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Since I moved to Sweden from Canada eight years ago, certain aspects of my integration have proved more problematic than others.
I still cannot negotiate hills gracefully on cross-country skis or calculate in which month “week 34” falls without ready access to a calendar.
I continue to have trouble differentiating between certain vowel sounds (I go on about wax candles when I mean fruit juice), as well as between the silence that means a person shares my opinion and the one that signals utter disagreement.
During the mid-winter – an extended Bergman film in which the sun performs a fleeting cameo each day – I am unable to wind down into a peaceful hibernation, and instead become mired in dull, depressive moods tinged with homesickness.
And I continue to pull childish grimaces each time I taste dill, which sneaks its way into a remarkable number of dishes at the smorgasbord.
My Swedish husband and his family take these maladaptive tendencies in their stride. It is a culinary obsession I have developed that requires the utmost patience.
At the start of each visit to his parents’ cabin in Northern Sweden, after the required hugs and niceties are done, I claim a hunger to match the 650-kilometre drive. This pretext allows me to open the fridge and scan the shelves for the frilly cloth hat of a new jar of akerbar preserve. If I am lucky, my in-laws will think our arrival is an important enough occasion to unwrap the delicacy. If I am very lucky, the jar will already have been started.
If you have never heard of akerbar, the Arctic Raspberry, don’t fret. The inconspicuous trailing plant grows only in remote northern climes. And while the Russians call the clusters of rich burgundy drupelets the “berry of kings,” in English its majesty is disguised behind the shared moniker of a common relative in the Rubus family – a dull third cousin in comparison.
The Swedes often turn the berries into a delicious runny jam called sylt or a liqueur. But the relative inaccessibility of the Rubus arcticus, its meagre yield and the ruthless grip of its base prevent the berries from flooding the market. Still, it is not simply the arctic raspberry’s exclusivity that makes it a delicacy: Sweetly aromatic, yet startlingly complex, the unassuming berries taste, simply, like something smuggled out of Eden.
At the cabin, I can steal small amounts of the berry sylt on the tip of a teaspoon during the night. Or, before dinner, I can prepare a plain dessert with which the berries would pair marvellously and let my hosts come up with the idea of adding the sylt themselves.
I try to act nonchalant when presented with the stuff. I nod my head at the ongoing conversation at the table, and throw out a well-timed “Jasa?” (“Is that so?”)
But really my attention is absorbed by the warm, fragrant sylt before me and everything else is a disruption of my private rapture.
My in-laws often choose this moment to torment me with an anecdote about the time when their neighbours who own a commercial berry farm – “the suppliers” – had a bumper crop of berries and fairly ladled the sylt into their breakfast yogurt. They have also inquired a few times whether, given our great Arctic reputation, the berries also grow in Canada.
I realized that they might be onto something, so during a summer visit with my hobby-horticulturalist father in Alberta a couple of years ago, I attempted to secure a source in Jasper National Park. Sure enough, about two kilometres into a hiking trail, my father crouched down to point out a pinkish-purple bloom.
He was making a good argument for the identity of his find when I heard the sharp crack of a twig behind us. I glanced over my shoulder to try to spot the ungraceful bird and saw, instead, a bear cub observing us with curiosity.
“Dad. Bear,” I said.
After a perfunctory glance, my father continued with his explanation until the visual information – there were now two bear cubs puzzling over our activities – had registered. We didn’t hang around to meet the mother.
I have taken the bear incident as a warning, and given up the hunt for ripe akerbar in the Canadian wilderness – and along with it, the vain hope of finding some sort of “best of both worlds” scenario in either country. While it might still exist, that pursuit now seems less rewarding – and sometimes far more harrowing – than plundering my in-laws’ fridge in Sweden.
Even if I were caught some dark mid-winter night, curled up in my pyjamas on the kitchen floor, sucking blissfully on a teaspoon bearing the subtle fragrance of the intoxicating berries, the Swedes would just shake their heads and reach for a woollen blanket to throw over me.
And they would recall the times when they have been the odd ones, so far from home.
Gwendolyn Haevens lives in Uppsala, Sweden.
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