Category Archives: Europe

My Travel Hats went to Los Angeles, Chicago and Spain… with a newborn! An introduction to dragging your child around the world

First of all, much apologies for my complete and utter neglect to update this blog. It’s been a fairly exciting time. If you haven’t already met her, I’d like to introduce you to my new child:


(Jon with our baby in Toledo, Spain)

Because I believe the Internet is an unharnessed and somewhat precarious state of existence, along with having watched way too many Law & Order SVU episodes about child molesters and pedophiles during maternity leave, that is about the extent of the photography you’ll get to view of my little one until she is 18 years of age.

However, it is time to return to the blogosphere so I’ll begin with an introduction to Traveling with a Newborn.

Before we took her overseas, we first flew her from Baltimore to Los Angeles at exactly six weeks for my cousin’s wedding. Kind of like a trial trip before the big one. Our doctor suggested having her vaccinated before getting on those germ-filled planes that are spread around the air vents easily, so we had her shots done (you can get them done at six weeks, although traditionally they start at two months), then hopped on a plane the next day. We spent about a week in Los Angeles, then another week in Chicago with the grandparents, and then jetted home for a few more before we embarked to Madrid.

At two months, she doesn’t do much but sleep, eat and digest everything into her Pampers. You soon realize how little a baby actually needs, despite what Buy Buy Baby and Babies ‘R’ Us might make you believe. It was relatively easy flying around with her, and no one, not even the unhappy bankrupt airlines and their unhappy employees, can resist a cute little baby. We got to cut the line everywhere, from security to the boarding gate. We took her to museums, restaurants, cafes, bars, and a bullfight, and probably permanently messed up the wheels of our second-hand Graco stroller frame from dragging it across cobblestone streets in Spain, but we all had a great time. As I write this, she is whining a little from her bouncy seat, probably wondering why she’s not rattling across some rocky street with Moorish archways and cathedral ceilings to stare at overhead.

A few things we had to learn about flying with a newborn that we didn’t know before:

1. Baby does not need an ID. But it’s probably a good idea to carry a copy of the birth certificate with you just in case.

2. Baby under two years of age is free if you sit him/ her in your lap. According to my sister, they stop sitting on your lap before then though. But if you decide to buy them a seat because you’re tired of holding a squirming toddler, they won’t sit in it, and then you’ll be out a few hundred dollars.

3. Baby gets to bring a carry-on in the form of a diaper bag, so pack that thing full.

4. You can take the stroller and carseat up to the gate, and then they gate-check it. I decided to get a cover for our carseat so it wouldn’t get dirty in the cargo, and it was a great idea since that bag came back with a whole lot of dirt marks on it that would have otherwise ended up being ingested and digested by our kid. I’m all for exposing her to dirt and building that immunity, but licking the inside of the cargo hold of an airplane is not in my plan. I ended up sewing my own from a very loud mustard-yellow curtain of my parents from the 70’s, so there’s no mistaking whose carseat that is, but you can also purchase one at Amazon. (You can buy anything at Amazon)

5. You can bring a cooler with ice pack and milk through security. They’ll run the bottles through some special little milk detector machine and not question the ice pack.

6. Doctors will suggest feeding the baby during take off and landing, to help ease ear pressure. Believe it or not, there are actually breastfeeding policies for each airline, ever since Delta threw a passenger off a flight for breastfeeding her kid. To summarize each one, prepare to have some kind of cover for the kid. Airline blankets are not the cleanest, so bring your own scarf or swaddle and tie it around your neck.   Sure, there is a whole army of breastfeeding women who want to fight for their right to breastfeed in the open, but I will save this for another blog post.

7. Baby needs to be listed on one of the boarding passes as a passenger. We learned that the hard way and had to go through many more lines to make sure she was.

8. Give yourself a LOT of time. Pad it on. There’s nothing like racing to the gate when she suddenly needs three diaper changes in a row. That being said, it’s also helpful to bring a spare outfit for the kid. And perhaps one for yourself, if baby decides to barf on your mid-flight.

9. For Spain, we realized she would need a passport, which requires a social security number and birth certificate, and it took four weeks to receive the social security number. I had to physically go to the DC Department of Health to get a copy of her birth certificate, but it was issued the same day. Not only that, both parents have to be present to get the passport. We made an appointment at the local post office and brought her social security card, copies of our drivers’ licenses (front and back), birth certificate, two 2″x2″ pictures and application. I also took her pictures, which was a task in itself, since the head is supposed to be centered and eyes open, staring straight, but she squirmed a lot and liked to rotate her head or stare anywhere except straight at the camera. We decided to expedite the passport, to make sure it would come back in time.

More updates to come on our three-week voyage across Spain!

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Getting Lost In: Ireland!

Two friends of mine are headed on a wee vacation to O’Land o’ Ireland, home of the pint, Angela’s Ashes, Celtics, Aran sweaters and shamrocks. I was lucky (Irish luck?) enough to have taken a similar vacation a few years ago with a friend of mine, over St. Patrick’s Day,  partially-paid by my company. She and I rented a giant Ford Galaxy that seated eight, since it was the only rental car available with automatic transmission, and we set off from Kinsale  (photo, below) north to Galway (photo right). In this entry, I will create a Do and Don’t separation for Ireland.

DO realize that this trip is usually best taken with a significant other, due to its country cuteness, cozy bed & breakfasts and tranquilizing scenery. DO realize that if you’re not traveling with a significant other and you’re both under 50 years old, you may get bored quickly. Keep driving along.

DO rent an automatic transmission car, unless you are ambidextrous and can drive stick-shift with your opposite hand (unless you’re English or Japanese, in which please drive as you ordinarily do). Remember that the Irish are one of the cultures who drive on the left.

DO try the local brews and whiskeys – after all, this is Ireland! but then DON’T try to drive on the opposite side of the road afterwards.

DO buy at least one Aran sweater.

DO visit the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula. Do drive it yourself so you can decide your schedule and whether you want to get off or stay on the road. Don’t bother with the bus tours which will just tell you “here is something pretty – now get off and take a picture of it” unless you plan to be drunk at lunch and can’t continue to drive.

DO admire the scenery at Dingle: as I wrote in an email to a friend, “one point there was nothing but waves thrashing in slow-motion against black rocks in the blue-purple, almost amethyst, ocean, and then if you look to the right was a continuum of green hills dotted with puffy white sheep that looked like clouds.” (I was inspired by all the literature in Ireland. I don’t ordinarily write such florally emails to my friends).

DO note the wealth of literary types and writers from Ireland, and visit the Literary Museum in Listowel. It only takes an hour and pays tribute to the various famous Irish writers.

DO visit the Cliffs of Moher (photo, left) for some equally dramatic ocean-pounding action and pictures. It will be windy.

DO drive through the Burren (limestone-covered hills) to Galway.

DO hop the ferry over to Aran Islands and rent bikes to cycle around.

DO visit the Blarney Castle (photo, above). In the interest of H1N1, DO NOT kiss the Blarney Stone. You will not get bad luck (but you might get the flu).

DO check out the city of Cork which has lots of interesting restaurants (including some very tasty Indian food) and shops.

DO keep in mind that “Mna” means “women” and “Fir” means “men” when trying to choose a restroom in Gaelic.

DO try to squeeze in a quick train trip to Dublin. A lot of people skip this because they want to just focus on the western part of Ireland. The western part, to re-emphasize, is kind of slow if you’re a faster-paced and young traveler. Dublin is the main city in Ireland and would be a good complement to the rest of the country. I hear the literary tour is worth it.

left: town of Limerick

below: house on Aran Islands.

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Chomping Around Town: Ciya Sofrasi (Istanbul)

**My Travel Hats is featuring its own Restaurant Week, in which a not-to-miss restaurant from around the world is showcased each day.**

ISTANBUL 256There’s an astronomical clock tower in Prague where statues of the Four Evils hang out:  Greed, Death, Vanity and the Turk. I suppose back in the day, the Turks and their Empire weren’t terribly popular, but if their food was anything like it is today, there’s good reason for the Czechs to be awfully jealous and resentful of the Turks.

But this is not about a restaurant in Prague. Sorry, I didn’t encounter any mind-blowing eating in Prague. We head south, to a more exotic land, where darvishes whirl and carpets fly: the land of Turkey; and more specifically, to a culinary treasure: Ciya Sofrasi.

This restaurant lies on the Asian side of Istanbul, and is far from a best-kept secret: many a Western publication has visited, reviewed and raved about it. And now you can see why. The restaurant’s purpose was to uncover ingredients and recipes lost in Turkish history, or to bring secrets from remote parts of Turkey to the great city and incorporates them into some of the most amazing dishes ever conceived. The restaurant sees its fair share of tourists enough to be patient while they try to read the all-Turkish menu. You won’t be finding the typical kebabs and whatnotbabs here. The waiters, in turn, will ask you to trust them as they bring out a selection of deliciousness, such as hummus and falafel and lamb and eggplant dips and fancy kebabs and soups and grain salads, accompanied with pita. The highlight is dessert: fruits, nuts and even tomatoes pumpkin candied into sugary bites with creme fraise. Even if it looks and sounds skeptical and strange, as I thought, it’s a worthy experience that, tragically, can’t be replicated anywhere in the U.S.

The restaurant is actually split into two locations across the street from each other, and require a ferry ride from the historic center. A absolute must visit. What really should be one of the Four Evils is Missing Dinner at Ciya.

Address: Caferaga Mah. Güneslibahce Sk. No:43 Kadiköy – Istanbul
Tel: (216) 330 31 90

Dress Code: Casual

Price: $6-$9 plates

Directions: ask your hotel. I can’t remember.

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Getting Lost In: Paris moments (Je t’aime)

Paris, last days 2007 023I’ve written about my beloved adopted home, Paris, but I have yet to actually cover my favorite parts of the city. It’s easy to pick up a guide book to walk around Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and how to rush through the city in three days, but then there’s that exceedingly crucial part of Paris that Parisians capture so well – sitting and enjoying the moment. Whether in a cafe, or a park, or a garden, they do it so well and every visitor should learn to adopt this practice to get the full effect of This is Paris. I have now sent my list of Parisian favorites to two friends who are Paris-bound this month. It was also two years ago that I landed at CIMG_7484harles de Gaulle with two suitcases and a key to my very own French flat to begin what may be one of the best times of my entire life. So, voila – here is a list of my favorite Parisian moments. (It helps to wear your most debonair outfit to feel the full effect, and a great hat helps.)

Montmartre. Way up on top of Paris in the 18th arrondisement, this is a quaint little neighborhood of Paris that gives fantastic views of the city, especially from the heavenly white Sacre-Coeur. A bottle of red wine and a seat on the stairs by the cathedral makes for a memorable moment overlooking the city lights at evening. I happened there one evening while some musicians performed. They were not the best band, but it didn’t matter.

Pont des ArtsLa Seine. La Seine, la plus belle Seine! This river makes Paris so moody and blissful as its architecture glistens in its waters like a Renaissance painting. My favorite was walking along this river back and forth across all its bridges. The best bridge is the Pont des Arts (photo left), a wooden walkway Paris, last days 2007 005that leads to the Louvre. This is a great place to sit on a bench and read a book or people-watch. Another fantastic place to watch the Seine is on the Ile St. Louis. My friends and I would sit along the southern side facing the Latin Quarter with a bottle of red wine and watch the tourist boats go by. (Yes, open alcohol containers are legal).

Places des Vosges. This little courtyard is IMG_7421surrounded by historic buildings, now holding art galleries and restaurants, and is such a great place to take a rest in between your shopping in the Marais and to sigh a happy sigh because, after all, you’re in Paris. If you have little ones like my niece here), there is a small playground here. I liked to bring a falafel-and-pita from L’as du Falafel on Rue de Rosiers in the Jewish quarter, and sit on one of the benches here with it. Mmmmmm. Even Lenny Kravitz apparently agreed, it is the best falafel place in the whole world. Especially if eaten in the Places des Vosges.

Jardin de Tuileries. Another favorite. Jon TuileriesThis garden stretches from the Louvre across the heart of Paris towards the ferris wheel, where you can catch a view of the Eiffel Tower. There is a lot to see in Tuileries, from sculptures of women hiding in the bushes, a shrubbery maze, the mini-arc (if you look at through that Arc to the actual Arc de Triomphe, both line up with the modernized arc at La Defense), duck ponds with fountains and chairs, flower gardens, and the small IMG_7583Orangerie gallery featuring Monet’s Water Lilies (left)and other impressionist art at the other end. Again, another great place to sit by a fountain with a book or a falafel and sigh happily. There is also a clean bathroom at the end of the jardin near the ferris wheel.

 (*note: if you don’t want falafel, you can substitute with a Nutella crepe).

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Getting Lost In: Stockholm!

IMG_3862In 1971, my parents went on a trip to Stockholm where they raved, for years, at how advanced Stockholm was, how everything was recyclable, and how the city separated its bus, bicycle and car traffic into separate lanes that never blocked each other. With it they took home a bunch of Stockholm practices and implemented them in our house: separating our garbage into recycling and trash and taking the recycling to the plant; getting us to turn off the lights upon leaving the room, and using the fun products they purchased from this store in Stockholm called Ikea.

In 2009, the rest of the world is finally catching up. And Stockholm keeps getting more awesome – leading the world in practical and affordable home design (Ikea), fashion (H&M), environmentalism, white blondness, and now its socialist ideals. There is so much history, and architecture, and all the amenities of a modern, hip city surrounded by some amazing waterways and scenery that I need to return again, and again. Here is how we crammed this great city into two and a half days – and wanted more.

IMG_3186Hostel. Did I mention that Stockholm is ridiculously expensive? A cab starts at $9.00 when you get into it. A hostel in a great location starts at $53 a person for a private room. After extensive research, we decided on Best Hostel Old Town in Gamla Stan (Old Town, photo right). We were in a tiny double room with our own bathroom, decorated with typical Swedish flair: a chandelier, exposed brick, French windows, a plant on the sill and two twins pushed together with separate down comforters. There are multiple kitchens in the hostel and free Internet. The private rooms are also situated on different floors than the dorms, which makes a nice quiet separation.

If you cannot deal with a hostel, the Sheraton Stockholm Hotel and Towers near the train station and across the water from Gamla Stan is a great hotel with an excellent location.

IMG_3799See. Stockholm, like every other city, is best on foot.  It’s really several islands that make up the city, surrounded by water churned in from the Baltic Sea. They’re not rivers, or lakes, really, but the city is really planned and influenced around this water, which I thought was the coolest part about Stockholm. Walk across the several bridges and watch people fish in the rushing waters below. We walked around the cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan filled with old architecture, colorful buildings, old churches and bridges and touristy shops, into the northern district, and then over to neighboring islands. We spent a morning at the Royal Palace checking out the residence, which is interesting if you’re into the Swedish royalty. Seeing that I didn’t know anything about them, it was less fascinating, in honesty. What I did really enjoy was the armory, which had some fascinating collections and also an entire floor of stage coaches that are displayed in a way that is very eerie and perfect on Halloween.

Over on the island of Djurgarden, there’s a whole bunch of activity. Definitely, head to Vasamuseet to see the old IMG_3847wood warship that sank on its maiden voyage right in the harbor in 1628, to the embarassment of Sweden. 330 years later, the navy embarked on a huge mission to raise the Vasa out of the water. Today, it is a ghostly version of its past, complete with displays of skeletons of those who drowned with the boat and artifacts. It may not last forever, because it cannot be exposed to any humidity. However, with all the traffic of visitors, the boat is starting to deteriorate, so hurry over.

If you don’t have a chance to visit the rest of Sweden, you can do so by popping over to Skansen,  an outdoor museum of traditional IMG_3908houses, buildings and churches that were either reconstructed at Skansen or brought over and re-assembled. You can enter all the furnished buildings and talk to the people dressed to the time. The good thing is the people don’t actually act like they live in that time period. The place is fascinating and bizarre all at once, and excellent if you have children. There is also a small zoo featuring Swedish animals, like reindeer and elk.

IMG_3771Shopping. I’m a huge sucker for Swedish minimalistic and functional design and would have spent days shopping if Stockholm wasn’t so expensive and I had a bigger suitcase. There’s DesignTorget, which has fun gadgets and home decor with a modern flair. It’s located in the Kulturhuset (Swedish Culture House, photo left). Here, Jon bought himself a Spork, which has a spoon on one side, a fork on the other with one serrated edge to cut food. The most popular department store is NK which features a huge home and kitchen section in the lower level, an impressive food hall, and floors of Swedish and European fashions. We didn’t get to check out the clothes because Jon was already bored watching me hunt for Orieto bowls from Finland on the lower level.

As for food, we didn’t really venture out to the great restaurants. We tried to go to one because Jon was fascinated by the idea of eating reindeer, but then the kitchen ran out of food. We basically just stopped into places that sounded interesting enough; another night we dined at my friend Jenny’s apartment where she cooked delicious salmon, the national dish. There were also lingonberries and cloudberries, which we ate around Sweden, and some tasty Swedish meatballs. Aside about Jenny’s place: they are very Swedish, with light, modern furniture, large windows, few belongings, and very minimalist. I’m so inspired to throw out half of my belongings to be that minimalistic. (She also had the Orieto series of dishes that I was eyeing at NK; we had even registered the cereal bowls from the Conran Shop but nobody bought them for us).

We missed Sweden as soon as we came home that we even considered stopping at Ikea to buy some food. Who knew it would grow on us so much?

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Getting Lost In: Visby, Gotland, Sweden!

IMG_3316Before I begin my Swedish series, first let me preface by saying Sweden is extremely expensive. So, in the interest of being cheap, we splurged on a few items: a rental car, a flight to the island of Gotland, and a couple of pricier hotels when there were no other options. Other than that, it’s still entirely possible to enjoy Sweden without spending all your Kronos.

DSC03019As soon as we landed in Stockholm Arlanda, we routed to Bromma Airport (which, by the way, we thought we could access directly on the airport shuttle, but in summer that particular shuttle does not go between airports. You have to go to the city center, and then pick up another bus to Bromma. I was given misleading info when I booked that flight) to catch our jet to Visby. We took Skyways there.

Visby is the main, medieval city of the island of Gotland, four hours out to sea from Stockholm. Visby is surrounded by an ancient stone wall, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a cobblestoned area with small country houses and rose vines climbing the walls. Gotland itself is a beautiful vacation spot for Swedes, but when pressed for time, we didn’t get to enjoy the beaches and rustic island of the Baltic Sea as might as liked to.

IMG_3203The reason we decided to make this journey was because it happened to Medieval Week there, and Swedes who partook got very, very involved with their armory and linen dresses and swordfighting. Many of the people dressed up also had multiple tattoos, piercings all over their faces, purple hair, or mohawks – so it was unclear whether this was a true Swedish pride festival or a Goth convention. At least, compared to the Renaissance Fair in the U.S., Sweden actually had a Medieval period in its history, so off we went to learn all about it.

Really, I think photos would best describe our visit, since the Medieval Week only occurs, well, once a year, so if you have plans to go to Visby you may not have the same experience that we did.

HOTEL: because of Medieval Week, nearly every hotel was booked. We lucked out with Hamnhotellet, a nice new hotel with multiple buildings right across from the ferry. It is also about a 10 minute walk along the water to the city wall, or you can rent bikes from the hotel to take around the city. TIP: Hamnhotellet’s site, in English, will charge you in euros. For a better exchange rate, book it from the Swedish site. You may need to use Google Translate to guide yourself, but the English and Swedish sites are identical as well. I saved $40 on our room with that.  

IMG_3380FERRY: we took the ferry back, which was a rather nice trip. Because it’s a car ferry, the ride was incredibly smooth, to the point that you didn’t realize you were moving at all. They also showed a movie, “Yes Man” with Jim Carey, so we shared my earphones.

Here are some pictures… enjoy.


Below: Visby homeIMG_3210

 IMG_3319  Below left:  knight in armor.   Below right: Jon is inspired by knight in armor                                                               IMG_3245



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Getting Lost In: London-town!

IMG_2956It’s hard not to sing “A foggy day… in London-town” while skipping around this fantastic British city, though the rest of the song suggests that London can be depressing unless you are Louis Armstrong meeting Ella Fitzgerald in front of the British museum.  There is so much to take in and the tea is really much better, especially with some biscuits or “digestives” which I’m still trying to comprehend the difference between. But if you have three days, lots of caffeine, lots of British pounds, and good shoes, you can duplicate the madness that was our trip (my second, Jon’s first) to London.

Day 1. Arrive in Heathrow at 7 in the morning. We hemmed and hawed over the $1.75 exchange rate we got at the airport ATM (note: don’t take out a lot of money at airport ATMs) and wondering if we should be cheap and take the Tube to Piccadilly Circus for about £4 and one hour, or the fast Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station for £16.50 and 15 minutes. We splurged and went for the fast train and got to my friend Dave’s place in Notting Hill swiftly and without passing out en route.

First, after an intended one-hour nap that expanded into three hours, we set off to Westminster Abbey and Big IMG_2949Ben, Parliament and the works. Westminster is unique with all its famous people buried in there, and the audio tour is interesting and well-narrated by Jeremy Irons who speaks distainfully about children who used to play there. There isn’t much to see at Parliament or Big Ben except the exterior, unless you really want to check out when Parliament is in session (snore). Then we headed IMG_2971through St. James’ park towards Buckingham Palace, where parts of the palace are open to the public in August for an exorbitant fee that we were told not to buy into. At this point, it might rain, so make sure you pack an umbrella and maybe a raincoat. Also try not to leave your only jacket, which is waterproof, on the plane like certain husbands did.

Later, you can walk along the Thames River or along Oxford Street. We decided to walk straight across London to meet my friend Maurice and his girlfriend for dinner  at a nice Spanish restaurant in the up-and-coming trendy part of IMG_3003town of Shoreditch. Of course, they were dressed much nicer than we tourists were in our jeans and Jon’s backpack. His girlfriend also plays polo. The horse kind, that is.

Day 2. The sunshine is out, and it’s weekend market time in Notting Hill on Portobello Road, right outside Dave’s window in fact, so we woke up to the sounds of people shopping and squealing over clothes, antiques, and fresh fruit and vegetables. We decided to go for a little hike across town – IMG_3037through the long greenery of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park towards one of my world’s favorite, the British Museum which houses some of the best Egyptian artifacts. Afterwards we went to find some toys at Hamley’s for my niece and nephew, but I would not recommend this activity on a Sunday afternoon unless you want to be run over by little children. We did get to meet Harry IMG_3041Potter, however. We walked along the Thames and headed to Chinatown for dinner, where pretty much every restaurant is the same – though they did let you bring home your food in a doggy bag, something very rare in European restaurants (portions are much smaller there, anyway).

Day 3. We woke up bright and early to be one of the first at London’s ancient castle, the Tower of London. Apparently if you have a voucher from some travel pass, you can get a two-for-one discount that would otherwise cost you nearly $35 a IMG_3117person. If you don’t have the voucher, you can try for the unemployment rate which is the same as the student rate. You can also beg the sales guy for the two-for-one by asking “Pleeeaseee??” as we did and were granted our wish. The Tower IMG_3051requires the whole morning, with a long queue for the Crown Jewels and some extra time to study bizarre equipment at the Armory. Afterwards, you can check out the Tower Bridge and then cross the London Bridge towards the Tate Modern. Here you will wonder when exactly did artists stop creating pretty portraits and landscapes and start throwing bodily fluids on canvases and were still called “talented.” Afterwards, you must make an obligatory stop at Harrods, quite possibly one of the best department stores in the world. Definitely visit the Food Halls and purchase some teas, pay tribute to Diana and Dodi (Dodi’s family owns Harrods), check out the Pet Kingdom (which make American IMG_3150tourists shopping with their measly dollars bitter that British pooches have higher standards of living), the Games Hall which has lots of fancy board games, and the Sport Hall which sells, besides croquet sets, horse-riding gear.

At night, we tried to get tickets to the Proms that take place in August – a series of outdoor concerts in Hyde Park but they were sold out. Instead, we rested up and had dinner with Dave at a pub in Notting Hill, then packed for our flight to Stockholm the next morning. It was time for Jon to give up his sad attempt at a British accent, and we had about enough of fish and chips by then.

Stay tuned for Getting Lost in Sweden next!

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