another time to shift weight between bags.

The group in front of me was a four-person family, and I had a feeling they hadn’t been very fastidious with reading Norwegian’s strict rules or with their packing. Indeed, all of their bags were somewhat over, and the agent left them with four open bags and looks of great uncertainty when she walked to me. After having to deliver bad news to several people within the previous ten-odd minutes, I think she just didn’t want to bother with me. My bags read as sufficiently compact, it seems. I was given my boarding pass and was good to go, with no weighing required. Strategy: look like you know what you’re doing, and be behind a bunch of people who don’t? Or something like that.

On my return trip, since I’d paid to check a bag, the ticket agent didn’t weigh my backpack then either. I still think I got off lucky and would not suggest assuming this might be your experience, especially if you read as a less-straightforward traveler, with kids, companions, lots of carry-ons, and other complications.

When I got through security in Oakland, I stuffed my small bag with snacks and an extra bottle of water, trying to imagine what would look good to me after nine hours in the air. The pasta was ok; the quinoa was so gross I felt haunted by it several hours later. I might’ve paid $42 just to get the taste out of my mouth after a while. Which brings us to…

The $42 Multi-Course Experience

This is where flying Norwegian got, to me, truly strange. Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants walk around and double-check to see who ordered their meals ahead. About an hour into the flight, those people get coffee, wine, hot food, and dessert. (They get a cold breakfast bag not long before landing.) Only then is the possibility of buying snacks opened to the rest of us, usually about two hours into the flight. On the flight back in particular, I could see lots of people around me doing just as I was, checking the seat display to see when the closed tag would be taken off the snack bar button.

On the way back, I found buying in-flight snacks an almost frugal alternative to buying Swedish airport food, particularly after I accidentally spent $22 on an orange San Pellegrino and one of those lovely open-faced shrimp sandwiches. (Thank god I didn’t get the beer; I’d probably still be there, working off the bill via indentured servitude.) However, the open times for snack ordering are finite and, to me, a little unpredictable. I ordered the vegetarian dish (a salad with hummus and assorted veg), a ramen cup, a snack box, and a water, because I didn’t know if I’d get to order again when I needed a second meal.

If you like not thinking about things, maybe $42 for a one-way ticket of airplane food makes sense to you. However, most of the people around me appeared to have opted out. I saw clever people with leftovers in food storage containers and other people like me eating good-enough snacks bought at the airport, sufficient to get us to our destination.

The strangest thing was that, minus any pre-ordering, I felt pretty ignored by the flight attendants. If you haven’t paid, you don’t even get water. And they’re mostly not concerned about you. You’ll get attention if you ring the button to summon them, but otherwise, they don’t even collect trash very often. It’s a different model, but anytime I started to raise an eyebrow, I thought, “$318.” And then it all became amusing again.

Conclusion: Super Worth It

I was a little concerned about this trip, based on some of the research I’d done. There were stories of being stranded for two or three days due to mechanical problems. Norwegian’s fleet isn’t huge, and they don’t fly every route every day. When I booked, there were only three days each week to choose for my departure and return. If a plane went out of commission, a replacement might be thousands of miles away – and possibly also spoken for for a day or two. I said “$318” to myself one more time and said that, if I ended up with a couple surprise extra days in Stockholm, I’d make do (with profuse apologies to my work).

In the end, both flights were perfectly on time. My checked return bag made it with no problems. Flying out of Stockholm is a little odd – I went through an initial round of passport check to get into the international depatures area (to officially leave Sweden) and then an additional round to get into a separate gate area just for our flight (to comply with US regulations). But everything went exactly as promised, and I ended up with a surprise (and incredibly wonderful) trip to two countries I now love. But more on that later.

If a slight risk of inconvenience and having to work with a somewhat unfamiliar paradigm of airline service doesn’t bother you, I’d suggest going for this, if you have the chance. Norwegian’s sales aren’t rare, and they’re starting to go to more destinations. I subscribe to their emails now, and they’ve joined Icelandair in the short list of airline sale emails I am likely to push on friends.

If the timing is right, and the money works out? Do it. The details can come together later.

*I was maybe three weeks into a new job in a new industry and only recently permanently arrived in California. Travel was not on my mind.

**Like some other airlines, Norwegian lets you get a complete refund on a ticket in the 24 hours after booking. This is lovely, and I wish more airlines would adopt it.

So I’ll Be Living at Knippelsbro from Now On

A more distant view of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

Please forward my mail.

Looking up at a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

I was walking back from Freetown Christiania (which I won’t be writing about here because I didn’t enjoy it very much), when I noticed… these. The control towers of Knippelsbro (or Knippels Bridge, if you’re a monolingual thing like me), just being all verdigris and weathered and incredibly beautiful. And… inhabited?

The side of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

Thar be curtains, no?

A ladder on the wall of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

If I were more mischievous than I am, I could’ve tried to scale it to get some answers. Alas, I am polite.

The door and wall of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

But I could be a bridge control tower professional; I can feel it. No one collects tolls these days, so it’s probably a part-time thing.

Closer look of the door of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

Still: please forward my mail here sometime soon. I’m sure they’re fine with cats; Denmark and Sweden seem, on the whole, cool about the whole pet thing. Because, for reasons I can’t fully articulate, this is up there with houseboats and sailboats* and the narrow tops of skyscrapers so far as deeply and immediately desirable accommodations. This is why we rent, right? Options.

*Uh, related: today I realized, with a jolt, that I want to learn to sail. I began thinking about this when I was asked why I chose to stay in Nyhavn for my three nights in Copenhagen. “I like boats,” I answered, with very little conscious thought required. And… it’s just true. I like water. I like boats. Seeing both from my hotel room window made me happy every time I poked my head through the curtains. I can drive a motorboat. I can paddle a canoe or rowboat. But if one is going to do, say, a longer-distance boat journey (which feels like something I’d like to do, I realize), and one does not care to have (or afford) a yacht or crew, knowing how to sail seems pretty important. Well, French class is done in a month anyway. God forbid I have unscheduled spare time.

 

Stockholm’s City Hall: Vikings, Italians, and Looming Pseudo-Medusas

Stockholm's city hall's exterior from the street, with EU flag

Stockholm’s city hall (Stadshuset to locals) looked like a staid brick building as I approached it, walking carefully along the icy sidewalk and hoping for a cafe where I could get second breakfast. (I was in luck there. Thanks, Sweden.) I like seeing millennium-old skeletons and grand history and all of that, but I also have a love of the everyday when I travel.* That includes municipal buildings, so I didn’t need to know about any grandeur in Stadshuset for it to be worth putting on my list for my time in Stockholm.

Looking toward the water from Stockholm's city hall courtyard

Walk through an arched doorway, and you find yourself within a wide courtyard. There are cobblestones under that snow. Beyond the arches you see here, there’s a green space (well, white when I was there) that meets the water, allowing you a wide view of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

Looking down into Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

The tour (100 SEK, or about $11 at this writing – typical for museums and tours, I found) starts in the Blue Hall, which you may know as the place where the Nobel Prize banquet is held each year. Oh, only that. It’s a wide space, but the tour guide took a little glee in telling us how each guest gets only 50 cm of dining space – except for those being honored and the royal family, who get a palatial 60 cm. It is snuggly for sure.

When we were there, it was just… quiet, that lovely exaggerated hush from people being respectful in a high-ceilinged room. Oh, and why is a clearly brick-walled room called the Blue Hall? The architect’s original idea was the glaze the walls blue, but the brick (deliberately aged to make it seem like a more ancient space than it is) was pretty enough that the glaze idea went, but the name stayed.

The building has a few mid-process switcheroos like that.

Looking up from within Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

This room is meant to evoke an Italian palazzo. I dig it.

Arched ceiling in the tower of Stockholm's city hall

From there, we ascended the stairs that Nobel Prize winners descend on the night of their banquet. We paused in the middle of the building’s tower, which is open for more detailed tours in the winter. These are the thousand arches (and, uh, one balloon).

Rådssalen ceiling

Next was the Rådssalen, where the city council gathers. Just take a second and compare this to the Blue Hall. I feel like the architect went for beauty and variety at the risk of that certain staid awe we like in our public buildings, but managed all of them anyway.

Rådssalen ceiling detail

The ceiling was inspired by Viking architecture, and I did very much wish I could lie down and stare up at it, maybe with a fire nearby. I don’t think about nesting much these days, but I did bookmark this in my head for if I ever own my own place and can do what I like with the ceilings and walls.

Oval Room at Stockholm's city hall

After that, we walked through the Oval Room, which is closed on Saturdays so Stockholm residents can get married in it. It’s lined in centuries-old Belgian-made tapestries, and it just feels lovely and warm in there. It’s up there, I think, with San Francisco’s City Hall and a pink Elvis-driven Cadillac in Vegas so far as rad places to celebrate your union.

Gold Room at Stockholm's City HallThe finale of the tour (and this is saying something for a tour that started with oh just the room where the Nobel bloody Banquet is held) was the Golden Hall, made of millions of tiles and about 10 kg of gold, sandwiched ever so thinly between tiny panes of clear glass. The post-banquet ball is held here, but I feel like even that scintillating company would pale a bit next to the very vivid tales going on in the enclaves and on the walls.

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

There are the Greek and Roman references that seem to pop up throughout the older Swedish decorative arts. (They’re frequent at the Vasamuseet, for instance.)

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

Yeah, this is familiar enough. (Excuse the pictures: art made for imposing and impressing doesn’t translate very well from a 5’8″ perspective, but I love these enough that I don’t care. They reminded me wonderfully of the art in Seattle’s Greek Orthodox church – surprisingly human and cartoony, considering the contexts.)

Eric XII and a woman with surprising spheres

But then it gets into local stories. I wish there was a tour that just told the tales being depicted on the walls. The tour guide gave some pretty great highlights, but then there’s this little scene. I’m not saying I’ve never taken the position of the woman in the back, but never in the presence of some grey-blue demon fellow with a pointed tongue.

Well, not yet.

Funeral procession detail in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

This one echoed a long illustrated scroll I saw at the Royal Armory. Humans have always loved a good funeral, I suppose.

Queen of Lake Mälaren in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

At the end of the room, the Queen of Lake Mälaren looks benevolently (and, let’s face it, a little dubiously) upon us. She was controversial, apparently – her hair too Medusa-like, her looks insufficiently dishy. I think her expression is perfect – how else should you look if you find yourself the caretaker of a city while holding a scepter and wearing a see-through shirt that turns your boobs blue? “Yeah, well, this is today, isn’t it? Right then. Better get to keeping this city from being smudged off the earth.”

Here’s a little more about some of the symbols and stories going on in this wonderful, wonderful space.

Bye, Gold Room!

And then it was time to go.

We descended the stairs back into the Blue Hall. I couldn’t quite keep my gaze on the star on the wall, too afraid was I of tumbling down the marble stairs and landing in the pile of performance fabrics that I’ve been since arriving in Stockholm on Saturday. That’s a thing with going from California to Sweden in February: it’s very easy to completely stop trusting your feet, as the ground very much has its own agenda.

I write this on a train to Malmö, where I’ll catch a second train to Copenhagen. I like it here so far. I’m not sure if it’s the secondhand Scandinavian exposure I had in my 11 years in Seattle or residual goodwill from my trip two years ago (!). Those two trips bookended a period of some of the greatest upheaval I’ve experienced in my life so far, so I can’t help but wonder what’s waiting for me when I get back to Oakland next week.

In the meantime: sensible design, a culture of beautiful collaboration, and awe at other people’s mythologies.

*A highlight of yesterday: seeing how cool Stockholm recycling is, with bonus laundry scheduling mechanism. More on that another day.

Boring Postcard Pictures of Lake Merritt, or Discomfort with Comfort

Oakland's Lake Merritt in January

I have a few recurring photo subjects these days. The Bay Bridge is one, of course, elusive as ever but a pleasure to keep trying to capture. Another is Lake Merritt. At night, it’s like a live impressionist masterpiece. During the day, it’s… well, it’s what I told people about when they got nervous on my behalf when I’d tell them I was planning on continuing to live in Oakland.

“Let me tell you about the lake,” I’d say. “It’s surrounded by joggers. And yuppies. And families that just arrived or have probably been here for a decade or two. It’s absolutely terrifying. You’re right to stay away.”

Today, the sun was shining, and the sky was perfect and blue with punctuating fluffy clouds. The lake was in an un-stinky mood, covered with dozens of people sculling and canoeing and otherwise acting in ways that seem very un-January to me. I shed my light scarf shortly after I left the house. By the time I hit Lake Merritt’s northwest edge, I was a bit too warm and squinting because I’ve misplaced my sunglasses and have yet to replace them.

lake-merritt-postcard-3

This is not a new discomfort. I’ve lived in a place other people found enviable, all white sand and endless sun and such. Unchallenging conditions, I scoffed. What, don’t you like seasons? Is it super hard to put on a coat a few months a year? Your life must be hard.

And then it made sense for me to move here. The Bay Area doesn’t lack weather, but Oakland gets less of it than San Francisco, and I hear that even San Francisco isn’t San Francisco anymore in that respect. El Niño helped me ease in a bit – cold mixed with unrelenting rain still feels like home today.

And then there are days like today.

lake-merritt-postcard-3

Endless and perfect at precisely the time we should all be feeling mildly oppressed by the weather.

I get asked a bit less these days about how I’m settling in, how the switch in locations after my long relationship with Seattle is going.

I have a lot of thoughts on that, but I know the question most people are asking. So I give the shorter answer: “Overall, pretty good, but the weather might be something that doesn’t work for me, in the end. We’ll see.”

“Oh,” the person says, if they’re far away. “Yeah, I heard San Francisco weather could be pretty cold and gloomy.”

“No,” I return. “It’s… nice. Sunny, all the time. I miss my sweaters. I miss hunching against wet gusts of wind, and grey days for weeks at a time. I liked that. I might have been the only one.”

This seems to be hard for a lot of people to understand. I assure them that I’m not joking, but I don’t think they believe me.

I wonder: will I convert to this way of being, where weather is so gentle that cars and tombstones survive uneroded for decades on end? Will I relax into such gentle living?

And will a week and a half in Scandinavia at one of the hardest points of winter settle things for me just a little?

We shall see.

Current Delights, in Honor of a Gently Surly Week

The Cathedral Building in downtown Oakland

The ornate and varied architecture of downtown Oakland

Beginning to type and feeling my brain purr, going back to the thing that I am meant to do, above and around all else

Beer in the fridge, stocked by me, meant for me

Friends who reach out; the options of yes and no, both given joyfully

A fluffy cat, patient as I pick a little dread out from under his infinitely sweet chin

The awareness of being in another first act

Midwestern Nice used for the power of good

An unread shelf, unpacked after months, shining and new and alluring

Casting my own future as I pick lodgings for my next trip

A two-block walk to buy hair dye

The cheap cheese-end bin at the grocery store

Seeing my work attached to an icon on my phone, a real thing someone could someday use

That our knowledge of love and its strangeness and ways deepens for all of the rest of our days

Purple soup

My quickening breath, my capable body, the elliptical after a long absence

Reassuring wildly worthy people of my unmeasurably massive belief in them and all their dreams

Needing to buy more tea and planning an entire anticipated outing to do just that

A quick tongue at the right time

A sincere tongue when quickness isn’t the order of the day

A friend’s trust when I most need to support someone I love

The last Christmas fudge

Abundant teachers and the promise that I’ll someday join their ranks

My French teacher’s gleeful, pragmatic sadism

The particular intoxication of fighting a sleeping pill before plunging, willingly, beneath its wooly grey waves

That place where software engineering touches the older layers of the miracle of long-distance communication

Cats in bed, an unbounded morning, rain against the window

Realizing I forgot my untouched beer for several minutes, the spell of writing enough for a bit

Seeing the feast waiting where famine once was; seeing past an irritable moment to remember, again, fresh each time, that I have everything I need, plus things I haven’t even dreamed of needing yet

That even in the dark, the dim, the damp, my weirdly stalwart heart (sometimes labeled my stupid, persistent heart) lies shining, waiting for me to catch up, because oh, the fun we are going to have this year

Last Spring, in an Alternate Reality in Ravenna

Japanese Maples in Ravenna in Seattle

Last winter, I knew something had to change. I’d been unsuccessfully looking for a new job for a year. I’d earned my certificate in user-centered design from the University of Washington but was unable to use it much in my current job. I’d even grown distant from my beloved Capitol Hill after a decade. I was aging out, sure, but the neighborhood had changed in well-documented ways. Even when I was 21, I wouldn’t have been happy to live in this weird new place full of high-concept, high-budget restaurants and sidewalks crowded with groups of vaguely malevolent people who triggered something deep in my lizard brain. When I first arrived in 2004, I’d rejoiced in particular at the the residents – throngs of beautiful, interesting people who I felt an often wordless kinship with. Minus that, I began to feel distant from everyone around me, and – worse – relieved when I made it through yet another crowd of dickheads to the safety of my own apartment once again.

Clearly, it was time to make a move.

I’d seen a fair amount of Seattle, but, like a lot of carless Capitol Hill residents, I largely stayed within its dense borders. If I was going to pick a new home, I was going to have to do some research. My friend Rico was similarly disenchanted with our neighborhood, and he’d been considering a return to Ravenna, where he’d lived several years before. My knowledge of the area was mostly from going through it on the bus, or tracing ever so close to its borders at Cafe Racer. We set a date to explore – late March, last year, in another life. The air was brisk and misty, the sky was overcast, and I was excited to set out to find part of the next chapter of my life.

A bridge in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood

Here’s one thing I didn’t know: Ravenna has a sizable park running through it, big enough that you can submerge yourself in the woods and lose the neighborhood around you. We started our outing walking on gently muddy trails, surrounded by hikers and joggers and those rugged Northwest dogs, all clad in enough layers of water-repellant fabric that the mist and chill didn’t seem to affect them. We went deeper and deeper into a valley, beneath a towering overpass, past streams, and up and down stairs. One thing I’ve always loved about Seattle is the municipal stairs its Pacific Rim terrain requires. It’s a thing I love about San Francisco and Oakland too – someone looked at one steep hill or another and decided to create a project to make walking hither and thither just a little bit easier.

More Japanese Maples

We climbed out and found ourselves among the Arts & Crafts homes that fill so many Seattle neighborhoods, especially in its northern neighborhoods. Tasteful, muted colors, and those yards full of just-off-of-regional plants that are common enough to read as belonging now. Tiers of tight-budded flowers, dense ivy, spiky and vibrant Japanese maples. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the patience (or, let’s be honest, the interest) to have a yard like that myself, but these just-this-side-of-overgrown yards were an early thing I loved about the city, in my first proper wanders in 2005, when I worked in Fremont. Lavender that loomed over cracked sidewalks, hydrangeas so big and lush they could’ve been transplanted from Jurassic Park. The mist and gentle weather creates mild-mannered people and absolutely gargantuan plant life – ferns and blackberry bushes alike that could take over the city in minutes if they ever got ambitious.

Seeing people roll with this lushness was like an invitation in when I arrived. Rather than fighting what grew almost unbidden, they encouraged it in pleasing directions. An early sign of a place I’d take root in myself for more than a decade.

Street kitty in Ravenna

Rico was right. Ravenna was beautiful – all these tranquil houses and quiet streets. The street cats surprised me most of all. People would sometimes ask me if I ever let my cats outside. I’d look at them for a long moment and then remind them that I lived on 12th Avenue. Letting cats outside in my part of the neighborhood would have been almost an act of neglect and certainly an act of stupidity. But in Ravenna, we saw cats every few blocks. One stalked us past several houses, winding in and out of bushes and staying just out of reach while keeping pace with us. More of them, though, approached us, flashing collars and oozing certainty. This was their place. They would accept your fealty, though, now that you mention it.

That a place this gentle shared the technical boundaries of my city was a bigger surprise than it should have been, considering this expedition took place within just a few months of my tenth anniversary of becoming a Seattlelite.

Dinosaurs on a mailbox in Ravenna

Best of all was that people were still weird up north. They didn’t give up on being goofy city people just because they were able to get a whole address all to themselves. A friend had moved from our shared building into a house in Northgate not long before this day; it had gotten me to thinking. I’d been considering leaving Capitol Hill since I’d started considering working toward a more permanent living situation. In late 2012, I took a first-time homebuyers’ class; while I didn’t end up buying anything, it was the first inspiration to consider what neighborhood I saw myself in for the next phase of my life. I didn’t want children and had no particular ambition to get married, but in my housing and neighborhood, I wanted something that fit better and would continue to for some time. Was the next logical step Queen Anne? Ravenna? A cheaper edge of Fremont? Going full Ballard and never seeing most of my friends again?

The plan was originally to go on a series of these jaunts, to walk around and study the people and surroundings, to spend a few hours in an imitation of a typical Saturday afternoon. Did I feel welcome? Was it a pleasant walk to the grocery store? Would I get bored? I knew no other neighborhood would have Capitol Hill’s wonderful, weird density, but I have the good luck to find beauty and intrigue in even relatively ordinary places. And I was getting pretty tired of sirens.

I was going to see Fremont and upper Queen Anne. Columbia City. Beacon Hill, Pioneer Square, the Central District. Points east and north and south, to see what I’d missed, to see where I could see myself.

Then I got into Hackbright, and everything began to tilt about 90 degrees.

I left Seattle for the first time on June 29. I returned in early October to pack up and move in two of the densest, most stressful weeks of my life. I returned once more last month to see Dina Martina. The city felt strange – I told friends that it felt like having dinner with an ex too soon after a breakup. It didn’t feel like home, but as Oakland also wasn’t home yet, it just emphasized my straddling state. I was glad to see friends and Pike Place in full holiday regalia, but otherwise, it was too soon and too strange.

When I drove into Oakland in October and when my plane began to descend in December from those two strange trips to my former sanctuary, I cried both times, so relieved was I to get back to the dinosaur cranes and the twinkling lights of Lake Merritt. Was it being glad to leave the past behind, or was it relief to return to the place that I could now assume would be my next home? Either way, when you cry at the mechanisms of a shipping yard, there are some major emotional forces afoot.

I write this from my home just north of downtown. There’s now a much, much bigger area to explore to see what might end up being the right place for me, a hunt that continues and will until the shifting sands of the last several months finally still themselves. But for now, there are no sirens, and I live among people who are just looking to live their lives, not to find the perfect setting and situation for their next Instagram picture. We’re not trying to be legendary. We’re just getting where we need to be.