Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Jul 8 2013

Summertime

The view from the beach

I took a walk this morning – down the road to the postboxes to pick up our morning newspaper. It was a pleasant, sunny 18 degrees C but the very brisk north wind made if feel cooler. On my way back to the house I took a short detour down to the lake. It was still early so there was no one there – I had the whole beach to myself. I waded out into the water, to just above my knees and stood there watching the fish swimming around my feet. 

I like standing there in the chilly water. It makes my arthritic joints feel better. Small wind-driven wavelets lapped about my knees and I listened to the tree leaves rustling in the breeze, in waves of sound, punctuated by the cries of the various bird species that live here in our neck of the woods. This is summer. This is what vacation means to me. I stayed there for quite awhile.

Sometimes as we drive to the store from our house, we pass joggers. There they are, running along our country road with their ears stuffed with earplugs attached to their smart phones. I have no idea what they are listening to. Aside from being mildly dangerous – they can’t hear cars coming from behind them – I can not understand why they would choose to cut themselves off from the all the sounds of Nature around them. I can’t imagine how anything coming over the wire could possibly beat that.

I was never much of a nature-lover back in my previous life, back in New York City. And even when I first moved to Stockholm, I preferred the city to the country. But now I can sit back, on my deck, listening to the birds and the sounds the trees make in the breeze and just feel good. I like looking at the green color of the trees as they are silhouetted against the bright blue Swedish sky and think what a beautiful color combination that is. Whoever designed that combination should be very proud of themselves. Professor Buckley, the color teacher at Pratt, certainly would think so.


Jul 29 2012

Its sooooo green

It was almost 20 years ago when we first came out here to Stavsnäs, the country property my husband’s parents first bought, back in the early 50s.

The old sofa

One of the many things we found out here was a teak, outdoor sofa that was very much in need of love. One of the first summers here, in between my many other duties as a mother of a young child, I spent a lot of hours sanding and oiling that sofa. For many years now, it has been one of the main pieces of outdoor furniture we have out here. We would store it indoors during the winter and take it out again when we came out here the following spring. There it would be, first on the deck outside our little house and for the past 4 years on the deck outside the new big house. Each year it would sit, soaking up the rain and drying out in the sun and one year, when we didn’t get to put it inside, even withstanding the snow. But all those years of use had taken their toll. Our once lovely bench had turned grey and rough and no longer so pleasant to sit on. So, yestarday, I decided to spend some time fixing it up again. It didn’t take as much sanding as it did 20 some-odd years ago but the oiling took longer since the oil I had was old and needed to be applied very carefully. Now, it can once again sit on the deck, dark and smooth and warm to the touch.

It’s hard to believe that so much time has gone by since I first came out here – to the Swedish countryside. I have spent many hours sitting on that bench looking out at the growing things on our property. I believe my husband often felt guilty dragging his New York City wife out of the city, first on his sailboat and then later out to his childhood’s summer paradise.  Those early years, on the sailboat, I kept up my standards. My nails were polished, I wore eye makeup and I didn’t go anywhere without my earrings. I have to admit that walking through spider webs when going ashore to tie up the boat was icky but I did it. Once the boat was anchored, I managed to crouch down on the rock cliffs next to the little grill we set up to grill on. Then, when Bevin came along, we switched from the boating life to livet på landet. There we spent our summers, in 25 square meters of house – with an outhouse to use instead of indoor plumbing. I washed dishes, outside, next to the house wall, sometimes in the sunshine and often in the rain. Wearing my first pair of green rubber boots, I used my new weed-wacker to force some semblance of civilization onto the growing things surrounding us. When the poop buckets got filled and needed to be switched I did that too. And when we were forced to compost our own poop, Håkan bought and assembled a latrine compost container and I emptied 6 poop barrels into it, garbed in old clothes, rubber boots and plastic gloves. I then washed out the empty barrels with the garden hose and left them to dry on the lawn in the sun. By now, I hardly even complain about it anymore, though of course it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain a little bit. I still need to go back once a week to the city, to our apartment, to wash clothes, to check mail and to wash my hair in a shower that the wind doesn’t blow through and where the warm water lasts long enough.

I sit on my bench and I look up at the tall tree tops, the birches, the oak, and the pines – I watch the way the leaves move in the wind. I listen to the sound they make as they move. I watch the birds as they fly by or as they peck at the ground, hopping around. Sometimes a deer comes by. I watch the few flowers we have planted as they open to the sun. My three ölandstok bushes have burst out into bloom just last week and that gives me pleasure to look at them. Proud that I planted them and glad that they still are alive.

Long ago, before Sweden, I was visiting my friend Tom and his wife Wally up at their country house in the Catskills. Their idea of a fun thing to do on a sunny afternoon was to pile everyone into their minivan – themselves in the front and me and the dogs on the back seat and then drive around on the county roads up there in the Catskill Mountains. Up and down and around we drove. Passing unkempt houses with 3 or 4 broken down cars on the front lawn. Sometimes small, quiet villages too. Looking down into deep valleys and up to tall tree covered mountains. The goal I think was to get to some cafe or something, eventually. After about two or three hours of this, sitting in the back, fighting for seat space with the dogs, I just had to complain. I asked them in the front seat, for certainly the upteenth time, “When are we going to get there?” meaning the cafe. And when they turned to me and asked me, “Whats the matter? Aren’t you enjoying this – looking out at the nature?” My response to that was, ” Weeeeell, its OK, but its just soooo green!” To this day, they have never let me forget that.

So now as I sit on my newly oiled bench, I look out at all the green around me. I have no makeup on. My fingernails are cut short and unpolished. I have a very unflattering pair of sweatpants on, a black tank top and a red cotton shirt with paint splashes on it and my feet are filthy. The city seems so far away. I hear its call but dimly. The wish to have nice shoes on and be dressed in a great summer dress, to have my face on and earrings too, while I walk along city streets looking in all the shop windows, is still there. There is definitely a part of me that misses that life. Perhaps the fact that as I walk along the city streets I’m now surrounded by a lot of 20- and 30-something girls who look so great in their summer clothes and I am now a 60-something old lady (though people tell me, a very well preserved 60-something) who just can’t compete with all those lovely young things, makes me less willing to want to be there.

With love

So now I’m content for the moment to sit on my 30-year-old rejuvenated bench and watch the eternally old and eternally new, ever changing face of Nature surrounding me.

While deep down inside me is still that memory of my New York-self, I no longer mind just sitting and looking out at all that green.


Jul 25 2010

Family

You can pick your nose.
And you can pick your friends.
But you can’t pick your friends’ nose.
That rhyme has rattled around in my head ever since I was a little kid. I don’t know why. So much other stuff doesn’t seem to be able to stay in there but that little ditty does. I always thought it was funny for some reason. The idea of picking one’s friends. It’s not the same with family. You can’t pick your family. They become attached to you the moment you are born. And they follow you for the rest of their lives. When I was much, much younger I used to wish that we could also pick family. One goes through a certain period of one’s life when FAMILY is either embarrassing, annoying or just plain irritating. It isn’t until you move far away from them that you realize just how important FAMILY really is.
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Apr 16 2010

Back to the country

Last weekend, we drove out to our house in the countryside. It was the first time we had been there since winter started. November had been unusually warm and we waited till almost the end of the month to finally close up the place. Since we didn’t want to be paying for more electricity than necessary during the winter, we lowered the thermometers on the radiators to the lowest possible temperature, a few degrees above freezing, and we said goodbye till spring. Because we only have running water in the summer and that comes to us pumped up from a lake a few minutes away, the place is truly only a summer house. The water is only for washing and the pump needs to be taken out of the lake before it has a chance to freeze. Drinking water we have to get from a hand pump down the road. Our toilet facilities are equally antiquated – just an outhouse, which isn’t so much fun to use in the winter.

This winter, however, was one of the worst I can remember in the almost 30 years since I first came to Sweden. As soon as December started, it hit us with a fury. All through December, January, February, and even into March, temperatures rarely rose above freezing, often being far below and we have been covered with deep snow continuously even into April. So as we drove out to Stavsnäs, we were wondering how it was there. Here in the city, except for small patches on northern slopes and the slowly shrinking piles left from the snow plows, most of the snow is gone. But as we drove east towards the Stockholm archipelago, we saw more and more snow cover still on the ground.
driveway
At the bottom of the driveway is a mound of snow blocking our entry but after a couple of attempts, we get the car over the mound and drive up the hill. A soggy winter wonderland meets our eyes! In the middle of the property is a half-frozen lake. Puddles, ice and snow greeted us.We see patches of deep snow in some places and bare ground or rock in others. Going from one place to another means hopping from one semi-dry patch to another semi-dry patch. Poor judgment results in wet feet but we make it to the house.

snow piled up on the deck under the roofOn the deck, in a line parallel to the house, just under the edge of the roof, is a high pile of snow. It’s what’s left from the snow that slid off the roof, probably all at once, when the weather got a bit warmer and the melting started. On the other side of the house is a similar pile and on that pile lies the steel-plate chimney that surrounded the kitchen fan’s exhaust pipe. The pipe itself is still on the roof but bent double. chimneyThe chimney however, is a mangled piece of metal. It seems that the heavy mass of snow, as it slid off the roof took the chimney with it. We go inside to see if there was any water damage there but the wooden inner ceiling and the hole around the pipe seem OK. That’s a relief. We spend the rest of the afternoon spreading a tarp over the hole and tying it down till we have time to come out and do something more permanent about it. We will definitely be buying a new chimney. Oh, the joys of owning a house. Everyone we talked to about it, kept saying that we are supposed to periodically shovel the snow off the roof. Who wants to shovel snow off a roof?! That’s what I like about living in an apartment building in a city. Someone else gets to take care of that kind of stuff.

After a short walk all around the property to see if any trees have fallen down on anything important, we get into the car and head back to civilization.