(NB an abridged version of this article appears on the February issue's Sista Ordet page)
A few summers ago I finally went to Sweden. I feel silly that it took me so long to visit this beautiful country, the land of my mother’s birth. Feeling silly is not unusual for me. I have long suspected this could be a Scandinavian trait, and now I am sure of it. Maybe silly isn’t the correct word, though: it’s primarily a concern that somehow you are in the wrong.
I saw this characteristic demonstrated by the desk clerk at the Lady Hamilton in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s colorful, cobblestoned Old Town. This clerk was only half Swedish, like me. Apparently that’s enough to make you quite concerned with doing things right and abashed when unable to.
I came down from my room looking for my husband, who had said he would be in the library reading a book. At least that’s what I thought he’d said; I’d been too preoccupied with unpacking to pay much attention. Although I hadn’t seen a library, I figured he must have found one. So I looked around: The lobby opened onto several rooms. Peeking into the quaint dining area, I confirmed that it led only to a kitchen. Wandering around the winding marble staircase, I found only a calm inner courtyard. Naturally, I assumed I could be missing something. I walked up to Dahrish, the dark-haired clerk who stood behind the long, lustrous wood desk.
“Hello, I’m looking for my husband,” I said. “He told me he would be reading a book in the library. Could you tell me where that is?”
Dahrish looked up at me. He thought hard for a moment, trying to figure out what room I meant. He obviously felt that if a guest was looking for a library, there must be one, and it was his duty to produce it. Mentally he was taking the same survey of rooms I had just done, to see whether he might have overlooked something. Then, with an apologetic expression, he told me he couldn’t think of any room in the hotel that could be a library. He thought again and added that they didn’t have any books available for reading, either.
“Oh,” I said.
Brightening, he added that the Lord Nelson hotel around the corner did have a library. Perhaps my husband was at this, another carefully restored old building among the owner’s trio of lodgings.
I smiled and gave him my thanks, then walked away. I had no intention of checking out the Lord Nelson, but I wanted Dahrish to feel that his suggestion had merit, just as he had made me feel that my strange question had merit.
Ah . . . to be in a place where people protect one another’s feelings! I felt right at home. In fact, I was home. This was the place my Grandma and Grandpa Frojd had journeyed from with their two little girls, Mary and Margaret, in the late 1920s. They had made a life in New York, but I can’t say they ever settled there. My mother—nicknamed both “Marge” and “Greta”—always held up Sweden to her four children as a paradise she had lost.
Well, it was high time I checked out this “paradise.” Aunt Mary’s daughter Nancy, who lives in Missouri, had piqued my interest in going, and before long she and her two sisters had signed on for the trip. My son, Daniel, a student at MIT, actually wanted to come. This was good news. On his first day of college, Dan was so eager to get away, he had run toward his dorm not noticing my fingers still clutching the handle of the suitcase he grabbed—unwittingly pulling me along behind him. I had lost my mother, a beloved brother and other relatives around the same time my son, in a different sense, had left. It would be silly to say I felt rejected, but I did wish Dan would call more often. At least we would be together on this trip.
We would be searching for our roots as well as enjoying a vacation. My husband has no Swedish roots, but he was also eager for this adventure. He liked the Swedes who had visited us in New York. They liked him too. In fact, all the Swedes we met in Sweden seemed to take to him.
Randy’s a man not averse to putting his foot in his mouth. Here in Westchester County, he can often expect to have this pointed out to him. Even passersby might stop to let him know his foot is in his mouth, but this never prevents him from putting it there again. He never means to be annoying: it’s good intentions and dogged self-expression that propel him along a path strewn with carelessly disregarded malapropisms and thoughts that just can’t be prevented from flying out.
This bold indifference appeals to me. I’m amazed that he doesn’t feel silly, even if he says something like, “I always start what I finish,” instead of “I always finish what I start.” I cringe when I misspeak, or speak at the wrong time, or speak too much. I sometimes cringe when I hear my husband talk too long to strangers, trying to draw them out. But the people we met on this Scandinavian trip seemed to like being drawn out. As a shy person who enjoys talking, I know myself that if the other person makes the first move, I’m less likely to feel foolish. So I view kindly any person who risks beginning a conversation. Likewise, these Swedes seemed to kindly overlook anything inappropriate or goofy that Randy happened to say.
Take the Swedish flight attendants. On the plane from New York to Stockholm, Randy suddenly became interested in knowing the location of Riga. Since I couldn’t remember, he asked the attendant. Instead of snapping, “This plane doesn’t stop in Riga,” or, “What are you asking me that for?” she patiently unfolded a map and helped him locate it—in Latvia.
On the plane from Stockholm to Östersund, the attendant asked Randy if he would like a drink.
“Does a duck like water?” Randy replied.
This hackneyed expression was a novelty to her.
“That’s a good one!” she laughed. “Does a duck like water! I’ll have to remember that.”
I found most Swedes ready for a laugh. They were not the depressed, angry people often portrayed in Ingmar Bergman films. My cousin Anita is always smiling, and her husband, Sven, has a flattering way of conveying his delight in what you say or do. He did this, for example, on our drive to central Sweden’s popular Åreskutan Mountain. I was sitting in the back seat with my son, Daniel, and Sven’s son, Olle, playing “I see something . . . red,” when I got the urge to regress even further into my childhood.
“On long trips, my brothers and I used to sing rounds,” I told 10-year-old Olle.
“What’s that?” Olle asked.
“I know what that is!” Sven chimed in from the front seat.
“Do you mind if we sing a round of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’?” I asked.
“That would be fantastic!” Sven said.
I’m not sure our singing sounded fantastic, but the simple pleasure of being driven by an enthusiastic host along a scenic route and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with two polite young men beat out any memories I had of the “I want the window seat,” “Stop touching me” trips of my youth. It felt fantastic, and somehow not silly. It felt like Daniel had found the agreeable little brother he had always yearned for.
In addition to the hospitality shown to us by Anita, Sven and Olle, whom I had previously met, we were also entertained by Urban and Gudrun, whom I had never met or even heard of. In fact, Anita hadn’t known them either, but she was put in touch with them when she tried to find a relative to take us to Tierp—a country community outside of Uppsala—where my grandfather and his siblings were raised. Since there were six of us travelers, Urban and Gudrun took two cars to meet us at the station. They had not known of our existence until a few days ago, yet here they were dedicating a whole day to us. They showed us the ancient Uppsala cathedral and drove us to their home near Tierp for a delicious lunch featuring Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, and water flavored with flower petals picked in their own well-tended yard. Urban was exactly my age and also had a son in college. When we complimented him on his English, he replied, “My brother speaks it much better than I do.” This was a true sign that he was related to my mother, who had been a master of self-deprecation!
As if this reception wasn’t enough, Urban and Gudrun also took us to see Urban’s aunt Ulla.
Ulla, joyful and energetic, was waiting for us as we arrived at her dainty red summerhouse surrounded by garden after garden of fragrant flowers. We sat on her porch while the unsetting sun glistened on blossoms, trees, a brightly painted woodshed, and neatly laid-out paths, throwing everything into high relief. This 88-year-old served us pastries she had made herself and poured coffee into elegant cups accompanied by butterfly-like napkins. Unlike Urban, she could not speak English. So later, when she said something in Swedish, then pulled off Urban’s hat and waved it, I thought she meant it was not proper for Urban to wear it in the house. I asked my husband to take off his hat as well. But that was not her point, Urban explained. Ulla was telling the story of when she had last seen my Grandpa Frojd. It was from a distance—just as he was leaving for America. Smiling, he had taken off his hat and waved it at her, his little niece.
Hearing this story in this setting, which reminded me of a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s atypically quaint Wild Strawberries, I felt a wave of nostalgia. It wasn’t for my past, since I had never been here. It was for my grandfather’s, my grandmother’s, and their two daughters’. Should they have left all this? Would Grandpa do it again if he could see how well things turned out for the relatives who stayed behind? Ulla looked slim and straight and not affected by the arthritis that had hampered my mother, whose garden was no longer well tended, whose grass was not now graced by gatherings of coffee-drinking chatterers. Ulla looked lively, not bent over in a chair, suffering from osteoporosis, as my grandmother had been. I bowed my head and covered my teary eyes with my hands, remembering that my grandmother had lost my grandfather much too soon. She mourned him the rest of her long, painful life.
“Oh no, now I might start crying too,” my American cousin Kathy said.
“I never met my grandfather,” I whispered to Urban, who translated my explanation to Ulla.
“Well, I did!” Ulla, hardy and jolly, said in Swedish.
This upbeat reply made me feel less foolish about crying. It was great to be with someone who did know Grandpa, who even knew him in the “old country,” who even knew him as a young man. Grandpa Frojd died of heart failure in Mount Vernon before my brothers and I were born. We never heard anything except good about him. The finely crafted furniture he left behind was a testament to his skill. Not surprisingly, Urban, his grandnephew, once taught woodshop at the Tierp public school. Urban also maintained a beautiful tree farm.
Sven, our Östersund host, was involved with trees too. He co-owned a large nursery and would eagerly explain anything you wanted to know about all kinds of plants. During this trip, as we walked through the forest on our way back from the pounding falls of Tännforsen, Sven pulled a tiny bunch of pine needles off a tree to describe the vitamin content. When my son saw him pop a piece in his mouth, he did the same, always game for new taste adventures. Sven also pulled off a bit of beardlike vegetation that he said took 10 years to grow. I popped it into my tote instead of my mouth.
This presented a problem when, on the flight home, we received a form for declaring our purchases at customs. This form asked if you were bringing any plants into the U.S. My conscience told me I’d better declare the little piece of vegetation that was probably still in my bag. Unlike Sven, however, I am botanically challenged, and could not remember the name of it.
“Don’t you have to mention the Moose Money too?” my upright son asked.
I then realized that the fake bills I’d bought as souvenirs could fall under the category of “Animal Product,” since they were made from moose droppings. Mr. Moose of the Moose Garden in Orrviken had assured us of the remarkably safe, nonbacterial nature of these mementos, but I knew I would feel silly trying to explain this to the customs officials.
“What type of vegetation are you declaring?” a stern-looking man would probably ask.
I imagined myself searching for an intelligent answer.
“It’s kind of whitish and spongy . . . it comes from a pine tree . . . the reindeer eat it . . . I’m not sure what it’s called.”
“Well, we have to know precisely what we’re letting into the country.”
“Sven would know . . . but it’s late in Sweden . . . I hate to call him . . .”
“Then you must open your suitcase and show it to us.”
In order to fit everything in my luggage, I no longer had my underwear separately organized in its own little bag. What if my bras came tumbling out when I opened my suitcase to search for a tiny piece of foliage I might not even find?
“Mom, what about the Moose Money?” my son would chime in.
“Moose Money?” the guard would ask. “What is that?”
“It’s paper bills made out of moose droppings,” I would have to say.
“You’re carrying money made from animal excrement?” he would reply, incredulously. “What’s it for? Do the reindeer use it to buy their spongy food?”
Fortunately, my experience at customs did not turn out as embarrassing as I had imagined. The official did not try to make me feel any sillier than I already felt. Perhaps my grandmother had worried in a similar way when she had to pass through customs long ago, wondering if, indeed, the man might even send her back.
Home again, I felt somehow validated by my trip. I had gone with three American cousins who all wanted to do the same active things I wanted to do, the same things our Nordic cousins wanted to do. I had found, in Sweden, people who were like me—women with straight hair and round-toed, ankle-strap flats; men fond of flowers and trees; strangers amused by my quirky husband and concerned about doing things right.
I also came back soothed by a stronger sense of connection with my son and extended family. Before my trip, I had suffered the loss of persons who had long been a part of my life. But instead of feeling the chill of loss, I now felt wrapped in the warmth of my relatives’ affections, as cozy as the chair blankets at a dockside Stockholm bistro, as snug as the sweaters Anita handed us on the mountain. I renew this warmth when I wear the antique pin my husband bought me that time he slipped away, supposedly to read. Its embers are fanned when I look at photos of, or write about, my trip . . . and when I reflect on how, this time, Dan helped me carry my suitcase.
I now see that my son had not been running away from me but toward the students at MIT—other gifted youths who loved math the way he did and validated his mode of being. In a way, Dan had come home to MIT, just like I had come home to Sweden.
About the Author:
Jeanette K. Briggs is an artist, editor, proofreader and writer of Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish descent. On her next trip to Scandinavia, she hopes to experience a voyage up the awe-inspiring Norwegian fjords.