Foreward: How it Happened
“Katie, I have a question for you. We’re doing an Allt för Sverige Christmas special, and I’m wondering if you would like to come back to Sweden to celebrate Christmas and meet your family…”
I knew before season 4 began to air that I would be going back to meet my family. It was hard after episode 1, when I started getting messages from fans of the show, saying how sorry or sad they felt for me because of my CF. It was all I could do not to shout it from the rooftops, “Just wait! Don’t feel sad for me, not at all! I’m not dying– I’m strong, and I get to meet my family!” Or when a certain Swedish tabloid newspaper posted a headline during that first livetweet about how I wanted to “cheat death” by going to Sweden, which made me so fumingly angry.
That headline alone was enough to make me second-guess my decision to go back for the Julspecial. It took some coaxing from some people I trust to talk me back from the ledge and remind me how much was to be gained, and given, by my return. They reminded me to just be patient and let the story unfold. It was so hard to wait, but I knew that in time as the series aired people would see me… the real me… they would stop feeling sad for me as they learned how lucky I ended up being in the long run.
Traveling to Sweden – again!
I can count on the fingers of one hand the people who I told I was going back for the Julspecial. Funny enough, Nick and I had talked on the phone for a good 90 minutes not a week before we went for Sweden for the Julspecial, and neither one of us said a word about it. So we were totally surprised to see each other there. We were pretty proud of ourselves for that one! Even when I had to OK my time off with my boss at work, he didn’t know why I was going – I just told him it was to do publicity for AFS. I had to give Courtney the same story when I asked if I could borrow the curling iron she bought in Sweden… I figured I wouldn’t have time to buy one of my own (and I was right).
I flew into Copenhagen like I had in May. This time was different though – instead of being greeted by our coordinator and handler at the airport, it was up to me to make my way to the train and find my way to my hotel in Malmö. Fortunately I’m a seasoned traveler and I enjoy traveling independently – I had already explored Copenhagen on my own last summer, before the rest of my castmates arrived. It was an easy enough task to find the right train, which quickly and quietly took me across the Öresund Bridge from a different perspective than the one I had on a bus the first time. It was fun listening to two American men seated behind me chat about places they wanted to visit in Sweden. “Been to that one… and that one… ” I thought to myself.
I arrived at my hotel, grabbed a short nap, and found myself some dinner and a 7-11 where I could get some much-coveted svenska godis. It was a Sunday night, so I turned on the TV at 20.00 and did the livetweet of episode 3 from my hotel room! It was surreal to just be able to turn on the TV and see myself there, instead of having to watch it on my computer.
Nobody had recognized me (to my knowledge) as of yet. But meanwhile, someone posted on Twitter that Rebecca Redner had been spotted at the Arlanda Airport, so the cat was quickly escaping from the bag.
Meeting family in Höllviken
The next morning I met up with the crew and they drove me out to Höllviken, where I would meet my family. I got out my map so I could find it… I had two maps from my travels last summer, and the small one didn’t have it on it so I got out the huge detailed one I was using to mark where I’d been so my parents could retrace my steps when they visit Sweden. I found it at the very southwestern tip of Skåne, and was excited to be going to someplace near the ocean for my family reunion. I love the saltwater and any place I can smell the salty air always feels like home to me.
We drove up through a neighborhood of cute little houses and I tried to guess which one had my family inside, waiting for me. When I walked up to the house, at first nobody answered the door, but I saw people inside and my cousin Anne, who I recognized from when I met her before! So I opened the door and said, “Hello? I’m here!” It was just like walking into the house of a member of the family here at home. Everybody was so warm and welcoming, and I was immediately comfortable with all of them. Some of them didn’t speak much English, but they still embraced me warmly and I could tell from their smiles that they were happy to meet me. There was a little boy who seemed rather shy, but when I smiled and said, “Trevligt att träffas!” he smiled back before he hid his face in his farmor’s shoulder again. So I figure that was at least one swedish phrase worth learning!
They invited me to sit down for fika, and they had a cup of tea waiting for me. They had already learned from reading an interview with me in their local paper that I drink tea for my fika instead of coffee! It was amazing that they already knew me a little bit from watching me in the first few episodes of the show and following me in the press. They also offered me saffron bread and cookies, which were delicious and very good with the tea.
Next we exchanged gifts! I had brought some things for them – a Christmas tree ornament painted with a scene from my hometown, a CD of songs from the concert I did last summer, and a cookbook by an iconic Seattle restaurant. The cookbook was a lot of fun to look through with them, as you can see how the Scandinavian roots in Seattle come through in its local cuisine, and it also had a lot of interesting pictures of my little corner of the world.
They all gave me some wonderful gifts, too. The family history album that Rolf gave me was truly priceless – while the show had focused on my morfar’s farmor (Elna Persdottir), Rolf is descended from the sister of my morfar’s farfar (Anders Olsson). So he had done all the research into his side of the family, which was all new to me. In addition to the family history album, my relatives gave me a couple of books (The Adventures of Nils in English and “Busskungen” in Swedish… something with which to practice my svenska!). Anne also gave me a lovely silver bracelet, and her brother gave me a CD of his two grown-up children playing music together. More musicians in the family! I was delighted.
Ther was one final present… an apron! Anne had one to match and the two of us made our way into the kitchen to build the pepparkakshus.
Our first attempt at making the “glue” was not very good – the sugar crystallized instead of melting, I think we stirred it too soon. I actually cook quite a bit but had never done that before so I was totally deferring to whatever advice Anne’s mamma would offer! While we were waiting for it to melt, Anne started singing! I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped when the first notes of “Ding dong merrily on high” came out of her mouth! I started singing with her and the two of us puttered around the kitchen, making our pepparkakshus and singing Christmas carols together. It was such a wonderful feeling. We finally got the walls to cement together (though we did have a bit of a structural issue when I accidentally cracked a wall… oops!). We glued the chimney together by each of us holding two sides together while it set – teamwork!
Then we decorated it – I put on the icing while Anne put on the candies. I tried to make a little star on the side of it but it drooped down and became a melted star. Then together we placed some snowmen and some little tomtar around. I put tomte in the chimney, and Anne put some climbing in the windows, one fell on his way in so all we could see was the butt!
Here is what I now know of the Swedish glögg tradition:
- Heat up glögg in a pot on the stove, being careful that it doesn’t boil, it should just be pleasantly warm but not too hot. (Note: it works best if a less-talkative relative does this job. More-talkative ones will get distracted and it will boil anyway.)
- Ladel glögg into small, festive glasses.
- Individual guests may use small spoons to sprinkle raisins and chopped nuts into glögg glasses if desired. (Note: They will say they are not judging you on how you do this. Don’t believe them.)
- Awkwardly try to figure out whether the nuts and raisins should be spooned out and eaten or whether they should be sipped out, and whether the spoon should remain in the glass while sipping.
- Everybody stands in the kitchen with their glasses and sings a Swedish song about Tomte. (Hej, tomtegubbar!)
- The song ends and everybody stands there looking at each other in awkward silence. (I asked if this was part of the glögg tradition and received an honest response of,”Well…yes.”)
So we added another step:
7. Swedish relatives ask American relative to sing a song for them. (O Holy Night brings goosebumps all around.)
I had brought with me as a gift to them a sparkly wine tag that said something like, “This wine pairs well with beef, lamb, and awkward relatives.” I placed it on the bottle. Perfect.
I was going to ask them if they would sing a Swedish carol with me that I’d learned – Det är en ros utsprungen – when I was whisked away from the camera crew for an interview outside. So the moment passed and then it was lunchtime and I didn’t get to sing it with them that day. (But that experience motivated me to do this, later.) And it also left me with a stunning conclusion from that moment:
And it was that moment in which I discovered that I’ve been Swedish my whole life and never knew.
Swedish Family Lunch
Speaking of lunchtime, guess what we had to eat?
I just about died laughing, thinking about John and his nickname, but I couldn’t tell my family what was so funny. They will understand, now!
We spent most of the afternoon just talking together off camera. At one point I bounced into the living room doing a little tap dance (as I often do at home) and Anne’s eyes lit up, and she jumped off the couch to come dance with me! She has studied music and dance and taught tap dancing herself, so she had me far outclassed in the dancing department. But we also had fun teaching each other the Swedish and English names for different yoga poses that we both knew. We were so alike. And it turned out that my initial impression of Anne – that we had much in common and I wanted to be her friend – was exactly right.
In my family I’m always the one who bursts spontaneously into song and dance, and here was my distant cousin from thousands of miles away doing the same thing. People were telling us that we even had the same attitude and mannerisms. And the more I get to know her, the more it seems like our personalities make us parallels on either side of the Atlantic.
As I stood out at the ocean, savoring my last few moments there before I had to leave, I was struck by just how strong family ties are. Anne, her brother Peter, and her mother drove me to the airport so I could catch my flight to Stockholm where I would meet up with the others. As we drove to the airport we listened to the CD that Peter gave me of my cousins’ music. It was beautiful, and when they started singing in harmony together I was overcome with a perfect contentment. There I was with the window down, the smell of the saltwater blowing in, my family sitting there with me… the weightiness of all the generations of waiting, leading up to this moment struck me so hard that I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I cried for joy with them. It felt like home.
At that moment we became family not just on paper, but in the truest sense of the word.
You saw pretty much everything there was to see when we were up north in Gällivare, so I don’t have a whole lot to add to that part, but I do have some pictures I’ll post on Facebook. Here are some highlights:
I got to see the aurora borealis – which is to me as swimming north of the Arctic circle was to John Olson (bucket list!).
I got to go night skiing at Dundret at 3:00 PM. Riding with Guy Clark on a ski lift like I’d never seen before in all my years as a skier. It whipped around the corner looking like it was going to impale me in the butt.
I got to stay in a castle:
But even more than that, I got to spend time with these awesome, lovable goofballs:
…And talk and exchange photos with Anne for hours on the flight back to Stockholm!
I’ll be posting more behind-the-scenes photos on my Facebook page. Any other burning questions about the Julspecial? Ask below in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer what I can!