Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving in St. Petersburg

For the second year in-a-row, my Dad and I needed to come up with an ”alternative” Thanksgiving celebration. While we would have preferred to be home with family eating turkey with the trimmings, this year we chose to travel to a country that for so many years was the opposite of our country, the enemy during the Cold War and has always carried with it an air of mystery and suspicion right up to the present day.

Dad and I chose to go to Russia for many reasons. Primarily, and what I’m coming to realize as the most rewarding part of any travel adventure, we wanted to meet some native Russians, speak with locals about their culture, history and current life and times, as well as experience first-hand what Russia has to offer the curious, open-minded and connection-seeking traveler.

We were not disappointed.

The pictures above tell the story of many parts of our trip:

1. The beginning of a typical Russian winter that we wanted to experience, and did.

2. The State Hermitage Museum located in the former Winter Palace is nothing less than a history of Western (and some Eastern) Civilization, right up there -if not better than-Paris’ Louvre and Madrid’s Prado.

3. The Mariinsky Theater ballet, believed by some to be a notch above the Bolshoy in Moscow – in other words, the very best in all the world.

4. The Church on the Spilled Blood which looks more like the onion-domed churches you find in Moscow, but captures a typical Russian look anyways.

5. Narva Baptist Church friends.

The sight-seeing in any city is exciting and rewarding and offers the tourist a chance to fulfill what the imagination has only seen until that point, but the true meaning of a trip is found in the common interactions with locals and natives who often go out of their way to help you in your clumsy tourist state or want to give you their perspective as opposed to what they suspect you may have heard about them or their country.

I enjoy having my stereotypes and pre-conceived notions dispelled, or just flat-out crushed, by travel. Expecting the Russian people to be tough, stoic, thick-necked and unfriendly, my Dad and I were continually taken aback by the helpfulness, English-speaking friendliness and general good-natured qualities of the native Russians to which our travels led us. Such as:

The workers at our hostel went above and beyond to help our Russian experience be a good one. Extra phone calls to help with a major inconvenience and trips to and from the airport were just the beginning of their hospitality.

Encountering a problem with an ATM was the last thing we needed on a trip to Russia, but when we lost a card, there were no less than eight Russian bank employees with whom we needed to speak and each one was overly generous and willing to help, of course speaking only English. This turned out to be one of the best experiences of our trip as we reflected on the people we had met and how unexpectedly friendly and customer-service (even clueless customer-service) oriented they were.

Finally, through a friend here in Sweden, we were connected with a church in St. Petersburg and with a congregation that was more than welcoming, friendly and interested in us as travelers, Americans and visitors to their small, but genuine community.

Perhaps our experience was unique. Perhaps our Russian exposure was out-of-the-ordinary. Perhaps we just met all the good ones. But I doubt it.

Of course, not everyone’s experience with the Russian people will be like ours. However, as a child of the Cold War, with pre-conceived notions of the Russian people that I was really hoping would be debunked, my trip was a smashing success.

If you’re ready to take on the next traveler challenge, I highly recommend Russia.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, America. Though far away, I am thankful for all of you.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


1) Do not even think about drinking out of your glass until the proper introductory "Skål" has been conducted.

2) Wait for the host(ess) to begin the Skål.

3) Hold your alcohol-filled glass with your right hand and put your left hand on the table directly in front of you parallel to your chest (to show the others at the table that you have no intention of "going for your blade").

4) After everyone at the table is properly prepared, the host may say a few words as an introduction, while glasses are in the air.

5) At the conclusion of the introduction, the host will declare "Skål!" (pr. "Skoal" for you Yankees) and everyone at the table, glasses remaining in the air, repeats "Skål!"

6) At this point, we have reached a pivotal moment. Will you "clank" glasses like a drunken American or will you resist this tempation of youth and choose the classy, Northern European, all-important and highly respected, simple-but-meaningful eye-contact, with each and every person at the table? Choose wisely. This evening is depending upon your decision.

7) After you have offered a respectful nod with genuine eye-contact to all around the table, you may gently sip from your glass, followed by slowly bringing the glass to your heart and ever so-subtly acknowledging everyone at the table again with a simple glance.

8) Place your glass back on the table, simultaneosly removing your left hand from the table after having successfully resisted the temptation to "go for your blade."

9) After the introductory Skål, any guest or the host may initiate individual Skål tributes throughout the evening by simply calling upon a person around the table by name, gently declaring "Skål," drawing eye-contact with said called upon person, sip, heart, glance, down.

10) Repeat often throughout the evening and often throughout your time in Sweden.

By the way, the word "Skål" comes from the Viking "trading" era. When the Vikings would begin "trading" with a new region, they would celebrate their first "trade" by cutting of the head of their "business partner", opening up their skull ("Skål), taking out the brains, adding alcohol and "gently sipping."

And don't even ask what the Vikings did if you didn't make eye contact....


Sunday, November 11, 2007


Whether you are from Sweden, the United States or, unfortunately, anywhere else in the world, you have probably been touched in some way by cancer. This week we take a little break from the normal Linköpinglivin’ playful and serious exploration of Swedish and American culture in order to honor and remember my friend Cristina, who passed away this past week after a courageous six-year dance with cancer.

Cristina Maria Manieri and I were classmates during graduate school at Miami University in Ohio where we received our degrees in Student Affairs in 2001. Just a few months after our long-awaited graduation in May, at the immortal age of 25, Cristina was diagnosed with breast cancer, beginning a six-year odyssey, which left all of us admiring the courage and spirit of someone who could have just given in to the feelings of injustice, loneliness and despair that facing cancer brings.

The reason you choose education as a field of study and profession (which is the quickest definition of “Student Affairs” for the Swedish reader) is not salary or ease of work, but in order to make a difference. Making a difference in individual and community lives is the professional reward and motivation for anyone remotely connected to the education profession. While beginning to make a difference in the lives of the students with whom she worked, Cristina’s impact on this world took a very different, and arguably more powerful, turn when she was diagnosed with cancer. All of her perseverance, energy, stubbornness, devotion and childlike belief that she would overcome this inspired all of us who watched her laugh at disappointing diagnoses or health setbacks.

Over and over again, we as her friends and family would brace ourselves for the end but would soon realize that, to Cristina, this latest challenge was just the beginning. Her spirit was unmatched and will always be remembered by everyone who knew her. It was a privilege during this past week, as Cristina began to go downhill and the end was near, to be able to remind her that this too was just a beginning and that the rest of us were, in eternity’s eyes, just a few steps behind her.

Cristina passed away on Wednesday, November 7 in her hometown of Hopewell, Virginia, surrounded by family.

The next time you have the chance, do something to help us beat cancer once-and-for-all and, in the mean time, make sure those you love know it.

Here's to Cristina.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Halloween, Alla Helgons Dag, Holidays and Culture

As I watched the students with whom I work scramble to figure out the answer to what I thought was a simple question, “Does Sweden have Halloween and if so, when is it?,” I began to consider some elements of holidays and culture and, as you might have guessed, a blog entry was born.

After a year of simply observing the holidays of Sweden, an easy and very effective way to get to know a culture and discover what is meaningful in a society, this week I would like to put some words to my thoughts about holidays and traditions in Sweden.

This past week, Swedes celebrated Halloween (sort of) and Alla Helgons Dag or “All Saints Day.” In the U.S., we may hear about All Saints Day, knowing it happens sometime after Halloween (actually the day after) but very few pay close attention to it. Halloween has all the festivity, candy, costumes, attention and purchasing power that the U.S. wants.

One of the two major influences of the Swedish calendar and holidays is the Swedish church, Svenskyrkan, and the recognition of many saints and holy days throughout the year. Some of these days are official holidays (Ascension Day in May) and others are playful remembrances, yet still filled with meaning (Santa Lucia). Alla Helgons Dag in Sweden is celebrated in churches, with choir concerts in cathedrals and by the lighting of candles at the graveside of deceased loved ones (which makes for a beautifully solemn and reflective walk through a cemetery at night). As far as I can tell, Halloween has come in from outside of Sweden and is celebrated mostly by younger people (but not children, mind you – no trick-or-treating as far as I know) as an excuse to dress-up in costumes, eat, drink and be merry.

As for Sweden, the interplay of Halloween and Alla Helgons Dag perhaps serves as a nice little microcosm of what is happening in Swedish society in general. The holiday of Alla Helgons Dag is celebrated as one of the many traditional Svenskyrka, Swedish Church, holidays and Halloween, on the other hand, doesn’t fit quite right and seems to be media-influenced, even American-influenced and perhaps Swedes aren’t sure what to do with it? My research on this topic is woefully poor for the speculation I am attempting, but maybe some of Linköpinglivin’s Swedish friends could help us foreigners out on the whole Halloween-according-to-Sweden thing.

Safe to say, however, that some holidays are uniquely Swedish/Scandinavian and others are here for many different reasons, but just don't feel Swedish...a reflection of a continually changing, small but proud, society in today's world.

By the way, the other “major influence” of the Swedish calendar and holidays is simply the climate, the extremes of being this far north. Light, dark, warm and cold….

Speaking of holidays, make one more check mark under “Sweden as a Fairy Tale land.” Swedes, though not official holidays, celebrate the informal holidays of Kanelbullens Dag ("Cinnamon Bun Day" on October 4) and Våffeldagen ("Waffle Day" on March 25, strangely connected to the day Mary was first "with child").

I love Sweden.

Pictures above:

1. Trevlig Halloween!
2. A zombie and two Swedish angels share in a Colonia “Halloweensittning.”
3. Midsummer in June, in addition to Santa Lucia in December, is a great example of a holiday dictated by climate that means something much more in the extreme climate of the north than closer to the equator where there simply aren't seasons during the year.
4. Shaking the sugar during this year’s Kanelbullens Dag celebration at Colonia.
5. You simply can’t have too many Cinnamon Buns in Sweden. Fika forever!