Beginning from the Beginning: Swedish Heritage in Illinois

Krista Westerlund is our spiritual + historical correspondent. This missive is from her travels to the midwest —and back in time— to trace her Swedish family’s journey in America.

Little Sweden

Little Sweden in America. All images via KW.

I have been really, really remiss about writing about my travel experiences lately. I have traveled a lot and thought about writing about it, but the pen has not gone to paper or rather the finger has not gone to key. I’ve been to a lot of different kinds of places and also, I have spent my fair share of time in my sleepy little patch of routine daily life dreaming about places farther afield and the world beyond my window.

A while ago, I talked about how travel is not a competition. Well, for me, it still isn’t. There are plenty of other people out there who travel far more frequently than I do and who can tick off far more boxes on their bucket lists. Yes, there are places that I’d like to see and certain goals when it comes to travel that I would like to accomplish, but ultimately I don’t travel that way. I am fairly ordinary and on an ordinary budget in life. What I have, and I wouldn’t presume to say that I have far more of it than others – but I do definitely have it, is curiosity. Continue reading

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In spite of the weather, this is London’s time to shine.

Krista Westerlund is our spiritual + historical correspondent. This dispatch examines and arrives from the present center of the world’s attention: London.

Standard bustle in Trafalgar Square. all images © KW.

Ah, London. City of contrasts and competing visions. It is difficult to discuss such an iconic city with so much variety, so much grandeur, and so much touristic appeal because there are simply so many ways that you can enjoy visiting it. There are as many Londons as there are people who visit or live in the city. The tremendous diversity is the beating heart of London‘s urban charm. This year London is experiencing a unity and pride that has probably not been felt in decades. 2012 is a year that is synonymous with London. Andy Murray may not have won at Wimbledon this summer but Britishness has not been so lauded in years and never before in this fashion. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Summer Olympics games are aligning to make this summer a celebration of the city.

London has been riddled with social unrest, class tensions, and the legacy of its imperial history as a center of global commercial and political power. Various societal malaises have plagued the city, many of which don’t require mentioning because they have dominated headlines. London has been through a lot of bleak times. There has been a sense of an identity crisis in the city as it struggled to cohere its substantial history with the change brought about by fundamental shifts in the global geopolitical order. Economic and societal woes have been in lock-step with London for many decades as it faced a decline in global significance and, at the same time, a rise in cosmopolitanism. Regularly spending time in the city over the years, I could not help but be swayed by its charm because no matter how difficult things get, it remains a vibrant, fascinating and transformative place. In 2012, London is palpably different though. Some may consider events like those that London is hosting this summer to be trivial. They may think that money spent on things like concerts, sporting events and parades should be suspended when the world is in such economic upheaval, but they are like lights in the storm. They are moments that make life worth living and London excels at those. That is perhaps how the city has been able to retain its magnetism in spite of the difficulties that have beset it at various times in both recent and more distant history.

The rafters of Covent Garden.

As the eyes of the world turn to London, the city correspondingly comes together. The city that emerges after this summer’s festivities are over will still face serious challenges. However, it will do so with more identity and more confidence. There will be more union in that Jack at least as far as the metropolis is concerned. So of course, I suggest that you go to London in 2012, but then again, I suggest that you go there at any time. You didn’t have to attend the actual Jubilee events nor do you need to watch the Olympics in person (congrats to those who are though) in order to get into the spirit of London this year. Visiting a pub (or your nearest imitation if you really can’t make it), raising a glass, and toasting with those near and dear to you is as quintessentially British as anything and, alcohol aside, it is the warm communal spirit of merrymaking and connecting with others that is essence of London. That is the reason that the city endures through all of its incarnations and tribulations. It touches upon the profound social nature of people, which is why it so excels at hosting events like those of this summer.

Go on then, and celebrate London wherever you are. Cheers.

Let the games begin.

 

Revenge of LocalYokel DC: National Museum of the American Indian

Told you she’d be back — our SHC delves deeper into an oft-overlooked gem in DC, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Curvilinear architecture of the NMAI recalls American wonders like Antelope Canyon. image via

I know that I have recommended visiting the Smithsonian institutions generally as one of those very touristy things that are worth their praise, but I want to take a moment to talk about one which I think is worthy of particular notice. In addition to all of the things listed above and DC’s iconic monuments and buildings, I want to talk about a very cool museum which is frankly one of my favorite places in DC. The National Museum of the American Indian is really one of the most interestingly curated museums that I have ever visited. Far from the days of stiff feathered costumes on lifeless mannequins, this museum really brings its subjects to life using an array of technologies and psychological approaches. There are indeed intricate costumes and handicrafts from a variety of native cultures, but there is also an overlap of multimedia tools that allow for sensory immersion into the world of the Native Americans.

NMAI DC

Artifact of a DC culture vulture: rad coasters available in the gift shop.

From the moment that you approach the museum with its unconventional architecture and garden of indigenous plants, your perspective on the world changes. Upon entering the exhibits, you are confronted with the realities of the brutal history of conflict and dispossession but also with the vibrancy of the tribal cultures that are explored. One of my favorite parts of this museum is the section that delves into the psychology of various tribes. By walking through a radial series of exhibits, you journey through different regions of North America and learn how the various tribes adapted physically, intellectually, socially, and spiritually to their various climates and circumstances. The learning is about more than just looking at display cabinets, it is also about altering the way we think about what constitutes society. It is really something that is better when experienced than described, so all I can say is that you should go.

Cedar plank salmon and fiddleheads: true American cuisine at Mitsitam Cafe. image via

While there, be sure to visit Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe which is the museum’s restaurant on the ground floor. It was only by going there that I realized that “Native American” restaurants are extremely rare, which is a shame. This one is truly unique because it uses Pre-Columbian ingredients to make very modern and accessible foods. I had buffalo chili cheese fries, but don’t worry, there are plenty of vegetarian, vegan and child-friendly options. The restaurant manages to offer gourmet, adventurous cuisine representing many different regions of the Americas. Each regional serving station offers dishes of varying sizes, price points, and tastes so it is possible to try things from all of the different regions. Be sure to leave room for dessert and for the seasonal agua fresca. There really is something for everyone at this cool place.

LocalYokel: Washington DC

LocalYokel brings you the goods from someone who should know, since you’re in their backyard. This one’s from our trusty SHC. And stay tuned for her special guide to the best Smithsonian museum

Day or night, politics is in the water in this town.

EATStarter: Visit Rosa Mexicano on 7th St NW for guacamole, it’s a religious experience of the highest avocado order. Main Course: Head up the street to Zengo for an Asian-Latin fusion tapas menu. On a budget? Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street is so tasty even President Obama loves it. Willing to splash out a bit? Russia House in Dupont Circle is the place to dine in high style and drink yourself under the table. Fancy a dessert? Dangerously Delicious Pies on H ST NE is the place to be. You can close your eyes and point in there and your tastebuds will be happy.

SLEEPSomewhere glam: The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel – There’s a reason that this is DC’s hotel of choice for sleazy politicians’ sex scandals (remember Eliot Spitzer?), it’s a gorgeous hotel in a great location. Here’s some background info on the hotel’s role in the more dubious side of Washington. Somewhere comfy: The Westin Washington, DC City Center – This is my staycation hotel of choice. It’s in a great location. The courtyard atrium is unique and gives it a relaxing, spa-like feel. The breakfasts are gourmet and the beds are comfortable enough to work the stress knots out of any overworked Washingtonian. Somewhere cheap: Experience historic charm on the cheap at Adam’s Inn Bed and Breakfast which is in lively yet leafy Adams Morgan.

GOget some culture: At the National Gallery of Art, be sure to have some gelatto in the Cascade Cafe downstairs after viewing the excellent main collection and interestingly varied exhibitions. The Freer and Sackler Galleries showcase Asian art. You can’t really go wrong by exploring the other Smithsonian Institutions as well. If you are lucky enough to catch an interesting festival or event on the Mall, in the streets, or at the Kennedy Center, you’ll get to experience the transient diversity that makes DC such a great, livable city. Get your politique on: Check the relevant senatorial or congressional website and if you are there early enough, you can attend the committee hearings and find out what your elected leaders actually do all day. Also be sure to visit Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore on Connecticut Ave, where you can see all kinds of thought-provoking authors speak about their work.

Are YOU more local than this yokel? Tell us what we missed!

Of Roads Less Traveled and Castles in the Sand

Krista Westerlund is our spiritual + historical correspondent. This, her first dispatch, arrives from the former Roman capital of Dalmatia.

Zagreb ruins

Road through the ruins of Solin, Croatia.

I was really excited to learn about this blog and to have the prospect to write for it. The idea of hungry travel not to mention hungry living, embracing the world with eyes, mouths, minds and hearts opened as widely as possible is one that I generally try to put into practice whenever I can. I’d like to say that like Robert Frost, I’m taking the road less traveled. The truth though is that in this world, the roads heavily traveled are as fascinating as those yet to be fully explored. I am not the most well-traveled person, I have not been to the most places. I do not speak the most languages in the most fluent fashion. There are many other people who have seen larger swathes of the world than I have.

Travel is not a competition. It’s not just about statistics, miles flown, continents covered, bucket lists achieved … though all of those things are certainly worth commending. Travel is about the way in which we as human beings come to terms with the fact that our time as living organisms on this planet is limited. There is far more to see and do than any one person can, and when you think that you’ve seen it all, the world has already changed into something new, something beyond your recognition. That’s why even though the idea of finding yourself on an odyssey of self-discovery is one of the oldest cliches around, it is still among the most profound, the most captivating, the most resonant for many people. For every possible journey, there are thousands of different paths to get there, detours to take, and observations to notice. It is my hope that the path I take is an interesting one and that I can help others who want to do the same.

Salona, no more.

As you are now, so once was I.

So, enough of the philosophical musings about roads traveled and untraveled, because I would like to take the opportunity to talk literally about my experience on a road that has generally not been traveled much in recent millennia. Last summer, I was in a city called Split, Croatia, which was a place that I had never really heard of before then. Split is a shipping depot for the ferries of Dalmatia. While the Adriatic waters glitter like jeweled bathwater, Split is a gritty ex-Yugoslav industrial town. Factory smoke stacks intersperse with palm trees. Diocletian’s Roman villa crumbles far more slowly than its more recently built communist counterparts. It’s a hazy Mediterranean port with a very thin veneer of glamour (but some excellent dining and cafes).

It was in this place on a hot afternoon that I boarded a city bus and went to the outskirts of town and found a long, dusty, sunbaked dirt road. This road was like a pathway to another time, to the ancient Roman city of Salona (Solin). Archeology aficionados may quibble about its significance. It’s not Pompeii, no major natural disasters happened there. It’s not a great ancient capital of a lost empire. Countless slaves were not sacrificed to create a marvel of the ancient world there. All of those things are impressive, but it is rather just an ordinary town that has disappeared in the sands of time.

I found the site to be far more moving than the grand aloof ampitheatres, temples and palaces that encircle the Mediterranean region. This was a place where ordinary Roman citizens lived, worked, loved and died. Walking around the foundations of houses, plumbing systems, an ampitheatre, a cemetery and many functional buildings, you really got the sense of how most people lived. The city was destroyed by invading Slavic tribes in the 7th century, an ancient Main Street whose obliteration was probably barely noticed by the prevailing powers of the day.

There is a tourist information area but it is not conspicuous. There is no admission fee to the site beyond the public bus ticket. There are no concession stands or ostentatiously sold souvenirs. The closest we got to one was an old lady nearby who offered us homegrown tomatoes out of her garden. I haven’t really been to any other large collection of ruins that are more understated or less extolled. And yet, there was something so utterly haunting and mesmerizing about this place. A green field with some scattered stone structures where locals now exercise their dogs, an expanse of ancient ruins with a skyline of tower blocks on the horizon. This secret garden was a time capsule into the past but also a mirror into the present. We, the ordinary people of the modern era are members of an advanced civilization that has created all kinds of achievements and progress, and yet most of the places that we live in and the daily routines that we practice are insignificant as far as the history books are concerned. That doesn’t mean that we are insignificant as people but our personal struggles are merely water droplets in the oceans of the globe. To the residents of Salona, their little city was the center of their world and the tribal raids that overran it were the most critical worry. Such things don’t concern us today but I am grateful that the inhabitants, raiders and various city planners over the centuries, left enough of the ruins intact for tourists like me to appreciate on a hot summer’s day. meandering down the dirt tracks of history and mortality gives us some perspective before we go back to the restaurants, hotels, beaches, and momentary cares of modern life.