Nov 25, 2011

The Holiday Season kick off

This is really weird: 44° Fahrenheit in Seattle, 6° Celsius in Umeå!  We are on the same temperature today and actually have been a lot of times this fall. The weather in Umeå and Sweden has been record mild this season. I don’t mind. Every mild day makes the upcoming winter one day shorter, and since the last two winters have been extremely cold and snowy I am gratefully receiving this relief from the stranglehold winters sometimes takes on me.

It’s dark though, of course. The light changes with the year in both my cities, but is, naturally, a constant on every specific day over the year. And late November is pretty darn dark in both places. It’s a good reason for us to love the Holiday Season opening, which takes place simultaneously at both places!

Downtown Seattle is an unusual sight on Thanksgiving Thursday. Streets abandoned, stores closed. The office high rises, usually pretty much lit up 24-7, on this day mostly dark, making the characteristic skyline more of a vague blur. This holiday, because of it’s family oriented nature; equally loved, dreaded, looked forward to, hesitated on, can be as wonderful or traumatic as any Woody Allen movie scene is. But hey guys, it’s just one day! The Swedish equivalence for this emotional set up is Christmas, and the Swedish Christmas is like a two-week stretch! A two-week stretch of high expectations, food, somewhat unattainable childhood memories and candies. That's a lot of days to polish on your glossy Facebook facade. Such work. What we got here is not an Allen scene, it’s a Bergman trilogy! One day guys, what’s the fuzz; Thanksgiving is only one single day!

Anyway, it’s the start of The Holiday Season, and today Seattle Downtown is overly and wonderfully lit up. There is egg nod and Jingle Bells and chestnuts in every street corner. In Umeå city center this weekend is the start for glögg (mulled wine), Hej tomtegubbar (cheery Christmas song) and gingerbread snaps. And in both cities the Christmas shopping frenzy kicks off. Cause Thanksgiving weekend is the very same weekend as Advent 1st in Sweden, the starting point for lights, concerts, socials and shopping, all in the name of Christmas, providing equal parts anxiety and joy.

Don’t get me wrong. Thanksgiving is the most wonderful tradition, I miss it and would love to share the custom with my friends in Sweden too. And the four weekends of Advent leading up to Christmas is just the sweetest time of the year. But The Holiday Season asks a lot from us. Because it’s also a time for grief. A time of regrets, disappointment, fear, envy, shame, anger, sadness, guilt and loneliness. Words not written on the Holiday greetings. Words not sung in the Christmas songs. Words that stays untold deep within us. While busy having a Happy Holiday.

Nov 20, 2011

A Suburbian experience

Seattle and me wasn’t love at first sight. Or, should I say Seattle and me didn’t really get a chance to properly meet that first time. It was March 1993; we had taken off from our Swedish village just outside Umeå in the snow-melting season, leaving vinyl clothing and friends behind, not going to miss the first, but the second.

Sitting in the car, picked up at Seatac by Annie, the American grandmother to be, my first picture of Seattle was those huge orange cranes standing on their tall legs in the port, pointing to the water and downtown with their stretched necks. We were fascinated, my sons and I, peaking out from the back of the car, by those gigantic steel dinosaurs guarding the city. I didn’t know by then that they really do. How iconic and symbolic they are. Connecting the water, the Pacific Ocean and Asia to land and soil, Seattle and the US.

And then I didn’t really see Seattle for a while, cause that drive took us cross Lake Washington to one of those fresh townhouse neighborhoods that looks like it’s just been laid out; flower beds, well trimmed lawns, shining new cars perfectly parked in a spotless setting. I had landed in Suburbia.

The foreign planet Suburbia for three rainy spring months with two little boys, four and six years old. A planet empty of life except for the flowerbeds and the cars. A mystery it was. In the morning the cars were gone. In the evening they were back, all neatly parked on the driveway. We never saw anyone driving them, though. Or walking the lawns. Or picking up the newspaper from the mailboxes. We didn’t see one single person in the neighborhood except for the gardeners arriving in their trucks for three months! My sons created a safe cocoon for themselves, happy wrestling crazy giggling, unreachable to the world around. That’s when they became Trouble & Trouble, a nickname their American grandfather Harold came up with fondly tickling them to an even more hysterical craze.

So, we needed to break out of Suburbia. And we did. We saw Seattle from the top of the Space Needle, rode the Monorail, watched the Mariners loose at Kingdome, had blue berry pie in Twin Peaks Country, watched orcas on San Juan Island and did the Olympic Peninsula. It wasn’t possible to break out of the spring rain though. Forks and the rain forest in April was more Twilight than any devoted fan could ever dream of, and since this was pre vampire time it didn’t do us much good.

But. The sun and mid June came and The Emerald City and The Beautiful Northwest grew on me. Mount Rainier showed up like this unreal breath taking backdrop. Trouble & Trouble picked up their first English words and grandpa Harold regained some Swedish from his Montana childhood. Friendly people smiled and waved in the 4-way stops. Downtown was all shiny blue tall glass and the waterfront smelled exciting adventures on water and land.

And it was time to say goodbye. Time for Midsummer’s, the maypole and day light nights back in my northern Swedish village. Arriving there very different from when I departed. This planet that used to be so familiar had changed. No, Seattle hadn’t been love at first sight, but here I was, carrying a piece of the shining Emerald City in my heart. Knowing that I would need to return.

Nov 12, 2011

Cold winters and sunny visions

“You have a challenging situation with the weather, this isn’t Barcelona or Sydney, this is a cold place with long winters”. Words spoken in Umeå one would think. Cause we sure have long cold winters and Barcelona and Sydney are pretty far away. But no, that comment was made in Seattle a couple of weeks ago by James Corner of James Corner Field Operations at a presentation of the design for the new Seattle Waterfront.

And the question which raised that comment was: “You are showing lots of images of great beautiful weather, what is going to make this a populated place on a windy cold afternoon like today?”

That question brings me back seven years ago, to 2004. The snow storm in the southern parts was so bad the top architects of Scandinavia heading for Umeå with their power points and enthusiasm got stranded all over the map. Well, eventually they all arrived, cold but still in good spirits, and the outside reality and the inside visions presented that day couldn’t have been more different. And the funny thing is, those images, happy people rollerblading, biking, skate boarding and strolling along the sunny Umea waterfront were all so similar to the visions presented in Seattle 2011 that I’m wondering if this is some kind of universal longing we are all carrying. Or is it architects and city planners of the same school, time and age? Don’t get me wrong, I love it! But it’s really interesting how, again, Seattle and Umea are moving on such parallel tracks.

So, the contemporary Umeå waterfront story has a name: The City Between the Bridges (Staden mellan broarna). The most central part of the waterfront is about a eight block stretch between two bridges crossing the Umeå River, that’s why the name. Also, as this has been discussed and processed for decades it’s become like an Umeå family member that really needs a name.

Then, in 2003, the City and the main Umeå developer Balticgruppen (The Baltic Group), agreed on a contract for developing the area. Six Scandinavian architects were hired by Balticgruppen to design separate visions for The City Between the Bridges. These were exciting times! Eminent names like Snöhetta, Bjarke Ingels, Henning Larsen and Gert Wingård presented highly different but equally stunning visions for our little city. We reacted with curiosity, skepticism, fear and enthusiasm.

The Snöhetta proposal was the one that was agreed on. Due to politics though, possible miscommunication, mistrust and reasons that are still in the fog or at least not cleared out in the open, the City of Umeå didn’t follow the plans through. Various grades of disappointment, resentment and trust issues ruled this question for years until a new situation forced the City to finally move on. I would say though, the inhabitants of Umeå (from here on referred to as Umebos (bo = live, live in Umeå), are in a state of pending awaiting, not trusting anything really before we see it happening.

And what about the Seattleites? Well, it seems like the very ambitious plans for the waterfront is doing a good job trying to get on stage, and the people listening to James Corner the other week made it too the front row. But overall it’s like the redesigning of the waterfront is dodging in the shadows behind the all-consuming debate about the demolishing of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the plans for the deep bore tunnel. I am carrying good hope though for those happy people rollerblading, biking, skate boarding and strolling along the sunny waterfronts. And expecting cozy warming fires for our cold long winters. Rainy in Seattle, all snowy in Umeå. My two cities. 

Nov 5, 2011

The holiday of dark and light

It is a beautiful and overwhelming picture. All those candles, all those names on the tombstones flickering shadows, every cemetery in the country lit up in honor to our loved ones. It is All Saint’s Day (Allhelgonadagen) in Sweden. A church holiday that is becoming more and more dear to us, it seems. The time for remembering, loving and letting go.

As we need to let go of sights, places and habits too. The Thornberg Building (Thornbergska huset) in Umeå is now all down, a huge encaged pit of demolished concrete, left to our fantasy of what’s going to come. And in Seattle the southern mile of The Alaskan Way Viaduct is gone and the rest of the Viaduct open to traffic again until the next piece of it will become history. These are times for change.

Halloween did come and go too. In Sweden Halloween is a pretty recent phenomenon that to start with stirred up a lot of feelings and still is leaving us in some kind of confusion. My first Halloween was in 1996. My sons were 8 and 10, overly excited to pick up their first pumpkin at a pumpkin farm with their American “grandfather” Harold and aunt Autumn. All afternoon was creative carving in our Portage bay backyard, oh those proud boys in their Fred Meyer costumes next to the pumpkin lanterns before going to their next-door friend Carel’s favorite Haunted House in Montlake. No other Halloween can match that first one.

Back in Sweden the year after, the sons were happily surprised though to discover big spiders, skeletons, and sticky webs even in the stores over here this time of year! The grandmother generation wasn’t as pleased though. This was just one more American thing we didn’t understand and hadn’t asked for, and it certainly didn’t match our All Saints Day tradition. On the contrary, quite a collision. And to be honest, our trick or treating was kind of lame and shy, as we didn’t really know how to do this. And we couldn’t even quite figure out which day to do it. We still don’t, kind of.

Halloween came to stay though, although the event has changed to be of a more Swedish modest nature. I would say we needed a reason for a good fall party, so why not! But it’s still that confusion about when to do it. This year though, we seemed to agree on Halloween last week, leaving this weekend to the more peaceful Swedish tradition of the All Saints.

So, this dark afternoon my now grown up sons visited their grandparent’s grave in the small town where I grew up, together with their cousins and their moms. We brought decorations and we lit candles in the lantern. We quietly sang grandma’s favorite hymns and smiled at grandpa’s playful jokes accompanied by the lively creak at their feet, and we could feel the spirit and see the lights of their friends in the glowing cemetery. And I was moved learning that later tonight my oldest son and his friends are having a sit down dinner together remembering and telling stories about their gone loved ones. Maybe the conflict between Halloween and All Saint’s Day has made our Swedish tradition dearer to us. More valuable. Lighter. We are embracing it and even coming up with new ways of celebrating. All Saint’s Day has become the holiday coming out of the dark.