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A good book and a hipster brownie

I had high hopes of fulfilling my intentions of embracing winter these past couple of weeks and writing inspiring things about wholesome activities like long-distance skating, cross-country skiing and ice bathing.

However, an absent spouse, grey skies, a broken washing machine, too much/not enough snow and a nasty case of head lice have put the kibosh on that so instead I'm going to write about the two things that are really getting me through the days at the moment: books and brownies.

These rawfood vegan brownies (or hipster brownies, as Joe calls them, slightly disparagingly, before scoffing another one) are ridiculously quick and easy to make and the best thing is my children don't like them enough to eat them all in one go, so there are plenty left for me. Here's what to do:

Whizz up 200g pitted dates, 3 dl oats, 1 dl cocoa, 1 dl nut butter, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt in a food blender with enough water (about 1 dl) to make the mixture soft enough to spread out into a shallow dish.

For the icing, don't bother to wash up the bowl, just chuck in another 80g of dates, 1/2 dl coconut oil, 1/2 dl cocoa and 3/4 dl water. Blend together, spread over the brownies and let it all chill in the fridge for an hour or so before sprinkling over some sifted cocoa, sea salt and/or dessicated coconut. Grab a handful and retire to a quiet spot with a good book.

My current bedside table book tower is in danger of collapsing and, while Marie Kondo may not approve of the storage method, all these books are sparking plenty of joy so I'll share my tips before dismantling it:

  • Half Of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the Biafran War in the Sixties. It's skilfully written, touching and heartbreaking.
  • I recently re-read The Poisonwood Bible and am now working my way through Barbara Kingsolver's back catalogue. She writes brilliantly about nature and particularly the effects of climate change in Flight Behaviour.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees is funny and fascinating. You'll never walk in a forest or look at a tree in the same way after reading this.
  • If you only ever read Steinbeck as a set text in school, give The Grapes of Wrath - and all his other books - another go. His female characters aren't particularly positive or inspiring on the whole but he's a master storyteller and his themes are just as relevent today as they were in the Forties. In my top ten books of all time.
  • Even if you're not a fan of spiritual/self-help books, everyone should read The Power of Now. And then re-read it regularly, whenever you need some perspective or your ego's getting a bit out of control. Life-changing, literally.
  • Swing Time: Love Zadie Smith. Her books make me nostalgic for London and her characters are funny and real.
  • A Little Life: I can't decide whether I enjoyed this or not. It's long, traumatic, difficult to read and I couldn't relate to any of the characters but I couldn't stop thinking about it for ages afterwards.
Fear of flying and a Japanese spa

Wanderlust and climate anxiety is a frustrating combo. I want to see the world, and show it to my children - but how to justify jetting around the planet when I'm destroying it for them in the process? We've recently come back from a month-long trip that involved flying across the Atlantic, thereby using up our carbon allowances for pretty much the rest of our lives, so no more foreign travel for us any time soon.

(Have you ever used an online calculation tool to measure your carbon footprint? Even if you consider yourself fairly green I guarantee you'll be shocked by the result - check out the WWF's one here, if you dare.)

Anyway, instead of getting too morose about all this, I've decided to focus on making the most of the Swedish winter (and not just by getting "mysig" by an open fire, but really getting out there and embracing it), as well as finding ways to experience the world without leaving the country.

First stop, Yasuragi Hasseludden, the Japanese spa just outside Stockholm. I'd visited once before about fifteen years ago, but it's had such an extensive revamp since then that I barely recognised it. The Japanese theme and aesthetic runs strong throughout, from the walkway up to the building and surrounding Japanese gardens to the food (there are three different Japanese restaurants and a sake bar), the yukatas (cotton robes) that all guests wear and, of course, the spa.

I must admit I'm not a massive fan of spas per se. Too much hush-hush, dodgy music, unripe fruit and icky things floating in hot tubs, but Yasuragi's new spa area is on a whole new level. It's the shogun of spas, the emperor. There are indoor saunas and hot tubs and cold plunge pools and salt scrub steam rooms and three outdoor hot pools and an outdoor sauna and a sparkling water pool and it just goes on and on. You could sauna and bathe here for hours and barely park or dip your bits in the same section twice.

If, like me, you get a bit claustrophic in saunas and hot baths, the outdoor pools are the highlight, especially in the winter. Sitting emerged in atmospherically steaming hot water with your face exposed to the cold, fresh air and a view out over the icy water and snow-covered Scots pines and villas of Hasseludden is a pretty hard experience to beat.

The whole place is gorgeously designed in a modern Japanese/Nordic aesthetic with masses of concrete and panoramic windows and everything felt sparklingly fresh and clean - partly achieved, I would imagine, by giving all spa guests brand new, complementary (and rather flattering) black swimming costumes to wear and instructing us all on the proper pre-spa washing ritual. I expect state-of-the-art filtration technology plays its part, but either way I'm happy to report I didn't spot a single unidentified floating object or rogue body hair.

Since I've never visited a Japanese onsen (hot spring baths) I don't know how Yasuragi compares but there's no getting away from the fact that it's huge, with some 600 rooms, and a lot of conference guests. But the size and design of the spa, together with the the fact that everyone is dressed in anonymous swimmers or the yukata you're given to wear at all other times, including meal times, means it never feels too crowded or corporate. There's also a ban on using mobiles in all public areas, which is a revelation in phone-obsessed Sweden (and explains why these pics are all high-quality press images and not my own iPhone snaps).

I'm planning on an annual winter visit, at least until someone invents a zero-emissions way to fly to Japan. Keep an eye out for their special deals and an overnight spa package can be surprisingly good value. Definitely cheaper than a return ticket to Tokyo in any case, plus better for your skin and easier on the conscience.

By friends for friends: feel-good Christmas shopping

Just to be clear, I'm no Scrooge. I'm crazy about Christmas and gaily embrace a mishmash selection of all my favourite British and Swedish traditions: candlelit Lucia services, the smell of warm glögg, mince pies with boozy butter, turkey and stuffing (more on the controversial topic of Swedish v. British Christmas food another time), watching Elf for the 87th time, making wonky gingerbread houses, fresh snow and frozen lakes - bring it all on. I am full of the spirit (does Baileys count as spirits?) But one thing that brings out my inner Grinch more and more each year is Christmas shopping.

The thought of all the pointless tat bought and chucked away makes me want to hide in a silent retreat until January, so this year (*friends and family spoiler alert*) I've decided only to buy handmade presents from people I know and like. Handily, there are plenty of creative souls in my area making beautiful things that I (hint) - and hopefully my loved ones - would love to receive. Here are just a few:

Anyone who's been specially good this year should add one of Lina's glorious hand-dyed organic silk kaftans to their Christmas list. She used to live with us so I've seen first-hand how much work goes into creating each kaftan, kimono, poncho and scarf she makes. Each one is hand-dyed using natural dyes such as avocado, raspberry, coffee, rust and rose petals and they're true works of art.

Sonja has a pottery workshop and studio in the old engine sheds in Gnesta and makes throwing beautiful pots look ridiculously easy which, having taken a couple of her evening classes, I can tell you it most definitely isn't.

Karolina of Kajsys hand-makes all her own skin care products using organic oils and other ingredients. My brand-new baby nephew will be getting a big jar of "Snällkräm" with jojoba oil and beeswax, and I'm hoping her "Skäggolja" beard oil with apricot kernal oil and rosemary is going to transform Joe's facial hair vibe from Mr Twist to Mr Clooney.

My old school friend Molly was always the best at art in our year and she's gone on to create a successful business making her own design block-printed textiles, wallpapers and other very lovely products.

Jules walked into a North London playground and my life fourteen years ago when our two eldest boys were just babies. She somehow combines being a highly successful art director with being wonderfully scatty, a single mother to two boys and running her new art advisory service. You can hire her to transform a blank wall into a tasteful and personal gallery wall or just buy one of the hand-picked prints and paintings from her online gallery (the black and white photographic print on the left is by my extremely talented husband, Joe Maclay)

Last year was the first year since moving to Sweden that we had a turkey for Christmas lunch (our first year here we killed and ate one of the neighbour's geese by mistake, but that's another story) and finding a higher welfare bird in this country was no mean feat.

Mission Happy Turkey involved a long search and a random handover rendezvous with a lorry driver in a petrol station car park off the E4. This year, I've sourced the festive (pasture-raised, organically fed and on-site slaughtered) bird from friends who run a permaculture farm in Värmland and make monthly deliveries to Stockholm and Järna.

I've just realised pretty much all these businesses are run by women; not intentional - I'm just lucky enough to know a lot of amazing, inspiring, creative women and I'd rather support them than add more money to the likes of Jeff Bezos' bulging coffers any day.

(No) movie Sunday at Hobo

A distinct drawback of living in a different country from most of your family is that babysitting opportunities are few and far between. Having as many children as we do also rather reduces the pool of people prepared to take on the job, so when my mother was visiting last week we grabbed the chance and snuck off for a rare grown-up night in the big city.

I'd stayed one night at Hobo Stockholm on Brunkebergstorg on a press trip last year and their outstanding breakfast has remained a happy memory ever since. I regard pretty much any hotel breakfast as one of life's great pleasures, but Swedish ones can be a bit samey and limited if you're not into pickled herring and raw peppers first thing. Hobo's mini cheesy egg muffin/soufflé things were calling to me so I snapped up their "Movie Sunday" deal, which includes a night in a superior room, the aforementioned breakfast, plus popcorn and movie tickets - all for 1090 SEK.

What is this hipster hell? I could see Joe thinking as he took in the hydroponic plants and photo booth in the lobby, the pop music on ear-bleed volume and various niche products for sale in their mini-shop. Hobo's uber trendy but it's also fun, unpretentious, centrally located and I'm not sure there's any other city centre hotel in Stockholm where you can get a huge room with panoramic views of the skyline for under a hundred British pounds.

I'm such a sucker for a deal that I forget to ask myself whether or not I (or Joe) actually wanted to go to the movies but the SF tickets laid on our beds were valid for a year, so the pressure was off and we decided to wander the Stockholm streets in a haze of giddy child-free bliss instead.

Popcorn that is in no way Indian

Lazy/knackered parents that we are, we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant (hey, it was Sunday) and were glad we did as the slow-cooked lamb with creamy, dill-y beans, grilled salad (who knew hot cucumbers were a thing?) and chargrilled hunk of bread (also a thing) were all delish. It also turned out that our deal included 20% off the food and drinks bill which Joe, being Scottish, was especially pleased about.

The breakfast buffet the next morning was every bit as classy and creative as I remembered. Chia pudding with vanilla, cold-pressed beetroot juice and, praise the Lord, those little eggy muffins, topped with smoked salmon. A cracking way to start the week.

Breakfast bliss

Re-open: The National Museum's new lease of light

It's been a long time since I last visited the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. The fact that it's been closed for refurbishment for the past five years is one good reason, but my memory of it as a somewhat gloomy old building stuffed with Old Masters wasn't pushing it to the top of my To Do list.

I was tempted back, however, when it re-opened last month as I was curious to see the results of the £100 million refurb but also to visit the huge, specially-commissioned glass chandelier I had seen being made at The Glass Factory in Boda last year in situ.

 

Ten glass designers, including Åsa Jungnelius and Carina Seth Andersson, collaborated on the project and each element was hand-blown at The Glass Factory. Photo credit: Tina Stafren/VisitSweden

Admiring the assembled chandelier before it makes the journey from Småland to Stockholm Photo credit: Tina Stafren/VisitSweden

 

Modern Swedish glass design and craftsmanship at its best: the eye-catching chandelier in its new home in the museum restaurant

The Old Masters are all there, of course, re-displayed against walls painted in surprisingly un-Scandi rich jewel colours. Artworks are also now collected by period rather than genre - so paintings and other decorative arts from, for example, the 17th century are now exhibited together which provides a nice simple cohesive timeline for lowbrow visitors like me.

Oddly, Sweden doesn't actually have a dedicated museum of design (there is a virtual one, though: Swedish Design Museum). But the National Museum has its own impressive collection and the furniture, glassware and other objects specially commissioned for the re-opening serve as a living, interactive lesson in contemporary Swedish design - the cutlery used in the restaurant was designed by Note, hand-blown glass vases by Carina Seth Andersson and chairs by Matti Klenell and Peter Andersson.

The totem-like "Venus in glass" by artist Frida Fjellman, specially commissioned by the Bengt Julin fund for the museum re-opening

Whatever bizarre thought process led to the rooms at the front of the building being used for offices and storage in the "old" museum has thankfully been reversed and the glorious, light-filled space with views over the water and the Royal Palace is now occupied by the restaurant. More than 300 windows have been opened up and the rooves over the two atria have also been replaced by glass-panelled ceilings, filling the sculpture park in the southern atrium with light and triangular-shaped shadows.

Photo credit: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

Photo credit: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

The new museum has blown away all its cobwebs and brought a new lease of life to two of the museum's (and Stockholm's) most important resources - its design credentials and stunning natural light.