We are safely arrived back from the land of the midnight (well, 10 PM) sun. When we left for Sweden last week, we really didn’t know what to expect from our trip. Neither of us had ever been to Stockholm, and we did next to no research about the city before going: I checked the weather forecast a couple times, and then we skimmed a free TimeOut guide on Gabe’s iPod as we were waiting to board the plane. What’s more, we’d only met the family we were staying with very briefly, and then under fairly busy, hectic circumstances. So we went there expecting nothing and open to anything.

I think I speak for both of us when I say that our trip exceeded even our wildest hopes. The city was of course beautiful, which OK, I had pretty much expected it to be. But we also got really lucky with the weather: after one or two cold and rainy days, it turned gorgeous, and stayed that way for the rest of the week.

From the instant we arrived, Gabe’s cousins truly felt like family we’d known forever, not at all like people we’d first met less than six months before. Even their sweet little collie dog, Valle, was our best friend in a matter of minutes — and I don’t usually like dogs! They were all incredibly warm and generous, with their home and with their time, as Gabe’s cousin B and his wife S both took the entire week off to spend with us and show us around. And how — in fact I think they were determined to pay us back for the paces we put them through when they came to California!

The evening we arrived, all we did was walk down their lilac-lined street to the nearby grocery store. That was excitement enough, for after ten months of small Portuguese stores with meager selection, I was stunned at the sheer amount and variety of food. Want yogurt? OK, here’s twenty types, from drinkable to Greek and everything in between. Need lactose free? Here’s an entire section of it. And yes, they even had cottage cheese. Bliss!

The grocery store was also close to the mothership IKEA, the one that started it all, which is still the biggest in the world (and also happens to be where our cousins’ daughter works.) I felt like I’d arrived at mecca:

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We spent the weekend doing touristy stuff close to town, starting with a trip to B’s work followed by a real smorgasbord lunch with some colleagues of his. They explained that smorgasbord literally means “butter goose table,” which sounds a lot less appetizing than it actually is. The first round was salty fish of all varieties, followed by cold meats and then warm dishes, and finally cheese, fruit, and dessert. Each course required a different plate and silverware, of course, and we all rolled away from the table at the end, having thoroughly enjoyed our butter goose table experience. We then walked off some of our butter with a stroll around the nearby lake, as it was a beautiful day.

By the time we returned home with the intention of taking the boat out, however, the rainclouds had rolled back in. The boys, determined to go out on the boat, still made a hopeful trip to the dock, by which point the threatening clouds had started to produce actual rain. I think they would have gone on undeterred were it not for the presence of myself and B’s daughter, K, as we were not terribly excited about going out in the rain. Another day, we said.

Of course as soon as we gave up and went home, the sun came out and it was a gorgeous evening… all the way til the sun finally set around 10 PM. It rose again around 3 AM, which made for a few nights of disrupted sleep before we got used to the change in schedule.

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Saturday looked like rain again, so we set out to visit a museum and the old town. The museum was one my mom had recommended: an intact 17th century ship that had capsized in the harbor immediately after sailing, and was then preserved for over 300 years by the brackish water of the Baltic until it was raised and restored in the 1990s. Today it sits in an enclosed dry dock, where you can wander up and down four floors of displays and gawk at the different perspectives each provides onto the massive ship.

We then scudded across the river to the old town as quickly as we could, as immense black clouds were piling up on the horizon. We saw as much as we could before it started pouring, then fled for the shelter of the restaurant where we had made reservations for dinner. This was another recommendation of my mom’s, one of the oldest restaurants in Sweden, which predates the foundation of our country by a good fifty years. The food was amazing and much welcome after a day of walking in the cold, wet weather:

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Sunday was once again clear, so we revisited the boat tour idea with much more success. B has a fabulous speed boat, or go fast boat, as we liked to call it, the kind you see in movies like Miami Vice and such. It’s somewhat at odds with the rest of his otherwise quiet, modest personality, but great fun nonetheless.

Heads turned wherever we went in that boat, most of them male, so it was pretty much the boating equivalent of being a supermodel. It looked fast even when standing still, but when B let it loose, the thing reached massive speeds, plastering your cheeks against your bones and your hair all over your face. Gabe was ecstatic — I was pretty sure I’d have to surgically remove the grin from his face before it caused lasting muscle strain:

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On Monday, we took advantage of yet another gorgeous day to make a trip to the world’s first outdoor museum. To my mind, Stockholm would not be the ideal candidate for such a museum, since it’s cold and dark for nine months out of the year. But Skansen, as this place is called, was wonderful, part zoo and part living museum.

Houses from all places and times in Sweden’s history had been reconstructed there in painstaking detail, including people sitting in the houses, dressed in period costume, ready to answer your questions about their “lives” in impeccable English. (The Swedes start learning English at eight years old — only in Israel have we found as many English speakers!) In the center of “town,” there was a functioning machine shop, a glassblower, and a furniture maker, with their wares all for sale, of course.

The other half of the park was devoted to a Scandinavian zoo, complete with brown bears, wolverine, wolf pack, owls, a mink, and of course moose and reindeer. Conveniently, this let us answer the burning question that had been haunting us for days: is reindeer kosher? The answer is yes, it is, as it has a cloven hoof and chews its cud. So there you go.

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The rest of the week was spent way off the beaten path — so far off, in fact, that we could only reach our destination via a very long ride on B’s go-fast boat. S’s family owns a few islands way out in the Swedish archipelago, which for an American sounds like a Bill Gates level of wealth, but apparently is quite common for Swedes. There are after all about a million islands out there, ranging from rock-size to quite large. Our cousins’ islands are towards the small side — the one we stayed on took about 20 minutes to circumvent on foot, and about five to cross in a straight line. The other island, set across a small channel of water, is slightly bigger, with three houses belonging to various family members perched on different parts of it.

Both are incredibly beautiful, peaceful, rustic — all the things you’d imagine a far-off island in the Scandinavian archipelago to be. After living in a capital city for so many months, I was delighted to be in nature again, surrounded only by a cacophony of birds, waves, and wind. We saw a surprising variety of wildlife during the 24 hours we were there, including a mink, an eagle, and a deer in the water, very calmly swimming to the island from who knows where. S swore we were blessed, as she’d never witnessed such a thing before. It was a very strange sight indeed!

Despite its remote location and the lack of facilities (that outhouse had the best view of any in the world, I am certain of it!), somehow that little island felt like home in a way that no other place has in the past six months. Maybe it’s because I could feel how special it was to our cousin’s family, who had been coming there for their entire lives: S has been going there since she was  a baby, and started bringing her own girls when they were also tiny. I know that kind of Very Special Place, and it was a privilege to share theirs during such a beautiful time of year.

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On Wednesday, we explored the other island, ate a typical Swedish lunch of hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, and salty herring, then made our slow way home on the boat. The trip took nearly five hours, but it was a fabulous view of Stockholm that we would not have had otherwise. We arrived back at the house dirty, tired, wind-burnt, and thrilled to the core. That called for celebration, so Gabe and I treated our Swedish family to our version of Mexican food, inspired when I saw taco seasoning at the grocery store earlier in the week. The burritos were a huge hit!

(Please note: the last picture in the set above and the first in the set below were taken at 10 PM and 4:30 AM, respectively, to demonstrate that it was in fact light at both times. I even walked out to the little inlet outside the cabin at 4:30 AM just to see the world in full daylight at that hour. Amazing!)

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For our last day in Sweden, we decided to continue the outdoorsy trend. We went for a 5 KM hike in the woods outside of the suburb where they live, and I was amazed at how quickly civilization turned into green farmland and forest. We walked by two lakes, stopping at one for lunch, and marveled at the groves thickly covered in blueberry and lingonberry plants, which grew wild everywhere.

I enjoyed hiking in a different woodland than the typical Californian one, and kept expecting to see redwoods where there were none. No matter how different though, the smell of sun on pine needs still made me feel like I was in the woods at home. It’s amazing how sensory triggers can be so universal.

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After a restorative nap back at the house, we then hopped on the family bikes to go to our goodbye dinner at a chic restaurant set in a former insane asylum, surrounded by a beautiful park. As we ate, and later as we biked home again through the mild, lilac-scented evening, I was struck by how sad I was to be leaving. In just one short week, that red house in its green garden with our wonderful family had really started to feel like home — or the closest thing to it since we left California in January.

As we boarded the plane yesterday, I found myself wishing that it wasn’t to go back to Lisbon, but rather to Home. Being with family, no matter how far away, made both of us long for the people and places that we love. Luckily, this was the final trip of this well-traveled third quarter of sabbatical, which we spent largely outside of our host country.

Now begins our fourth and final quarter. We have a little more than six weeks left in Lisbon, during which time we have many visitors to entertain and a great deal of packing to do. Then it’s off to recover in England for two weeks before flying home in August, which is when the real fun begins: moving back into our house! I can hardly wait. I’m sure by then our trip to Stockholm will seem like a dream, a far-off idyll. In fact, it kind of seems that way already…!