Sweden Calling - Archive by Jennifer Leahy

NBC Bay Area Interview - January 2017

Örebro and Västerås by Jennifer Leahy

By a minor scheduling miracle, with less than two days left in country, my final two contacts from the Swedish Number were both available to meet. It meant stops in two different cities before heading to the airport, and it was totally worth it.

Driving north from the Linköping area, an hour and a half through gorgeous countryside brought me to meet up with Ali at the Örebro Eurostop, which was conveniently located near his work and on my way past town. Over coffee and a delicious, creamy merengue concoction, we talked for an hour or two about how he came to be answering calls on behalf of Sweden. Ali is originally from Sumatra, but moved to Sweden eleven years ago, after relocating first to Malaysia, then Norway. He and his family are Swedish citizens, and it was great getting to hear his perspective on living, working, and raising a family here. Back in May, when we first talked, Ali had told me that he was taking calls for the Swedish Number in part to give back and say "thank you" to Sweden. In addition, he enjoyed connecting with people from around the world, and liked the opportunity to practice English (one of his 5+ languages). After a quick portrait shoot (we got lucky with the rain), Ali had to head home, and I continued my drive to Västerås. 

I got into town late, so it wasn't until the next morning that I truly discovered Västerås' secret - it's one of the oldest cities in Sweden, and it's quaint/beautiful as all get-out. I wish I'd had more time to wander its streets, but I was headed to the airport that evening. Nevertheless, I was able to briefly check out the cathedral (built in the Middle Ages) and then met up for lunch and coffee with Viktor, my final Swedish Number contact. We took a walk through town, and Viktor explained some of the history behind certain buildings. I'd noticed people of all ages pedaling everywhere, and he mentioned he'd heard that Västerås had one of the highest biking populations in Sweden. We then headed out to explore the Viking burial ground of Anundshög, built during the Iron Age. I really liked Anundshög's presence - something about the symmetry and weight of the stones, as well as the view of the landscape from the top of the largest burial mound, felt remarkably calming and beautiful.




Östergötland: Norrköping Area by Jennifer Leahy

Helene answered my call just two days before the Swedish Number came to a close, and I'm so glad we had the chance to connect. She and her family live in Ullevidsdal, outside Norrköping, in a home that she and her husband, Tom, designed themselves (she's an artist (check out her awesome blog here), he's an engineer, and they both appear to be expert Ikea hackers). 

When she heard I was visiting Sweden, Helene invited me to stay in Ullevidsdal. I would be driving northeast from Malmö, and she had two of her nieces visiting for the weekend, so we decided to all meet at Lövstad Castle, where she'd been touring them around (and visiting her daughter, who worked in the café).  Though I arrived too late for the official tour, we got to walk around some of the beautiful grounds, then met up with Tom for a late afternoon ice cream at a spot overlooking one of the many locks of the Göta Canal, which connects Gothenburg in the west with the Baltic Sea in the east.

Back at Ullevidsdal, Tom had a grilled feast waiting. Before dinner, Helene gave me a tour of their warm, beautifully designed home, which included many personal and environmentally conscious elements (such as geothermal heating, and extra thick walls for energy conservation in winter).  Examples of Helene's work in the fiber arts decorated the house, including a pillow made on an outdoor loom from yarn she'd hand-dyed with vegetable and insect pigments. After plates full of grilled meats, corn, and Haloumi, we (or at least, I) got schooled by the nieces ski jumping on the Wii, and stayed up talking into the evening.

The next day, Helene suggested we check out Bergs slussar, the remarkable series of eleven locks (a highlight of the Göta Canal) that connect to Lake Roxen.  Over a delicious lunch of fish, mashed potatoes, and lingonberries, we watched boats go up and down the lock right outside the restaurant, then took a walk to get a view of the rest of the staircase. 

Skåne: Trelleborg and Malmö by Jennifer Leahy

The bouncy castle gave it away - if there was a birthday party to be found, out in the middle of acres and acres of farmland, then it was probably going to be here. The line of cars, parked in a row over a section of mowed grass across the street, supported this idea, as did the white tents set up in the yard. The only thing left to do was find the one person at the party I knew, whom I'd never actually met before.

Aske answered my call to the Swedish Number back in late May, and we had a long conversation about all kinds of things: history, politics, regional differences within Sweden. Malmö, his city, is the third largest in Sweden, and is in Skåne, the southernmost county. When he heard I was headed there for just one day, he invited me to meet him at a friend's birthday party outside Trelleborg, a half hour south of Malmö (still within sight of the Øresund Bridge, connecting Sweden to Denmark).  

All of which led me to the house with the castle - I was pretty sure I'd located the right spot, I just had to find Aske himself. After making a quick circle of the crowd, with no luck, I took out my phone, pulled up Aske's Facebook profile, and asked a friendly-looking person if they might know who he was. Sure enough, they did - in fact, he was playing in the band.

Aske and his brother and sister, Love and Tilde (band name: Folkfronten) were setting up on a stage in the side yard, and that's how we met in person for the first time. We didn't have a ton of time to chat, since they were about to start playing, but we were able to do a quick portrait session out in a sugar beet field at the break between sets. The party itself was for Aske's friend, Dennis, who was turning 40. Dennis and his wife, Cilla, had set up tents for food and drinks, with coffee and pastries served in his woodworking shed. Kids played in the castle and out in the yards and fields surrounding the house. After the music wrapped, we had a chance to talk more. Aske and his friend, Sebastian, insisted that even though I was headed north to Norrköping in the morning, I had to experience at least little of Malmö itself.

And so, around 11pm, the three of us piled into my rental Fiat, and we headed back to the city and into Folkets Park and the outdoor club, Far I Hatten, where two DJs were playing Swedish oldies and everyone, including us, was dancing. At 2am, we headed out to Jalla Jalla for late night falafel (Aske had told me on our initial call that Malmö had the best), followed by more music and politics/history conversations till 4am, when I caught a nap on the couch before heading back north.  All in all, an evening very well spent.




West Coast: Halmstad by Jennifer Leahy

No matter what, I had to be in Halmstad on Friday, because that was the day of Anders and Ida's kräftskiva (crayfish party), a Swedish August tradition. 

And so, from Gothenburg, I headed south and met up with Anders (who'd answered my Swedish Number call) and his daughter. We did a car tour of Halmstad, including an important first stop out in the country for Italian ice cream, then came back home to prepare for the party. Soon, friends began to arrive - Anders and Ida live in a neighborhood with lots of other young families within walking distance. 

I'd been told bits and pieces about the kräftskiva over the past few months: there would be singing, and shots, and bibs and party hats. The crayfish themselves are no longer necessarily from Sweden, and come cooked, seasoned with dill, and served cold, along with Västerbotten cheese pie, breads, salad, beer, wine, and yes, Aquavit. As the kids ran around the backyard, dressing up as superheroes from a treasure trove of a costume box, the adults got down to eating, talking, occasional singing (followed by toasting), and overall merriment, including a brief drone demo (Anders is a professional photographer and does amazing aerial work).

The next day, after yet another delicious fika (this time a homemade, gluten free sticky cake), we headed out to Hotel Tylösand to check out the photography exhibit and the beach, said to be the best in Sweden. 

West Coast: Gothenburg and Marstrand by Jennifer Leahy

When Mike answered my call to the Swedish Number, I'd had no idea he was actually a fellow New Englander until he shared the story of how he and his wife, Anette, met (in Dorchester, MA), moved to San Francisco to work at the Fort Mason hostel, and then settled in Sweden, where she was from, raising their family outside Gothenburg, in the small town of Kullavik. 

Last week, they generously invited me to stay at their home and showed me around Kullavik (where Anette rides horses and Mike kayaks), Gothenburg, and Marstrand, including the island fort of Carlstens Fästning. Lots more stories will follow, but for now, a few images from those two days.

Jämtland County: Overnight in Klövsjö by Jennifer Leahy

Leaving Luleå, I decided to take the slightly longer, but potentially more scenic, route on my way west and south to Gothenburg, where my next contact lived. The total driving time would be 16+ hours, so I decided to split it up into two days and make an overnight stop.  A number of people I'd called had mentioned Jämtland, saying it was beautiful country, with mountains (especially close to the Norwegian border) and great hiking and camping opportunities. This trip, I wouldn't have time to explore it properly, but I could at least get a taste on my way to my next meet-up.  

Maj-Lis' Airbnb listing was chosen in about five seconds: it was almost exactly halfway between Luleå and Gothenburg, time-wise, the idea of staying in a small village appealed to me, and Maj-Lis herself looked friendly. I knew I'd be arriving late, and asked her in advance if that would be a problem, but she assured me it would be fine. Booking a room with her turned out to be one of my better moments of split-second decision making; I feel like I hit the Airbnb jackpot.

But first - getting there. As I'd been promised, the drive took me through beautiful, wild country: small mountains (think northern NH, not the Rockies - rugged but in a more rounded way), endless lakes and rivers, and several reindeer (no joke, one politely crossed the road with impeccable timing, seconds after I'd passed the sign indicated I was in Lappland (north of Jämtland, on my way west from Luleå). 

By the time I arrived in Klövsjö, Google Maps was having a little difficult with her address, but Maj-Lis kindly met me at the local ICA (pronounced 'eeka'; one of the bigger grocery store chains here), and I followed her back to her home. We had a cup of tea and sat up chatting - she's a retired school teacher and principal, which means, in the tiny town of Klövsjö, she knows just about everyone. The next day, after a breakfast of bacon, eggs, delicious cheese, and a taste of Kalles (spreadable caviar in a tube, a staple here), we set off on a tour of the village. The night before, I could already sense that Klövsjö was going to be beautiful - it's set on a hill, with a lake at the bottom and a small ridge (including a ski area) providing a backdrop. In the daytime, it was gorgeous - I couldn't have accidentally stumbled upon a better place.




Luleå: Gammelstad and Boden Fortress by Jennifer Leahy

In the daytime, Luleå feels far away from what I unconsciously (and inaccurately) imagined the Arctic Circle might be like - it's a warm, sunny, green, small city. But in the evening, when the sunset pauses for an hour or two, then begins in reverse, I remember just how far north we are. And when, after a tour of the forts of Boden (built in the last century), my Swedish Number contact, Niklas, points out three giant icebreakers across the bay (including Oden, the first nonnuclear ship of its kind to reach the North Pole), then I begin to imagine what winter might feel like.

A few miles outside of Luleå is the church town of Gammelstad (another UNESCO World Heritage site). The church itself was completed in 1492. Back then, the town was on the water, but because the land has been on the rise (geologically springing back from the last ice age), the shoreline is no longer in sight (hence the establishment of Luleå in its present-day location). The red and white cottages of Gammelstad are still in use, and have temporarily housed parishioners (traveling in from the country for church services) for centuries. 

The High Coast and the road to Luleå by Jennifer Leahy

Travel Math:  If time = money, and the rule of thumb for packing is twice the money +  half the stuff, then it stands to reason that you should also bring along double the time as well.

The past two days, I've been overwhelmed by both the generosity of strangers and the realization that I can't possibly do it all justice, not in one go, not in a hundred. I'm stopping just short of the Arctic Circle, at the far north of my itinerary, Luleå, long enough to say hello to Niklas and check out the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gammelstad. 

But first - a little bit about the road that got me here. From Stockholm, I headed up E4 for the High Coast (itself a UNESCO site), where a contact had recommended I check out Skuleskogen National Park. From there, it was on to Örnsköldsvik, a small town famous for hockey (home of Modo and a disproportionately huge number of NHL players), and the hometown of Anton and Elin, who gave me another guided tour (more on that later). Just north of Örnsköldsvik, a beach resort straight out of another era made me pull over and do a couple impromptu portrait sessions, and, hours later, an endless sunset on a bridge outside Luleå had me running across a highway for a shot. 

Stockholm II & North by Jennifer Leahy

Three phone calls to a number that no longer exists - that's how I now know Anton and Elin, Ali, and Noumbissi. From 5,300 miles away, we talked about all kinds of things, and then two days ago, we met for fika, and Mongolian buffet, and drinks, and talked some more in person. The odds of us ever having met randomly, in person, seem mind-bogglingly low -  there are 9.5 million people in Sweden alone - but because of an app, and then Facebook and email, we got (and stayed) connected. Because of our connection, I came to Sweden (and if we're counting technological magic, let's give the planes, trains, and automobiles their due), and I began to meet other people as well, of course, like my Airbnb hosts, Lidija and Viktor, and their two kids.

I'm on my way north right now, headed from Härnösand to Skuleskogen National Park, recommended by another Swedish Number contact, Seth, from the town of Örnsköldsvik, which I'll also be visiting. Yesterday's drive, through trees and boulders and fields, reminded me of New Hampshire, as I was told it would, only with a slightly different flavor: the flavor of deep red barns and boulders and ancient-looking buildings that demanded to be photographed, if only there were a place to pull over. Also, the flavor of malls and parking garages and kebab stands, on the hunt for an emergency phone charger. There’s a word that means the idea or concept of the almost-sadness you feel when you realize you won’t be able to experience every place and come to know everyone - it’s not exactly sadness, because it comes from the happiness and delight of meeting and befriending strangers. If anyone remembers the word, let me know: traveling also has a way of bringing you back down to earth, and for me, checkout time’s in 15 minutes, so I’ve got to go.

Stockholm I by Jennifer Leahy

'Hej' is the Swedish word for 'hi,' and it's pronounced in the same bright way you'd say, "Hey!" in English to greet a friend that you just bumped into unexpectedly. Sometimes it's doubled up - 'hej hej!' - giving the effect of someone arriving at a party in a chipper mood. As a result, wherever I go in Stockholm, I've had the feeling of being welcomed: the man checking tickets on the train, the woman biking up the hill next to me: everyone sounds, for just a second, like they're an old friend.

And that might be appropriate, because meeting contacts from The Swedish Number has felt a lot like meeting new old friends. I just got back from drinks with Anton and Elin; yesterday, he went out of his way to give me a guided tour of the not-typically-touristy (but fascinating and beautiful) neighborhoods around Stockholm. More to come...

View from S ödermalm.

View from Södermalm.

Guide extraordinaire.

Guide extraordinaire.

Floating hotel.

Floating hotel.




Calling Sweden by Jennifer Leahy

In late April, I read a New York Times article on the Swedish Number, an initiative by the Swedish Tourist Association to both promote international interest in Sweden and to celebrate free speech; commemorating the 250th anniversary of the country's constitutional law abolishing censorship. Anyone in the world could call Sweden (literally - the country had a number), and speak to a "random Swede, somewhere in Sweden." It struck me that this was an incredible, creative opportunity to connect with strangers, hear their stories, and learn about a different part of the world (also, an award-winning marketing idea on the part of Ingo). I made a call that same day, and was hooked. 

From then until the Swedish Number closed, on June 24th, I called Sweden several times a week, and have talked to dozens of Swedes. I've had the chance to hear perspectives on things like education, immigration, and paid parental leave, and also on hiking, hockey, and the traditional songs you should sing before drinking shots of Akvavit at Midsummer. 

Now, it's time for the next logical step: I'm headed to Sweden, (update: I'm already here!), following a path created by dozens of chance, serendipitous phone conversations: visiting hometowns, exploring places and ideas shared by strangers, and most fun of all, meeting up in person with several of the Swedes who were on the other end of the line - Facebook, Instagram, and good old-fashioned email allowed us to track each other down and keep the conversation going.