how to eat a smogasbord

Like I needed instructions on how to stuff my face.  Anyone who's ever attended a buffet with me before can attest it's a good thing I work out. 

So Joey and I decided that we couldn't have a true Swedish experience unless we went to a smorgasbord.  We did some online research before we left and asked around Stockholm while we arrived; everyone seemed to agree the most authentic Smorgasbord exists at The Veranda restaurant in the Grand Hotel Stockholm.  Lunch on white tablecloths at a five-star hotel?  Fine by me. 

We sat down next to the window and the waitress brought us little pamphlets on how to properly enjoy the smorgasbord.  Like good little eaters, we decided to follow the instructions and try everything.  There are starving kids in Africa after all.

Step 1: Think of the smorgasbord as a four to six course meal. 


Step 2: Do not overload your plate.  Make several trips to the buffet and take a new plate each time. 

I suppose I'll be polite and refrain from stuffing my plate.   And you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll make several trips.   You don't have to stuff your plate to stuff your face.

Step 3: Begin with the herring dishes.  These are traditionally served with boiled potatoes, crispbread and cheese.  Herring tastes best with a cool aquavit chased with cold beer.  

So this is where I really wished I hadn't agreed to try everything.  Maybe one bite of herring would have been fine.  But one bite of pickled herring, one bite of honey mustard herring, one bite of cinnamon herring, one bite of curried herring...by the tenth bite of herring I had a nice little buzz because every time I took a bite I took an even bigger sip of my cold beer.  Then came the shot of aquavit.  Bigger buzz.  Whoops.  Good thing there was more food to eat before a buzzing Melissa hit the dessert table.

Step 4: Next, try another Swedish specialty, gravad lax, which is served with a mustard and dill sauce.  Try the smoked salmon, preferably with a few drops of lemon. 

Great.  More fish.  Actually, I like salmon.  I really do.  But after all of the herring, all of the salmon started to taste...fishy.  And then there were the salmon terrines...Joey cheated and didn't even try his.  I tried them.  And drank more beer.

Step 5: Then we suggest a variety of salads, egg dishes and cold cuts of meat and poultry. 


Step 6: Now it is high time to try the hot dishes.  Don't miss the Swedish meatballs with lingonberries.

Swedish meatballs = delicious.  Lingonberries are great too. At this point we were starting to get full and had to save room for desserts.  So I ate my meatballs and Joey tried a few other items.  I understand that the food found nearby is incorporated into the food but I really wish they hadn't put fish in the cheesy potatoes.

Step 7: To round off the meal, we suggest our famous desserts, especially the fruit salad.  A cup of coffee and an iced Swedish punsch completes the meal. 

1. round indeed. 
2. fruit salad???  Yeah, right.

3. obviously we had to try the punsch.  Delight- ful, if I do slur so myself.  Tasted some- what like a sauternes and I was quite happy with that.  And quite happy after that too.  Oh and then they have to go and serve these delicious strawberry gum drops that seriously melt in your mouth after I'm two beers, one aquavit and one punsch in with the coffee - thank God for the coffee.

Step 8: Hold the railing as you descend the stairs from the hotel to the exit. 

Okay, this step isn't really in the pamphlet.  I hooked my elbow around Joey's arm a little more firmly than normal and we departed the Grand Hotel to waddle wander the streets of Stockholm for the rest of the afternoon. 



This post is three and a half months overdue.  We went to Lagos in beginning of March for a wedding and I never got around to blogging about it.  I took a ton of pictures and haven't posted those because I wanted to blog about the trip before I posted the pictures and then everything got away from me and here we are at the end of June and I'm getting caught up.  I figure I'd better write everything down now since we leave for an incredible vacation a week from tomorrow and by the time I get back any attempt to post such old stories will be completely futile.

I digress.  So we went to Lagos in early March.  Joey and I were both really excited to get out of Abuja - it was our first overnight trip away and everybody said Lagos, albeit crazy, was this great, fun and exciting place. We were also both so excited because we'd heard the Lagos Commissary had lots of good cheese and meat, so cooler in tow, we headed to the airport.

Our flight to Lagos was blissfully uneventful, and as soon as we got out of the airport I could feel a shift in energy.  Lagos already seemed so lively!  Like Abuja on steroids!  So many people, so many little houses and shops and buildings, all built on top of one another out of concrete and cardboard and tin roofs for miles and miles dotted with colorful umbrellas and bright yellow taxi buses - I've really never seen anything like it.  It was a lot more of the African chaos I'd imagined.  We drove past thousands of tin roofs until we came to a long bridge - and the ocean.  God I can't even tell you how seeing the water lifted my spirit.  Even amidst all the chaos that was Lagos, just the sight of the water made me instantly happier.  As we made our way along the bridge and I dreamily looked out over the water, Joey touched my arm.  I hadn't even noticed the view from the other side of the car:  the city had continued into the water; the shacks were on stilts!  The sight of the colorful floating houses and long wooden fishing boats in the haze of burning trash so foreign and so cool, I felt like we'd been transported beyond Nigeria, beyond Africa to somewhere truly exotic, like Bangkok or Mumbai.

Then we hit the traffic.  Everyone, from our steward to our peers to the driver to the Abuja airport, warned us how horrible traffic is in Lagos, but we figured nothing could be worse than the gridlock of DC.  Well we thought wrong.  Who would have guessed that at 10 am on a Thursday morning there'd be so many cars on the road?  Once we reached the other side of the big bridge, the car crawled at the most painfully slow pace for over an hour.  We eventually arrived at the Consulate, from where I hoped to be taken to our hotel.  I knew Joey had to work and I was perfectly happy going to the hotel and relaxing by the pool with a cocktail in one hand and book in the other.  Unfortunately it was still too early to check-in so I got to tag along with Joey.  Luckily it at least involved a boat ride, which felt amazing, but I was starving, tired, and felt bloated and greasy after the flight and just wanted to veg out.

A view of our hotel from the boat.
Finally we both headed back to the hotel where we'd been assured our rooms would be ready.  HAHAHAHAHA.  I mean I should have known after three months in Nigeria that just because someone tells you something is done or ready or taken care of doesn't mean it is and you'll have to ask at least fifteen more times to even get an answer and then wait even longer, but I was optimistic:  this was a different city which was supposed to be the hub of business in Nigeria and it was a brand-new Sheraton.  Anyway we got to the hotel and surprise!  No room.  After another thirty minutes of hemming and hawing and going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth at long last we were told we'd have a room.  Said room would be ready in an hour and why don't you head to the buffet in the meantime.  Buffet?  Well duh you could shut bitchy Melissa the hell up a long time ago if you'd mentioned her fat kid heaven earlier! 

Holy dessert table I didn't care when our room would be ready, I finally got to go to a restaurant that was cute, the food was continental-style and they even had an awesome salad bar and a chef preparing pasta dishes to order.  Sure it was $50 per person for a lunch buffet but we oohed and aahed over every single bite.  We even wondered why we hadn't bothered to eat at the hotels in Abuja.  What a difference a nice restaurant makes!

One food coma later we finally made our way to our room - it was gor- geous!  Huge windows, big bed, high ceilings, modern bathroom - and clean, too!  This was the start of a great weekend.  We relaxed for a while and then decided to scope out the rest of the hotel.  I wanted to see the pool where I planned spending all of Friday.  Enter major disappointment number 1:  not only was the entire pool area smaller than most people's driveways, but it was completely shaded and the pool was broken.  There goes my idyllic afternoon sipping Pina Coladas (not that I could order one of those here anyway - Pina what?). 

So I suggested we dive into the city.  Let's walk around, see some sights, take some pictures!  We're in a new place, let's explore!  Ahem, I'm informed by my lovely husband, walking around is probably not a good idea.  Additionally, we are banned from using any form of public transportation and the motorpool is restricted for official use during the workday.  And thus we were stuck in the hotel room until dinner unless we were willing to attempt a walk.  Well I didn't travel all that way and pay for a plane ticket to just sit around a hotel, so I decided to go for it.

About four blocks and one total-Melissa-freak-out later, we turned around.  With no sidewalks, no traffic laws, the craziest drivers in the world, a ton of people everywhere and no real map or landmarks by which to judge, I lost it.  Waaaay too overwhelming, and frankly, I was convinced if we kept walking one or both of us would be run over by a car or shanked.  So back to the hotel we went, and after several hours in a white room and temper-tantrum number two, motorpool picked us up for dinner.

The car dropped us off at Bottles, a highly recommended Mexican/Tex Mex restaurant.  What a difference two margaritas make.  And two margaritas that actually taste like margaritas!  My second margarita was even strawberry and blended!  It was amazing.  The food was pretty good too and it just felt great to go somewhere different whose proprietors understood ambiance and real cocktails and Mexican food.  I definitely had taken for granted the amazing Mexican food always available to me growing up in Iowa.

Friday Joey had to go to work again and I was left with absolutely nothing to do. So I got a manicure and pedicure in the morning and then sat in our white room.  All day.  Joey was supposed to be able to pick me up to visit a market but because of the traffic he wasn't able to get back in time.  So I watched TV.  At least the hotel had more channels than we do at home but most of them were Nigerian, which pretty much left me with CNN or BBC and unfortunately the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan the same day.  Obviously my problems pale in comparison to those poor souls and my heart goes out to them, but 24 hour coverage with the same five video clips is enough to make you go crazy.

Finally Joey returned and my dear husband, just like my father, manages to make friends wherever he goes. He'd made friends with another American guest at our hotel traveling with another government agency.  Joey's new friend invited us to check out the nearby "mall" with him, so we went and explored the African version of Walmart and a real grocery store.  Exhilirating.

A Chapman
Upon our return to the hotel we shared a drink with our new friend (he encouraged us to try "Chapmans," Nigerian's drink of choice, for the first time) before departing for a sushi dinner.  We were a little leary about ordering sushi in Nigeria, but we knew some people who'd ordered it before and figured we wouldn't be able to get it again for a long time so what the hell.  It was good!  The restaurant had a lovely ambiance too and the service was great!  It was nice to remember that such things still exist in the world.

The next morning was our last chance to see the market (or anything cultural for that matter).  The wedding didn't start until eleven and so we (I) planned to wake up early, go (drag Joey) to the market and then come back and get ready for the wedding.  But when we walked to the hotel parking lot motorpool wasn't there.  We called motorpool and they assured us a car would be there in half an hour - to take us to the wedding!  Apparently because the traffic is so bad we had to leave two hours before the wedding to make sure we got there on time! (Don't even get me started on the fact that the wedding invitation we received listed the wedding on Friday which is why we had plane tickets to Lagos on Thursday to return Saturday and we didn't find out until the day before we left that the wedding was actually on Saturday and we'd have to change our tickets to Sunday!)  So after temper-tantrum number four about having to leave home and the dogs to sit in a hotel room and not experience any culture, I pouted while we quickly changed into our new wine wedding wear and departed for the wedding.

Along the way to the wedding I saw a dead body on the side of the road.  At least I'm pretty sure it was a dead body.  I guess by that point it was more of a torso but it was black and kind of bloody and when I said, "Did you see that?" Joey didn't but another American going to the wedding did.  And when I said, "Was that what I think it was?  Please tell me that was a black deer."  He told me that it was not a deer.  Shudder.

I already blogged about the wedding a little - but to recap, the wedding was hot, but short and sweet, despite the sermon on how a wife needs to obey her husband.  And it started on time which was amazing.  All of the outfits and headresses were gorgeous and I even got to pose for pictures with babies (?).  The bride's family said they were really honored by our attendance and our outfits were a huge hit.

We proceeded to the reception which was totally decked out with fabric, a beautiful cake and even a costume change from the bride!  We witnessed some more of the fabulous aisle dancing that we first saw at the baptism, only this time it was a lot more people and hip hop.  Unfortunately we slid to the other end of the temperature spectrum when we sat directly in front of the air conditioner; I was so cold I had goosebumps.
By the time the reception reached full-swing, I was exhausted and felt sick (not sure if it was the sushi the night before, the new malaria medication, the drastic changes in temperature or a blood sugar thing from not being able to eat until the reception at 2 and then stuffing my face with rice), and quite relieved when we were informed it was time to go home.  On the way out, Joey and I received our party favor (tupperware, which Joey told the gift giver he wasn't interested in buying before realizing it was a gift) and purchased our paparazzi photo (random photographers show up at the ceremony, then develop their photos to sell at the reception).

Two hours and a car accident later (our driver took the car through some gulch full of other cars and cabs and minibuses and got side-swiped.  The other guy didn't even notice), and lots of praying that I wouldn't throw up on everyone in the car, we finally returned to the hotel.  Poor Joey had to get dinner with his new friend because I couldn't get out of bed and was relegated to several more hours of tsunami coverage.

Sunday we attempted to shop at the Commissary before our flight home, but after the traffic-filled drive there we discovered it was closed.  So empty cooler in tow, we made our way back to the airport.  Several hours and several delays later, none of which were announced (when Joey asked the airline agent about our flight status (no electronic boards here), he received her most incredulous look, like why in the world would the airline have that information?), we were finally back on a plane to Abuja.  Nothing like home sweet home.  I think.

So without further ado, here's the link to the rest of my pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/100586084762366858227/201103Lagos?authkey=Gv1sRgCLys3cik3ub5eg&feat=directlink


a bomb

Thursday started like any other day and honestly it ended like any other day too.  There was just a bomb in between.  I don't mean to trivialize it - it certainly wasn't a minor thing - but maybe I've become desensitized to such violence since it seems like it's happening all the time here or maybe it's because it didn't really directly affect us (besides the additional work it created).  I think maybe I'm not able to consciously process all the emotions that go with such an act of violence so close to home in order to maintain my sanity?  I really don't know.  I was at work when I heard there had been a bomb, and I certainly was scared, especially because I knew Joey wasn't in the Embassy at the time and it took a few minutes before I knew he was safe.  And it's certainly overwhelming that there was a bomb inside Abuja, at the Police Headquarters, not to mention the fact it was perpetrated by a suicide bomber (the first one in Nigeria).  Maybe it's just too overwhelming for my mind to truly grasp and so that's why I don't feel any different or why I just kind of went on with my daily life or what.  I don't know.  I mean what else do you do? 

I guess more than anything I feel angry.  Angry that my parents and family have to sit at home, worried because there was a bomb in Abuja and although I'm safe for now, does that mean I'm safe tomorrow?  Angry that the people for whom my husband works won't assign Nigeria danger pay.  Angry that CNN's coverage of the bomb was limited to one sentence on the bottom of the screen.  I mean, really, how many bombs in Nigeria have to go off before somebody notices?  A suicide bomber from a group called Boko Haram, which literally means "Western Education is a sin," blew up the Police Headquarters two miles from the Embassy.  Hello!  Is anyone paying attention?!

So I've been really bad at keeping up my blog.  I've been really bad at keeping up my attitude.  After Thursday's bomb I am certainly thankful for my safety and that only a few people died but it's really hard to maintain a positive outlook when shit like that happens and then nobody even seems to notice.  It's pretty frustrating feeling like I just got dumped here in this incredibly difficult place.  I understand that we signed up for worldwide availability but I guess I just never realized the extent to which my life would change.  I'm so overwhelmed by so many things - I'm homesick, I miss my family, I miss my friends, I miss being able to go shopping or running without looking over my shoulder constantly, I miss not having to worry about bombs going off!  I miss not having to worry that I'm making my family worry.  I mean, sure, we leave in 19 days for an amazing R&R and we just got back a month ago from an amazing trip to Stockholm, and we have all these other amazing trips planned and there are definitely so many positives that I cling to but at the same time I really feel that I am just grasping at straws.  Everything is so hard.  And it just keeps getting harder.  And it's hard on me, it's hard on my marriage, and it's hard on my family.

And that's life these days.  I don't know, for some reason blogging about my trip to Stockholm or Mallory's visit or all the other things I was going to blog about just seem really trivial and I guess that's my excuse for being horrible at staying in touch.  It is what it is.


getting to stockholm

We've had some bad travel juju lately.  Actually, the only really bad travel experiences seem to be related to Abuja.  You may recall our midnight roadtrip from Des Moines to DC to get to Abuja on time.  The melee that was trying to catch our flight to Stockholm is case in point #2.

I have an issue with punctuality. And procrastination.  Since one usually leads to the other, if you know me you would assume I made us late to the airport and this is why we almost missed our flight.  Well you're wrong.  You had better believe that I was packed and ready to go on time for this trip.  Hadn't left Nigeria in five months.  Trip to Europe.  Yeah, I was ready.

So we went to the airport, went through metal detector #1 (I seriously need to remember to wear socks the next time I go to the Abuja airport), waited in line at Air Ethiopia for our boarding passes, waited in line at emigration (the Nigerian personal space bubble is significantly smaller than mine.  And seeing as I'd just had to go barefoot in the Abuja airport, it's not air-conditioned and I really like my personal space, when some guy stepped on my shoe because he was all up in my shit in line, I might have told him to back off.  Fervently.), stopped at customs, went through metal detector #2 at the gate, and then had the entire contents of my bag searched by airline personnel while they told me that I need to give my husband a child.

So we're finally in the waiting area to board.  It's hot (seriously why would you air-condition your international airport in Africa?), I'm crabby, my Marie Claire is boring me and I really need some water.  Do you think in a space where you're cordoned off as "secure" before you get on a plane where you can't bring water they would sell water?  Ha.  Joey tells me to chill out - we'll be off to Stockholm soon and we can get water on the plane.

That's when they make the annoucement.  Now mind you, there's probably 250 people in this boarding area and they're all talking.  Loudly.  And this announcement is made by a man without a microphone.  "There has been a problem with the plane.  We have another one coming right now from Ouagadougou that should be here in about 45 minutes.  Unfortunately, the plane is smaller than this one and so only the business class passengers and 88 others will be able to take this flight.  We will ensure everyone makes their connection."

Now what would happen at any other airport is the passengers would orderly line up at the airline desk and be reassigned based on their connecting flight.  This is not what happened.  Mass chaos ensued.  People rushed Mr. Announcement to get their spot on the new flight - other people's connecting flights be damned.  So Mr. Announcement tries organizing people by their final destination - that doesn't work - it has become a giant clusterfuck and my husband has disappeared somewhere to get water.  At this point it's about an hour and a half past our original departure time - we're still okay to catch our flight to Stockholm as long as we get on the plane that's coming.  But that's looking less and less likely.

Finally the plane arrives and they have everyone who will be taking that flight get in line.  I'm pretty sure that all of the original passengers decided they were taking this flight.  And "line" is already a very loosely held term in Nigeria, so when you add to that the urgency of catching your plane it gets ugly.  I'm left in high heels (I really don't know why I had this ridiculous notion of arriving in Europe in my gorgeous shoes) with two gigantic bags that I cannot carry, freaking out that if we don't get on this plane we are not going to Stockholm, trying to scurry into line with everyone else and Joey is still nowhere in sight.

The line disbursed and reformed several times in the next 45 minutes since Mr. Announcement seemed be to the only person who actually knew what was going on, but eventually, Joey pulled me just beyond the "secure area" to drink some water and people started getting on the plane.  (If you are confused, don't worry.  I was there and I still don't know wtf happened).  Joey told me that he'd managed to get us on the flight manifest but we still had to elbow our way onto the plane.  And even once we were on the plane, seating was a free-for-all and we somehow got wedged in the middle of the last row on the plane - row 40 - right next to the bathrooms.   It still was another hour til we took off and we barely made our connection in Addis Ababa (we originally had a 4 hour layover), but we made it.  Almost exactly 24 hours after leaving Abuja, we arrived in beautiful, clean, crisp, wonderful Stockholm and it was worth every minute.