After I made the observation that Swedes seem to eat an awful lot of ice cream, Cousin Tommy was nice enough to send me some statistics. It turns out that Americans actually consume considerably more ice cream than Swedes.
What we may be witnessing, Tommy guesses, is the difference between consumer habits in each country: "Perhaps Swedes consume most of their ice cream outdoors, while Americans consume their ice cream at home in front of the TV..."
Touché, Cousin Tommy. Touché.
I spent our first day in Göteborg getting to know the city a little bit, while Monika headed out on her own adventure. Without further ado, and in her own words, Monika's story:
For some years, I have enjoyed collecting stories about my family's ancestors. Though I had many names, dates and stories, this information created more questions than answers. I was urged to contact Cousin Greta, who, at the age of 92, began to write to me in a fine, steady hand - volumes! Every letter was filled with such warmth and enthusiasm. I dreamed of meeting this lively and lovely woman...
Dreams do come true, sometimes just in time. My hope was to have time with Greta alone; to be able to be in the moment, even as we spoke about the past. It was so natural and comfortable to spend happy hours together in her apartment, take a tour of the facilities in her assisted living complex, and accompany her on a small shopping trip. She is the cherished matriarch of a large family, an incredibly positive woman with no complaints. Best of all, she is the greatest storyteller of all!
Until recently, I had no idea that Greta's daughter-in-law, Nina, had an addictive hobby that would transform our family. As it turns out, she is a most thorough, detail-oriented genealogist! When Nina learned that we were coming to Sweden, she worked steadily for three weeks, locating, deciphering and interpreting church records dating back to the early 1700's. Following that thread, she was able to trace the lives of my ancestors, up until the time that my great-grandfather and grandmother immigrated to the United States. Not only did she pinpoint the place they lived, while still in Sweden, but even details such as their date of departure and the names of the ships that carried them to their new land. When presented with this thick packet of carefully prepared documents, I was stunned and grateful beyond belief by the generosity of her time and effort. Thank you, Nina!
To top it all off, Greta's son Per planned a drive to visit the places where our branch of the family had its ancestral roots. Greta, Per, Nina, myself and two patient German Sheppards made the 3-hour trek, on the most lovely of summer days, to Värmskog. Cousin Per had arranged for us to meet the present priest of the Värmskog Church, built in 1782, where my great grandparents were confirmed. It was a moving experience, to say the least.
The priest, Thomas Andersson, was unlike any I have ever met. He beamed and shone; so animated, engaging and entirely enthusiastic about his calling. His worldview seemed so very expansive, his heart so very open. When he sang a Benedictine chant in the acoustically perfect sanctuary, hairs rose on my arms. He told wonderful stories, weaving biblical tales with the church history and his experience of the parish, all mixed with songs of Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkel, played on his guitar. At parting, he happily pointed to the odometer on his old Volvo. "I've driven to the moon!" he said. "Now I hope to make it back to earth!
Who knew that when we continued down the narrow country road, we would find the Karsbol schoolhouse, still intact, where our ancestors studied? Cousin Per went door to door, hoping the neighbors could tell us exactly where the family house once stood; unfortunately, no one was home in the little town. When we compared old photographs with the landscape, however, we found the place where my great grandparents, as well as their forefathers and mothers, had walked for centuries before. Standing there, I had a feeling unlike any other I have experienced; I was connected to my past in a way I had not thought possible.
I will never forget this day, or the generosity of spirit shown by my relatives. On the way home, I held the warm, wise hands of Cousin Greta and watched her face closely. She was telling the story of the war years, when they raised and slaughtered white rabbits, preserving the meat in jars. Their pelts became a coat for young Per, seen here in a photo from 1952 with Greta, her mother and me. When John and I returned to Bohus, Per and I posed on the exact spot, where Greta's sister Marita and her husband Sven-Åke now live. They prepared a lavish meal and sang for us a Swedish drinking song that we must learn before the summer solstice.
We ate, drank and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon. Cheers!
As we drove south from Tällberg, the landscape flattened out and the weather cleared up and got a little warmer. We stopped in Leksand, where Leksandsbröd is made. This is the disc-shaped hard bread that is an absolute staple of Swedish breakfast and fika. You put butter on it, or make a sandwich with cheese and ham.
The factory is in the middle of nowhere; it's surrounded by fields and hills. As we pulled up to the factory store, I was amused to see workers loading trucks, while being supervised by one of the locals
About halfway to Gothenburg, we stopped for the night in Mariestad, in the province of Västergötland. Founded in 1583, this city on Lake Vänern was postcard-perfect when we arrived; the clouds were lifting and the sun was setting:
Many of the streets are still cobblestoned, giving the place a very friendly feeling. We walked around and took pictures while we had the amazing light on our side
At the top of the hill that overlooks the entire town is the old church, begun in the 16th century. It is absolutely gigantic, and surrounded by grave stones that date all the way back to medieval times
The next day we checked out and headed to Kållandsö, and Läckö Castle. The castle is on an island, just off a peninsula that juts out into Lake Vänern.
It dates back to 1298, and has been added onto and modified ever since; in fact, it is undergoing major renovations right now. Mostly, though, what we saw on the tour was original, starting with the iron-clad gate at the entrance
Almost all the rooms (there are hundreds) retain the original painted ceilings. This one dates to the 17th century
The largest area in the castle is the chapel. Also built in the 17th century, it is surrounded by wooden sculptures that sit in each window niche
We've all read stories and seen movies about the intrigue at the royal courts of the medieval period; the poisonings, the stabbings, the political maneuverings. Läckö Castle is no exception, but to see it in person really made those stories come alive for us.
Back in the car, and off to Gothenburg we went, from where I now type this entry. Stay tuned...
From Torshälla we headed back up to Dalarna to see Carl Larsson's home in Sundborn.
Carl Larsson lived from 1853-1919, and is perhaps Sweden's most famous artist. Typically, his work depicted rural Swedish life; many of his paintings are set in his house, which made seeing the actual rooms that much more interesting
If many of Larsson's works can be seen as somewhat sentimental, perhaps like those of Norman Rockwell, his master work is decidedly more visceral. Midvinterblot is a massive mural, completed in 1915, that resides in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. It depicts a Norse myth in which Kind Domalde is sacrificed to avoid a famine. Here's a detail:
The weather had turned colder, and it was starting to rain. We began our trip to Lake Siljan, in the heart of Dalarna. We stayed at the Hotell Klockargården in Tällberg. I must say, the service was absolutely stunning. Breakfast, fika and dinner are included, and the atmosphere is warm and friendly.
One thing that cracked us up, though, was the strange sense of decoration in random places. For instance, there was a portrait of someone's grandmother (affiliated with the hotel, we assumed) outside our door. We got used to saying hello and goodbye to her as we came and went.
The day after our arrival was our 16th wedding anniversary, and Monika and I woke up to a snowstorm. Absolutely beautiful, and a fitting marker, as I had proposed to Monika during a Colorado snowstorm.
We enjoyed a hearty Swedish breakfast, and decided to walk through the snow down to the lake. Very windy, but also quite magical. At one of the docks we saw traditional longboats, used prior to the 19th century to cross the lake to get to church. These days, they are used in races.
On the walk back up the hill, we noticed a silversmith shop that was actually open. It belongs to Emma Billbäck, a very talented artist. The work that struck us the most was her "nature prosthetics" series. She creates silver prostheses for missing or broken parts in nature. Check out this small pine cone:
The silver work is not cast; it is hand-worked. Do yourself a favor and look at the other pieces in this series. You'll be glad you did.
After a little debate, we decided to get in the car and drive around in the snowstorm. Our first stop was a little bit north along the lake in the town of Rättvik. Here resides the world's longest lake pier, which extends 2000 feet out into the water, where steamships used to dock. These days, it's used mostly for recreation; there is a small park built on the end of the pier.
It was windy, cold and snowing. So I somehow thought walking to the end of the pier would be a good idea. In as much as it reminded me I was alive, it was very good. Of course, I couldn't feel my face, but it was a worthwhile journey
The last major stop on our Swedish Anniversary Blizzard Tour™ was Nusnäs, the Dalahäst capital of Sweden. This is the town to where tourists flock to see how the little painted horses are made. You can watch them being carved. You can buy them. You can eat pastries shaped like little horses. Unless, of course, the town is closed because you decided to drive there in a snowstorm :)
We had fun anyway, window shopping and posing with gigantic Dalahästs
We packed it up and prepared to drive south to Mariestad, along the road to Göteborg. See you there.
Glad årsdag, Monika - Jag älskar dig!
Torshälla began around the year 700 as a place where bands of heathens made sacrifices to the god Thor. It received city rights in 1317. Today Torshälla is part of Eskilstuna.
We came to visit Marica and her family. Monika has known Marica a very long time. In Monika's words:
"Marica and I met as seven and eight-year-old girls while riding a northbound Swedish train. We never stopped writing, caring, or looking forward to the next letter or visit. She's a woman of depth and humor, with lovely insight into the workings of people's minds and hearts."
It's so rare to hear about penpals these days at all, much less two people who have maintained a correspondence for 50 years. After all I had heard about Marica and her family, I was not at all surprised with the warm reception they gave us. Right from the start, we spent hours on the back deck talking as naturally as if we'd been neighbors all along
And they have a dog. Oneida is a purebred Samoyed. And guess what? Their fur is hypoallergenic, and has properties similar to angora; you can actually knit sweaters with it. Which is exactly what Marica did the last time Oneida shed:
After a great first day chatting with and getting to know Marica and her husband Janne, we went into Eskiltuna to see what was what. Like many of the places we have visited, Eskilstuna is remarkably picturesque.
One thing Eskilstuna is known for is its metal work; everything from copper and brass kitchenware to fine knives to scissors is made here, and you can still watch craftsmen make it right in front of you. In fact, this heritage dates back to before the Industrial Revolution, when the city earned the name "Stålstaden" ("The City of Steel"). This knife maker looked up only briefly when we walked into his shop at the Rademacher forges, which were built in the 1650's.
These buildings were fascinating in that they have not only been preserved as historical monuments, but Eskilstuna's craftsmen still work in them, full-time. These are not shows for tourists (although plenty of tourists visit). I enjoyed poking my head in each craftsperson's shop and snapping a few pictures of their tools
One thing I noticed about old Swedish buildings - lack of headroom. I kept cracking my skull on ceiling beams, despite the well-meaning warnings placed on them
The next day I woke up with a heavy weight on my chest. Before I had time to wonder if I was having a heart attack, I opened my eyes, slowly and quietly grabbed my camera off the nightstand, and took this shot
Did you know that Samoyeds have very thick coats, and were bred to sleep on people to keep them warm? Yeah, neither did I. And another thing: they have beautiful eyelashes
So, after several days of laughing and drinking with Marica, Janne, and their daughters Elin and Ida, I didn't think it could get any better. But, on the last night, Janne says to me "John, the sauna is ready"
It turns out that Janne shares a sauna built on a dock on the lake down the street. So, we grabbed some towels and beer and headed down
It was a cold and rainy day, and the temperature was dropping. But I figured that wouldn't matter once we were in the sauna
Where it did matter, though, was about 45 into the adventure, when Janne says, "John, shall we jump in the lake?"
Extremely cold, but also invigorating. Kinda like testing a battery by licking it...
And with that, our time with the Aldin-Lundgren family came to an end. The next morning we loaded up the car and headed out...
Next up, Tällberg
Monika and I thought it would be a good idea to get to Kungsör a day earlier than we were expected; that way, we could check into a hotel, rest up, and head on over to Cousin Hans' place in the morning. A perfect plan. We arrived around 10:30PM, drove into the center of town, parked, and asked the first person we saw where to find a hotel. He looked a little grumpy, as if we were teasing him, then said (in Swedish) "There aren't any hotels in this town." Uh-oh. Now what? Should we drive another hour and a half to the next biggest city? Without the ability to check on the internet first (see previous posts about internet in Sweden) that could be spotty. Was it too late to call Hans? We had no idea how rude that might seem - arrive a day early, then wait until late at night (it was now getting on 11:30PM) to call.
So we called anyway. Good thing Hans and Agnetha were still up, and luckily, we had parked about a block away from their place. They saddled up their 4 dogs and walked over to get us. Back at their place, we crashed out in preparation for the day.
In the morning we were able to get a good look at the dogs when we took them for a walk around town. The two larger ones are Moa and Lady - Belgian Shepherds. The little guys are Lukas and Malte, who are Danish-Swedish farmdogs. They are a very distinctive breed, and it turns out there are only about 100 of them in the United States. I became fast friends with Malte, who was always ready for me to throw his tennis ball for him:
We took the dogs on a walk along the waterfront. Kungsör is situated on the western edge of Lake Mälaren, in the province of Västmanland. Although it's almost halfway across the country, Hans told me that it is possible to navigate a boat through the various inlets and lakes all the way to Stockholm. In fact, he said, it's quite common for people to boat to Kungsör for the weekend.
Hans and Agnetha live across the street from an old church; you can see it from their back yard. When we weren't listening to the sound of its wonderful bells, we were marveling at the way the late light hit its bricks:
The big outing we took while visiting Kungsör was to a dog agility competition. Both Hans and Agnetha compete with their dogs, who ride in the back of the van in a cage that sports some of their winning ribbons:
We tagged along to a field in Fagersta, where we were amazed to see all the activity. Neither Monika nor I had ever seen dog agility, although we've certainly heard of it. The course is made up of ramps, tunnels, hurdles and the like. Most dogs make it through the obstacles in under a minute, if they aren't disqualified.
As Hans says, it's never the dog; it's always the person. This means any mistake the dog makes is a result of poor instructions by the handler. So, each time the course is reset, the handlers walk through it, planning the physical cues they will use with their dogs. I found this part of the process fascinating; it was like a wonderful, abstract ballet:
Once the course is memorized, the running begins. Hans runs both Lady and Moa in the large breed category, and his specialty is in jumping his dogs - "hoppar" in Swedish:
Agnetha runs my buddy Malte, and I'll tell you what: that dog likes to jump. The bar is set for small dogs, but Malte clears the hurdle at the large breed height
By this time, it's getting late in the day, so we agree to meet Hans and Agnetha back at their house, and Monika and I head out in the rental car. It's been a long hot day, and we're looking forward to relaxing a bit before dinner. Once back, Monika pours us each a glass of strawberry juice and we sit on the deck. Afterwards, Monika takes a nap, and I decide to read for a bit. I grab another can of strawberry juice and settle in with my book.
Eventually Hans and Agnetha come home with the dogs, and Hans and I have a beer before dinner. After dinner, we have another beer, but I'm getting tired and decide to just switch back to that strawberry juice. I go outside to sit with Monika, and she asks how much of that juice I'm going to drink. I say I don't know, there's just something about it that's so refreshing. She starts laughing. What? I say. Turns out I'd been downing flavored malt liquor for the last 6 hours. No wonder I didn't feel like having any more beer...
The next day Hans and I went to some guitar shops in Västerås. One stuck out in particular: Hagstrom Musik:
Here's the short version. Hagstrom was a company that made accordions and guitars in Sweden from the 1930's up until the late 70's or so. In the beginning, they had dedicated stores throughout Sweden, but no more. So, I met the owner, Richard Jansson, and asked him about this. It turns out he took over the shop from his father, and decided to just leave the name as it was.
Seeing as the shop had been in his family, I asked him if he had any vintage Hagstrom stuff around. Richard was very cool; he asked the customer he was with if he could wait a bit while he took me into the basement for a look. He had tons of old advertising, signage and banners. He even pulled out this old Hagstrom Kent from the early 60's
Oh yeah - did I mention Hans owns a 1964 Fender Stratocaster he bought new when he was kid?
All in all, Kungsör was a fabulous place to visit, and Hans, Agnetha and their family (Camilla, John, Niclas and Lina) made us feel incredibly welcome and at home.
See you in Torshälla. Bye bye, Malte!
Once on the highway to Kungsör, we decided we would stop in some of the towns along the way. It seems every town has a "centrum" - a sort of town center, where there are shops and parks. The time of day was favorable for this shot in Ludvika:
One question we began to ask ourselves, however, is this: why are all the buildings in Sweden the same colors? Red, yellow, green, beige. We would soon find out; more on that later...
A little more south on highway 50 brought us to the mining town of Grängesberg, where this large, impressive sculpture stands along the highway in tribute to the town's industry:
Driving the highways of Sweden is actually very relaxing. There is little traffic, no billboards, the power lines are underground and the scenery is tranquil and serene. There is an awful lot of room to think on those roads. Nonetheless, Monika and I decided to get off the highway and see what we could find along the dirt roads and meadows. Postcard views awaited us, as we stopped the car to wander out into fields and along streams.
A word about this type of wandering. In Sweden there is a law called "Allemansrätten" which means roughly "every man's right" to public access. It means that everyone has the right to enjoy the land, with few exceptions. You can walk into a field, swim in a lake, etc. as you like. While we didn't try to saunter up into anyone's backyard or anything, we were pleased to see that noone paid us much mind as we explored the landscape.
As we prepared to head back to the highway for the last half of our drive to Kungsör, we ran across a giant coffee cup sitting in a field. We looked around, wondering if there was a store we missed, or some other sign that this object was related to anything we were seeing. Nope - completely random.
See you in Kungsör...
From Lund we booked passage on the train to Borlänge. We took the X2000, Sweden's high-speed train. It is capable of traveling 170 MPH, but since it shares the tracks with regular trains, its speed is restricted to 120 MPH. Still, awfully fast. And the conductors not only take tickets, they sell candy.
The train switches tracks at Mjölby, which gave me enough time to enjoy a delicious hot dog before resuming our journey.
Arriving in Borlänge, we were met by Monika's moster (aunt) Gerd. She took us home and we immediately sat down for fika. Roughly, "fika" translates as "coffee break" and is always accompanied by some sort of snack. Swedes consume as much coffee as we do in the US; as such, this custom is taken very seriously. Moster Gerd had been baking for days in preparation for our stay, and the coffee was super-strong, as it has been everywhere we've been so far. So, if you like baked goods and jet fuel for coffee, you'll like fika.
Borlänge dates to the 14th century, and is situated in the province of Dalarna. The symbol of this region is the Dalahäst, a carved wooden horse, painted bright red and decorated. These horses are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. I knew the were ubiquitous, but I was surprised to see these examples cast in concrete as barricades at a gas station:
I was left to explore the city center one day while Monika and Moster Gerd went on an outing together. This was my first time out without Monika as a translator, and I was a little nervous. Luckily, I found my way to a guitar shop, where I had a lovely conversation with the proprietors. Fortunately, their English was better than my Swedish, and we managed to figure out the rest as we went along. The manager, Mikael, pointed me in the direction of some of the sights and, later in the day, even helped me find a rental car agency by calling them on the phone for me. Thanks guys!
The town is laid out around a central square, with houses and apartments placed outside the stores and shops. The buildings are close together and very clean; it was great to walk around the streets in the late afternoon light.
I found myself noticing details I might not otherwise look for in the US. Take this telephone manhole cover. Pretty cool logo, I thought...
The next day at Moster Gerd's house was gardening day. She and Monika set about the task of planting flowers and turning over the garden. I volunteered to mow the lawn, which was amazingly pleasant in the clean air and sun. Did you know that lawnmower blades spin backwards in Europe? No, not really. Gotcha though, didn't I?....
This is truly an incredible place, and was founded and continues to be run by a single man, Harald Henrysson. The depth of this museum is astounding; people from all over the world send Harald photos, recordings, videos, newspaper articles, stage costumes - anything imaginable that has to do with Jussi Björling. Harald accepts it all, and faithfully catalogs and displays everything.
We listened to many recordings, and Harald showed us some rare US television appearance footage from the 50's. Amazing. By the way, if you've never heard Jussi Björling sing Nessun Dorma, take a moment and treat yourself.
Into the rented car we climbed, and off we drove. Next up, Kungsör.
Hello again, and sorry for the delay in blog entries. It seems that broadband internet access is so prevalent here that everyone has it in their homes. However, there is no internet to be found in public. When I ask if there are any coffee houses or the like where I can use my computer, I get blank looks. "We don't need that - we have it at home." We did manage to check our email once by parking outside a hotel, though. Anyway...
Lund is situated in Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden. Cousin Tommy and Maria offered to take us on a driving tour of the area. The land is quite beautiful, with rolling hills and fields that empty out as you approach the Baltic Sea.
Our primary destination was Ystad, a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. There are many palatial homes in the woods just off the beach, but we were taken by the colorful stugas that pepper the area. Many Swedes head for the ocean in the summer. Instead of carting all of their gear from the car each time they arrive, however, they buy or rent a stuga. This way, umbrellas, clothing, food, etc. need only be carried in once, then you're set for the summer.
Before we left Seattle, Monika had borrowed a Swedish travel film from the library. It was made in the 60's, and was hysterical in that it made what we thought were absurdly broad generalizations about the culture. Among these was the assertion that Swedes enjoy ice cream so much, it could very well be considered a natioanl obsession. It was so boring, in fact, that I fell asleep on the couch before it was over.
Well, when we left the beach in Ystad to get some food, what do I see a few feet off the boardwalk? Yup...
We laughed, remembering the travel film. But the further we walked, the more people we saw eating ice cream. It became kinda spooky. There must have been hundreds of ice cream eaters, of all ages, in Ystad. We've been to several cities and towns since, and I've noticed that every little corner store has a gigantic clown-shaped sign on the sidewalk advertising the presence of ice cream inside. I've also had the chance to ask several people: is it true that Swedes love ice cream? The answer? Yes. Yes, it is. Monika and I now refer jokingly to Swedes as "those pathological ice cream eaters"
We eventually found a lovely spot to grab a bite to eat, where Monika snapped this shot of Maria and I:
Cousin Tommy and I have known each other for some years, as he often came to Seattle on business. Our arrival in Sweden marks my first meeting with Maria, and we have hit it off famously. She has a wicked sense of humor; look closely - you can see it in her eyes.
After lunch, it was back to the beach, where I wanted to dip my toes in the Baltic Sea. Anyone who lives on the Northwest coast of the United States will tell you that the ocean is, to put it mildly, very cold. It has a way of curling your toes and cramping your feet. Well, if that's the case, then I have to believe that too much time spent wading in the Baltic Sea will make your feet snap off your legs entirely. Holy crap, was that cold!
The next stop on our tour was the ancient town of Kåseberga, which is situated on a high hill overlooking the Baltic Sea:
Kåseberga is a fishing village known for the Ales Stenar, a viking rock formation placed on the hilltop. It is 220 feet long, 62 feet wide, and is the shape of a sailing ship. It was erected 1400 years ago, and it's not known how the rocks were transported up the hill. It takes about 40 minutes to make the steep climb to the hilltop, and all i was carrying was my camera...
And that was our day in Skåne. Next up: the province of Dalarna, and the town of Borlänge.
Well, we landed safely in Copenhagen, Denmark and made our way to the train that would cross us into Malmö, Sweden. The trip takes only 20 minutes, and is across the Oresund Strait via the Oresund Bridge, the longest border crossing bridge in the world. The weather was exactly as we had left it in Seattle, wet and foggy; a hypnotizing train ride nonetheless.
Upon our arrival in Malmö, Monika's cousin Tommy picked us up and we drove the short distance to Lund. After settling in, having a beer and crashing out on account of the wicked jetlag, we were ready to explore the town the next day. So, we boarded an incredibly clean and punctual public bus (a Mercedes-Benz, no less) and were transported to the city center in less than 10 minutes.
The streets are all cobblestoned, and cars aren't allowed in the town center, excepting business owners and residents. The above picture shows a typical street. I asked Cousin Tommy if what we were seeing was the "tourist" section of town; it sort of had that appearance to me, what with all the people shopping, sitting outside in the square, bicycling to and fro, etc. He assured me that no, the entire town was like this, and what we were seeing was the everyday business of the town's residents, which number about 100,000.
Thus assured I would not stick out like a sore thumb (until I opened my mouth, I soon learned), it was time for some fast food. Cousin Tommy and I bought Swedish hot dogs from a Danish hot dog cart (go figure). As you can see, the bun has a hole into which the hot dog is placed. After some wonderfully raunchy jokes about how those buns might actually be made, we ate and moved on.
Lund has been around since about 900 AD, and as such there are many artifacts to be glimpsed both in its museums and public places. Here's a picture of Monika with a runic stone on the grounds of Lund University:
After quite a bit of walking, it was time to sit a spell and have lunch in one of the many outdoor beer gardens. A couple or beverages and a smoke later, and we were on our way for some more exploring.
Next up, the region of Skåne, and the Baltic Sea. Until then, remember: smoking kills!