May 5, 2015

The Legends of Swagandinavia: SWEDEN

My first view into Sweden and Norway can best be described as: easy.

There was very little cultural strain. A few tasty new foods. My look blended into the crowd. Everyone spoke English. Nature was bright, and cities were clean.

I didn't even have to plan anything outside of getting my plane ticket. I jumped into someone else's itinerary for a change, and that meant I could just sit back and go with the flow.

It was wonderful.

How did all of this come together, anyway?

A 14-year-old Named Maggie

Okay, she's totally not 14 anymore, but she was when I coached her Point West club volleyball team in Santa Clarita, California. Everyone called her my "mini-me," and we basically just giggled our way through an entire 7 months.

We had so much fun together that even after she moved to Texas the next year, she came back to California to visit, drove with me to the Reno volleyball festival to be my "assistant coach," then tagged along with my friends to NBC Camps in Redding.

After interviewing people on the street for a fake school project in downtown Chico.
At our wedding in 2008, Maggie was the cute little redhead who helped with our guestbook. And then we never saw each other again.

That's how the story might have ended - but thank the Lord it didn't!!!

Even at 14, we knew she'd succeed!
Eventually, Maggie graduated high school, went to college, graduated college, and started her master's degree for teaching math. Welcome to 2015, when Maggie chose to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the University of Arkansas Fayetteville to study abroad for 6 weeks in Jönköping, Sweden.

We touched base when she knew she was coming to Europe, and we both kind of left it at, "Well, it's nice that we're both here, but our dates don't match up well with each other, so better luck to us next time."

But our luck changed sooner than we thought when my coach randomly canceled a Thursday practice, and I had four free days out of nowhere to go somewhere.

Maggie's parents were heading into town the day I could come, and had already planned a road trip to Norway to visit a fjord.

WHAT?! YES. Then just like one of my go-to classroom and camp riddle games: click, click, bang, bang, and boom! I bought my open jaw ticket for Paris to Gothenburg and return from Oslo to Paris.

I was in Sweden for only 36 hours and saw at least 3 outdoor volleyball courts!
Maggie's face was my favorite art project EVER.
So once again: blame it on volleyball. It's one thing to expect the travel associated with matches, tournaments, tryouts, etc., but it's the totally awesome random adventures that pop up that continue to surprise with just how much volleyball really does equal travel!

Swedish Stuff

RJ and Karen (Maggie's ever-traveling parents) picked me up at the Gothenburg airport and we started the drive to Jönköping with non-stop talking and catching up. It had been 8 or 9 years since I'd seen them, and changed from being a 20-year-old college kid coaching their daughter to a 29-year-old married expat volleyballer - there was a lot to talk about! Plus, they'd moved three more times, so new places always mean new stories!

We arrived in Jönköping just in time for "fika." Hallelujah for this version of Swedish tea time! We had cinnamon rolls (a few times) and coffees while nestled in the giant colorful chairs at Condeco before heading out to a restaurant on the dock for drinks with Maggie's study abroad friends. The Swedish buildings along the shoreline were colorful and happy, especially when gilded by the sunset and wine.

Day 2 brought all of us to Maggie's school for a tour of her experience there, then RJ, Karen, and I headed out to find a church Karen had researched on Trip Advisor. Karen, I came to understand during our trip, has an excellent knack for finding incredible things to do in incredible places. Every awesome thing during my trip is basically because of her, and I can't thank Karen enough for her planning skills, and both her and RJ for hosting and driving us all over Scandinavia!

Wandering by the lake in Jönköping.
The rental van's GPS liked to send us to totally random places. We actually passed the church we were trying to get to because the GPS directed us to drive another 15 minutes, and we ended up in a small enclave of summer cabins on a lake. Cool destination, but not exactly where we were trying to go!

When we did backtrack to the Habo Kyrka, we were amazed. According to the church caretaker (whom I named Johan), the church was made entirely of wood, then painted to create the appearance of richness. Johan let us wander all over the church, around the balconies and organ upstairs, and even took us up the narrow passageway through the detached bell tower!

The Swedes themselves actually told us: the best Swedish meatballs were at IKEA. Meatballs with jam. Hello, my new food heaven. Normally, I don't even like meatballs very much, and I'm not really a jam fanatic, but put those two together, drop me off in Sweden, and we're golden! I'm now convinced that meatballs should only ever be paired with a red jam of any kind, as I experimented at our Norwegian breakfasts later in the trip.

Winning Gothenburg

Our plan wasn't really a plan. "We'll just eat somewhere in Gothenburg for dinner," we said. But we needed to find a place we could stay at for a while because after we were going to leave Gothenburg, it would be for the all-night drive to the west of Norway.

Can't we just eat sweets until we have to leave?
We parked somewhere and started walking. We literally walked into the first restaurant we saw and just hoped it would be good enough to kill a few hours. We ordered our food and settled in for a long evening of just talking and enjoying being together. The restaurant was kind of a hybrid bar/pub as well, and all these beautiful young people started filling up the place.

Go to Gothenburg if you like blondes. Especially if you like tall blondes. Guys or gals, doesn't matter, it's basically the land of Barbies and Kens, and you might feel a little bit like you're at an after party with models. I know I did. Be prepared.

April 30th is the day Swedes officially welcome spring, so we thought maybe that was the reason the restaurant was getting full on a Thursday night. And then we heard English over the loudspeakers: "Welcome to Quiz Night!"

Are. You. Kidding.

Of all the restaurants in all the towns in all of Scandinavia, we walked into the one having a pub quiz.

(See why I end up saying, "lucky for me," so often?)

We had picked the perfect restaurant on the perfect evening, and all six of us got way too into answering the thirty trivia questions. We didn't end up with the best overall score, however we did end up being the only team to answer the three bonus questions correctly! We erupted into crazy cheers when the Australian host announced that "Team USA" had won a free round of drinks for our efforts!

Meet "Team USA!" L-R: me, Maggie, Anna, Marshall, RJ, & Karen!

Thank you, Sweden, for your complimentary beverages, delicious foods, pretty buildings, and gorgeous people!

Next up: Norway, Vikings, ninjas, and fjords...