Sunday, September 29, 2013

Home Sweet Home aka Finally Settled Somewhere

If you haven't heard yet, Diana and I have a (rented) home of our very own here in Barcelona! It must have been time as when I was talking to my friend Ruma, she said "I'm happy that you guys have finally settled...somewhere!". Without too many details, some things have changed recently and we've decided that home will be Barcelona for the foreseeable future.

Don't worry though, not that you were, but I'll still be updating whereisdarrennow since I still believe that if I don't have anything going on that's interesting enough to write about, that I need to change something. This blog is one measurement of that goal. Plus, it looks like I'll still be traveling regularly and should have some cool stuff to see and learn about.

So, some details... Our new place has a location that can't be beat right in the (very) center of town. I think that the only way we could be more central is if we were sleeping in a box in Plaza Catalunya each night! The apartment was a bit rough and our new landlords basically said take it as it is or leave it. Well, we weren't too scared off by the combination of dark and darker decorating and the price was right so we grabbed it.

A before view of part of the kitchen:

Actually, so much of the apartment was painted in royal blue that it seemed like some Smurfs had lived there before us. It really wasn't that bad though. And, like people in real estate say, the bones were good and it's all about location anyway.

We had already looked at about 20 apartments during our search. Some great places for way too much money and some not-so-great places as well. When we were checking out our new place with the landlords for the first time, Diana and I were standing on the front balcony. I pointed to the corner where there were THREE different tourists taking photos down the street at the same time. Diana wasn't as sure as I was about the place so I said to her, "look at all these people who have paid thousands of dollars to come here for a couple of days - we can LIVE here". She was sold. We got the keys a few days later. I still get a kick out of watching folks take photos of my 'hood...

Diana and I spent the next four weeks learning the layout of our local Bauhaus home center, running back and forth to Ikea, and having paint and/or grime under our fingernails but things have come together even better than expected. Our old roommate David, who hadn't seen it since before we started working and was a bit, no, very apprehensive, told us this weekend how impressed he is with the difference. Nice!

An in-process shot of the 150-plus-year-old (!!!) hallway while I was rescuing the bathroom from Gargamel:

It hasn't been all hard work. Diana and I have found plenty of time to enjoy our new home including having breakfast on the balcony:

True to our style, we've already had our first couchsurfers. Linda and Ralph napping on a recent weekend while our friend Gema was in Lanzarote:

Just this past weekend we had about 25 of our friends over for a housewarming. It was nice to have them help celebrate but, because so many had other plans (or, at least I'd like to believe that's the reason), we'll be holding a second housewarming in a few more weeks for those who couldn't come so it's not too late to join us!

If you find yourself in Barcelona, Diana and I would love to have you visit us. We've even got a second bedroom so you won't have to sleep on the couch - unless you'd like to of course. Hope to see you soon!

A nice cava cheers to our new happy home! Cheers!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bodø Norway

Since Lena had to work for part of our visit to Skelleftea, she suggested that we take her car and go on a road trip somewhere. Cool, we thought. It'd be fun to check out some other parts of the country.

I spent some time researching options and putting together maps to show Diana. A couple of things became quickly apparent. First of those things, Sweden's a big country and, with Skellftea's relatively isolated location, everything was pretty far away. We settled on three different options, each of which involved between 600 and 1,000 miles of driving! After talking it over with Lena and Toni, we decided that we'd drive northwest to the city of Bodø in northern Norway. The journey would take us north of the arctic circle (!!!) and would only be about a 300 to 400 mile drive each way. 

So we set out early one morning to see rural Sweden (and Norway) on our own. The weather wasn't too great with sometimes heavy rain but it was very scenic. Some snow-capped mountains north of the arctic circle but still in Sweden:

...and some wild reindeer more-or-less in the same area:

We arrived into a fairly-cold Bodø about 7pm and met up with our airbnb host who recommended that we go to eat at a restaurant in the center of town. Dinner was good, not great, but walking around after was super fun. Remember that this area of the world has 24 hours of daylight during the summer so it was fun snapping photos like this one staring into the sun at around 10pm at the Bodø small-craft harbor:

As far as tourist destinations go, Bodø's probably not going to make too many Top-Ten lists. It's very scenic with water and mountains everywhere but the weather's not too great and there's not a whole lot to do. Our host did tell us that the weather was particularly good that day, which scares the hell out of me for what it must be like during the winter!

One of the most popular and cool things to do while in the area is to visit the natural maelstrom, called the Saltstraumen, which is about 20 minutes outside of town. This is considered the most powerful maelstrom in the world and twice a day during the tide change, massive amounts of water pass through a narrow opening creating large whirlpools. To give you an idea of scale, those are people standing in front of the bridge on the left.

The effect is something like the cars on a freeway's center fast lanes passing the slower cars in the slower outside lanes resulting in what looks like a river flowing in the center with whirlpools forming along the edges. This is a video that I took showing the maelstrom. Warning though, the wind noise in the video is quite loud.

After lunch we hiked up to the top of a hill that overlooks the whole city of Bodø and the Norwegian Sea beyond. It's funny, but thinking back to that hike as I write this, all I can remember, other than the fabulous views, were the senior-citizen Germans out hiking on the trails too. We'd always see groups of them with their hiking boots and their ski poles (walking poles?) on the metro while we lived in Stuttgart. They are f'n hardy folks! Anyway, the view of Bodø from up top:

The weather broke the next morning and made for some excellent photos of our drive back south. Viewing area on the way out of Bodø:

Random observation from the trip was the number of sod-covered roofs that we saw while in Norway. It seems that sod has been a roof covering in this part of the world almost since people have been building structures thousands of years ago. This is a much more modern version at a rest stop / gas station:

One of the things that I really wanted to do during the trip was to get a picture straddling the arctic circle like I had gotten of the Berlin Wall in Germany and the Greenwich Mean in England. I was bummed to find out that we had completely blew by the circle in Sweden on our way up to Norway as it's not very well marked. In my mind, there'd be some big sign or something saying that you're now crossing the arctic circle but there wasn't anything on the main road. We did find out later that there was a sign off the road but you couldn't see the sign while traveling on the road.

The Norwegians have done a better job than the Swedes as they've built a Arctic Circle Center where you can learn about the arctic circle and, of course, buy lots of arctic-circle-themed souvenirs. A highly-overexposed photo on the arctic circle outside the Polarsirkelensenteret:

...and another "out back" of the center also straddling the arctic circle:

Our quick, two-night trip up to Bodø and back was a great opportunity to see rural northern Sweden and Norway. Spending a couple of days and nights north of the arctic circle was very cool. We ended up driving almost 800 miles on our trip and got to see some amazing scenery. Once again, a big thanks to Lena for lending us her car. Sorry about all the bugs!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Putrid Swedish Food That Explodes

Back when I lived in San Diego, I worked with a girl from Sweden. She ended up in the United States after she had married a marine who she'd met while they were each living in Paris, France (and, yes, I am friends with quite a few international married couples).

Anyway, she used to talk a lot about how great her beloved homeland was/is and, as most expats do, how delicious the food is. I remember her making quite a few runs to Ikea for the raw ingredients to some old, back-home recipe. Mostly, though, she had quite fond memories of two foods in particular from her childhood. One, which is available in the U.S., was salted-and-chewy black-licorice candy. If you've never had this combination, you'll either love it or hate it. I haven't seen anyone react neutrally to it. The second food is what this story is about.

As with most places I've been, I didn't really know what to expect in terms of Swedish food. Unfortunately for Sweden, I was predisposed to think in terms of what they sell at the Ikea restaurant just like people who have never been to the U.S. think that McDonald's or K.F.C. is what it's all about there.

I was very happily surprised during our first night in Sweden when Lena and Toni took us to have dinner at her mom Karen's house and there wasn't a meatball in sight. Like I wrote about in Part 1 of our trip, her food was super yummy and a great intro to home-style Swedish food. A couple of days later, they took us to a restaurant-museum-adventure-park (yes, adventure park) combo place in a nearby town. Called Svansele, you sit at tables outside (I'm guessing not during the winter, though) and eat barbecued reindeer, moose, fish, and veggies served up by some super friendly and entertaining cooks.

Even though the food is excellent, and worth the relatively-high price, the highlight of the restaurant is the attached multi-large-roomed museum/display of stuffed-and-mounted local wildlife. Each room is themed by a season of the year with matching temperature controls (the winter room is like a walk-in-refrigerator). The animals on display range from the largest local residents like bears and moose to the smallest fish, birds, and mice.

The best part of the restaurant for sure, well after the delish food, was the display showing the various traps created by hunters to catch their meals. It included all sorts of creative methods such as tying a string to a shotgun that's triggered by a the animal trying to remove a piece of food. Excellent!

So, what's this got to do with my friend's other favorite Swedish food? Not much really but I did enjoy the restaurant and museum!

On our last night in town, Lena and Toni had prepared something very special for dinner. It was special enough that we cleaned the gazebo so we could eat outside. How nice, right? Lena and Diana started by cutting up some veggies and other prep and then we all moved outside so Toni could open the cans of Surstromming.

Wait! Why did we need to go outside to open our dinner? Well, we were about to enjoy Surstromming, which is a fermented fish that's a super-trad food in Sweden. The problem is that sometimes the contents of the can explode out when it's opened! Woo-hoo! Exploding food! For some reason, I flashed back to that old urban-legend where Mikey died eating Pop Rocks and Coke...

But, wait! The potentially deadly releasing of the can's contents isn't even the best part of prepping and eating this nutritious super food. No, that honor is held by the incredibly putrid smell that emanates from the newly-opened can. I was beginning to understand why I had to vacuum the dead mosquitoes and other local fauna out of the gazebo that day...

Diana's priceless reaction to her first wiff of our soon-to-be dinner:

Turns out that my Swedish friend from San Diego's second-favorite food is a small, fermented herring fish found in the nearby Baltic Sea that comes in a can. This is how kids in Sweden say "Yummy, Mommy!!! Can I have more???":

In a good-ole Hatfield-and-McCoy's way, one legend credits the beginnings of this Swedish delicacy to some sailors giving their "beloved" Finnish neighbors old, stinky fish as part of a trade. Upon their next visit, the Finns, who are the butt of lots of Swedish jokes, are said to have asked for more of that "delicious fish". Diana and I were definitely in luck, I think.

Lena's recipe for Surstromming, which is eaten right out of the can without any cooking/processing, starts with a Swedish flat bread, a bunch of butter and boiled potatoes that are spread liberally on the bread, and pieces of the peeled and boneless fish:

To this, she adds some fresh dill, sliced tomatoes, and sour cream:

For the terror that arises from the potentially deadly package with the it-makes-you-cry smell, I can definitely say that my friend was right all along. Salty black licorice and putrid fish are both surprisingly delicious and must-not-be-missed Swedish foods. Maybe Ikea still has a thing or two to learn. Just look at these happy campers with their dinner:

Again, a big thanks to Toni and Lena for not only giving us a place to sleep, introducing us to their culture, and putting up with my limitless "why and how-come" questions, but to sharing their lives, family, friends, and exploding rotten fish with us. You guys rock and we miss you!