Oct 4-7, 2021: A trip with my best friend
Immediately following our quick family trip to La Petite-Pierre, France, I unpacked and repacked for a trip with just Melissa and me to visit her grandparents in Sweden. The night before we left, Josh and I took the boys over to Melissa and Flo’s for a dinner with her parents, who had been visiting for a couple of weeks. We enjoyed hearing about all their travels and experiences before calling it a night because we had a 6AM planned departure to drive to Dusseldorf, where Melissa’s parents also had flights to return to the US.
We had uneventful travel from Dusseldorf to Copenhagen (about an hour flight) and from there took a train to Alvesta, Sweden (about 2 hours) – the closest town with a train station to where Jeanette and Donald Mellskog have their home. Before hopping on the train though I grabbed a cinnamon roll from a coffee shop and let me tell you – I think it might be worth traveling to Copenhagen just for cinnamon rolls! I digress…
A little background: Both Jeanette and Donald were children of Swedish immigrant parents and were raised in Chicago where there were many other Swedish immigrant families. They met when they were kids through Swedish Sunday school and started dating when Donald was almost finished with college. It was only as teenagers that they started traveling back (separately) to Sweden. Donald reminisced with misty eyes during our last night together about his father’s desire to take his family back to Sweden and introduce them to all their relatives in this tiny village. After that trip Donald returned another summer to live/work with the farm-owning cousins and learned Swedish that way.
After a stint in the military, Donald started his own business in Terrazzo tile and, as adults, he and Jeanette would travel to industry conferences in Italy, then use those trips to tack on trips to Sweden and other countries. Eighteen years ago, they decided to buy land and build a home close to Skog . Skog means forrest and Mellskog means middle of the forest. This is where Donald’s last name comes from and is also the town where his grandparents (and their ancestors) were from. It is where he has some relatives still living.
They wanted the home to be in this particular spot, where the family had been for generations, but which is now protected by natural conservancy, so there were restrictions. They could not build a new structure within 200 meters of the lake unless they renovated something already constructed. If they chose the latter (which they did) they were limited to increasing the foot print of the existing structure by only 50%. Jeanette has a keen sense of repurposing things. Everything. The house was formerly a cabin (really a shack) with no running water and no electricity. The fisherman who sold it to them left many pieces of furniture behind that were in various states of disrepair. Jeanette found a local wood smith and an upholsterer and reused or repurposed every piece of furniture left in the house. Everything has history or a story and is so very practical.
Once in Alvesta, we were greeted by Jeanette and Donald at the station and they drove us to their house 25 minutes away. The first thing you notice in this part of Sweden is:
- it is very rural. Lots of farmland, lots of cows.
- There are many red houses and yellow houses. The color red was used historically by lower income/farming families because the paint was able to be cheaply made by byproducts of things like iron ore they already had. It was non toxic (I was told you could eat it even). The yellow houses were “manor” type houses for higher income people historically. From what I could quickly research the most wealthy had brick homes painted a light yellow/limestone color and the wooden houses that were painted yellow were made to try to resemble those. I think it’s one of those centuries long traditions that no one truly knows how or why things are. Also noteworthy are the blue doors on many of the houses. That was the traditional color for front doors. Jeanette told us she got a lot of flack for painting her front door green!
- Very little traffic. I thought at first that we were just traveling at the low of tourist season, and that may have had some impact, but the truth is Sweden is a very large country, with not a large population. It is not dense like the Netherlands. Social distancing can happen here without even trying. We were very often the only car on the road.
We arrived at the house, unpacked a little bit, and Melissa walked me around the property, situated on a small peninsula-shaped bit of land with a beautiful lake. Jeanette takes a lot of pride in her flowers, plants and trees in her yard and I regret that we didn’t get to see it in its spring/summer glory, but even this fall version was lovely. The trees are starting to change in this part of Sweden so all the reds/oranges/yellows and greens of fall are surrounding this area.
Melissa helped Grandma (Mormor in Swedish, meaning mother’s mother) cook dinner – a homemade vegetable soup. Apparently there are not many restaurant options nearby, and few that the grandparents like, and Jeanette is a great cook, so they make most of their meals. That vegetable soup was to die for.
We started the next day with a run around the lake (about 5 miles) followed by breakfast with the grandparents. I enjoyed our evening and morning chats so much that it was hard to pull ourselves away and go explore a bit more of the area. Melissa is pretty familiar with some of the options so we decided to visit the famous Swedish glass factories/outlet stores Kosta Boda and Orrefors and also a Swedish sportswear store that we both like: CRAFT.
When we arrived to the town of Kosta we decided first on a coffee/cake. This, in Sweden is known as FIKA and it is both a noun and a verb. Usually there are two FIKA times (mid-morning and mid-afternoon) and people can FIKA with coffee at work, at home, with friends, alone, wherever. I think the world needs more FIKA.
After FIKA-ing we started the shopping. This week, the 7th of October, is mine and Josh’s 15th wedding anniversary and the traditional gift for 15 years is crystal. We don’t always give the traditional gift, but sometimes it’s a good idea generator for gifts. Josh can be pretty hard to shop for, but the man loves champagne and wine. I found some coupe style crystal champagne glasses with a beautiful blue stem from Orrefors. I sure hope he loves them. I also found these crystal “snowball” candle holders from Kosta Boda and several other things that I think we will love for years to come.
Speaking of candles, according to Donald and Jeannette, the Swedes take candles kind of seriously. Every meal we had together they lit a candle. They said that if they were “true Swedes” they would light candles in the windows and some that are hanging on walls, etc. Melissa said she’s not sure this is an “everywhere in Sweden” thing or just this part of Sweden. It’s cute though, and my boys love candles, so I think we will try to incorporate the breakfast/dinner candle tradition.
Melissa and I stopped by a grocery store on the way home and picked up items for chili. Melissa is vegetarian so we bought some veggie meat to throw in there as well and while I don’t think it will be something Donald and Jeannette make themselves in the future, they did seem to enjoy our cooking and sharing another meal together.
The next day we started with another shorter run around part of the lake and had a leisurely breakfast again with the grandparents. I incorporated some salmon into my breakfast while Grandpa ate some herring. I probably should’ve tried the herring – he loves it and says its super Swedish.
Clearly age is just a number in this family (Jeanette is 85 and Donald is 87). Despite a desire to “slow down” a little and stay closer to their home (now in Tennessee, USA), Jeanette declared our second morning there that the weather looked great and she was going to spend it outside. This by default meant that Donald would also be outside carrying out various tasks as she directed. That particular day the chore d’jour was trimming fruit trees that had been ignored during the pandemic when they could not visit. As Melissa and I left that day for a day of shopping, Jeannette was pushing her wheel barrow to the back of the house where the fruit trees stand.
We decided to spend this day in the town of Växjö pronounced (Veck-qua or Veck-shuh). Here you have some modern and trendy stores and also some handmade Swedish stores. There’s also several things to go and see if you want – an old castle, and emigration museum that details the mass exit of Swedes in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s to the USA , primarily for construction jobs (like rebuilding Chicago after the fire) or to settling/farming the mid-west. There are also glass blowing museums and old military barracks that are now converted/repurposed into other things. In the new train station there’s also a tourist office with maps of a 260km bike trail around the Småland region we were in. It looked really neat for a future trip with more days.
In the end, though, we decided we would prefer to just walk around and take in the sites (and stores) without some specific tourist destination. This included a handmade Swedish store where I bought some things and the Systembolaget, the state run liquor/wine/beer store. In Sweden the country owns the stores that sell alcohol. You can’t just buy it anywhere. And, when I think of government run anything I think of really ugly buildings with really inefficient processes and a lack of options and really frustrated employees. Y’all this government wine/beer/liquor house was the most beautiful store I’ve probably ever bought wine in and the people were nice and the process super fast. Like faster than fast food. It was well organized, clean, and the people were friendly and helpful. 5 stars. highly recommend 😉
We decided to make dinner easy and grab some pizzas on the way out of town for dinner. As we make our way back to the house Melissa stopped by a cousin’s house/property/farm to introduce me and show me the property where they have a small cabin, called a Stuga (“Stew-gah”) in Swedish that they rent out sometimes to people who come to fish or just to get away from city life. Boel was a “city girl” from Gothenburg who met Melissa’s (distant) cousin, Junas – a farmer, on a boat cruise. Long story short, the city girl was convinced to come live the farming life in this tiny village where they raised 3 kids …and dairy cows. Recently the kids have moved away, the farm life does not seem to appeal to them. I imagine that’s pretty common for families in the area and I wonder what will happen in the future to this farm if the kids remain in that mindset. It is gorgeous. But it is far from city life, so you have to really want to be there. At any rate, I’m hoping we can make it back sometime with the boys for a visit and stay at the stuga they rent out. The boys would love seeing the animals, playing in the woods, and fishing in the lakes.
Our last night with pizza and wine and the grandparents was so cozy and enjoyable. We finished off the apple cake dessert and sat talking until we could hardly keep our eyes open.
For the last 18 years (with some exceptions such as the pandemic), Donald and Jeanette have come and spent 5-6 months in their home here. Now in their mid-to-late 80’s, with 3 daughters, 5 grandkids, and 2 great grandkids, and new physical ailments, they are starting to consider fewer trips, for less time. I tell you this because I think I’m truly fortunate Melissa invited me to come spend time with them for what may be one of their last trips to Sweden. I felt so welcome, and thoroughly enjoyed our discussions, debates, and storytelling. They’ve had quite a life starting out as children of immigrants with pretty strict religious rules to creating a life full of family, work, travel, and re-connection to their roots. I found them fascinating to talk to and also a bit sad that my own grandparents are no longer around for me to pepper with questions and curiosity. I hope to visit with them another time in beautiful Skog.