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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Midsummer in Sweden

The longest day of the year is a treasured and celebrated event in Sweden. I would imagine that other places that experience long, dark periods of minimal day light during the winter months take some time during the summer to celebrate the long day light that provides the vitamin D one needs to endure the next cycle of darkness that we all know awaits us once the sun goes to bed again.
Swedes love midsummer. It is easily the most Swedish of all the holidays in Sweden and for the past several years it has become our tradition to spend the midsummer holiday with close friends who happen to have the consummate summer "stuga" (cottage) in the tiny little village of Mellösa. Mellösa is about 200 kilometers south of Stockholm. The train rumbles by, the cows moo with satisfaction, the flowers bloom wildly around every corner, the old church anchors the town with its constant presence. A beautiful lake awaits us down a dirt lane and we enjoy the festivities among the town folk of this little corner of Sweden.
To the overstimulated, big production, way over the top American, midsummer celebrations can seem a bit understated. Simple at its core, Midsummer reflects Swedish culture to a tee. Swedes are basically a simple folk, content with nature as their primary source of entertainment. The food of midsummer is that classical Swedish mixture of raw salmon (gravad lax), a zillion types of herring, boiled potatoes in fresh dill, and hard flat bread washed down with plenty of vodka and singing. The celebration itself involves decorating with birch branches and wild flowers a maypole and then raising it in all of its phallic glory. And even before the vodka shots start flowing, the Swedes gather around and sing silly songs about small frogs and the chores one must do in order to survive. Young and old alike, the girls' heads adorned with wreaths made of wildflowers, they gather with broad grins and much laughter and love every minute of it as if it were the first time they have ever experienced such wonder and delight.
Now, admittedly, as an American I long to fire up the grill and throw on the ribeyes, reflecting my own summer holiday, the 4th of July. Sometimes I marvel at how excited the Swedes get in such a simple celebration and then I also feel strangely warmed by the whole experience. The joy that I experience at midsummer is brought on by the glee that our host exhibits throughout the entire day. He loves to be a part of the raising of the pole. At 70, Sven is among the most enthusiastic of the dancers. He steals away just before dinner to assemble a bouquet of wildflowers that dress our midsummer table in the finest splendor. Around the table he toasts, he sings, he eats and drinks with vigor and delight. He is so Swedish on midsummer and we delight in his joy. At the close of every midsummer he always proclaims, "This was the best one yet." His wife is from Ghana and yet over the years has developed a keen sense of celebrating this most Swedish of days alongside of him. She has learned to make gravad lax from scratch and while it is perhaps my least favorite food on the planet I always have one piece in honor of Hannah who has labored long and hard to create what is perhaps her husband's favorite meal on the planet.
Weather is a constant topic as most of the time it rains on midsummer. Part of the ritual of the day is to carry the dining table in and out of the house about 20 times, wondering if we can actually eat outside without getting wet. This year we skipped the dance of the table, decided to stay inside and of course, it never rained. Even so, the clouds threatened all day and the temperature barely cracked 65 f.
The day ends with a walk to the Lake and a jump in the ice water, some wearing a swimsuit, others not. Tanner loves it. We love it. The daylight dazzles well into the evening and for one brief moment we soak in all 22 hours of daylight that midsummer offers. This year, a rainbow greeted us in the late, light sky and all of God's promises came into view.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Date with Manolo

OK, so granted, in most cases it's rude to take a MAN other than your husband to your 14th wedding anniversary celebration. And I didn't, really. True, I was with Doug and another MAN but the other "MAN" in question was MANolo Blahnik of Sex and the City designer shoe fame. Now, when it comes to shoes, I am not an "Imelda". I do not own hundreds of pairs of shoes just in case I may need a pair for one occasion at some time during my life span. I do not have shoes in my closet that are still in their original box having never been worn. I do not pay more than 2 figures for shoes. But on THE CRUISE we had two formal nights and I needed a little help from my friends. Miraculously I had a great outfit that my darling husband had purchased for me some time ago. I rarely get to wear it, hence the lack of proper footwear to accompany it. Many in the aforementioned Book Club are girls of glam and I was confident that one of them would come through for me. So on a Saturday evening around 6.00 p.m. I issued my distress signal via email: "Does anyone have a beautiful gold shoe (true to form, I just wrote golf instead of gold...I tell you, this stuff is genetic!), around size 7, that I could borrow for our formal nights on the ship?" The funny thing was that many of my girls of glam were actually online at 6.00 p.m. on that Saturday night and that's when the fun really began. Filling my inbox were the following saucy little retorts:
-Sorry Cinderella, I wear a size 5.
-Can you wear at 9? (This from one of my most petite friends. The only thing bigger on her than me are her feet.)
-Sorry, I've given up shoes with heels. Plus, all I have in my closet are black.
-And then suddenly, the Hallelujah chorus began and the message containing my destiny arrived: "I admit, I am an Imelda Marcos when it comes to shoes and while I wear a 6, some are 6 and a half and open back. You are welcome to whatever we can find."
Thank God President George W. Bush asked his good buddy Michael Wood to be the American Ambassador to Sweden and he said yes and he brought his wife and all her shoes with him!
Not only did I emerge from the American Ambassador's residence with the most lovely pair of golden, pointy (and comfortable!) Manolos, I had a chic little purse to match and an improved confidence in my ability to dress up and act like an adult! The fact that the formal night occurred on the night of our 14th wedding anniversary was a bonus. I don't think Doug minded sharing the night with Manolo. Our waitress gushed over the shoes, the dining staff sang Happy Anniversary (horribly) to us, we enjoyed a special little dessert and we danced with Manolo and one another, managing not to trip while celebrating the joy of our enduring union.
Thanks Judy, for sharing your treasure with me and my feet. It was fun to join the girls of glam at least for an evening on board the Splendor of the Seas.
Douglas...I look forward to many more anniversaries, with or without the MAN. xoxo

Corfu, Greece

Our last stop on this magnificent journey was Corfu, Greece. The setting for Shakespeare's The Tempest, this emerald Greek Island was a delight to take in. Easy walk on and off the ship created a simple and delightful situation for our stroll around the old town. Gorgeous architecture, delicate flower boxes adorning cast iron balconies, vendors selling their apricot flavored liquor, soaps made of olive oil and beautiful linens made for a nice shopping stop. Bargaining made it even nicer! This little taste of the old town was enough to make me begin dreaming of our longer vacation on this island sometime in the near future. The highlight was the park side cafe we found with comfortable chairs and leather sofa from which we were able to enjoy our ice cold Mythos and salty snacks. A perfect last stop on a journey filled with amazing stops.

Santorini, Greece

Combine volcanic explosions with the Aegean sea and what do you get? Santorini. Perched high above the beautiful sea, Santorini's towns are the highest in the Greek Isles. Formed by volcanic activity, with the caldera in the sea, there's nary a bad view once you make your up. The port drops you below the village of Fira and it's up to you to decide how to rise to the town. 3 options exist: Wait an hour in line and ride the cable car. Hire a donkey and trudge up the cobbled street. Walk over 400 steps straight upwards and call the Greek emergency services upon arrival. We waited in a line. It's hard to describe what it's like being disgorged into a tiny village with narrow cobblestone streets along with 3,000 other passengers from the 3 huge cruise ships that sat in the caldera in the sea. Crowded doesn't begin to describe it. But, once freed from the maddening crowd, the views really do take your breath away. All of Santorini is white with blue roofs, quite the stunning backdrop against the sparkling sea that surrounds the island. After a quick stroll to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral we knew that walking down was our only sane option. So we began the descent contending with 16 switchbacks, numerous donkeys and untold tons of donkey manure. We were ready for that Mythos beer once we reached sea level. It was tiring and challenging but the beautiful Aegean spurred us on as the view after each turn was simply amazing. Special kudos to my dad who made the descent with us.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ephesus, Turkey

Who knew that Ephesus, Turkey was Asia Minor in the ancient world? Most New Testament scholars. The letters to the 7 churches in Revelation are written to Christians occupying parts of what is present day Turkey. Ephesus was a major crossroads in the ancient world as it was a port city. Today, the ancient city of Ephesus is no longer on the water. The sea has receded about 30 kilometers and the port city is Kusadasi, Turkey. Still, the ancient city of Ephesus is one of the most impressive rebuilt cities of the ancient world. It is thrilling to walk down "the main drag", paved with the original marble that has been there for thousands of years, to see the amazing architecture and structures that have been meticulously dug out and rebuilt and to ponder the Apostle Paul alongside of the early Christians seeking to perpetuate the message of Jesus Christ in the midst of the temple cult and emperor worship that was prominent in that day. Ephesus figures in three main parts of the Bible. Of course, we have the letter to the Ephesians, possibly written by Paul to the Christians living in Ephesus. We have the letter from John in Revelation to the Christians in Ephesus urging them to return to their first love. See Revelation 2.1-7. Finally, Ephesus figures prominently in Acts 19. Paul caused a huge riot in the ancient city because he was preaching against the worship of Artemis. He wanted to go the great theater to proclaim his message but the other disciples wouldn't let him for fear of his life. Acts is awesome reading. Just remember that the Asia that is referred to is modern day Turkey.
What a thrill to walk the streets where the Apostle Paul walked. We sat on the public toilets, an impressive construction in its day. Our modern plumbing surely has its roots in the structures that we saw. As you wander through the ancient city it is easy to see that it was once a thriving, bustling center of trade, wealth, philosophy, and life. To think that a significant part of my Christian heritage unfolded in this region is quite thrilling. The early Christians faced great opposition from the world around them. And yet our faith lives on. I walked where Paul walked. I stood in the theater and imagined what it would be like to address the 25,000 people that it holds. Thankfully, we didn't cause any riots this time around.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Once a part of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia is indeed the jewel of the Adriatic. A walled city that is surrounded by crystal clear ice blue sea water, this short stop beckons us to consider when we will return to Croatia. The city walls surround and protect a stunning ancient town. Doug and I climbed the wall and walked the perimeter. Stunning view after stunning view met us around every turn and our camera clicked away as we tried to capture the beauty of this hidden treasure. Croatia used to be a popular seaside destination for Europeans until the war ripped it apart. Now enjoying a season of renewal, it has fast reclaimed its favor among the traveling set. I'm guessing that within a year we'll be chatting about our week long stay in Croatia. It's just too beautiful to leave alone.

Venice is for lovers

I love Venice. I know, how original. But seriously, it is a special place. Our disembarkation out of the city was spectacular. Where else are you going to view this amazing city from above?! Perched high upon the deck of the fabulous Splendor of the Seas, the canals of Venice floated by. The lingering images of The Doge's Palace, Bridge of Sighs, the magnificent San Marcos and its imposing square along with the throngs of people that were milling about created a memorable start to our journey. We spent a day ourselves roaming the canals, traversing the bridges, smiling down upon the gondolas, and enjoying being surrounded by Italians and their romantic, beautiful language. Venice makes you feel more loving! My husband is not one for public affection but even Venice prompted him to kiss me while crossing the hundreds of bridges that adorn this city of water. The combination of stunning architecture, creative decorations, boats for busses, bridges for traffic lights, and that Italian language just oozes romance. So as book end stops on a cruise that was a celebration of life and love, Venice did not disappoint. We did find the best gelato as well. The guy let me taste every flavor his freezer and in the end I settled for my favorite, chocolate chip called Stracciatella in Italian. The combination of cheap wine, creamy gelato and delicious kisses from my beloved ensures that Venice will remain a favorite travel stop of mine forever.