Stockholm Syndrome

“Can I help you?”

“Oh, we were hoping to get a drink at the bar, but it looks like it’s full?”

“One moment.”

The bar was incredibly inviting — hexagonal tile on the floors, dark wood at the bar and dark leather on the booths. Huge mirrors reflecting the electric light. A necessity in Stockholm in January, when the sun sets at 3:30pm and there are only 6 hours of daylight. It may seem CRAZY to travel to Sweden in January, but my friend Hen found cheap tickets, so we hopped a plane and set off for the Scandinavian north.

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And you know, even in the winter, Stockholm is a beautiful city — crisp and clear and bright. It was cold, though. This is how my iPhone announced the weather one morning:

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Frigid. The official weather forecast was frigid. Weather like that calls for one thing: frequent pit stops into shops, bars and cafes in order to warm up.

The shops in Stockholm close at 5pm — cocktail hour. The restaurant on the corner seemed the perfect place. We opened the door, ducked our heads past the “keep out the cold” curtains — and saw that the bar was packed. Filled to the brim. The dining room was empty, but this was clearly the type of place where a table was for dining — if you just wanted a drink, get to the bar. It seemed we were out of luck.

“Can I help you?”

The bartender came out to see what we needed. He was a large man (in hindsight, the only truly large man I saw in Sweden) with a hooked nose, two chins and piercing, deep-set eyes. The kind of man you don’t mess around with.

We explained our situation — hoping for a drink, but it looks like you’re full, so thanks anyway — and the bartender looked around his domain. “One moment,” he said.

(Everyone in Stockholm speaks perfect English, of course. It makes you feel ashamed of the American education system.)

We watched the bartender walk across the room and up to a table in the bar area. Three men, talking, laughing, enjoying some beers. We watched the bartender speak to them for a moment. We watched him bring the check — we watched the men hurriedly finish up their beers — and then watched as they got up, put on their coats, and walked past us and out the door, giving us the stink eye. I mean, OF COURSE they were throwing the stink eye. The bartender just kicked them out for us. It was clearly and obviously what had happened.

“Did he just kick them out?” I asked Hen.

Before she could respond, he was back. “This way,” the bartender said.

We followed (what else do you do when a table has been forcefully cleared for you?) and took a seat. The bartender put down drink menus and returned to his station.

I took a trip to the bathroom, and when I returned, Hen had ordered a drink. I asked her what she got.

“Something with bourbon,” she said. “I told him I like bourbon, and he said he knew just the thing and he’d make it.” She told me all this as if she hadn’t had much choice in the matter.

I took a quick glance at the menu — but then he was back, bearing Hen’s drink.

“And you will have?” he asked me.

I looked down at the menu. “Gin gimlet.” The bartender nodded, took the menu, and went back to the bar.

“I don’t know if that’s what I really wanted,” I told Hen. “But it’s the first thing in the menu, and somehow it didn’t seem like I could say, ‘I’m not sure.'”

The bartender brought over the gimlet — pale green, a tiny bit frothy — nodded, and left. I noticed the cloth tucked into his apron — white herringbone with red trim, just like the Swedish cloth my aunt gave me, hanging in my kitchen back home in Seattle.

The gimlet, I will say, was one of the best I’ve had. Clearly this guy knew his stuff, I’d give him that (even if he did kick out patrons on a whim). Hen and I drank, chatted, and decided that here was a good a spot as any to have a bite of food. When the bartender came back over, we said we’d have the special — crayfish with what was described to us as “farmer’s bread.”

“Should we get one or two?” I asked Hen.

We debated for a moment before the bartender put his hand on my shoulder. “Get two,” he said. “It’s very nice.”

We quickly agreed. “What wines do you have?” asked Hen.

“With the seafood, a nice white.”

We nodded. Sounded good. Besides, this man had a way of saying this — you couldn’t say no to him. His was the definitive answer: this, this is good, and you will have it.

The crayfish came, tasting like a cross between crab and shrimp, mixed lightly with dill and lemon and piled high on chewy dark bread and topped by a dollop of orange Swedish caviar. And the wine? Perfect, as promised, with the crayfish.

By the time we finished our meal, we’ve been sitting for quite a while. The entire restaurant was packed now, bar and dining area, and we could see people queuing up at the door. “We’d better get going, empty up the table,” Hen suggested. I agreed.

When the bartender came back, we asked for the check.

“Dessert?” he said.

Oh no, we said, we see there are people waiting, we don’t want to take up the space — we’ll get going.

He shook his head and furrowed his brow and repeated the question. “Dessert?”

I’m not sure what the qualification is to be kicked out of a table, but apparently we didn’t meet it. “Well, alright,” we said.

He told us the special — a dense, flat chocolate cake, paired with a scoop of house-made licorice ice cream — and we told him we’d take one.

“With two spoons,” he added. Not a question.

With our dessert, the bartender brought out two small glasses filled with amber liquid. “On the house,” he said. “Special aged Jamaican rum. Very good with chocolate.”

He was right, of course. Every sip of rum complemented the chocolate perfectly. You couldn’t say no to this man — but why would you want to? No trip is complete without a weird, random adventure — and Stockholm wouldn’t have been complete without the bartender.

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Trying New Things: Fly Fishing

Several years ago, Byron and I took a road trip down to the Bay area and visited our friend, Jay. At the time, Jay was super into fly fishing. He even tied his own flies. There were at least a dozen of them lined up on his desk, showin’ off their different feathers and sparklies and colors. I pointed to a pink fluffy one and said, “Wow, Jay, that’s really pretty!”

Jay immediately gifted me the fly. I named it Fernando. Fernando now lives in my car and gets his feathers tussled by gentle sun-roof breezes. Sometimes I sing ABBA to him.

A pink fly for fly fishing.
Fernando riding shotgun.

Fast forward to present day. I was having dinner at my parents’ house, and my dad was sitting in the living room, going through his fly fishing vest. He had just gone fishing that day and was sorting things out. True fact: there is so much stuff that goes along with fly fishing. Little tools, different types of line, all those different beautiful flies. I pestered Dad with questions as he put things away, and finally he asked, “Would you like to go fly fishing sometime?”

So off we went.

Woman casting a fly rod.

We were after cutthroat trout — they follow the dying salmon upstream, eating their eggs. The salmon presence was unmistakable — from the moment you stepped onto the stream, a faint yet definitive fish smell hung in the air. And you could see them in the water, of course, laboriously making their way upstream. One of them scared the crap out of me as I waded through the stream bed, suddenly lunging out of the water about three feet away from me (I SWEAR IT WAS TRYING TO ATTACK).

Now, I can’t say that I’m a total newbie at this. Dad taught me once before — I think I was in middle school? But, you know, my skillz have gotten a bit rusty, to say the least. Dad had me tie the flies on the line, for practice. First cast — that fly I tied on oh-so-well goes slipping off. Oops. Good thing I had my super-snazzy fly fishing vest with all the pockets to hold all the things. Including extra flies.

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How on earth can a fly line get so incredibly tangled with one flick?

I can see why a lot of writers enjoy the pastime of fly fishing. Like running, it’s a physical task, and a very rhythmic one. The sound of the stream going by, the weight of the pole in your hand as you cast, the swish swish swish of the line snapping through the air. The methodical nature of it all helps clear the head. And that’s what we writers need from time to time: something to clear away the jumble, get us out from the darkness of our mind-grapes and into the light of day, so we can work out whatever word tangle is troubling us.

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Since the good weather probably won’t hold out too much longer, I doubt I’ll get much more fly-fishing practice in this year. But I could see myself enjoying it in the future. That evening after I got home, Byron commented that I must be tired because I’d had an adventure.

“A ‘Laura’ adventure, though,” he clarified. “Sun, not a lot of people, nice and quiet.” Yes, that sounds like my kind of adventure indeed.

The Lemon

Mary and I often talk about how we should be more spontaneous. We are both Grade A Organizers and Planners — which, in general, great life skill! BUT it also tends to leave little room for random adventures. So last week we took a 24-hour international trip on a Wednesday to see the Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake concert in Vancouver, BC. Not spontaneous, as it had definitely been planned out… but you know, not a NORMAL thing for us to do on a Wednesday. BABY STEPS, people.

Midnight poutine seemed like a necessity after the concert (which OMG YOU GUYZ AMAZING), especially after our gracious host Robin learned that Byron had never had poutine. So after spilling out of the stadium, we followed the throngs of people out into the streets of Vancouver.

So, two things to keep in mind at this point: 1) It was midnight… well past midnight, really. 2) It was a Wednesday. There were SO MANY PEOPLE! ALL THE PEOPLE! Downtown Seattle at 1am is dead dead dead. Vancouver at midnight… it actually reminded me of being in Vegas, the crowds of people spilling into the streets, paying little heed to cars, the women teetering around in stilettos and the men steadying them for balance.

Robin said the poutine was “just around the corner.” A dozen corners later, and we finally staggered into Smoke’s Poutinerie (at this point in the day, I’d been up since 4:55am, we’d all gone to work then driven 6 hours, danced for 3 hours at a concert… so yeah. “Staggered” is the appropriate verb). The line was out the door, but dammit, we’d made it this far, we were getting poutine.

“Hold the lemon. Just hold the lemon. It’ll be ok.”

It was a long line, full of women in short dresses and men in too-tight T-shirts. A chalkboard above the single cash register listed about 30 different poutine options. And as I tried to focus (and stay awake), my eyes kept wandering to the guy with the lemon.

He had a lemon — one single lemon — that he held close to his chest, almost in a loving fashion. He kept holding it out and offering it to women. “Here, take the lemon. Just touch it, it’s ok, you can hold it.”

He kept doing this over and over. And granted, I was exhausted and starving and smelling delicious poutine, but I was fixated on this guy. I don’t even think he put in a poutine order. He just kept offering up this lemon. He and his friend seemed to think it was all hilarious. The women presented with the lemon seemed bemused. And the whole thing was clearly somehow… sexual? Like, “lemon” was some sort of code word? But then there was the actual real-life lemon, right there, that this guy for whatever reason had brought into a poutinerie at midnight on a Wednesday.

I watched with increasing wonder. What was the point of the lemon? Why was he sexualizing a lemon? Had this pick-up line worked in the past? What would he do if a woman actually did take the lemon?

The women, in turn, looked at him oddly and maybe gave a small laugh. A few of them did reach out and touch it (but not take it). They all seemed as confused as I felt. I desperately wanted one of them to tell this guy to shut up and shove it — but then, thinking about it, if I were in their shoes, if I had been offered the lemon, what would I have done? I’d like to think I would have put the lemon in my purse and walked out of the shop. “You want me to take the lemon? I’LL TAKE YOUR DAMN LEMON.”

In reality though, I probably would have done the same as these other women. Given a weird smile, tried to ignore the guy, and stared determinedly at my poutine. But a week later, I still want to know the secret of the lemon.

5K Foam Fest

Buffalo Writes - Foam Fest 5K Finish Line

YOU GUYS I DID IT! I ran the Foam Fest 5K and I DIDN’T DIE! Totally achieved my goal (I’d even go so far as to say I surpassed it). Score!

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The starting line. Not sure what I was trying to achieve with this pose. It basically just looks like I’m trying to punch Val in the jaw.

It’s funny — day before the race? Morning of? NOT nervous at all. In fact I was almost excited. Good friends were around, we’d be running it together (it’d all be over soon) — it’d be great!

And then we arrived at the race. Got checked in. Waited around for our start time. And I started getting SUPER nervous. Byron’s sister had finished a few hours before us, and she started giving us tips — which were super helpful! I ended up remembering and using most of them during the race. But at the time? As she was telling us? HELLO, ANXIOUS LAURA!

Of course, as SOON as we crossed the starting line — I was fine. The waiting around was just killing me. True of all life’s events, I guess: waiting is the worst.

Oh, and mud. Mud filled with GRAVEL is also the worst (my scrapped-up elbows agree).

Buffalo Writes - Foam Fest 5K
Audrey and I crawling through mud, under electric wires (which DID shock — Byron can attest to this).
Buffalo Writes - Foam Fest 5K
So much mud on us that our clothes were LITERALLY being pulled down our bodies.

The actual running part was quite a bit harder than I expected. In my head, the obstacles would provide a nice break from the running — let me catch my breath. In reality? The obstacles got me so psyched up, that by the time I got past each one, I was a bit worn out from the adrenaline let-down. I still ran MOST of the time…. with a few walking breaks cut in. As Audrey continually reminded me, no one does these types of races with the goal of getting their best 5K time.

I gotta say — I killed it on the lily pad obstacle. I thought that would be a hard one, but I was like a frickin’ frog across those things. Wide-leg stance, you guys. That’s your best bet.

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Going up and over the cargo nets.

The hardest by far? The 8 foot wall you had to climb over. I wasn’t really psyched out about that one until we got to it… and then it was THERE. And it was TALL. And I had to go OVER it. And once you get to the top of the wall you have to figure out how to get your limbs over it without dying. SO FUN. I wanted to skip it, but Audrey gave me crap about it — so, over it was. Fortunately Byron was a very good encourager and helped talk both me and Val through it.

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WE DID IT!

So would I do it again? I… think so? I’m honestly not sure. I definitely want to sign up for another 5K run — we finished this one in about 48 minutes, which was to expected with all those obstacles. I’d like to do a run for time, see if I can’t get myself under 30 minutes.

But for now: we set a goal, and we killed it. We tried a new thing. All in all, a good day.

Buffalo Writes - Foam Fest 5K Finish Line
Muddy. Foamy. Happy.

(All photos courtesy of the lovely Audrey and the lovely Tori, who are both crazy enough to bring their cameras to a mud-filled race.)

Smell the Eucalytpus

“What’s that smell?”

“Mmm. Roll down the windows… it’s the eucalyptus.”

Byron and I traveled down to the Bay area for a wedding this weekend, and let me tell you guys — the eucalyptus. There’s something intoxicating about that heady scent. And I mean “intoxicating” in the literal sense of the word — one whiff of those babies and I pretty much lose my senses. “THAT’S IT WE MUST MOVE TO CALIFORNIA TO LIVE WITH THESE DRUGGIE TREES.”

Since this trip was coastal, there were more crazy wind-swept cypress trees than eucalyptus (which, not a bad thing — those cypress got it goin’ on). But on the drive out, through the hills, we’d occasionally pass through a grove of eucalyptus — and that was all it took.

In the book I wrote for my senior thesis, one of the characters moves from Seattle to Santa Monica:

The thing Marian liked best about southern California was the trees. They were tall and graceful, oak and madrona and box elder with branches that spread out like upside down umbrellas. Compared to them, the evergreens of the Northwest looked like bottom-heavy children, wrapped up in too many winter coats. Cole had been right; the air smelled different here. That, she soon discovered, was largely due to the eucalyptus trees that spread everywhere. Their leaves, ranging from small, bluish-green circles to long silvery tendrils, smelt like some sort of exotic spice carried across by the ocean breeze. She loved walking through the park near their house, breathing in the intoxicating scent and listening to the wind rustling their dry leaves. Cole said they were no better than weeds, the way they sprang up everywhere. Marian paid him no heed; they were by far her favorite.

At this section, my thesis advisor wrote in the margin: Traitor. She meant it in jest, of course, but she was right — the character (and by extension, the author) had abandoned the oppressive grey gloom of the Northwest in favor of California. 

And you know? I LOVE the Northwest. I think there’s no better place to be. But sometimes it’s hard to compare with this:

Kite surfers on Highway 1 in California

And this:

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Everything down there just seems scented with a kind of forgetfulness — like there is nowhere else in the world to be, nowhere else in the world you should be.

And no — I am not packing up the new house and the new couch and the old cats and moving to California. But smell is a powerful thing — our most powerful sense, really. It wakes up different parts of the brain. It’s hard to resist its siren song.

I’m sure without even really knowing it, whatever I write next will be tinged with the scent of eucalyptus.

Lessons from Hawaii

Of Isak Dinesen’s famous salt trio — “The cure for anything is salt water – tears, sweat, or the sea” — I choose the sea. My dad grew up diving in SoCal, and I inherited his love of all things ocean: its sound, its smell, its hidden creatures. And going for a swim in the sea is one of the most therapeutic activities I know.

Unfortunately, Puget Sound isn’t conducive to saltwater dips. So I had to escape to Hawaii.

IMG_0511I’m just not sure if there’s anything more beautiful than Hawaii blue. The sea there, you guys — you look out and it’s five different shades of beautiful. Oh, and UNDER water? Just as gorgeous.

Snorkeling at the Ahihi Kinua Reserve.
Snorkeling at the Ahihi Kinua Reserve.

And then — after five days of sun and saltwater and pineapple wine (YES! PINEAPPLE WINE! IT’S A THING!) — I flew back to reality.

I took the bus downtown and walked to work and saw that everything was grey. I mean, it’s always been that color, but after drinking in brilliant blue for a week, it came as a shock. And then the list of daily items starts running through your head, everything that should get done, all the worries and preoccupations. Paradise lost, indeed.

One of our first evenings in Hawaii, we went to a luau and ended up having drinks afterwards with the dancers (you know, as one does). We were chatting with a couple of the guys, asking them about life on the islands, how they spend their days.

Said one of the gentlemen: “I swim, surf, play beach volleyball, dance at night… you know, just live my life.”

Oh yes. Why didn’t I ever think of that.

I mean, really, it’s easy to get bitter. For all the dreaming of picking up and moving to a tropical island — for most of us, it’s not feasible (or even really desirable when we take a step back and think about it). And I don’t think that’s the solution anyway. Maybe what we love about paradise — what we crave about it — is the simple idea that invades our brains while we’re there: not everything matters.

Not everything matters. Not everything is a big deal. Do what you love, do what makes you happy, and don’t get caught up in the rest.

A calm morning out at sea (also, add this to the "trying new things" category -- standup paddle boarding is awesome).
A calm morning out at sea (also, add this to the “trying new things” category — standup paddle boarding is awesome).

We saw dolphins leap with what could only be described as joy. We saw humpback whales breach. A sea turtle and I regarded one another quietly under the waves. And it all makes you feel… well, small. Remarkably unnoticed. But it’s not a bad thing. It reaffirms the fact that you’re a small piece of a big world, something more vast and complex than you could ever imagine.

You never want to board that plane. But the dream always ends and we wake up to reality. And you know what? Reality is ok, too. Last night I sat in the backyard and read a beer* and watched the evening sun play on the hawthorn tree. Find the things you love, and let the rest go.

IMG_0643*Byron caught this typo, but it was kind of too good to take out.

That Time I Was Chased by a Phantom Bear

Some adventures don’t go QUITE as planned. Take this weekend. I’ve been wanting to go snow shoeing for literally years, so finally we got a date on the calendar. And man oh man, I was excited. It would be epic! We’d tromp through a winter wonderland, nimble as deer! Experience the Great Northwest! Probably find an entrance to Narnia!

And then, we got up to Snoqualmie Pass, and it was raining.

Whomp, whomp.

Now, normally, I’d let this type of thing ruin my plans. But we’d driven to the mountain, Val had driven up from frickin’ Portland for this, snow shoeing WAS HAPPENING, dammit.

Onward!
Ah yes — rain, with a nice throw-in of wet snowflakes. 41

And you know what? It was great. Enter the power of positive thinking, I guess. I didn’t even notice that I was soaking wet until we got back to the car. It probably helped that snow shoeing is, you know, basically hiking, and I was distracted by all the huffing and puffing I had to do to get up the hill.

Byron and Audrey, forging ahead.
Byron and Audrey, forging ahead.

It’s really nice getting off the beaten track from time to time. I enjoy the outdoors, but you know, I’m also big on my creature comforts. So I tend not to venture out into the woods too often. It’s something I’m trying to push myself to do more of this year, because WOULD YOU LOOK AT THIS?? We live in a beautiful (if soggy) part of the world.

I was half convinced I'd fall into a tree well.
I was half convinced I’d fall into a tree well.
Nature, you crazy.
Nature, you crazy.

On our way back down the hill, Val and I started heading off through the trees.

“Don’t go that way,” Byron called from above us.

“Why not?”

“I saw something moving in the trees.”

“What did you see?”

“You should just come back this way.”

Nice and ominous
Nice and ominous

Let me tell you what is great motivation for moving quickly on snow shoes — thinking you are going to be eaten by a mutant, probably mama Grizzly bear. No, admittedly, Byron never said it was a bear. BUT WHAT WERE WE TO THINK? Val and I FLEW back up the hill and high-tailed it the edge of the ski slope. Audrey contemplated if you should stand your ground with a bear or run. Byron brought up the rear, saying he would stay back and sacrifice himself if anything were to attack. Um, which apparently was ok with me? Since I was a good twenty yards ahead of him.

Once we got down to the bottom of the hill, adrenaline pumping, I asked him, “What do you think it was? Do you really think it was a bear?”

Byron: “Oh no, it was definitely other snow shoers. I saw them. I just wanted to mess with you guys.”

GEE, THANKS BYRON.

At least I know I can be speedy on snow shoes, if need be.