Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolutions, schmesolutions?

Like many people, I don't tend to go in for New Year's Resolutions as such. But as this year has been drawing to a close, in the midst of post-Stockholm and pre-Christmas preparations I keep having a set of "next year I will...." thoughts popping into my mind.

Of course there are the usual "eat less, exercise more" hopes. And also on the personal (or personality?) front, if as a parent I could expend less sweat on the "small stuff" and be a bit more creative with how I parent, I would be pleased.

In the kitchen, I would like to get back to a more organized and more varied menu plan, rather than my all-to-frequent MasterChef farce, "you have one hour to turn this meat, these vegetables and these pantry items into a nutritious dinner". A sub-aim of this is to get back to reading my delicious. subscription more diligently: too often this year I have enquired about a recipe only to hear "it was in last month's delicious." And if we're talking about reading.... apologies to all those friends whose kindly lent books will be celebrating their New Year's Eve in my "to read" pile. I do intend to read them. I do.

Beyond the kitchen, I find it hard to believe that the general clutter surrounding the laundry, the incoming mail (and everywhere else?) can be banished for ever, but it would be nice to see it under tighter control! Would it surprise you to know that we still have various bits of Stockholm and Christmas aftermath still hanging around our place?

And my oft-neglected garden hasn't been forgotten: fewer weeds, more edibles seems like a worthy aim. My enthusiasm has already been helped by my Sister-in-Law's gift of a subscription to Organic Gardener (and helped by Little Bro whose Christmas Day snooze in the car gave me an hour of quiet reading time!!)

Thinking about it, there is a theme coming through: my optimistic goal for 2010 is to feel a bit more structure come back to my life. I won't go as far as to wish for the lost bits of my pre-child life to be superimposed on my current very happy but often chaotic life, but I do hope that with a bit of energy invested I will reap a bit more order.

Am I asking for too much?

Best wishes for 2010 to you!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Gingerbread Craft

When I was growing up, my parents had the Time Life Foods of the World series. I don't think we used them much for recipes, but the thing I do remember was gazing in wonder at the cover of the German volume, imagining that one day I would make a gingerbread house like the picture.

In October 2008, just before Little Bro was born, ALDI had a DIY gingerbread house kit where the precut cookies and decorations were provided and just needed to be stuck together with icing. I initially dismissed the kit with the thought "I could make that myself", but then knowing that I would have a month-old baby at Christmas I stepped off my high horse and conceded that the kit would have its advantages. I ended up buying their gingerbread train kit to appeal to certain assistants and I thought the end result wasn't too bad:

This year with no newborn to serve as an excuse I thought I had better live up to my claims and make my own gingerbread train. The shapes were really simple- just rectangles in two sizes plus a cut-down circle, and a rectangle baked over the curve of a small glass jar to serve as the engine boiler. It's not shown here but the smokestack was a small cylinder of gingerbread.

Big Bro helped me to decorate (tip: make the icing on the sticky side or else the decorations don't stick to the sides!) and, toot-toot, we had a train!

For the record, the gingerbread recipe was from The Joy of Cooking and very (appropriately) hard but not as spicy as I would have liked, while the icing was one egg white, about a cup and a half of icing sugar, plus the juice of a lemon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Visiting Stockholm with young children

Stockholm is situated on 14 islands at the junction of Lake Malaren with the Baltic Sea. On our first walk in the streets of Stockholm I was surprised by how many prams I saw. Unlike other European cities I've visited, these were not chic and compact models but, rather appropriately, the Volvos of the preschool set, large Emmaljunga prams and similarly chunky three-wheelers. (Stockholm's traffic is likewise not dominated by ultra-compact cars but rather by Volvos and similar in station wagon size and up.) The reason was quickly apparent- Stockholms islands are hilly and must be tiring for small legs (and for large legs carrying small legs!!). Fortunately, pram/bike ramps are found on most street steps- though gauged for the large prams rather than the compact Maclaren model we brought. If I were fortunate enough to visit Stockholm again in the next few years, a pram would be high on my baggage list!

The Stockholm T-bana metro system is easy to navigate with a pram: there are pram/wheelchair gates, children under 7 travel free and the key word to know is hiss -elevator- which was easy to locate at all the stations we visited (admittedly we remained close to the city centre). Buses also accommodate prams, while ferries are another a practical and fun way to travel around Stockholm.

Stockholm Sightseeing for Preschoolers
As all the Stockholm guides make clear, the attraction-rich island of Djorgarden is a must for any tourist itinerary, and this is no exception for the youngest tourists. A ferry that crosses frequently between Djorgarden and Slussen, at the southern end of Gamla Stan, adds to the excitement of the excursion (Kr40 for adults, free for under 7s).

Highest on any child's itinerary should be Junibacken. This children's playhouse/museum comprises a series of rooms inspired by Swedish children's literature, dominated by the works of Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking etc). I wasn't familiar with a lot of the stories, so my naive description is that there were pirate ships, miniature cities to crawl through, various houses, a homemade aeroplane, light spots to chase, a steamroller and (bizarre as it sounds) a maze within the shell of a cream layer cake, with an emphasis on FUN. For both the adults and children of our family, the highlight was a modestly described "train" which turned out to be a capsule that rolled, glided and turned through scenes from Astrid Lindgren's books. I would highly recommend prospective school-age visitors to Junibacken try some Astrid Lindgren books before their visit to make the most of the experience (I wish I had!).

The Vasa Museum is the final resting place of a 17th century warship that sailed 15
minutes and then sank. She then spent 300 years in Stockholm Harbour before her discovery and retrieval. Although much of the museum is beyond a preschooler's interest, a quick wander through can be managed with something to see for everyone.

Nordic Museum: I can't review this thoroughly as we attended only as part of an evening function. However, the two galleries we saw kept both boys interested for several hours: the children's gallery/play area is set up as a wooden replica of a Swedish homestead from the turn of the last century. There are wooden chickens and wooden eggs to move around, a table and wooden food to be arranged, a pulley bridge, a milkmaids yoke, a wooden horse and cart.... The great thing about it was that, being wooden, everything was available for play. (This seemed to be a common theme throughout our museum visits: if it's intended for children, then there were few or no limits for children to touch, climb and totally experience the item.)

The other gallery that took my boys' fancy was a temporary display devoted to washing machines and the laundry room. But perhaps this wouldn't surprise frequent readers of this blog?

There is plenty for small kids to see at the Skansen "open air museum": a zoo featuring Nordic animals and traditional craft workshops (Big Bro was fascinated by the glass blowing) situated amongst buildings transplanted from different regions of Sweden.

Our boys were never into dummies (pacifiers) but depending on how desperate other parents are to shed the dummy, a trip to Skansen may be just what is needed: Swedish tots are brought to the Dummy Well to leave their dummies "for the baby animals".


Transport museum
A museum of buses, trains and trams: Big Bro would never have forgiven me for missing this one. On the east end of Sodermalm, it's definitely well off the tourist route- though easily accessible by bus or scenic walk along Folkungagatan and Katarinavagan (the walk along Stadsgardsleden is less hilly but somewhat less scenic).

The museum houses a range of Stockholm's former transport vehicles, from a replica of boats paddled between the islands in the middle ages to horse-drawn trams, electric trams, modern buses and trains. Many of the more recent exhibits allow access to the driver's area, some with
video displays allowing crude simulator-style "driving".

Non-Swedish speaking transit aficionados will have to interrogate the surly staff (at least at our visit they weren't feeling very conversant) to get more details on the individual displays, but for those happy to cruise between the vehicles the museum offers a fun few hours' entertainment for pre- schoolers with an interest in trains. Kr10 also buys you a seat on a small gauge train that makes a brief ride through the exhibits (closed for repair when we visited).

Adjacent to the Sparvargelsmuseet and included in the entry price is a toy museum which was of more interest to me than Big Bro. It was an eclectic collection of toys, most from the twentieth century: cabinets of smurfs, star wars figurines, Lego, Mecchano, toy cars, barbies... (And, according the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist's toy tractor.)

Katarinahissen: this rather ugly structure to the east of Slussen T-bana station is in fact a tourist elevator that was first built over 100 years ago. It is Kr10 per ride (children under 7 free), or if you are travelling without a pram (and with energetic children!) it is free to take the stairs. At the top there are views of Gamla Stan and Djorgarten, and a walkway through to deeper Sodermalm (not far from Medborgerplatzen). We never lasted long up there as the boys were rapidly chilled by freezing winds- in other seasons there is evidently a cafe of some sort up there.

Gamla Stan (Old City)

The Changing of the Guard: not as fancy as Buckingham Palace, but every day the Royal Palace's guards change with a bit of choreographed goose-stepping and flag waving. And unlike Buckingham Palace, you can be within metres of the action.

Nobel museum: We visited the Nobel museum twice, and both times ended up in the "Bubble Tank" children's area. There is a small display, a puppet theatre, books (mostly Swedish) and my boys' favourite area, a cabinet with drawers containing activities representing the seven Nobel prize categories: peace, physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, literature and economics. For example, one of the chemistry drawers had magnetic model atoms to stick together into various molecules (Little Bro's favourite) while an economics drawer housed an activity involving paper money. Older children would find plenty to interest them in the
rest of the museum: one of Galilleo's telescopes, personal items from laureates, and (as one Nobel laureate described it to me) a "drycleaning rack" system zooming photos of the laureates around the museum, "hanging the laureates out to dry".

(Parents of small children would also benefit from a tip the lovely Nobel Museum staff passed on: their building houses one of the only nice nicest public toilets in Gamla Stan!)

Boat tours: Stockholm's islands mean that boats are a great way to see the lie of the land. Options in December were fairly limited, so we took the one hour "Royal Canal" tour, which took us around Djorgarden and showed the adults many of Stockholm's highlights- and the children saw boats large and small. In warmer weather many longer tours operate inwards into Lake Malaren or further out into the archipelago.

Our pick of Stockholm eateries for small children

Stockholm's food scene was a pleasant surprise to me. Where possible, avoid the touristy Gamla Stan's overpriced and bland eateries dominated by Italian restarants and Irish pubs and head a little north or south to eat with the locals in the hip suburbs of Södermalm or Östermalm.

Unsurprisingly, Ikea high chairs are widely available, and we found menus to be generally accessible for the boys. And, as everywhere in Stockholm, when in doubt, ask a local: chances are they speak English.

Cafe Crema (Nybrogatan 16, Östermalm opposite Astoria theatre) We found ourselves hungry in Östermalm, and happened across this cafe. It was certainly no tourist haunt, and a glance through the window suggested we would fit in there: there were already a few prams parked in the entranceway and the prices were reasonable. We had fish with vegetables in a dill sauce and an amazing chicken and bacon burger with a tangy mustard aioli which went by the humble "club sandwich" moniker. Meals come with self-service salad: lettuce or the most awesome coleslaw-type salad I have tasted, shredded vegies with a tasty seasoned oil dressing including caraway seeds (I *need* the recipe!!).

SöderManna Medborgarplatsen, Södermalm Self-catering or budget-minded travellers should visit Stockholm's answer to New York's delis, Saluhalls. We dropped into the Södermalms Saluhall on the west side of Medborgarplatsen and drooled over the range of ready-to-heat dishes (take away or eat there), finally settling on a vegetarian lunch alongside office workers at SöderManna. 75 Kroner ($A12) bought a huge and tasty slab of spinach lasagna with a side salad plus unlimited bread and dips.

Creperie Fyra Knop Svartensgatan 4, Södermalm Hidden in a sidestreet in Södermalm, this gem has not escaped the eye of guidebook authors, but maintained the "local" feel despite several tables of non-Swedes when we visited. The extensive menu starts with simple fillings (combinations of cheese, egg and ham) and progresses to more complex offerings (prawn, salads, meat) and sweet fillings. The crepes are made of a buckwheat-type flour and are a great meal for a cold day.

Cadierbaren, Grand Hotel S. Blasieholmshamnen 8 The Grand Hotel, with prices as grand as its name, certainly isn't a place for the budget-minded traveller to frequent. However, for a memorable coffee stop only minutes from Gamla Stan, the Cadierbaren lounge is not bad for a family friendly location: we weren't the only parents enjoying a brief good coffee and cinnamon bun while our children were mesmerised by the view of buses, limosines and ferries out the window.

Family friendly accommodation: I can't provide a thorough review or comparison, but we were very happy with Guldgränd Apartments (Guldgränd, Sodermalm, opposite the Hilton Hotel) which were quiet, comfortable and self-contained, and within walking distance of Slussen Station and Gamla Stan.

Too cute to eat?

My culinarily gifted friend A made us these cute Christmas cupcakes. They would have been too cute to eat if they hadn't been quite so delicious...........

Monday, December 21, 2009

This Growing Life goes Swedish

Please excuse the break in transmission, dear reader. You see, in October something really quite extraordinary happened to us: we received an invitation to attend Nobel Week in Stockholm, culminating in the Nobel Prize ceremony and banquet. In an attempt to maintain my blog's anonymity, I won't elaborate on the circumstances further, except to assure you that the Nobel Prize for Blogging (or otherwise) did not go to yours truly.

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime (or less frequent) events, and crazy as it seemed, B and I (ably assisted by my mum) packed up the two boys and hit the skies bound for the Nordic Winter.

The whole trip went really well- really as well as I could have hoped! The boys generally travelled well, a highlight for me being that Big Bro managed to pull his little wheelie bag himself for the whole 30-or-so hours of travel and transit from our house to our accommodation in Stockholm. The 10 days we were in Stockholm were apparently warm for that time of year, meaning temperatures between freezing and 5°C, with only some snow on the last morning- much easier weather in which to deal with small kids than the -13 to -8°C and 15cm snow we were told arrived a few days later. We also coped with jetlag (and are still coping with it, yawn) and all-in-all, I am so, so pleased we took the plunge and went! We will probably wait until the boys are a lot older (late primary school?) before we revisit Europe for a pure holiday, but in the meantime we can see Asia or perhaps even North America as potential holiday destination (finances-willing, which will take a while!!) Hooray!!

I have a few posts-in-the-making about our travels, which I will try to finish as and when the Christmas rush allows.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Apple and rhubarb crumble is off the menu.

I don't think I ever mentioned our apple tree. The reason being, B and I decided it was a "Crap Apple" tree (no typo). Most of the fruit has been sour, and only good for chutney or cricket. It was also structurally a disaster- I don't quite know how, but after about half a metre, the trunk bent to around two o'clock, hanging over the fence. On the positive side, it made the tree an interesting feature, both visually and for visiting kids with a need to climb. When we moved in we were concerned by a large (30cm diameter) branch that was clearly dead and had it removed. We also discussed removing the whole tree with the ne
ighbours as it overhung their driveway. However, the neighbours were strongly in favour of retaining the tree, probably because it was large enough to screen out our upstairs windows from their back lawn and deck. So we kept the tree and I found an apple chutney recipe (Nigella's) to use up the windfall fruit.

A few nights ago, our plans for a 2010 chutney vintage were dashed by a ring on the doorbell. It was our neighbours announcing that the tree had fallen on the fence.
A couple of palings had been snapped, but the crossbars appeared to be bearing the weight of the trunk, so we debulked as much of the tree as we could reach to reduce the weight, and in the morning I rang around town trying to find a tree chopping service which could come immediately. And a couple of hours later, up rocked the "team", which consisted of a huge truck with a chipper-trailer attachment and six men who ran the tree demolition like clockwork.
Two chainsaws, a heap of chipping and a leaf blower to clear the sawdust from the paths and in no time our tree was driven off to start its new life as mulch! Needless to say, both boys were fascinated by the whole process! (And yes, I can recommend Taylors- we've used them before and this time they accommodated my rapid service request.)

Unfortunately, our long-suffering rhubarb had been relocated to the shade of the apple tree, and suffered collateral damage at the hands size 13 feet of one of the chainsaw operators! Fingers crossed it has yet another life up its sleeve.

The question is now, what should replace the apple tree? It's to the north of our deck, so deciduous seems like a good plan: the usual shade-in-summer-sun-in-winter logic. Fast growing would please the neighbours so they can resume whatever they did in the privacy of their screened yard (no, they're not that type of neighbour). And given that the view from our side of the fence will only be the lower three metres, I am thinking "interesting trunk" would be best. Although part of me thinks we should replace a semi-edible plant with another edible, the reality is that we would like the bulk of the tree to be way up high and out of reach, so any fruit would just end up feeding possums and bats.

We are leaning towards a small stand (a copse?) of silver birches, as judging by how common silver birches are in our area we figure they must be well-suited to the local conditions. We won't be planting until the autumn, so in the meantime other suggestions are welcome! In the meantime, what I had been using as a shady bed is copping a heap of sun. Mulch, mulch, mulch is my interim plan!

Apologies for the backdated post: this all happened just before we headed off to Sweden, so I never quite pulled the photos and text together!

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