A Sojourn in Sweden

A Sojourn in Sweden

Twenty years ago this past summer I traveled to the land of my ancestors. A land I had heard about my whole life, a storybook country of lakes and forests and flaxen-haired princesses. Of blue and yellow flags and three golden crowns atop many a spire. It was “the old country” of my grandparents on both maternal and paternal sides. Surnames like Lundberg, Holmberg, Appelquist, Boquist, and Engwall wrapped my childhood in their soft sing-song melodies. And I was one small variation on that theme, about to join the main chorus. 

The trip began with a Volvo. We were living in North Carolina in those years, where my husband traveled the South for his job as sales engineer with his family’s company. He was in the market for a newer, safer car—not the used high-mileage station wagons we usually bought—when we learned of an amazing deal. You could pre-order a customized vehicle, fly to the Volvo factory in Goteborg to pick it up, sightsee around Sweden, and have them ship it back home. All for less money than the exact same model purchased at your local dealership. The choice seemed obvious. 

However, our version wasn’t the bargain it might have been for a single person or even a couple because we decided to make a grand adventure out of it and take all four children with us. Scandinavia has never been a cheap destination for budget travelers, even two decades ago, but we justified it by saying we’d have the new car as immediate transportation. We’d stay in hostels and eat grocery store meals. It felt like a cultural opportunity that might never arrive again. We would fly to Goteborg to pick up the Volvo, spend two weeks traveling to as many places as we could reach in a country the size of California, and be back home in time for my Grandma Engwall’s 100th birthday. Plus we could finally cash in on a long-standing offer of hospitality at the Erikssons’.  

When I was a sophomore in high school we had an exchange student from Sweden live with us for a year. He was two years older—the same age as my brother John, with whom he shared a basement room in our house in northern Virginia. The two of them spent their senior year studying calculus, hiking the Blue Ridge, going on field trips into Washington, D.C., and finding creative ways to torment me. Our families had stayed in touch with each other over many decades. Christmas cards, the occasional phone call. Lars and his wife Kersten (pronounced Share-stun) had four children of their own whose ages lined up pretty closely with our kids’. So we let them know about the Volvo plan and they graciously offered to host the six of us—including teenage boys with voracious appetites and sulky attitudes. So we descended on them that summer in June of 1996—in their beautiful old manor house about an hour west of Stockholm, in Vasteros, the very city my maternal grandfather, Sven Engwall, hailed from. It was meant to be. 

But visiting the Erikssons and sightseeing with them in Stockholm would come at the end of the trip. Stockholm faces east toward Finland, Estonia, and the Baltic. Our Volvo, a deep pine green like the forests surrounding it, was waiting for us on Sweden’s west coast, in the major ship-building center of Goteborg. It was there our sojourn began. If you want to feel like a VIP for a day, buy a Volvo direct from the makers. They will give you a tour of the factory on your own little tram car, treat you to coffee and pastries from their cafeteria, and make sure you are completely satisfied with your vehicle before you leave. We had to stifle our laughter as we rode through the factory. Some of the directional signs would raise no eyebrows from Swedes, but “Utfart” and “Infart” and “Sluten” had our older boys in hysterics.  

In our minds we sketched out a rough travel plan, hoping to include a range of activities for our children aged 10, 12, 14, and 16. We the parents longed for windswept beaches and a few good museums. We hoped to witness the midnight sun, eat great seafood, and reconnect with old friends. From Goteborg we would head south to the famous glass factories of Orrefors and Kosta Boda, then on to a town we had heard we must visit, with a wonderful emigrant museum, a town with an unpronounceable name: Vaxjo (Veck-hure comes close but not quite). And slowly we would meander our way north again, stopping at whatever looked interesting, north toward our friends. I was determined we would arrive in Vasteros in time for the Summer Solstice, what Swedes call Midsommar. I pictured all of us dancing to familiar folk tunes around a towering, beribboned Maypole. The travel books of my childhood beckoned. 

My first exposure to Sweden came through my taste buds, anticipating my mother’s Swedish meatballs and the fruit soup she made every Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t learn that cardamom was an exotic spice brought to Scandinavia from Turkey until years later, but I knew there was a delicious, mysterious flavor in my Grandma Engwall’s coffee bread. She sometimes broke pods of it into percolating coffee. Grandpa liked a raw egg cracked into the grounds—for a smoother flavor, he said. Our family ate pickled herring with sweet gherkins and rye crisp all year long. I assumed that everyone did. My mother cooked with real butter, never margarine, and plenty of it. Ever since I learned to listen, I heard about Sweden’s provincial beauty and its “questionable” socialism, according to my grandparents. Both of my parents came from solid, middle-class Swedish homes where the language was still spoken among the older generation in church services and around the dinner table. My mother’s family settled in Vasteros in the northeast while my father’s clan had roots in the port city of Malmo on Sweden’s southern coast, just across the channel from Denmark and Germany in the province of Skone. Malmo became the setting of several episodes of PBS’s famous detective series Wallander. There are two versions, the British one starring Kenneth Branagh as the brooding, world-weary Kurt Wallander. And the original Swedish one, which I prefer, if only to hear the lilting tongue of my forebears and to follow the star-crossed love story of its lead actors, Krister Henriksson and Lena Endre. 

When one imagines Sweden, a litany of “S” words come to mind, words so common they resort to cliché: serenity, solitude, sun-craving, simplicity, sailboats, seafood, saunas, snow, smorgasbord, and, of course, sexy—as in actresses like Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, and Liv Ullmann. What Wallander has done for American audiences is to reveal a darker, grislier Sweden beyond the fields of bright yellow rape flower and blue harbors ringed with red cottages. A palette of primary colors set in sharp contrast to its often leaden skies and hidden turmoil. A Sweden now plagued by the same stamp of misery that exists in less pristine parts of Europe—human trafficking, assassinations, refugees fleeing civil wars, the rising tension over immigration and whom to allow across its relatively open borders. Ten years earlier in February 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down on an ordinary street in Stockholm, on his way home from a theatre. Though his murder was never solved, all signs pointed to a right-wing extremist group. This isolated event rang like an early warning alarm going off, indicating a sea change coming for all Scandinavian countries: Nowhere is safe now. You’re vulnerable too.  

But this was not the Sweden we visited twenty years ago. September 11, 2001, had not yet happened. No one had ever heard of ISIS or Boko Haram. Swedish neutrality held fast. That Sweden was every bit the storybook land of Viking myths and stunning modern design and handsome people everywhere you looked. I felt proud of my heritage on that trip and blended right in with the natives—so much so that a tourist even asked me for directions one afternoon in Stockholm!  

We stood in a circle with other travelers as men in denim shorts and clogs, some of them bare-chested, pulled molten globs of glass out of the furnace on long metal poles, twirling them as they strode by, a few feet from our faces. We marveled at their blasé concern for safety, theirs or ours. And joked what the same scene would look like back in the U.S. We’d all be issued welding goggles, stand behind a requisite yellow rope, then sign a no-fault waiver before we were allowed to enter the room! Sweden may be a socialist country, but they love their freedom of expression and bend the rules to suit. I bought a lovely glass pitcher/vase in the purest blue from Kosta Boda and managed to get it home without a crack or chip. It holds a bouquet of dried hydrangea blooms in an upstairs corner of my house I call The Swedish Room.

The Emigrant Museum in Vaxjo—which we took to calling “that town” because we always botched the pronunciation—gave visitors an inside look at what it might have been like to travel for weeks on end in cramped quarters in the hull of a ship bound for America in the late 1800s. In a model room the size of a large walk-in closet a family of five spent their days. A pair of narrow bunkbeds faced each other. I vaguely recall a trunk with their belongings, an oil lamp and a chamber pot the only adornments. Sweden at that time was not the industrial powerhouse it became after World War II. It was poor, rural, and isolated from the rest of Europe, with too many people and not enough work. I tried to imagine my grandfather—who changed his name from Sven to Swan in order to embrace a new identity—making his own journey a few decades later in the early 1900s when he was just sixteen years old. Leaving behind his widowed mother and one sister with the clear knowledge he might never see them again. 

He was headed to a small farm in Missouri where a distant uncle already lived, an uncle who agreed to sponsor him. My grandfather hoped for the same things all immigrants hope for—a better life with new opportunities for education and work and dreams to raise a family in a safe, prosperous place. After Missouri he ended up in Chicago in one of the Swedish enclaves of the time. He worked in any place that would have him and began to study English in earnest. A reserved, bookish man ill-suited for factory work, he toyed with going into medicine though ended up a seminarian and eventually a college professor in Minnesota. But it was in Chicago where he met my grandmother, Hildur Marie Boquist, a fellow Swede and a secretarial trainee with a sharp tongue and feisty spirit. Hildur was the Grande Dame turning 100 in 1996. 

Before leaving for Sweden I spent several weeks tracking down places to stay along our southern route. Like France with its gites and Spain its posadas, Sweden too has a series of hostels scattered across the country. Some humble as a restored barn, others elegant as guest cottages on a country estate. I booked us lodging in several of these for about $15 per person per night, including breakfast—which usually meant granola, yogurt with seasonal fruits, hard rolls, coffee and tea. There was always a common kitchen for preparing supper and meeting fellow travelers. With our new green chariot and open-ended itinerary we embraced the vagabond life with relish. As we settled in for the night at one of these hostels in a private room with three sets of bunkbeds, our daughter exclaimed, “I love this! I wish we could stay here forever!” 

As we turned northeast toward the Baltic coast we took one afternoon to visit the island of Öland, a short causeway ride from the mainland and a popular picnic spot. We brought our standard lunch fare on a sparkling summer day and planned to graze in a town park, then walk the dunes to the white sandy beach. The air brisk and breezy, probably in the mid-60s, we could just see the tips of whitecaps riding the inky water. For many Swedes this constitutes sun-worshipping weather and any slope of sand dune becomes hallowed ground. I couldn’t understand why my teenage sons were so reluctant to leave the beach after lunch, when they knew we had a long drive ahead of us to reach Vasteros by sundown. Suddenly I saw what they had no doubt seen immediately, a trio of Swedish girlfriends doing what younger Swedes often do—sunbathe topless. Our twelve-year-old daughter was mildly embarrassed and our youngest son didn’t seem to notice. We laughed about European nonchalance toward the body and chalked it up to another lesson in cultural difference.  

If I fell in love that summer with a particular place in Sweden it would have to be the city of Kalmar with its lovely cobbled streets and magnificent Renaissance castle perched on the edge of the Baltic. Kalmar was meant to be a quick coffee stop en route to the Erikssons. Instead we stayed for hours, touring the castle and lingering at a sidewalk café with our cups of espresso and hot chocolate. Kalmar greeted us that afternoon with roving bands of what appeared to be students engaged in some outrageous graduation revelry. It turned out they were rowing crews from rival towns in an annual competition. Some flaunted Pippi Longstocking costumes complete with mops of red braids and her famous striped stockings. Picture tall hairy men dressed like this while rowing a longboat on a river. From our chairs at the outdoor café we had a ringside seat as a dozen mummies wrapped in white sheets flew by us, chanting. One of the great pleasures of travel is that you never know what might be coming around the corner, if you only take the time to loosen your schedule and get off the main road. In the frontispiece of a book about Kalmar I bought in the castle gift shop is this quotation from one of its long-time residents: 

One can never live forever in a really beautiful town. It gives you nothing to long for.

Well, there’s a certain painful wisdom in those words. Often what we desire lacks the passion it once held when we actually obtain the object of our desire. But in the case of Kalmar I was so enchanted with the city, I had already mentally moved in and planned to return for decades—if not forever. 

The Erikssons: Lars, Kersten, Charlotte (Lotte), Martin, David, and Karin. Six of them, six of us. The three older boys paired off soon after we arrived, heading upstairs in the manor house to play video games and watch movies. Martin, at fifteen, spoke near fluent English, as did most of the family—all except Karin who was seven and just learning it as a required subject in school. Swedish children must master English and have a good command of one other foreign language by the time they leave high school. My pitiful Swedish amounted to a few nursery rhymes and stock phrases like “Kaffe torren den basta der alla jordisk dricka” (“Coffee is the best of all earthly drinks”—something written on a trivet we had, probably a gift from my grandparents). 

Lotte, seventeen at the time and a bit of a prankster, thought she would surprise us with a bag of candy upon our arrival, sweets from a specialty shop in Stockholm. She was a little overeager for us to try it, so we sensed something was up. She had bought a batch of quite sour fruit drops, hoping to watch us sugar-loving Americans screw up our faces in disgust. She’d obviously watched a lot of commercials on TV. I actually enjoy candy on the tart side and so does my husband, so she didn’t get quite the reaction she hoped for but took it well. I too had brought gifts for our hosts: a pair of hand-thrown mugs from a pottery in North Carolina, sports T-shirts for Lotte, Martin, and David bearing the logos of Duke, UNC, and NC State. And for sweet little Karin, a book by a favorite author who grew up in Appalachia, When I Was Young in the Mountains. I think our status rose in Lotte’s eyes after the gifts were opened.

So we spent a week getting reacquainted in the company of people who felt almost like family. When not sightseeing in and around Vasteros, we sat in their backyard eating Kersten’s rhubarb cobbler (another Swedish staple), drinking strong black coffee, and engaged in the lost art of conversation. We told stories about our families and our shared histories. We talked about the differences between our two countries, what we loved and what we felt needed changing. As Americans we marveled at how clean and orderly everything appeared in Sweden, how we saw no poor people or rundown neighborhoods. How the Eriksson children could attend any university they qualified for and pay nothing. Our friends agreed these were all good things, but they came at a steep price. They grumbled about huge taxes and a lack of initiative that stems from a system where all your basic needs are taken care of, from cradle to grave.  

Even in those days, people flowed into Sweden from troubled countries in the Middle East and former Soviet bloc states, knowing its vast social network would provide housing and good healthcare. Lars bemoaned the fact that many of these recent immigrants were only too happy to enjoy the benefits of a generous society, but refused to take part in language lessons offered at their town center or seriously look for work after years of “free” living with no taxes. There seemed to be little desire on their part to assimilate into Swedish culture but rather to remain apart, as permanent wards, he said. We were hearing one side of a complex layered story, we knew, but listened with empathy and courtesy. We were still the guests—in their home and in their country. 

The city of Stockholm floats on an archipelago of dozens of islands, large and small. With forty bridges and numerous winding alleyways, it’s aptly called the Venice of the North. We planned to spend an entire day on one of those islands, in Gamla Stan, the oldest part of the city whose origins date back over 700 years. Lars, Kersten, Karin, and our family toured the magnificent Vasa Museum in the morning. Like the Titanic many centuries later, the Vasa was a doomed Viking warship that never made it past the main harbor on its maiden voyage. Raised from the deep it now occupies an entire climate-controlled building in the heart of downtown Stockholm, attracting visitors from all over the world. We watched a movie about its restoration during the tour, but got there in time for the Finnish version, which our Swedish friends were quick to point out. To our untrained American ears the soundtrack seemed perfectly fine. But to them it was like hearing Cockney or some less-desirable dialect. Another cultural fine point to note: Swedes think of the Finns as their country bumpkin cousins. At least these ones did. 

I can’t tell you much about the rest of that day. I know I bought three yards of beautiful Marimekko (Finnish!) fabric in a shop in Gamla Stan, which I thought would make stylish curtains. Our daughter bought a doll in traditional blue and yellow dress. Through some quirk of fate early that morning I’d been bitten by a large spider or some stinging wasp that had crawled overnight into my pantyhose (when I wore such things) which were draped over a bedroom chair in the Eriksson’s house. It must’ve stung me when I put them on, immediately causing a huge, painful welt to form on my inner thigh. I often get strong allergic reactions to insect bites, and this time proved no different. So I limped my way around Stockholm for as many hours as I could manage before acknowledging defeat. Back home in North Carolina I’d had visions of us taking a leisurely boat ride around the inner islands, splurging for lunch at a famous waterside cafe, and soaking in the sites of this beautiful, liquid city. But it was not going to happen, not that day. 

A recent Travel section of the New York Times features Stockholm in a literary vein, as the refuge of irascible playwright and social critic August Strindberg, whose last apartment is now a museum. The title of his first novel, The Red Room, is an actual place one can visit in a fashionable, restored hotel—with special privileges for curious writers. I confess to never having read anything by Strindberg, yet I couldn’t help but look with longing at photographs of lovely Katarina Church, and smiling people drinking beer on a rooftop lounge as boats glide by—and ponder all the places we missed in Stockholm.

Dalarna province might just be the quintessential Sweden of legends and fairytales. It is home to the painted wooden horses of the same name, Sweden’s most beloved symbol and most purchased souvenir. While some evidence suggests a sinister history originating in the country’s pagan past (including devil worship) most Swedes prefer to emphasize its modern role as cultural icon and favored ambassador. Everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bill Clinton to numerous foreign dignitaries owns a Dala Horse. One of my favorite photos from our trip is that of Karin and our youngest son Luke sitting atop a gigantic wooden horse outside the factory in the tiny village of Nusnas. Dalarna is also where Sweden’s famous painter and illustrator Carl Larsson lived with his wife, Karin, and their six children. Karin was herself a talented textile artist who came from a wealthy family, inheriting the land on which their extraordinary home and studio exists. It’s over a two-hour drive north of Vasteros, so we planned a day of it. 

When one first gets sight of the house, what’s immediately impressive is how ahead of its time the whole place appears. It bears the hallmarks of traditional Swedish colors and rustic architecture, yet one finds floor to ceiling glass windows in Larsson’s studio. Wide doorways and open beams invite the visitor to wander from one room into the next. Many of Karin’s original weavings grace the walls. There’s also the vivid sense that you’re stepping into an oddly familiar calendar picture because, indeed, you are. The dining room with its blue and white striped chair covers, the windowsill lined with red geraniums. Larsson used his home and his family as his primary subjects for countless drawings and watercolor illustrations, making everything in the house come alive. Beyond the main structure lies a small lake, another favorite subject as the site of summer idylls of picnics and swimming. One could almost expect to see the painter himself sitting in a lawn chair watching his children play. Like a bee trapped in Baltic amber, the Larsson homestead felt dream-like, a precious jewel fixed in time. 

We sat around the long wooden farm table in the Erikssons’ kitchen, all the women and girls slicing fresh strawberries to put between the layers of a sponge cake and to cover the whipped cream frosting. Households all over Sweden were making these same traditional cakes. Others were weaving garlands of wildflowers and grasses to crown their heads in celebration of the short, but bountiful light. It was Midsommar; the time for parties and fiddle music—and drinking Viking sized quantities of beer and Aquavit—had finally arrived. Later that day there would be dancing at a nearby local village celebration. We would don our rain slickers to ward off the mist and pretend we knew the words to Swedish folk songs that everyone around us actually did know. The three teenage boys would opt out of the dancing, of course. Far too uncool to dance with your parents and their friends to silly old songs about cows and farmers. But some of us did dance and loved it.

On our last evening in Sweden, after returning the Volvo to the factory where we purchased it in preparation for its transatlantic journey, we discussed our options with the kids: “We can either have a lovely dinner at a seafood restaurant in Goteborg and spend the night in the airport, or we can all sleep in real beds in a hotel and get up very early to make our flight. But we can’t afford both.” No one chose the latter. So we finally had that long-awaited meal in a luscious place by the water, and stayed there until 10:30 p.m., where it was still light outside and the sun had no intention of setting. 

And we made it home in time for Grandma Engwall’s 100th birthday celebration in St. Paul, Minnesota. We brought her photocopies of some of those very folk songs we danced to, to play on her lap piano. She tried her best to read the music, but once or twice lapsed into an old standby she knew by heart, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” We also brought her an utterly useless and sentimental gift, a small bag of soil from the city of Vasteros, where her husband Swan was born. By that time, she’d been widowed for 30 years, so who knows what it may have meant to her. A few weeks later, just as promised, our deep green Volvo, the trusty companion that had carried us all over southern Sweden, arrived in Charlotte, and we eagerly drove it home. It served us faithfully for many years and over 200,000 miles. We finally sold it to an older couple in Eugene several years ago who wanted a safe, second car.

The last time we saw the Erikssons was in June of 2008 in Florida, at a grand party for my father’s 90th birthday and my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. Not the whole family, but three of them made the generous effort to come. Lars and Kersten, and Martin with his new American fiancé, Gwen. They lived in New York City where he, like his father, worked for a multinational company. We learned that Lotte was married with two children and lived on Sweden’s west coast. David, who always loved the sea, worked as a boat-builder, not far from family. Karin, the baby, became the beauty we always knew she would be, and went on to study nursing at university. But after that big party, we lost touch again. My parents have since died, and they were the first link in the chain connecting our two families. Even the Christmas letters in Kersten’s lovely script have stopped. 

It’s been said that we don’t remember our days, we remember moments. When I think of that trip to Sweden, it’s individual moments I recall, like scenes from a play I was once an actor in. I knew my lines back then but have forgotten most of them now. All I know for certain is that once I was a visitor in a land that felt strangely like home, yet different. When you travel far and fall in love with a beautiful place, there can be a foolish certainty that you’ll return, if not soon, certainly within a decade. None of this is likely to happen, unless you have unlimited resources or your work takes you there. I naively expressed to family members back in the States that I would be living in Sweden one day, perhaps Kalmar. And half believed it.  

Whether I ever return remains doubtful, but that’s not the point of travel. In leaving home we open our minds to the transformation that comes with being the Outsider. We glimpse the world with a new clarity and our hearts stretch in the process. Swedish poet and Nobel winner in Literature (2011), Tomas Tranströmer says it best:

Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.
The endless ground under us.
The water is shining among the trees.
The lake is a window into the earth. 
— “The Half-Finished Heaven” translated by Robert Fulton
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