In the bleak midwinter

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Lucia 2013, Hedvig Eleonora Church

It was a mistake not to travel for Sweden for December 13. I have gravely underestimated my Lucia-needs. Or I have very much overestimated Düsseldorf’s ability to deliver a proper Lucia celebration. Exile, thy name is Dizzel.

Because it is not enough to bake saffron buns at home, to listen to Adolf Fredriks musikklasser on Spotify and to light candles. I need that unique experience of getting up way too early, walking through the snow (or the snöslask in Stockholm rather), all in the grim darkness that surrounds one most hours of the day. To sit in an equally dark church at 7 a.m., in the bleak midwinter, and to hear the bell-like voices of a teenage choir dressed in innocent white, illuminating the church, and the world, with their flickering candles.

We don’t do Lucia at work. Yet. Because I think I’ve decided that this cannot go on. We’re supposed to be the Swedish stronghold in town after all, so next year, då gäller det! Even if I have to do it myself.

Meanwhile, my friend who does exchange in Stockholm right now, was first reluctant to get up at the crack of dawn to go to church.When I heard that last night, I leaned on her to attend the early morning Lucia celebration at “my” church. (Totally not my church, only go there for Lucia.) She had to give a presentation in class that morning, she explained. She’d go to a concert in the evening, she assured me. “No”, I insisted in writing. “Don’t spoil this for yourself. You have to go. You won’t regret it”, I urged her. In my desperation, I sent her the links to my description of my Lucia experiences from three years ago. It worked. She went. This morning at 8 am, I got a text, saying, “Thanks. You were right”.

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“Always listen to your Stockholm Ambassador”. “Helen, you know I do”.

Zero women

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”  Rebecca West

I remember three or four years ago, I cut out an advertisement from the Swedish newspaper. It said, “These are the 100 stock-exchange companies in Sweden that believe the best women’s movement is the one in bed”. It listed the 100 companies that had, despite 47 % of graduates at the Stockholm School for Economics being female, not one woman in their board room. The advertisement was promoting the AllBright Report by the foundation of the same name. AllBright is a politically independent, non-profit foundation that promotes equality and diversity in senior positions in the business sector. The foundation works continuously with reviewing how gender is represented in the business sector. Every year they release two reports.

This year, they started a German branch of the foundation – and gee, that’s needed! I am thrilled that AllBright now works in Germany as well and my co-worker sent me a picture yesterday morning of the first report on Germany that had been delivered to us. “You want to get to work early today!”, she wrote.

The report, which is very well designed I think, states that the best way to get to the top is being called Thomas. You should be born 1963 and should have studied economics or engineering.

Currently, there is one German stock-exchange company with 40 % women on their board. One. Then there’s 37 that have one women without coming up to 40 %, 122 companies do not have a single woman. There are even 18 companies that don’t have a woman on their board or directorate. The foundation sent out the reports to the companies in question, too. 76 %, that is 122 companies, got its report in a black envelope because they’re on AllBright’s blacklist.

If Germany proceeds at the current speed, we will reach almost-equality in work life in 2050. So shortly before I become a pensioner, I might experience 40% women in boards.

The smaller the company, the less likely/willing they are to take in women, their reasons being crystal clear: “We don’t need new board members”, “There are no competent women in our specialised field” and “Qualifications and competence are more relevant than gender to us”.

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In Sweden, companies that have 40 % of women on their boards (that is, just to be clear, not even half of the board) are twice as profitable. If you don’t believe in equal opportunities, shouldn’t you at least believe in economic effiency?

By the way, it was a man who founded AllBright. An old, white man. But his name is not Thomas.

 

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“Are you a quota woman or competent?” “Are you an heir or someone’s buddy?”

Reunification

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Happy German National Day, everyone! Yes, that was today. I spent the day meeting Germans and non-Germans and aspiring Germans, hopping across the Swedish capital. I discussed the Swedish health care system, the Polish abortion laws, tried on balloon sweaters, paid 10 euros for a fruit salad (three spoonful), was introduced to the magnificent new Haymarket (totally in love already), met my former (inoffcial) mentee (“you were right about everything, I don’t understand how you even had the energy to put up with me then”) and was fed köttbullar by Marita while discussing life on her sofa. Basically, on German Reunification Day, I reunited with lots of awesome people. That’s what I call celebrating as you should!

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Henrieke at the expensive cafe

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Laure at the wonderful Haymarket

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When the old-established department store PUB was to be closed and remodeled into a Scandic hotel, I was not enthusiastic. Located at Hötorget, the named the new complex Haymarket which I thought was phony because it’s literally just the translation of the square in front. But today, Laure took me to Haymarket which not only a hotel but also a bar, cafe and restaurant for walk-in customers – and most importantly, an interior design dream from 1920. So gorgeous, so sophisticated and thought-through!

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Evelina who now claims to be an adult and thinks everything I ever told her was correct. She’s planning to study German in Dizzel and then continue her academic career in Uppsala. I am pleased.

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Balloon sweaters

 

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“Hur var det i Alperna då?” “Jag blev bättre på skidor. Jag utvecklade också jättemycket klasshat”.

“Gud, vad du lever life.  Att bli ghostad är ju mer leva life än vad jag gör!”

“Om du flyttar dit så träffar du kanske nån och blir kvar!” “Jag vill inte bli kvar, jag har ju mina köpoäng i Uppsalas bostadskö!”

Ack, Värmeland

Just when I was starting to google, “Do I have a cold or am I actually dying of swine flu or something?”, my health condition improved. Today, I could be around people without them immediately noticing that I am not exactly in good shape. Malin and I took advantage of my return to the socially acceptable sphere and drove to Kristinehamn. (I have a vague recollection of having once written a story that was set in Kristinehamn, mere happenstance as I had never been there before.)

I like slogans and for some reason, we were going through Swedish town slogans on Friday night. Kristinehamn has one of the best/hilarious, I think. “Picasso chose Kristinehamn, you’re welcome, too”, it reads. Picasso is the creator of Kristinehamn’s biggest sight, a giant sculpture on the Lake Vänern shore. Picasso himself had never been to the place but that’s insignificant to the marketing.

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Picasso was here, well almost.

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So pretty at the lake!

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On the way to Kristinehamn,  we stopped in Gustafsvik to see a recently renovated former manor. Actually, only parts of the manor because most of it burnt down 50 years ago. Now you’re wondering why we would go there. Well, it’s actually like a big deal – because Ernst Kirchsteiger was the one renovating it. This person with the extremely German-sounding name is

“well, he’s more of an institution really. “No summer without Ernst” is something that Swedes seem to all agree on. Ernst is the epitome of the word folkkär or loved by the people – which doesn’t mean that everyone loves him really, but rather that everyone knows who he is and will have an opinion on him”

Born to an Austrian dad and a Polish mom, he has become a hugely popular interior decorator who provides the Kingdom of Sweden with hilarious quotes such as “How is it that some fir trees actually decide to become a Christmas tree and others just are ugly?”, “When a cat lies in a room and sleeps, there’s not much more work to do for a decorator”, “Has it ever happened that you have found yourself falling in love with a stone?”, “You have to see the pillows like an orchestra” and “This window provides a very good contact between inside and outside. It’s like inside and outside want something of each other.”

The quote machine has, in any case, renovated the remaining parts of the manor and it was very nice! I, all event manager, immediately thought about how Kristinehamn could use these for company conferences and parties.

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But Swedificiation does not come about by simply idolizing Ernst, there’s many more things to it. Like folk dances.

Malin works with many different projects nowadays, one of them being a cultural encounter between refugees, or nyanlända (newcomers) as the Swedes call them, and the local folk dance team and accordion orchestra. The newcomers live in the middle of nowhere, half an hours from little Kristinehamn, so we went there and did some extra advertising for the event. (Getting in direct contact with them and their living arrangements is quite an eye-opener. Not that the housing isn’t good but it’s just really far away if you’re trying to integrate/learn Swedish.)

A handful of young men got on the bus Malin had chartered and we took off to the Hembygdsgård which is the house of the local history association. Almost every Swedish village has one and they are often nice places. The Hembygds-organisations are not so much only about history but rather cultivate traditions and customs. Folk dance is one of them. The ladies and gentlemen first danced for us with the orchestra playing merrily, some tunes I even recognized, and then they made us join. What a sight – middle eastern men, Swedes and the German with a cold trying to coordinate a traditional Swedish group dance! It worked rather well though and it was quite an experience. I feel I can check off one more item off my list. Not Värmland though. Chance are rather good I’ll be back.

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After my 3-hour-train ride back to Stockholm, I met Andrea for dinner…

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…at the pretty Prinsen restaurant

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“Det var trevliga toaletter, i alla fall handfatsområdet”.

Bless you!

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Every move I make, every step I take – I was sneezing. People say a cold gets better after three days, well not for me apparently.We went to the pharmacy to ask for something stronger/more useful than what the German pharmacy had given me, only to be told, “Maybe you should be in bed”.

It was a rather slow tour of Karlstad we could do due to my condition but I did get to see some of Värmland’s capital. They have so many beautiful houses! “Karlstad seems to really have been spared by the war”, was my first thought which shows how deeply ingrained the effects of WWII are in my brain. Obviously, there has been no bombings here. But in 1865, the town burned down, however it seems to not have done too much to the charm of this place that has set up countless post-1865-buildings that had me marvel at them.

Karlstad is also full of water, here’s a stream, there’s a lake and around the corner waits a river. Just what I love in a city! They even have a beach literally in the middle of town where we sat and rested a while. The good thing with visiting close friends is that, even though if certainly it would have been interesting to be healthy to do more sightseeing, the main purpose of the trip, hanging out and talking to Malin, could be fulfilled even when sneezing like a crazy person. (She’s very tolerant and boldly takes the risk of being infected.)

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Quite a great slogan: “Lawyers’Office: We know about love, death and money”.

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At the very pretty Värmlandsmuseum they had quotes on the outside, this one saying, in local dialect, “Give me a globe but preferably one with only Värmland on it”

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Malin with Värmland’s famous son Nils Ferlin

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Malin with a moon balloon and the Karlstad Cathedral

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City beach

 

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“De skulle väl på nåt kyrkligt eller?” “Nej”. “Men du sa ju mässa?” “Ja men jag menar företagsmässa”. “Jaha. Hade nån annan sagt mässa hade jag tänkt på företagsmässa men när du säger det utgår jag ifrån att det är mässa i kyrkan”.

“Hur ser norrskensprognosen ut?” “Det är risk för norrsken ikväll”.

 

Maj

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Photo: Bokbloggen

With all due respect for non-fiction, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better for me to read fiction. I’ve always loved a good story, it somehow gives more to one’s soul to immerse oneself in an author’s world than to further educate oneself on the snow lepards in Kirgizistan. But that’s just me, maybe you’re super fascinated with snow lepards.

Currently, I’ve started reading ”The Secret History” by Donna Tartt because after the ”Goldfinch” I felt I need to read everything Tartt ever wrote. Which is, actually, just two more books. Unfortunately, ”The Secret History” is a little creepier than it’s bird-centered sucessor (or maybe I just have a way too lively imagination) so at night, I first cannot stop reading and then I am so spooked, I have to take up the book I recently finished reading and re-read it to calm down. This book has zero creep-risk while at the same time being absolutely masterful. I feel I need to tell the world about this outstanding accomplishment in contemporary Swedish literature. Enter MAJ.

The trilogy about the Northern Swedish housewife Maj begins shortly before World War II and ends thirty years later. “Giving birth”, “Care for one’ own” and “Life at any cost” – the entire book series is all about what Maj should cook for dinner and when she should clean the windows. How, on earth, can 1500 pages on domestic chores spellbind the reader?

It’s because between the worries about infant care and fika baking, the drama of our grandmothers unfolds. This book lends its voice to a marginalized majority; without probably even wanting to, this book is a fierce advocator of feminism – because it is through the life of Maj the reader sees that women did not get to choose 70, 60, 50 years ago. Not their husbands, not their education, not the number of children they want to have. Not even what they would serve when hosting a dinner because society’s expectations were very clear even on that.

 This generation raised today’s people, and those who follow behind need to read Sandberg if they want to understand why Maj’s home is still such  a loaded political and feminist scene. Dagens Nyheter

The three books about Maj became a real page-turner for me, the words have „an immediate flow which the reader is sucked into without resistance“, as the critics wrote. Sandberg’s narrative is complex but not complicated, and somewhat hypnotizing.

The book combines Maj’s perception with her husband’s thoughts and the author even talks to her protagonist, „– am I writing correctly about you now?“, she wonders in the middle of a sentence, embodying the ambiguity of the story, the character, the times.

 This is a highly elegant novel, so linguistically driven, so heavy with rage, at the same time personally and politically indignant. Göteborgsposten 

What is particularily impressive is how the author did not choose to make Maj a heroine that you just simply must love and identify with. Instead, she is contradictory, sometimes very chicken-hearted, well-meaning and confined by her own inner conflicts. A real person, so to speak. When reading the three books, you smell the food from her kitchen and you see her going through town, she is so very real that I would not have been surprised if she’d sat in my living room one day.

 And the angst  is so heavy that the lines almost give way. Fokus  

With her, I marched through the history of the 20th century, from food ration coupons to newly established housewife gymastics classes. Not in Stockholm, but in Örnsköldsvik, observing the all too often overlooked North of Sweden. The story is so well-researched that it becomes hard to believe ist author is only in her forties. You think she personally was around to witness the kitchen proceedings – no, to cook these meals herself, to have these conversations during the war, to decorate her home in 1950s style.

 What impresses the most is the ability to build excitement around a life that on the surface appears to  be fairly uneventful . […] That kind of novel that occupies the reader, with characters who creep close and stubbornly linger in the mind after you have (reluctantly) closed the book . Svenska Dagbladet

Despite her tendency to irritate the reader, Maj wins a place in one’s heart, she is trying to do her best, after all, and it is heart-breaking to witness how contact with her own family reduces with every year that goes, how her few friends die, and how she and her husband have no way of reaching out to each other.

Kristina Sandberg who authored this skillful story was awarded the most prestigious Swedish literature prize, Augustpriset, in 2014 for her work. The jury motivated its choice as follows: „Some life journeys remain invisible. With her epos about housewife Maj, Kristina Sandberg shows that a whole odyssey can be contained within the walls of a flat in Örnsköldsvik. A fragile and wounded family life in the wellfare state is depicted with distance and empathy.“

When you close the book and Maj slips from your grasp, you wonder: Are you going to be okay now, Maj?

And while it feels as if Maj loses something when being translated, I still sincerely hope that these books will published abroad, too. We need them, also – or even more – in Germany.

 

Nothing I can see but you when you dance, dance, dance

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In our magazine, we’re focusing on dance in the next issue. That’s why I emailed the embassy because I had talked to the head of the division for cultural affairs when I last was in Berlin, I wanted to touch base about what’s going on dance-wise. And guess what – apparently I live in the German dance hot spot!

Düsseldorf is home to the most important dance fair in Germany, the Internationale Tanzmesse NRW, and it is full of Swedes. We were thus invited to attend the Nordic Mingle in the Swedish Booth on Thursday which was quite a privilege because this fair is for industry experts and not for ordinary mortals. “If ayone asks”, we were instructed, “you are the press from Sweden”. Not entirely wrong, actually, since we were researching the dance article.

We talked to lots of people within one hour, I learned the difference between Konstnärsnämden and Kulturrådet,  and now I know that Cullberg Ballett is the thing from Sweden. I should probably go see some dance, dance, dance.

 

How to get up

The nanny state is real. Or was real. Maybe it still is. In the 1950-70s, it definitely was a thing in Sweden. The socialstyrelsen, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare filmed and distributed several educational videos for housewives and stay-at-home-moms. These infomercials which were shown in the cinemas during weekday afternoons and are said to be a unique phenomenon for the Nordic countries. National celebrities appeared in the movies that instructed the good wives of Sweden on how to plan their housekeeping. (And of course, it was giant supermarkt chain ICA that was involved in the production.) A particularly popular film was “Fru Plotter och Fru Planér”, depicting two housewives that could not be more different: Fru Plotter, the negligent lady that has to go to the store every day because she is not planning well and Fru Planér, who buys large quantaties and sticks to her weekly meal plans.

My co-worker sent me a movie that’s circulating on Facebook right now and surely hits a nerve with us sleep-deprived young people. The Swedish state explaining how to get a good start in the morning:

My co-worker is actually extremely good at imitating the narrator voice. I now want to make a movie about our work place with her narrating in the 1970s voice.

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“Det var längesen vi kollade på prinsessan Estelle. Jag ska googla lite bilder”.

“Den här Ikeakatalogen luktar prutt”.

“We think it is way too warm here.” German external co-worker: “Yeah, for you polar bears it might be a little hot.”

 

All about Sweden

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Our storage room at work is a bonanza, really. You can find the funniest thing there. Today, I happened to find four sets of the board game “Sverige runt” that I think the Swedish Saturday School uses. Of course I had to take it with me and see what it’s like.

The game looks like a true 80ties pastime. On the cover you see the Swedish nuclear family (but why are the parents dark-haired?) that we instantly named: Mamma Elisabeth, called Bettan, pappa Hans, called Hasse and their kids Anna-Karin and Lars-Åke. Both my co-worker and I struggle to even know the Swedish landskap (province), I have been trying to memorize them for four years now but I always forget Medelpad. (Medelpad, I learned from the game, is the geographical center of Sweden – how is that even possible?!) Our intern is pretty good at this stuff as we noticed when I quizzed each other quickly with a few of the question cards. Such random questions, really. I was extremely proud though of the ones I could answer correctly. Whenever I did not know, I always answered, “Jämtland”.

Here’s a selection for you of those I could answer. Test yourself! (Answers at the very end.)

Who founded Vadstena Abbey?

Where does the Vasa Race start?

What does the sculpture in the Stockholm Cathedral portray?

Which province has most runes?

Which royal lived at Waldemarsudde?

What is the plague during the 1300s commonly called?

Who is considered Stockholm’s founder?

Which one is the biggest party in parliament? (Such a random question since that changes in a democracy?!)

 

Del 3 i random quotes från jobbet:

Extra co-worker coming out of his office, walking by ours, “Hello, Swedish House Mafia!”

“Dejtar är inte kul, de är som jobbintervjuer”.

“Vad heter det djur äter ur?” “Trog”. “Heter det inte krubba?” “Nej, det fick för hög status pga Jesus”.

“Det ser bra ut.” “Du menar det ser ut som om en tysk hade gjort det”.

Saint Birgitta – Sälen – St. George and the Dragon – Uppland – Prince Eugen – Digerdöden – Birgel Jarl – The Social Democrats

 

 

 

Sweden at its best

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If I could precisely remember who introduced me to my friend Michelle, I would write that person a thank you card every year. These past days, I had the pleasure of enjoying her and her lovely parents’ hospitality and while it was way too short, it was a summer paradise experience.

Not so much for the weather (which was decent only two days) or any spectacular activities, but more because of the atmosphere in her home. It’s difficult to describe, but yesterday when we sat with Michelle’s mom’s homebaked fika (because of course we got an assortment of homemade cookies every day) in the sofa with her parents, I said, “It’s a bit as if your mom and dad had four daughters”. Mom and Dad fed us, we watched the Olympics with them, they called us to come play Kubb. To add to the mysfaktor, their adorable dog Tessan traipsed behind us, ready to be petted, and when we came back from some trip to the mini train station where we dropped someone off, Tessan ran all over the yard, enthusiastic to greet us.

The time was way too short (I really need to take two weeks vacation in one piece next year) and I unfortunately did not get much sleep either. One night, we had a grand party, the next insomnia haunted me and another one, me and my room mates could just not stop chatting – that’s the camp feeling at its best.

Tonight, I landed in Dizzel which was melancholic. These other past times I returned, the longing for Sweden had been less urgent. But today, when we saw my friend Henrike off at the station, I felt the yearning come back. Henrike lived close to Dizzel and now she’s moved to Stockholm. I felt like I should have gone with her. 45 days till my next flight stockhome.

Monday morning, my morgonpigga friends made me get up before 9 and we had a picture perfect breakfast by the lake in the woods, mosquitos inclusive. Later, we played Kubb and Raphael and I lost twice. Lunch was salmon and potatis in the Swedish sunshine – a perfect day suitable for imagebank.sweden.se

Yesterday, we drove to the beach despite our hangover. It was totally worth it.

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Saturday was the day of the big party! Michelle had invited her friends and family to celebrate her Masters Degree. The house gradually was filled with elegantly dressed people, and even two sweet as candy babies. We got lots of good food and sang the traditional dinner songs. (I really enjoyed watching the foreign  (and unfamiliar with the tradition) guests’ facial expressions when we sang O gamla klang which includes standing up on chairs, singing lines alone and pounding on the table.)

I guess awesomeness attracts more awesomeness because Michelle’s friends are a bunch of wonderful people. A delightful mixture of languages and cultures arose, Europe at it’s best. (“Did you just say that to me in Swedish or German?” “Eh, I don’t know?”) Most of us were assigned a task contributing to the party and I was made the DJ. Since my Uppsala years, I’ve somehow gained the reputation of being able to throw a good party. This time, things have gone so far that I actually obtained a real name, DJ Hoffis/Hoffice (the nickname my intern coined for me adhering to the logic of Swedish nicknaming). The party went great and I think DJ Ingrid would have been proud of me.

Our actual gift to Michelle was a newspaper we made for her (that was the secret project). The Österlen Herald was presented on Saturday and found many interested readers. We already had to promise to publish a new issue in case of Michelle completing a PhD.

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Fika in one of the pretty rooms

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Michelle’s favorite place is the market garden and it inspired me even more to get more plants for my home

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We also checked out the “city” of Simrishamn…

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…a pretty little summer town

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…where Handelsbanken advertisments speak right to my heart (“Imagine the washing machine and the car break down the same week”)

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…and where black pug puppies sit on the shop counters, ready to be petted

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Simrishamn is also home to fabric paradise, so many nice colors and patterns!

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Outside Michelle’s home

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Tessan, my new favorite dog

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I also had to work a little

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At night, we looked like an old married couple. That was fun!