I’m back after a much-needed hiatus for ten more posts here at the Expat Blog. After the next ten, you’ll get the great treat of experiencing Sweden through a different expat’s eyes. I am going to do my best to make these next ten posts great, but if there are any lingering questions or issues out there for expats in Sweden, just let me know in the comments and I’ll try to address them.
So what have I been up to during this hiatus? Lots. But one of the first things we did this August (right after panicking about the imminent end of summer) was head out to Simon’s family’s summer cottage on Öland, an island where the cows (and the bird watchers) run wild.
In movies and in the self-help sections of women’s magazines, you sometimes hear people talking about “going to their happy place.” I was never really sure what that was supposed to be. A vacation destination? An imaginary enchanted forest grove? A spa?
Now that I’ve been to Öland, though, I know what the phrase is supposed to mean. For Simon’s family, their rustic countryside retreat has been the setting for a million happy childhood memories over the last 50 years — and thanks to Simon’s little nephew, the house is seeing a fourth generation of running, climbing, and playing.
I had been to Öland once before, about three years ago, when I was on an extended vacation to Sweden over the summer. At that point, I didn’t speak Swedish, I was still nervous about making a good impression on Simon’s family, and everything was new all the time, so there were a lot of things that I didn’t remember about the island that I had already heard once before.
The story of Öland is fascinating. There have been people on the island since the Paleolitic Era, and they started building forts to defend themselves as early as the Iron Age (about 400 AD). The weather is harsh and until recently, the inhabitants have relied primarily on agriculture to sustain themselves. From 1569 to 1801, the whole island was appropriated by the State to serve as the King’s private game park. Ölanningar (the inhabitants of Öland) were forbidden to hunt the animals, own hunting weapons or dogs, or cut down trees. Life was pretty hardscrabble up until the post-Industrial era.
For all the trivia-lovers out there, Öland is the second-largest island in Sweden as well as its smallest province. Additional fact (for the extra-double-knock out round at your local trivia night): all the brown beans in Sweden are grown on Öland. Why? “The mild Öland autumn, coupled with the calcareous soil, makes the perfect habitat for [brown beans]” (source).
One of the most important features of Öland is the expanse of “limestone barren” that comprises the Stora Alvaret. The southern part of the island was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of this unique geological area, and a wide variety of rare plants and animals live there including wildflowers like Stonecrop, Dropwort, Artemisia oelandica, Shrubby Cinquefoil, the common spotted orchid, Kidney Vetch; grasses like Meadow Oat-Grass and Sheep’s Fescue; and fungi like Hygrocybe persistens and Lepiota alba.
I have no idea which plants correspond to those names, but to my untrained eye, the nature that I saw in the wild was brightly-colored, often stunted-looking, and beautiful in its own way.
The island is also something of a Mecca for bird watchers. What I was more excited by, though, was the giant spread of seals I saw sunning themselves one afternoon.
In between the nature excursions and gallery visits (Öland has a vibrant artist community), we were enjoying spending time with each other, with our family. We played with our nephew until he got too exhausted to enjoy it anymore, we took walks, we played cards, and the more restless members of the family fixed gutters, cut the grass, and weeded the flower beds.
My brother-in-law even cooked two traditional Tunisian feasts, each of which took hours to prepare. His son buzzed around, eager to snatch different vegetables off his prep table and get a head start on the eating part of dinner. Mimi, the dog, begged to be allowed to do the same.
The weekend was over far too quickly, and before we knew it, our bags were packed and loaded in the car again and we were headed back to Lund. Vacation was over, and it was time to get back to work.