Monday, March 31, 2008

An Introduction to Baseball

No, this is not an April Fool’s Day joke – and don’t you dare click away from Linköpinglivin’.

You knew this was coming one day and, now that it is clear that a majority of the Linköpinglivin’ readership is Swedish, this is your opportunity to give baseball a chance.

C’mon, do it for me – just pretend for a moment…

Imagine a warm summer’s day in a big city in the United States. The work week has finished, morning is passing by and a family of four or longtime college friends or a couple on a date or a group of international visitors are heading out to a 45,000 seat stadium to “take in a ballgame.” There’s not a bad seat in the stadium, hot dogs and drinks-of-choice have been purchased, the players run out on to the field, everyone stands for the National Anthem and at it’s conclusion, the umpire (referee) yells “Play Ball!”

For the next three hours, time will stop, conversation will be plentiful, occasional excitement will ensue, minds will wander, families and friends will laugh together and hopefully the home team will win. This is America’s game. Despite the recent popularity of American football, baseball is and always will be our "National Pastime."

And today, every year on the second Monday of spring, is what’s known as Opening Day, that beautiful day of the year when the baseball season has just begun, and there is a whole spring, summer and part of fall left to be played to determine the World Series champion – and Europeans in particular love that we call it the World Series!

As usual in describing the rules of a game to a new audience, any explanation sounds fairly degrading and childish, but here goes:

1) Each team tries to score more “runs” (points) than the other.

2) To score a run, a batter must advance to all four “bases,” the last one being “home plate” where the run is scored.

3) Each team has 9 “innings” or sets of chances to score runs before making three “outs,” which is what the defensive team is trying to get to stop the runs. Everything depends on whether and where the ball is hit when the pitcher has pitched it.

4) You have 2 parts to every inning – one for the away team and one for the home team.

5) After 9 innings, whoever has the most runs wins, unless it’s tied then you play as many innings as needed to determine the winner (“extra” innings is similar to overtime and my very favorite part of baseball).

Easy enough, right?

Famous and legendary teams are the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs and a few others. I see Yankee and Dodger hats all over Europe, but I know enough to know that the Europeans wearing these hats have no idea who Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax or Derek Jeter are (famous historical and current players).

Many people, even most Americans, make fun of baseball because “there is so much standing around.” It is said that in a three-hour baseball game, there is actually only 10 minutes of action. But that’s just the point! Baseball may be the last part of American society where it is acceptable, okay and even embraced to just stand around doing nothing – Swedes, think of baseball as one long equivalent of fika! Let us have our one place in society where we can sit back, relax, get away from it all and just enjoy a nice summer’s day with family and friends (and no work). Yes indeed, Americans need this game.


For those of you in Sweden willing to give this a try, check out NASN (North American Sports Network) anytime between now and the end of October. You’re bound to find a game, but just remember that the beauty of baseball is discovered in person, not on TV. Even most Americans say that baseball on TV is about as interesting as watching paint dry.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Go Dodgers!

Pictures above:

1. Yankee Stadium on a nice summer's night.
2. Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.
3. Within two hours of landing in Seattle last summer, I was in the front row of a baseball game - the best way to beat jet lag.
4. Growing up in LA, it's all about the beloved Dodgers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

London Calling and the American Traveler

With the Swedish bank holiday season approaching, and a quickly dwindling personal vacation time, it’s important for me to use every last holiday to continue the exploration of Europe during this unique and still surprising season of life abroad (and hence the delay in this week's Linköpinglivin' entry, which I don't think anyone cares about nearly as much as I do).

During the long Easter weekend in Sweden (Good Friday and Monday off), it was the perfect time to return to London to finish off that itinerary that only grew longer during my first visit at Christmas time. And don’t you worry Sweden, there are always enough Swedes in London for me to continue working on my Swedish – in fact, the first two nights I randomly sat next to Swedes for dinner, which is always fun to surprise them with my Swedish though they hear instantly that I am in no way actually Swedish…

London is arguably the world’s most international city. Yesterday, I had the privilege of having lunch with a group of people representing 10 different countries (and there were only 12 at the table). In London, one is surrounded by people from virtually every country of the world at almost all times, but of course, I spot all the Americans instantly, which has become a fun game while I’ve been living abroad. On that note, I recently wrote a travel column for a paper in Southern California, which spoke to different things I’ve observed that Americans can remember in order to travel the world in a more culturally-aware and self-aware manner.

Aside from the most obvious, tennis shoes and white socks which give Americans away instantly – this is Europe’s little secret – here’s a few things perhaps not just for Americans, but maybe all travelers to remember in order to help make travel not just a sight-gawking fascination, but a deeper and richer experience of local people and differences of culture:

1. Consider your accommodation. High-priced hotels tend to protect you from rewarding personal experiences. Consider the local economy and locally-owned lodging such as family-run Bed & Breakfasts, places that supplement their main industry (farming, wine growing, etc.) with lodgings such as the Agriturismo phenomenon throughout Italy, private homes, hostels (not just for “youth” anymore) or even apartments that can be rented in a city center.

2. Consider your food choices. Food can be a rich experience of other places and people. Indeed throughout Europe, locals often stop everything for the right meal at the right time in the right place. By choosing a restaurant, market or picnic spot that is not in a tourist trap or on the main square, you can have a natural environment for interaction and cultural discovery over everyone’s favorite thing, food!

3. Take every opportunity to reach out and speak with locals and other travelers. Sometimes you will make new friends, other times it may not be welcomed, but the reward of getting to know the people who live in that region or country far outweighs the benefits of staying introverted. One is drawn to Europe in particular by famous sights and sounds (for instance, the sounds of church bells throughout Europe just never gets old), but one often leaves with an unexpected impression of people and perhaps some new international friends.

4. Know some history and background to your travel destination before going. What places or areas are considered important and why? What famous people have come from this region or country? Is this place most known for its art, literature, science, food, drink or all of the above? This will pique your interest and give a context to that monument or historical building. The research, planning and anticipation of the trip can be half the fun of travel.

5. Know current political and social trends and tensions of your travel destination. Opening yourself up to these discussions in a curious and open-minded manner can enliven even the already-exhilarating European excursion.

6. Self-awareness in various settings with regard to clothing, language and cultural expectations is important. One of the criticisms Americans get while abroad is that we often just don’t realize how loud we’re speaking in a quiet place or that what we’re wearing just isn’t quite appropriate for the season, time of day or occasion. The “ugly” American starts with a simple lack of self-awareness. Reading up ahead-of-time on local tendencies can make a big difference during the trip.

7. Know some key words and phrases in the local language. Don’t expect everyone to speak English, but be pleasantly surprised when they probably know enough to get by. Try hello, good-bye, please, thank you, excuse me and Do you speak English to start. Learning to count to ten for money purposes is probably wise, too.

8. Have a guidebook and use it, but only as a starting point to your travel experiences. For some travel fun, ask locals where they eat and what they do on a sunny, summer afternoon in this or that locale…

9. Make the decision ahead of time to not be defensive about the U.S. Try to dialogue with people about life in their country. You’ll find that people want to know about Americans and life in the U.S., but I have yet to meet anyone who wants to actually be an American.

10. Know your pre-conceived notions enough to give them a chance to be proven wrong. As surprising as this comes to many Americans, many French people are very friendly, but if you expect them to be a certain way, you’ll probably find some that are…

Pictures above:
1. St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames.
2. Big Ben in the famous London fog.
3. The London Eye is the best view of London, and the longest queue, in the whole city.
4. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum is the archaelogical discovery that led us to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics and opened up that whole civilization to be known by us in today's world.
5. The British Pub...

Monday, March 17, 2008

If You Want To Learn A New Language...

After speaking this week with an American who might be coming to Sweden to live and work in the near future, and who expressed his deep desire to learn the language, I started thinking about what lessons I’ve learned in my continuing attempt to acquire the wonderful and elusive language of the Swedes.

So with an apology to you Europeans, this week’s Linköpinglivin’ entry is dedicated to any of you hoping to learn a new language, particularly you native and naive English-speakers with hopes of one day speaking Swedish. Listen up for lessons about language (and stop laughing that I have the audacity to claim some level of knowledge in this area):

Build a foundation, then you must simply practice: You must take a class or intensely study to gain the basics, then the continuing practice is up to you. It must become a part of your life, not just a class or something you do when you have a moment. Osmosis is a science term and by no means a guarantee of learning a language, especially if you know English.

Vowels: It may seem basic, but you can’t do anything without nailing the vowels. Spend your first week simply getting the vowels down. Your proper pronunciation will make all the difference in the long run. If all I did my first month was say "Å, Ä, Ö," things would have gone a lot better.

Phrases and sayings: My elementary approach to learning a language said that I could just learn the words, memorize some vocabulary, then spit it out just like I would in my own language. I learned embarrassingly late that you are not just learning the words to a language, but much more importantly, you are learning how to use that language appropriately and effectively. When learning to speak your new language, you must think of what it is you want to say, then think how this might best be said not in your native language, but in your new language (hint: do a lot of reading).

Read children’s literature: In fact, the more you become like a child in your learning attitude, the better off you will be…You Swedes, if you’re still reading this week’s entry, will be interested to know that I have finished Astrid Lindgren’s Mio, Min Mio and am currently reading Karlsson På Taket Smyger Igen. I thought that would make you smile….

M-O-T-I-V-A-T-I-O-N: Curiously, this word is spelled the same in English and Swedish. Perhaps because it is the single-most important element in learning a new language.

F-A-I-L-U-R-E is your best friend in learning a new language, so you’d better leave your pride at the door from the beginning…laughter is also helpful.

Being correct vs. being understood: Just because people understand you doesn’t mean you said it right or even well. Ask a lot of questions…

Order of acquisition? Depending on your approach, you may find that your order of language acquisition goes something like this: Reading, then writing, then understanding others, then speaking. I am currently on phase three and only hoping to get to phase four by the time I leave Sweden at the end of 2008. I’m keeping my fingers crossed or as we say in Sweden, “Holding my thumbs.”

What about grammar? If you’re anything like me and appreciate details, then you might think perfect grammar is important, but don’t get stuck and waste all your time in the grammar book. Learn the basics, then get the language. Details will come with time.

Exposure is essential. Conscious and sub-conscious exposure through all means is so helpful. Anyone who has been reading Linköpinglivin’ for awhile knows that I think a world without TV would be a good world indeed (sorry, Todd), but watching TV attentively and curiously is an excellent way to pick up understanding of the language.

Do Not Give Up. I have been tempted to do this and at moments have, but ultimately, I’m determined to not give up and you shouldn't either. Progress will eventually come, or so I've been told!

Though there are many people who deserve recognition for their great patience and persistence with my Swedish acquisition, the bulk of these lessons were articulated by “Elin,” who in good Swedish fashion would NEVER make a comment on the blog, but certainly has a lot of advice and opinions, of which she shares on a regular basis over email. Thanks, Elin.

Pictures above:

Linköping University Campus Valla this afternoon.

Though never surprised by snow in Sweden, we were all caught a little off guard by our return to winter all day today. A great day to delight in the beauty of winter once more before spring, unless of course, you were on a bike, of which I fell off just five seconds into my ride. One sweeeeeet wipe out that left me doing spontaneous snow angels. Here's to a Swedish spring!

Monday, March 10, 2008

De Röda Små Stugor

The Little Red Cottages.

If you haven’t noticed, Sweden does the simple things really, really well. Those little things that help one appreciate life - the special parts to the day-to-day of living – Swedes do really, really well. Add to the list that Sweden is known as “the land of the little red cottage.”

And all it takes is a quick journey to the countryside to agree with this description of Sweden.

Starting in the spring and always throughout the summer, many (if not most) Swedes will spend time at a “little red cottage.” Always out in the countryside, usually near a lake, surrounded by family and friends, appreciating the bounty of summer and all it brings. De Röda Små Stugor and a Swedish Midsummer celebration go hand-in-hand. Why then, you ask, am I writing about this when spring hasn’t even arrived?

The problem I have is that my summer is spent either in the U.S. or working really hard at my job preparing for the arrival of new students to the university. My first “röd små stuga” experience was a couple of weeks ago. Yes, in the middle of winter. Not the quintessential little red cottage experience, but a good look into another Swedish national pastime and certainly worthy of a Linköpinglivin’ entry nonetheless.

It was time for a group of friends and I to make an overnight getaway from Linköping, so the little red cottage in the countryside was the destination of choice (but since this one slept ten people comfortably, most people agreed this was more of a “big red cottage”). Usually these summer homes are closed down some time in September and not opened up again until Easter, when the coming of spring looks promising after the long winter. Most Swedes either have or know someone who has one of these countryside cottages.

So what happens at these little red cottages during the summer? Best I can tell, a whole lotta “not too much.”

Go for a walk. Have some fika. Go for a swim. Then maybe some fika. Read a book. It’s time for fika. Play some games. Lo and behold, it’s fika time. It’s 11:00pm. The sun is starting to set. Another summer day at a little red cottage has come and gone. This is Sweden at it’s finest. This is Sweden doing the little things (that are actually the most important things in life) really, really well.

From what I remember about the U.S., we could sure use some of these “röda små stugor.”

A huge thanks to Sara and Andreas Vinsander – perhaps we can squeeze in a little red cottage weekend this summer?

Pictures above:

1. & 2. The land of the little red cottage.

3. Friends around the table – the best part of any weekend getaway or summer lazy day at the cottage.

4. A classic fika.

5. My addition to our weekend was the beloved American game, Jenga. I think it’s JUST about to catch on in Sweden…

Monday, March 03, 2008

King Vasa's Race and Blueberry Soup

This may be my favorite Linköpinglivin’ title of all. The kind of title to which Swedes nod their head in approval and the rest of the world is dazed and confused. It includes a tip of the hat to Swedish history as well as the latest of many curious Swedish food traditions and edible delights connected with a larger nationwide celebration. (And watch out, “Waffle Day” is coming soon…)

This past Sunday was Sweden’s 84th Vasaloppet cross-country ski race, the largest of it’s kind in the world, which begins in the popular ski town of Sälen and ends “9 Swedish miles” or 90 kilometers away in Mora. One of the most celebrated sporting events of the year, the few Swedes who aren’t actually participating or spectating at the event itself, wake up early on the first Sunday morning in March (and waking up early on Sundays is definitely NOT a Swedish tradition) and take in the much-heralded start of the Vasalopp.

The fun part is that this race is in tribute to King (actually, almost king at the time) Gustav Vasa on a stretch of land that is part of the journey he made way back in 1520 trying to escape the hand of the Danish king affectionately known to Swedes as Christian, the Tyrant. I’ve stopped asking just where reality and myth connect in Swedish history, but apparently this one is more true than not…

An annual 15,000 participants take part in Vasaloppet. What used to be a Swedish-only event has now become global as enthusiasts from all over the world descend on Sälen to be a part of this celebration of a favorite Swedish wintertime sport. As a first-time observer (nice and warm in the cover of home, by the way), the array of colors and motion among the participants against the backdrop of a winter white wonderland did make for quite a sight. Usually the start of any kind of marathon-type event like this is a blur of bodies with no sense of order or organization. Granted in cross-country skiing this is a necessary element, but the perfect lines of participants, all following in 10 single-file rows to start, definitely induced a small whisper from this foreigner’s lips, “So Swedish. Perfect queue lines to start a competitive race…”

And sometime in the past 84 years of the Vasalopp, Blueberry Soup – Blåbärssoppa – became the beloved nourishment associated with this event. Not sure when and not sure why, but while participants can choose water, their favorite energy drink, etc., they also have the option of grabbing cups of blueberry soup, actually more of a drink, to help them persevere to Mora. For those watching the spectacle up close or from the comfort of their living room, Ekströms gladly provides them the option of their own Blåbärssoppa, as well.

Who won, you ask? Though winners throughout the years have come from Russia, Estonia, Finland, Austria, East Germany and others, the Swedes and Norwegians have dominated this event since it began. Yesterday, Norwegian Jörgen Auckland captured the title in just over four hours, the average time for the first finisher depending on snow conditions.

And of course, as an American, I think, “Hmm, no American has ever won Vasaloppet. Hmmmm.” Then I remember that the only time I’ve ever put on cross-country skis, I couldn’t wait for the next hill heading down. I’ll stick with basketball, running Ryd Skogen and downhill skiing, thanks.

Here’s to King Gustav Vasa's triumph over The Tyrant and to enjoyable Swedish wintertime food, fun and games (and for those interested, Vasaloppet is on SVT, Swedish Public Television - no commercials).