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One foot in two countries - or why Marmite beats Kalles caviar

Don't worry, I'm not going to be discussing the relative merits of these two vaguely disgusting, overly salty spreads. I've cunningly used Marmite and Kalles caviar to symbolise my two home countries, but I do think the fact that Brits learn to love a tar-like yeast extract spread on their toast and Swedes a fishy goo in a toothpaste tube says a great deal about how liking certain foods has a lot more to do with nostalgia than taste.

Anyway, having two home countries - and a metaphorical foot in each - is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. I remember waking up on Midsummer's Eve three years ago to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU and, on that most Swedish of days, I suddenly felt lost and unsure about where I (and my family) belonged.

Prior to that it had been easy to fool ourselves that we were citizens of Europe, and of the world, breezily gliding between Sweden and Britain, and any other European country we cared to visit, study or live in. But dancing around the maypole to Små grodorna, with the possibility that we might now be forced to leave my chosen country, I felt out place and slightly scared.

The best of both worlds

Was Sweden our home? Would we be allowed to stay? And, if so, did that mean we couldn't be British too? (Almost certainly, if the Swedish Democrats - who want to ban dual nationality - have their way). What exactly is it that makes someone British, or Swedish, anyway? Apart from strong views about Marmite.

Like most Brits living in Sweden we applied for Swedish citizenship almost immediately and, like around 2000 others, we're still waiting to hear if it'll be granted. The massive shit show that is Brexit is still a huge unknown so we find ourselves in limbo. Obviously not the kind of terrifying limbo that stateless people and refugees find themselves in but still a strange, slightly uncomfortable place to be.

Added to that, ever-increasing climate panic and flygskam (shame of flying) is making it feel like it might be time to pick just one country and stick with it. But which one? How to choose between warm dampness and cold beauty, cosy pubs and a superior design aesthetic, familiarity and freedom to roam, old friends and new, Marmite and Kalles caviar? (actually that one's a no-brainer).

Time will tell what Brexit brings and where our roots and hearts (or ruthless politicians) eventually take us but, for now, no one's kicking us out and we're free to ski in our kilts, speak Swenglish, spread Marmite on our knäckebröd and embrace the cultural mishmash of having a foot in both Sweden and Britain.

Every-other-week parenting without splitting up

As anyone who has ever been married or in a long-term relationship will probably agree, marriage is hard. Shit hard, you might even say in Swenglish, especially if you have children. So hard in fact that around 1 in 2 marriages in Sweden end in divorce. (I recently read somewhere that Gnesta, my home town, has the second highest divorce rate - 3.6 per 1,000 residents - in Sweden after Ockelbo, so we're battling some pretty unfavourable odds here.*)

While most children in the UK with separated parents seem to stick with the same "lives with the mother, weekends and holidays with the father" routine that I grew up with, in Sweden it's much more common to divide children's time equally between parents, with an alternating "mammavecka" and "pappavecka". Which is fantastic for equality, but possibly not always so great for the children.

When Joe and I had a trial separation a couple of years back (which I could blame on living in Gnesta, but actually there were a few other factors involved), we found we loved the freedom of having every second week to ourselves but hated being away from the children (and each other) so much.

So we came up with the genius solution of staying together but doing every-other-week parenting. I realise this won't work for everyone - Sweden's subsidised childcare and family-friendly labour laws definitely make it more doable - but I reckon it could be a relationship and sanity-saver for some families.

This is how it works for us:

  • On parenting weeks, we're responsible for picking up and dropping off children at school, food shopping, cooking, arranging playdates and basically any and all child-related admin.

  • On our free weeks, we can work as long and late as we want, go out any evenings without "permission", and even take a whole night off if we need serious peace and quiet.

  • We usually take one night of the week on our free weeks and go and stay at my mother's house nearby. I always intend to use my free evening to meditate, do yoga, take long walks and nurture myself, but usually end up eating pesto pasta and watching crap on Netflix.

  • When we're at home during our free week, we help out because we want to, not because we have to.

  • Weekends and holidays are pretty much shared but if we want to go out or go away, weekends at the end of our free weeks are the preferred time to do it.

  • As with "normal" parenting, communication and kindness are key. If we see the other parent struggling on their parenting week, we step in and help them out. Remember, karma will always bite you in the arse in the end.

  • Swaps and substitutions are allowed.

* If you want better odds, best move to Nordmaling in Västerbotten with only 0.8 divorces per 1,000 residents.

Night train to the far north

Two dreams I’ve had for the longest time - to take a night train, and to travel as far north as it’s possible to go in Sweden by train - came together and were realised this weekend when I took my two youngest children on a 72 hr trip to Abisko in Lapland.

I grabbed the chance and booked the trip as I thought they had two study days off school and I wanted to get up to fjällen before the snow did. Turns out I got the dates wrong as well as the weather forecast, and so I found myself on Platform 18b of Stockholm’s Central station with two truant children in full ski gear on Wednesday night at 10.45pm, waiting to climb aboard the night train to Boden in Norrbotten, from whence to Abisko.

Tripp, trapp, trull (mamma gets top bunk)

The night train was every bit as thrilling and romantic as I’d imagined. Ok, it's not the Orient Express (although the restaurant car decor could be described as charmingly faded Art Deco chic in a good light) and the catering was pretty basic (the organic Kalf & Hansen-collaboration menu as promised in the SJ magazine was apparently available on some other train, speeding southwards).

But if, like me, you get a thrill from organising your belongings in a tiny space, being rocked to sleep by the noise of the train chugging through the night and, best of all, being sealed in a moving capsule in which no cooking, cleaning, driving or work are necessary or even possible and the only activities are sleeping, eating, reading and admiring the scenery for 18 hours you’ll be in heaven.

"Are we nearly there?" - somewhere in Västerbotten

We woke the next morning somewhere in the middle of Sweden and spent several hours alternating reading, playing Uno and bickering over the iPad with watching the landscape outside the window change from wide, wild rivers and deep forests in glorious peak autumn colours to more barren, wintery landscape once we crossed the Arctic Circle north of Boden.

195km north of the Arctic Circle, 1,393km from home

At Abisko autumn was almost over, with just a few glowing golden leaves left on the birch trees as testament to what must have been a stunning display a couple of weeks earlier. Thankfully the threatened snow hadn't yet made it down from the mountaintops so, feeling slightly overdressed in our snowboots and salopettes, we were able to set straight out from the mountain station hostel and explore.

As well as being the starting off (or finishing) point for the 450km Kungsleden (Kings Trail), there are plenty of well-marked walking paths around the station and into the national park, of varying lengths and difficulties, and the landscape is so epic that even Freya, a notorious heel-dragger, managed to spend full days walking, with frequent Ballerina biscuit refuelling stops.

Finn gazing northwards towards Norway across Lake Torneträsk

Close by, Abisko canyon carved out of Cubist-style schist and dolomite limestone, gushing with the icy, clear green water of the Abiskojokk river. Down to the lakeshore of Torneträsk lake, fringed with snow-covered mountains, and facing the iconic Lapporten valley. And over to the Sami camp reconstruction to see how the area's indigenous people lived nomadically in the 19th century.

Lapporten - gateway to Lapland

Back in our hostel dorm the first evening, vast and palatial but disappointingly static after our train digs, the mountain air and hiking knocked us out immediately. A few hours later, excitable voices outside our window woke me and I peered out to see the mystical green swirls of the Northern Lights. Finn and Freya could not be woken for love or money (or even the promise of a Ballerina) so I pulled on some clothes and went outside to enjoy my own private display of this truly awe-inspiring phenomenon.

I couldn't do the lights justice with my phone camera but this beauty was taken when the aurora made a rare appearance in Sörmland Photo credit: Joe Maclay

For me, the lure of the north is magnetically strong. The cold, exotic beauty and the endless intricacies of snow and ice pull me ever northwards. Happily, Finn shares this passion, so we're busy studying maps for our next adventure. Next stop Riksgränsen and Norway beyond...