Monday, October 31, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (8)

We left Hagalund earlier than we’d expected, so we just drove around a bit, Sunday style. When I was a kid dad would pack us all in the car and away we’d go to destinations unknown. I’d always ask where we were going of course, and he’d nearly always say “To Alaska!”. I’d ask why and he’d say “to pick cotton!” Then I’d sulk, having asked what I’d thought was a reasonable question and received such a moronic answer in response.

Sometimes we’d land at a museum or outdoor park full of walking trails, sometimes a river or a lake; but often we’d just drive and dad would pretend he wasn’t actually going anywhere, was not hopelessly lost and was truly in control of his surroundings. Once I’d reached 12, I knew better; I knew the manly man code and all of it’s many twists and turns. Never, EVER, admit to being lost. Simply whistle, to feign happiness, and let your eyes dart to and fro in search of any recognizable landmark while aiming in the general direction of home by using the sun as a compass.

Back in Sweden we crossed bridges and wandered along streams, zipped through one horse towns and dodged animals impatiently trying to cross the usually quiet roads. I had far too much time to think, and so I couldn’t help but wonder whether Swedish coons ate regular garbage from Swedish garbage cans, or if perhaps they’d developed more discriminating taste over the centuries. American coons seemed just fine with coffee grounds and lemon rind, but maybe Swedish coons wanted nothing but kippered codfish bones and lingonberry jam blobs molded onto tossed aside toasted rye crusts washed down with the dregs of an occasional aquavit bottle.

Finally it was time for our family get-together, so I whipped the teeny car into it’s north by northwest position and started down the endless boulevard that would bring us to our missing link. I was nervous, though I didn’t let on. Dad was combo napping/sightseeing as I drove so he wasn’t talking, and I’m not much of a radio guy since I’ve been in the business and tend to enhugify (Linda’s favorite non word) every annoyance in the medium. So I had nothing to listen to beyond the half dozen voices that normally roam around in my head.

I’d like to say I love people, that meeting and greeting is my dearest desire, that the adventure of getting to know someone new makes my heart all a-flutter; but I can’t. While I’m not as suspicious as my wife, I do tend to think anyone who would willingly speak to me has some sort of agenda, or as in this case, feels an obligation they’d really rather ignore but geez, since we’d come all that way, gosh, I suppose… damn it, another afternoon ruined. Even better, it was explained to the reles by John that I spoke Swedish very well, and I’d been stupid enough to let that patronizing compliment stand without shouting bloody murder. Both sides would be looking to me to make this thing work, and I was about as prepared as any kindergartner might be when faced with a problem in quantum physics. Out comes the construction paper and crayons, the stubby scissors and a handful of graham crackers and away we go, solving the problems of the universe!

The only saving thought I had was that John had told us Gunnar’s wife Marta spoke English reasonable well. I only hoped she’d have more a handle on our blab than I had on theirs, or it’d be a damn long day.

The house was perfect, exactly how I would have imagined a house of my forefathers. Dark brown cedar shakes, huge roof beams, windows trimmed in blue’s and reds. It was a little house I’m guessing by it’s footprint, (as we never actually got a tour,) but it breathed character and spoke not only of it’s owners, but of a part of the world with so much more history than mine. So often in my travels I’ve stepped into someone’s home and felt as if I were stepping into my own. That only the wall hangings and knickknacks were different. But there was something about this manse that let me know immediately that I was in another place, a new and different culture, one that I recognized but had yet to absorb.  

Our hosts were as gracious as could be, Gunnar and Marta Lindström, the brother and sister in law of my grandfather’s stepbrother’s wife. If I could make it up, they would be my great aunt’s family, but even the words great aunt had the “foster” issue attached; so in fact these people had zero tie to me truly. Yet, I felt warmed by them, I looked into their faces and saw my own. The tenuous link was enough, I imagined I’d arrived home at last. I remembered Gunnar’s face, I had met him years before at my great aunt’s home in Minneapolis. I knew nothing about him as I hadn’t paid attention to anything but food, candy and television. I was a kid, what did I care about guys that talk funny and just stand around eating sardines on crackers. But there was no forgetting his huge hands, his square jaw, his gentle smile and white hair.

In the beginning I was capable; I had greetings and a bit of common slang down pat, I could Swede small talk with the best of them. Marta was kind and gentle, correcting me when I flubbed, translating when I was stumped. But a few minutes after we’d arrived she disappeared into the kitchen to finish our supper, and spoke less than 20 English words ever after.

“Mtuhwregv kewgfm kyugwefg oujwreuw” said Gunnar, as we moved to the little patio outdoors where we could smoke and catch up.

“Ja, ja” I answered, assuming he was a positive guy and anything he said would surely be agreeable.

After what seemed like a week or two of silence, I tried out my Euro-lexicon, asking about life in Sweden, what he did for a living, that sort of thing.

“Ja, ja” he replied, letting me know that agreeing would be the ploy of the day.

The dinner bell rang and we scrambled for the forks, hoping to fill our mouths as quickly as possible so as to have an excuse not to speak. It was an incredible little supp; some sort of baked herring dish, a beautifully rendered dill and cream sauce, escalloped potatoes and baby peas in butter. I waited to see Gunnar slip his knife under his peas and balance them as they rose to his waiting mouth, just as my grandfather would do, just as I had imagined was the Swedish way of eating little roly-poly veggies. No such luck, the party pooper used a spoon. A SPOON of all things!

I don’t like fish, it tastes fishy. But this! This was amazing, delicious and well worth the humiliation of being a Martian translator in a room full of Scandinavians. I felt hopelessly outmatched by the circumstance, but being in that room, with those people, smelling and tasting that food…. I was overwhelmed. It was another of those indescribable moments of perfect simplicity; nothing was happening, and it meant everything to me.

After dinner Marta zipped the dishes from the table and whooshed into the kitchen to clean up. I felt sorry for her on one hand. These guys were well into their 80’s, probably didn’t entertain much, certainly not American strangers passing through. No doubt she’d told Gunnar that as we were his relatives (of dubious claim) he would need to deal with us. I didn’t blame her really, I don’t do in-laws very well either; but I sure could have used her multilingual skills.

“M<N  jikbrewgtiu huenw, kjnwef, kjwijsv sapeumg” said Gunnar as we reacquired our seats on the deck.

“Ja” I said. Incredibly I’d caught a couple words and had some concept of what his sentence was about. So I added a few words I’d learned that would pertain to milk cows and weed grasses, or policemen shooting protestors, I wasn’t sure which.

“Ja, ja” he said, and vanished into the dining room, leaving a bewildered pair of savants staring off into the trees, wondering what would be an appropriate time to leave without breaking any social contract.

Soon enough he returned, carrying a small cardboard box. He set the box on the table and began to empty it, piece by piece, gingerly setting each side by side for us to browse. They were medals. At least 10 of them, probably more. Some bronze, some silver and at least one gold; a few small plates, a handful of rectangular blocks. Obviously he’d been an athlete, and by the looks of it, one of some note. I was particularly intrigued by one medal as it was a bronze, but with a porcelain cameo set into it’s surface. The cameo was white, with a red swastika.

“Olympics?” I asked, pointing to the piece.

“Yes” he said, grinning ear to ear. He’d been a participant in at least one Olympics and had won at least one medal for his efforts. He was not only an athlete, but one of the elite. I shook his hand and smiled broadly. It was a silly response I suppose, but as saying “Wow that’s just the coolest thing I ever heard” wouldn’t have been received very well, shaking hands seemed the next best thing.

Suddenly we had something to talk about. It still sounded like “aoew ,kwerriwgfb fowyre”, but then “Paris” would be in the mix, and a finger would touch the little silver medallion and everyone at the table got the idea. I didn’t know it at the time, specifics were beyond my comprehension; but I know now he’d won a silver medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics for Javelin. The medal with Hitler’s goober on it was probably a participant’s remembrance from the 1936 games, and the others were probably Swede or some other European track and field awards. But no matter, we’d found a way to communicate for at least a half hour, and a reason to care about each other beyond the thread of imagined genetics.

Finally even that conversation dwindled and it was time to leave. We gave our praise to the chef, tossed off a half dozen “Tusen Takk”s (thousand thanks) and seriously offered our best wishes. They were almost giddy, thanking us for coming, telling us to visit anytime, following us all the way to the car in their driveway. As we got into the tiny car, so did they!

I was very confused, and luckily, since I hadn’t learned the Swedish word for confused, I looked the part.

“We’re going with you” said Marta, the first thing she’d uttered since before dinner; “we wouldn’t want you to get lost!”

Mr. and missus squeezed into the back seat next to the video camera we’d yet to use and a couple bags of clothes we kept as spares. They seemed perfectly comfortable in spite of the fact that I knew that would be impossible. I had no idea where they thought we were going; maybe they needed a ride into town, or maybe they just wanted to get out of the house.

I checked the map, memorized my route and started along the path to home base.

Höger” said Gunnar; “höger, höger, höger, höger, höger, ahh kjhbsadfoew!”

I smiled without reason. I’d obviously missed something. Marta tapped me on the shoulder as Gunnar muttered under his breath. “He wanted you to turn right at that last intersection” she said. I found the nearest driveway and pulled a u-turn. Gunnar stopped muttering, and seemed quite relieved once I’d followed his direction properly.

For another few miles we rode along, Gunnar occasionally speaking what to us was gibberish while pointing at some landmark. We were sure we were getting a wonderful history lesson, a magnificent introduction to the founding and advancement of the great city of Stockholm. Unfortunately, we were deaf and blind, and only able to nod, smile and add the random “Ja, ja” to the conversation.

It dawned on me, slow creature that I can be, that they’d joined us to give a tour. I felt both happy and sad at that moment, truly grateful for their attentions, and angry at myself for not learning the entire language in the few weeks I’d had available.

“Vänster!” Gunnar said. I’d assumed he meant sunshine! or cookies! or maybe pottybreak!

“Vänster, vänster, vänster, vänster, vänster ahh kjhbsadfoew!

Whoops! “I guess he wanted me to t…”

“Turn left at that last intersection” Marta finished my sentence. And so again I whipped a yooie and made the correct turn.

I was curious as to why a woman that seemed to effortlessly speak perfect English would allow us to struggle to communicate, particularly with what could be simple one word translations that would keep the pain of major disappointment from her husband’s eyes. But I couldn’t be angry with her, she’d been a wonderful host and a great sport; whatever her neurosis I had to respect her decision.

Eventually we made it downtown and drove a few streets there while Gunnar explained each building’s significance. This time I was able to comprehend at least the major function he was referring to, as luckily many Swedish words are identical to their English counterparts. I only remember one spot for certain, and it was quite moving really.

In 1968 the Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme was assassinated as he and his wife walked home from a movie theatre. He was as cherished a public figure in Scandinavia and perhaps much of Europe as was JFK in the US. When we reached the spot where he’d been murdered, Marta asked us to slow and finally to stop. I’d known some of his story, a point which seemed to make my passengers respect me in a new way. We sat there for a moment, as Gunnar and his wife gazed upon the flowered memorial cut into the sidewalk in front of a retail store. They were obviously upset, nearly 20 years later, and wanted to show their respects. Once they’d finished their reflections, Gunnar squeezed Marta’s hand and motioned for me to drive on. A block later we turned and Marta told me to pull to the curb. I wasn’t even stopped before they began to climb out of the back seat. The ride was over, they said; we were around the corner from our hotel and they would take the train home.

I offered to drive them. In fact I begged more or less. It was a long way and though I’m sure the trains in Sweden are comfortable enough, it seemed like far too much an imposition on our part to allow them to take mass transit when we had nowhere to go and all day to get there. But they wouldn’t have it, they’d left their house with the plan and by God they were going to see it through. Hugs and handshakes made the rounds, and then they wandered down the hill and out of sight.

“We have a relative that’s an Olympic champion” dad said.

“Well, we have a pseudo relative that’s an Olympic second place finisher” I corrected, anal negativist that I can be.

There was still enough light to wander, so I pushed him around town, past the Palme memorial, past government buildings and theaters and trinket stores. We found a little café with a few outdoor tables, and there we stopped for a coffee and sugared concoction, so as to talk over the events of our days in Stockholm, our incredible adventures, our magnificent luck. Each morning I sweated over how the day would go. Each night I remarked on the fact that even if it were to go bad from here on out, it was all worth the effort. Gunnar and Marta made sure of that; we’d been made Swedes for a day, and I was damned pleased with our good fortune.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (7)

I have tried to find the name of the town on various maps, I’ve Googled until I can’t Google no more and still can’t find reference to the town. I’m going to call it Hagalund because that’s how I remember it, the near or perhaps distant suburb of Stockholm that may or may not exist, in which my grandfather was or was not raised.

We spent a half day there though we accomplished nothing beyond creating memories that may have no basis in fact. The Jacobsons lived in a two story Victorian style house, only a few stone’s throws from the local church. The house, according to a note sent by a stateside relative before we’d left home, had later been bought by a famous Swedish boxer. This trivia was given to us as just that, trivia. But imagine our surprise when we pulled into Hagalund “Centrum” and took note of a two story, Norse blue Victorian that sported a large sign in its front yard, proclaiming it to be the former home of such and so, the famous Swedish boxer! (Tour times and prices were given, but we’d come on the staff’s day off it seemed) Since we couldn’t get inside, we instead followed up on one of the phone calls John had made the day before, to a local government clerk that had agreed to help us search records.

It was good to see that Swedish government was just as efficient as its American counterpart. We’d had a ten A.M. appointment, and by a quarter after 11 we still hadn’t seen our party. The waiting room’s elevator music though was lovely, some Scandinavian tenor sax players sharing space with an occasional concertina track, a little Swede pop and at least one umpah-pah. The city secretary was pleasant enough, peering over the top of her black horn rims and snorting at us now and then making sure we knew our place as foreign dilettantes, intruders bent on destroying the daily calm of small town life on the socialist dole.

Finally Mr. Sven Svenson, or perhaps Ole Oleson (it’s hard to remember) came to the rescue, herding us into a conference room where we might tap into the town’s database together. He spoke very little English, which was fine since I spoke very little Swedish we were kind of even. Eventually, through hand puppeteering and phonetic text scribbling we were able to help the man understand our plight, and begin the search.


Another ten minutes of wild gesturing and quacking like ducks brought translation to his one word response. There were no R******gs in the library.  Grandpa didn’t exist after all. So we decided to try Jacobsons. We might just as well have opened the Los Angeles phone book to the few thousand pages of Smiths. For yet another half hour I racked my brain for names that might have been attached to birth records. Nothing we mentioned was in the book, or there were a million of them, one or the other. I wanted to continue for as long as necessary really; we’d driven all that way, had languished in a stuffy, beige office, listened to painfully obvious music, endured Mrs. Snottypants staring us down from her position atop Mount Hagalund, and had quacked like Swedish ducks. In fact, I was so caught up in the journey I had begun to speak English with an accent much like the Swedish chef on the Muppets, as if somehow my accent would make my English understandable to a non English speaker. But by the time the fiftieth “No, sorry, no one by that name” had rolled around, my head felt as if it were being squeezed in a vise made of Jarlseberg cheese; I needed a smoke and a Coke and a smallish private area in which to scream aloud.

It was sad to leave the little office without so much as a wave from Mrs. Snottypants. But it was time, there was only so much record sifting we could be expected to absorb on this trip. Neither of us was much of a librarian. We just didn’t have the patience to pour over microfiche, rummage through tattered books or scroll past pages and pages of ten point names and dates all day. We took another walk around the big blue house, imagining which window would have looked in on grandpa’s room. I conjured up a likeness of Mrs. Jacobson waggling her finger at Mrs. Fricke on the front porch, screaming at the old bag for having the gall to think her pregnancy had paid in advance for a slave laborer to be selected at a later date.

Once we’d fantasized long enough, I wheeled pop to the stairs of the church, hoping to get a peek inside the building in which grandpa would have been confirmed. At least 25 stairs later. We reached the front doors of the large nave, only to find the doors locked and the windows shuttered. So much for unraveling the mysteries of Hagalund. The secret of our surname had remained intact.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (6)

Having been a cab driver is a great asset at times. I can read any map, and I have no fear of driving anywhere. Once you’ve had a gun pressed to the back of your neck, dealing with aggressive drivers becomes child’s play.

My father’s contact was a bit out of town but we made it to his building within the allotted time.  John was a mousey man, short, chunky, glasses that resembled binoculars in thickness. But he was pleasant enough, even though it was obvious he would really rather have been hanging upside down in a dark basement. He had no idea what we’d come to his home in search of, but patiently waited to fulfill requests in honor of his old friend, my dad’s cousin. Unbeknownst to me my father had the name of a relative of sorts, and wanted to see if we could make some kind of arrangement to meet somewhere. While John and he discussed what would be said, in case the couple didn’t speak English, I pondered the Swedish roadmap trying to determine probable stops, adding up days en route, searching out points of interest. By the time I had our first week itinerary sketched out, John was on the phone chatting with a relative stranger, literally.

The Lindstroms invited us to an early dinner, the following afternoon, and while we hadn’t wanted to be that formal, of course we accepted the gracious offer. After having translated and jotted down directions, John said goodbye and lowered the phone. Then came the hard part. My dad and I were intent on finding out something new in relation to my grandfather’s parentage, particularly something about the source of our family name. But we had no clue where to start in Sweden, and without the ability to speak the language the task seemed much too difficult and the prospects, dim. John didn’t really know either, but he was a great sport about the whole thing. He must have made two dozen phone calls to various churches and governmental agencies, compiling a list of places we could try.

Some people are mysterious, what they are thinking at any given moment is completely hidden, anyone’s guess. Many people are as transparent as spring water. John made it very clear through body language and wistful gazes at various timepieces scattered throughout the apartment that it was time for us to be going, he had stuff to do. As it turned out he’d done more than enough for us as we couldn’t possibly have tracked down every one of his leads as it was. We thanked him for his time and headed back into the city for the next museum visit and history lesson.

In 1625, Sweden and Poland were at war. Think about that for a second. Could you ever imagine Sweden and Poland in a war? Like, what would they be fighting over, absolute shoreline rights to catch and distribute the Baltic’s entire supply of pickled herring? Preferential access to the world’s finest concertina teachers? No one knows really, and sadly, no one cares but Swede and Polish historians trying to justify their existence. Well that is, except for the amazing story of the good ship Vasa!

Gustavus Adolphus, Swedish King and Minnesota college namesake ordered the building of a superior navy, so as to defeat the dreaded Polish Pirates! To answer the call, a Dutch shipbuilder was hired to screw everything up, and screw it up he did! (They smoke pot in the Netherlands for God’s sake, didn’t Gus have a clue? You’d think he’d have noticed the Dutchies shoes were made of wood! As if they didn’t own cows!)

The great ship Vasa was commissioned as the Swedish Flagship to be, a massive boat loaded to the gunwales with 64-24 pound cannon, sporting room for 120 crew and 300 soldiers of the Swedish Crown. Just moments before its maiden voyage, a clump of sailors raced across its deck from port to starboard and back again, a sort of test of the ship’s buoyancy. In fact, the boat heaved more than the “testers” would have liked, but as they began to retrace the run the fleet Admiral stomped on board and demanded the ship be put to sea.

It must have been magnificent. One of the largest and certainly the most ornate ship of its time. A fitting tribute to the king of Sweden, a great and powerful country with great and powerful ideas and now, a most powerful navy. The Vasa heaved to and set sail as perhaps thousands of spectators, both local citizens and foreign dignitaries watched from the shoreline. A full gun salute was given. The sound must have been heard from Helsinki to Copenhagen. For at least a mile, Sweden owned the oceans all, by virtue of the might of Vasa, warship of the gods. And then, a little breeze came up, an insignificant little poofyness, as if the North wind was having it’s first birthday and needed to blow out only a single candle, and so puckered and… poofed.

I’m sure the crowd drew a community breath and held it together as the huge ship tipped to one side and nearly dipped its booms into the bay. A great sigh of relief must have been heard when the ship righted itself and all seemed fine for just a moment. But just as the crowd rose to its feet, hands poised to applaud the amazing spectacle, the Vasa flipped and lowered its open gunports into the light brine. Within minutes the crew was forced to abandon ship as she sank quickly, carrying at least 25 seamen along with her.

Luckily for the ship’s designer, he had died a year before its completion, so in the end there was much anger, but few reasonable targets for the firing squad.

Without boring you with the detail, the ship was raised near intact and taken to shore where a building was actually constructed around it. Restoration work has been ongoing since the 1960’s. The waters of Stockholm’s harbor are a mix of fresh and sea water; that and the very cold temperatures below kept the wood from rotting at a normal pace.

It’s an amazing display, the only surviving 17th century ship in the world. We spent hours there, as we had in Skansen, and neither of us grew tired of peering through the dim light and into the nooks and crannies of history.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a nearby maritime museum; an ordinary place as museums go, but filled to the ceiling with actual boats, buoys and other things that start with “b” that I can’t recall at the moment.

We took dinner at the hotel and tried to watch a little Swedish television. We were exhausted, but damned happy so far. Beyond the little (and large) inconveniences it had been a wonderful time already, and it was only the second day on the ground. The next day would be taken by fact searching and relative meeting. That would prove to be just as fascinating as the rest.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (5)

My father’s father was illegitimate. For the young folks, being born out of wedlock once had a classification besides “baby”.  In Sweden that was no big deal, Swedes enjoyed their occasional cross pollination, a mouth for the state to feed was a small price to pay for the pleasure of unprotected afternoon stranger delight.

As we understand the tale, he was conceived to a chronically ill or perhaps crippled store owner and his nurse, and ejected into the system immediately upon exposure to oxygen. Ernest (Ernst) was taken in soon after his plopment, (don’t bother with the dictionary, I made that word up) by a family living in a distant suburb of Stockholm, the Jacobsons.  I would guess it wasn’t the norm at the time, but he was allowed to keep his surname, or I’d be a Jacobson right now and not nearly so uniquely cool, nor one of the last Runeborgs of my line on the planet.

It’s said that as he reached the age of twelve, when all good boys can lift a bale of hay on their own, his birth mother stopped by Mrs. Jacobson’s home to retrieve her little slave laborer. Well my great step grandmother would have none of that. She wanted compensation for her twelve years of child rearing, and if Ms. Fricke couldn’t come up with the dough, she couldn’t have the mule. I have to hope it was a ploy, that great gram knew the old bag had no money and that’s why she’d do such a despicable thing, because she couldn’t afford to simply buy herself a few indentured servants. But who knows, there’s a chance the benevolent Mrs. Jacobson was heavily in debt to a nearby Laplander gambling casino and needed the cash from the sale of grandpa to pay off the tribe; so she put her offer on the table and was rejected.

I don’t know about any of his family save mom and one elder step brother, Justa, or Gus. Gus married his sweetheart Lisa Lindstrom, and left for America well before Ernie had grown old enough to run off, and settled in a State that nearly replicated his home country’s topography and weather, Minnesota.

A few years later, Ernie joined the Swedish merchant marine and sailed the north Atlantic for a tour of duty. Having visited a few ports in America, he developed emigration fever. Justa had already become a citizen by that time, had a well paying job and a home in the city, so upon hearing of his step brother’s wanderlust, sponsored him to come to America. (Again, for the young folks, there was a time when people needed a citizen sponsor to get into the US, not just a map, a canteen and a good pair of hiking boots)

Ernie didn’t know a lick of English, so on his days off he’d hang out at a newsstand, reading papers from home and trying to keep up with the world at large. My grandmother, a third generation Norwegian raised in a rural Norse/American town, had come to the big city for education and opportunity, and happened to be working at that very shop.

You know the deal, helpless man, helpful woman, rabid cuteness ensues, winky blinky fawning, kissy huggy oogy girly stuff and then…. MARRIAGE!!!! He’d just wanted a little help with understanding English headlines in the local papers, and suddenly he was AMERICAN with a soon to be preggers wife!!!! Preggers with a boy child that would one day come to be known as…….. MY DADDY!

Now here’s where things will get confusing, so I’ll try and keep concise and only mention those who matter to the story.

Justa, the step brother, had three kids, the eldest of which was Ray. Ray took his Swedeship seriously as both his mother and father were from there, and at college age decided to move to Stockholm to study. He stayed for a decade or two I believe, developing deep relationships and an unhealthy interest in head cheese on flat bread.

Now Ray was dad’s cousin, so when dad mentioned we were going to visit Sweden, Ray gave us the name and number of his old college roomie and best friend (let’s call him) John who would be willing to act as our ambassador, making a few calls and chatting up a few non English speakers we’d need to visit.

So here’s the names you’ll need to know. There’s

Ernie… My grandfather, though also my father, well, and my grandma’s brother but he doesn’t really have a place in this tale so no worries.

Ruth… Grandma, Ernie’s wife (the Ernie that’s my grandpa in case you were getting confused already)

Justa/Gus… Grandpa’s step brother and one of the creators of Svenskarnas Dag, a local heritage day.

Lisa… Justa’s cranky wife who had the most fun accent ever but would get angry if you mentioned it to her. (I swear the Muppet’s Swedish Chef was her accent understudy!)

Ray… My dad’s cousin, grandson of the benevolent foster mother Mrs. Jacobson and son of Justa

John… college buddy of Ray, (son of Justa, grandson of Mrs. Jacobson) and willing participant in the father and son tour of the left behind homeland. Otherwise known by his real name, which is probably Ingebrekt or Hassenpfeffer or some such.

Ron… That’s me, not Erik as I would have you believe, which is why I’m melancholy. It’s such a boring name, so unSwede. Roooonnnnnn Ewwww.

Now that the lineage is diagrammed, feel free to reference back when you need to, in case I flip out a random Ernie and you have no clue who the hell I’m talking about. And in case you can’t read (what are you doing here I might ask, but to be nice…) here’s a family type tree thing that explains everything I’ve just briefed you on in great visual detail…

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (4)

I had a good night’s sleep once I’d figured out how to use a tiny box bed. Once my knees were securely between my teeth I was fine. The back stretch was wonderful and the instinctual recollection of my movement within the womb was hypnotic.

The mornings worked out perfectly as our habits meshed like the claws of great terrifying beasts might while shaking paws.

He woke early and did his hygiene thing while I slept. About the time he’d finished the chore and had lit his first cigarette, I was just beginning to find consciousness appealing. Myself being a ten minute morning constitution type guy, I jumped into the shower just as he wheeled himself through the outer door. Once he’d made his way through the maze of halls, down the old fashioned elevator and across the lobby to the breakfast buffet, I was in my seat, visually browsing white clothed tables covered in fruit, toast and jams, a huge bowl of grain flake things and…. meat?

I hadn’t known it at the time, in fact I doubt if Doctor Atkins knew it either; But the Swedes were already doing the Atkins diet well before it existed in print form!  The largest table of them all held unidentified slabs of pressed meat product, and sliced cheeses sporting a variety of colors. Scanning the room, taking a poll on people’s preferences, I discovered that the great majority of guests were scarfing gray meat and cheese for breakfast!

Now I’m no picky eater, I’ll slice the occasional banana into my Wheaties or blop leftover veggie stir fry into my scrambled eggs, I’m no prude with food! But sliced lunchmeat? Stinky cheese?

I had a half dozen smokes so as to loosen my lungs a bit before I entered the grazing maze. I didn’t want to seem abnormal, it was only our second day in Europe, I couldn’t have people thinking me an ugly American right off the bat, so I took some dead colorless flesh and solid moldy milk lumpage, nodding in the general direction of the tables that were close by so everyone could see I was just like them and no one to fear, or loath for that matter. I was surprised to find Tilsit on the cheese tray. I’d always thought the Swedes secretly hated the Danes, just as they secretly hate everyone that’s not them. I wrote it off to government corruption; I’d heard it’s what Swedes blame nearly everything on and I wanted to fit in.

Fattened and nearly comatose, we left the hotel to begin our adventure. There was an afternoon appointment we’d need to attend, but the rest of the day was prime for haphazard decision making and spur of the moment fickleness.

It’s amazing that if you pluck through the little brochures found in hotel lobbies you can actually find the coolest attractions. Just avoid anything that’s headlined “mind-blowing” or “Barrels of Fun!” Those would be your tourist traps. The more magnificent they sound, the harder they’re trying to sell you, the more expensive and disappointing the location will generally be.

Just outside Stockholm center is Kaknäs Tower, a 115 meter tall concrete block that was built specifically to accommodate the antennae of the modern age. Atop this giant phallic symbol is a restaurant and observation deck. We weren’t hungry of course, we were full of pressed meat and cheese for God’s sake, but the view was stunning; Stockholm is a truly magic place, an archipelago so beautiful I can’t name a city more sigh worthy. It was there I had my first taste of glacé. I assumed there’d be something different about it, something special that made it better than ice cream. No such luck, it was just your standard mediocre chemically treated frozen milk on a stick. At the least though, it was laden with sugar, which seemed to be in short supply in the Swedish countryside. Perhaps it’s a European trait, but I found the “treats” in Scandinavia to be much akin to bread, with not quite enough sweetness to cross the boundary between rye crisp and glazed donut. On the other hand, there’s a never-ending supply of marzipan, a tasty little confection for, oh say, the first few days. After that it’s more like tree bark paste, or maybe wood ding filler.

From the tower it was just a short coast to the one place we’d actually chosen to see before leaving the states; Skansen. The first open air museum in the world they say, a 75 acre living replica of Swedish life in various time periods. This is Euro Disney for geeks. It’s an absolutely amazing place; I wish we’d had a week to see everything. But it began badly.

As I remember there was no actual parking “lot” per se, just miles of “on street” parking. The entrance itself is at the bottom of a quite steep hill that rises at least 100 feet. There is a cable car that makes the trip up for those that don’t want to or can’t walk, but for some reason I can’t recall, my dad couldn’t get on the car. So as the dutiful son, I whipped his chair into place and began pulling him up what had to be a couple hundred steps. He did trust me in the main, but that didn’t always assuage his fear. After all I could trip, lose my balance, have a sudden stroke and let go my grip; or I could be secretly hoping for a chance just like this to “accidentally” kill him and make off with his fortune! I could hear his breathing change as we got higher and higher; I swear I could hear his teeth chattering. But finally, huffing and puffing and sweating like a squat farm animal bearing a negative reputation, I pulled his ass up and over the last riser and onto the landing to the applause of a few passers by.

A smoke and a choke later I grabbed the handles and turned him to start our journey into our hereditary past. I hadn’t gotten four steps when a massive pigeon flew toward my head, bearing down as if he’d spotted a juicy popcorn morsel on the tip of my nose. I backed away from the chair a step or two and just as the bird might have crashed into my open maw, he twisted his wings and flew straight up as if an f16 fighter jet. I suppose I should use a bomber for my analogy really, (a German Stuka for those of you requiring an exacting mental image) as he dropped the largest flop of bird feces I’d ever seen onto my nice, freshly pressed, just in from America white dress shirt. There was no applause this time, though I think I heard a few chortles and maybe a guffaw or two.

I was mortified. What was God thinking? Or was it God at all? Perhaps it was the devil repeating his action taken in the original film of Bedazzled, when he had a pigeon fly over a poor bum sleeping on a park bench and smother him in goo.

I hadn’t thought to bring a spare shirt, and as it was still morning I assumed I’d be wearing a bird poo stain for many hours to come. But after my initial rage I found my wits at last and made peace with manure as one must occasionally do. A few napkins stolen from a giggling food vendor, a little water from a public fountain and I was set to go, see through right breast covering and all.

Skansen is the manifestation of my historical desires; it is preservation, not of everything but of at least one of each. For a couple centuries the museum purchased complete farmsteads and even village buildings, broke them down for transport and reassembled them in a natural setting, recreating their original layout, as if these structures had been there all the time. I’m not sure how old their oldest building is, but I’m guessing 16th century. Within most of the buildings are costumed interpreters, most of whom spoke wonderful English thank the Lord. There are farmers and craftsmen, legislators and apothecary shop pharmacists. I can’t possibly describe it here and give it justice. The closest copy I’ve seen is Colonial Williamsburg in the US, a very similar museum but one focused on a particular time in history.

We stayed in Skansen for as long as we were able, I wasn’t looking forward to the trip down the stairs. But eventually we needed to drive across town to see a friend of a relative who had information for us, and would be a willing interpreter. I was brilliant on the way down actually, I got in front of him rather than behind. I’m sure it looked quite odd, but it was almost effortless to lower him from that angle rather than bent over and holding on for his life’s sake.

An hour later we were in the home of a friend of a step cousin of my father, and a short explanation of the family tree would help make sense of what happens next.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (3)

It wasn’t until I had actually rented a hotel room in Sweden that I understood how truly clever the Swedes are, how eco-conscious, how space frugal. As a 6’2” man of above average width, where I’ll be sleeping means a great deal to me. Since with my apnea I actually get very little sleep in the best of times, the more fluffy what I do get is, the more likely I’ll be conscious on the following day. So you can imagine my distress when I found our beds to be mattressed boxes nailed into the sidewalls like coffins without covers or maybe pantry shelves for marzipan marionettes. I have no doubt to locals they were the beds of choice, probably quite elegant in that Ikea lack of form over function sort of way. They certainly were perfect for my dad as he had no legs anyway and so had no use for extra room beyond his thighs.

I’d seen pictures of Viking beds, little enclosures meant to force their occupants into a folded position, layering skin against skin so as to ward off the cold and keep at minimum the testicles in good working order so as to protect the concept of procreation. I checked the room for windows; yes, they were intact. And the heating unit seemed in perfect working order. They hadn’t built their beds this way so as to protect my testicles. I could only surmise that there were no behemoths in all of Sweden; not so hard to believe since it seems all cars are sized for Asians, it would figure that beds in Scandinavia were sized for the little people that populate the countries, perhaps the very people t6hat ride those cute little toy horses of theirs. I was though suddenly nervous, worried about how the obviously miniature folk of Stockholm would react while a giant walked among them. I made a mental note to slouch during my stay.

The second wonderful discovery was the construction technique used in Swedish bathrooms. Rather than waste valuable Middle Eastern petroleum turned plastic on such non-necessities as bath tubs and shower stalls, the hotel had simply tile and grouted all the walls and lightly sloped the floor to the center of the room where a drain would catch the runoff from any source. There was a shower head poking from the wall across from the toilet, and a thin curtain attached to the ceiling ala an average hospital room privacy separator, just in case I suppose that your mistress would be showering as you were using the toilet, and you both were a bit shy.

Up until this point I was imaginarily nodding my head in admiration. It was a fine use of the entire room for all purposes at once. It made a very spacious space, if those two words might be used together in that manner. And then as I sauntered into that spacious space, I tripped. It seems they’d installed a 4x4 at the threshold of the door, presumably to keep errant shower water from soiling the lovely 19th century carpeting in the tiny hall outside the toilet.

Now a 4x4 would be an easy jump for a young skateboard champion; (surfing down the hall on his neon ride he comes to the obstacle and ZOOM! He’s up and over that tiny piece of wood in a flash) An older man in a wheelchair on the other hand? That’s another kettle of pickled herring. Poor pops couldn’t so much as turn to face the door as the hallway and wood block conspired to trap him in the east west position.

I was livid, which was my favorite expression of the moment (the word sounds so continental doesn’t it?) I could only assume the trip had been ruined, I was to blame and soon my family would be spreading the word about how inept the family firstborn boomer had become in his middle age. To my utter surprise, the old man told me to calm down, that he’d deal with it, that it was no big deal.

I sat on my little box bed and wondered what he’d need to do, let’s say, to bathe. Perhaps he’d have to strip, then put on his prosthetics in order to walk to and step over the obstacle, then sit on the toilet and disassemble his legs, drop down to the floor and scoot over to the shower control….OH MY GOD it was just too much to fathom! So I didn’t, I let him be the dad for one turn. If he could deal, I could deal. I left for the lobby to find some sort of candy bar/snack while he did whatever it was he needed to do to freshen up.

I stepped outside for a smoke and a look around. I’d had no idea how little of the language I knew until I had to actually use it for something other than self amusement. As I peered up and down the street I tried to read signage, newspaper headlines and business placards to no avail. Not only was I a stranger in a strange land, but I didn’t grok diddly. I just kept whispering to myself “Jag skulia ha en dubblroom, jag skulia villa ha skottbullar takk”; “Please sir, meatballs please! Put them in my double room!” At least the candy machine in the hotel lobby had a few familiar names in its windows. I found the right change and got myself a Snickers bar, hoping it wasn’t the Swedish version in which the peanuts were replaced with little chunks of pickled beets.

About an hour and three Snickers later, dad was ready to explore. All we knew for certain was to see the harbor at Old Town or Gamla Stan. I checked with the concierge for directions and warnings, and then we wheel/walked back to the car. I was still a little over stressed by driving, but I was getting accustomed to the signage, the semaphore timing and the average speed of the locals. We made it to Gamla Stan without incident, and almost immediately found parking. It did take me a half hour to figure out what money went where for which ticket that had to be placed on who’s windshield for how long. But eventually we were rocking down the boardwalk, as confident as you please, soaking in the sounds of Swede seagulls and smelling a lovely mix of salt water mist and Citroen fumes.

It was amazing; the colors of the buildings were brilliant, even the water seemed extra special. Statuary was everywhere, sailboats skimmed past small, motorized pleasure craft; it was truly a postcard experience. I must have taken three rolls of film in that first 20 minutes; I’d fallen in love with my new temporary home, and so had my father, in spite of his reservations. We strolled and rolled for a couple hours along the harbor walls, up to the present King’s castle, in and out of gift shops and confectionaries. I’d almost forgotten my fear altogether, the language problem had proved insignificant so far, my chest thrust out, my head sat back, I had a certain measure to my stride. We found our way back to the car and thought to take a little drive around town, just to ogle. I started the little teeny vehicle and pulled away from the curb, turning up a nice wide street that ran a bit uphill and away from the water’s edge.

As I topped the hill I felt slightly nauseous, something seemed wrong. The boulevard ahead of me was empty, four lanes wide and neither a fellow traveler nor a squatter parked on the edge. And then my nightmare began. From around the left leaning corner a block ahead of me came a hundred cars, four lanes across, all aimed at me! I was obviously on a one way street facing do not enterville and I had only a moment to decide how to extricate myself. There was an alley ahead and to the right. I thought I could possibly make it if the oncoming traffic had any compassion for a tourist at all and would slow down ever so slightly to let me through. But then, I had yet learned the ways of the Swedish driving machine. Were they aggressive like the French seemed to be? Were they caustic like New Yorkers? Would they even consider I was simply a dunderhead and not challenging them to a game of international chicken? Or would they draw straws to see who could push me backward and into the sea.

As my dad was wailing some unintelligible garble I slammed the teeny car into reverse and made a backward beeline for the parking spot I’d just left. It was still open much to my surprise, and somehow I managed to slip into its embrace just moments before the honking, catcalling throng passed me, waving fists and shouting epitaphs I couldn’t possibly hope to understand.

Once I’d restarted my lungs and shook dad from his coma I noticed I actually felt a little better. I’d made the big one! I was destined to screw up at least one time in a major way, and within a reasonable doubt I could assume that this had been that major foul! With the pluck of a native I slithered away from the curb and pulled a u-turn, zipping myself into the aforementioned throng’s tail, so I could saunter into Stockholm proper unnoticed, all legal like.

After an hour’s cruise we parked and hiked again, to a restaurant we’d passed earlier. I’d spotted a few items on the outdoor chalkboard menu that seemed edible and thought just knowing that much put me ahead of the game. The food was actually exquisite, though I did have trouble determining the exchange rate until we’d paid and departed. Then it became obvious that we’d gotten exactly what we’d paid for and nothing more. Thank God I’d skipped the Crème Brulee; we’d have been penniless!

The first day had been a relative success; we’d not yet been killed or poisoned, we still had a bit of spare change between us and I knew the way to the hotel lobby from nearly anywhere within two blocks of the building. Life was good! I couldn’t wait to order ham and eggs!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (2)

For ten miles I drove along the freeway looking for a petrol sign. I kept seeing Km to Stockholm signs which might have reassured me that we would have plenty of gas to get to the hotel, except I couldn’t do the KM/mile conversion in my head while I was in panic mode. (Actually, I couldn't do it at all, but I sometimes like to claim victim status to mask my general bewilderment) Finally I couldn’t take the pressure any longer, and I slid onto an exit that seemed to lead toward three small towns, or three named outhouses, I wasn't positive.

I imagined home, where every small town worth naming has a gas station, a stop sign and an old, mangy dog named Max, or Pepper, depending on the shape of its parts. There would be salvation, I was certain! It was too much to dread otherwise. Did Swedes, or Europeans for that matter ever run out of gas on the highway? Or were they so perfect as they would have us believe that they always kept a full tank, using only a drop at a time, driving only once per year to visit sick babushkas or to deliver food to an orphanage? Did the fact that my car’s gas gauge read empty mean nothing in the land of ecology and overachieving Saab technology? Or would I be arrested while standing beside the road with my thumb out, holding a cardboard sign scribbled in Swede meant to say “Please help! Out of gas!” but instead reads “Fish Stink! Blame the Finns!”

As I rounded a long corner, wondering if the sound I heard was the flutter of my engine chewing its last morsel, I spotted a row of gasoline pumps and a big red building behind them! Dodging oncoming traffic I raced for the line, and whipped in next to the first of the set. Hopping from the teeny car I practiced my delivery. “Jag skula villya ha en petrol takk!’ “I shall have some gas please!” I figured anyone might understand that, even people that didn’t know crummy Swedish with an American accent. But it was all for naught. The lights in the building were off, the parking lot, empty. As I stood there I swear I heard the wind whistle a moment as a lone Toblerone wrapper scooted across the pavement, like a triangular tumbleweed.

I had no choice, I had to figure a way to get gas or risk making my father demand his return ticket and the phone number of a local taxi company. I stared into the distance, trying to imagine myself moderately intelligent. “Swedes aren’t brilliant” I said to myself; “How many rocket scientists can there be in Sweden for God’s sake? If getting gasoline were truly this complicated Swedes would never drive except that one time they needed to move to the coast where they could fish for pickled herring, grow rutabagas and survive without transportation, like the Russians!”

There had to be something I was missing. I inspected the machines, threw all the switches, pulled all the handles, twisted all the fobs… and then a cartoon bubble popped into view over my balding head. There was a thin slot beside the plaque filled with indecipherable instructions, a slot just barely large enough for…. what….. A DRIVER'S LICENSE!!! No, that wasn’t it. Within the next ten minutes I rifled through my brain matter index file looking for all photographs of thin slot fillers; anything I might have seen that would fit perfectly into a little rectangular space the size of a credit card.


Yes children; a credit card. We’d not had automatic pumps in the US to that date. In fact many service stations still had attendants who would pump your gas and wash your windows, though they were becoming fewer by the moment. So slot or no slot, it never occurred to me that plastic would be the Babel fish translating Midwest American English into Swedish.

I needed to figure out exactly how to use it of course; wave my card past the hole, shove it in and leave it, in out, in out, then knock three times… At last by accident I’m sure, the pump whirred into gear and my dad, trying to be cute, yelled “Hooray”. I grumbled appropriately and filled the teeny car until it spat out every extra drop I tried to jam down its throat hoping I would never have to remember how to get gas in Sweden again. And then we were happily on our way, petrol virgins no longer.

Driving in a foreign land seemed easy at first. There was only one freeway and it wasn’t particularly busy. The map was clear and dad was a great navigator having been a cab driver for a part of his young life. Then we hit the outskirts of the city and things changed a bit. For some reason I could barely contain my eyeballs, they wanted to dance from visual to visual and I really needed them at that moment to just stare straight ahead. My attention span shortened to that of a dog in a garbage can, there were signs and bikes and shops and girls and churches and teeny cars galore and for the life of me I couldn’t decide which one to pick out and concentrate on. Eventually I learned to glue my vision on the trunk in front of me and let my dad yell directions, lest I suffer optic overload and drive into a random building while staring at a gaggle of street mimes.

Luckily the hotel and the street it was on had the same name, or a variation at least; The Birgir Jarl on Birgirjarlstrasse if I remember right. I suppose one day Trump Tower will be situated on Trump Avenue in the Borough of Trump in New Trumpland so as to make it easy for Swedish tourists to navigate in the United Trumps of America. Once spotting the hotel’s front door, we searched for an hour in ever increasing circles until we found on street parking, as there seemed no other choice. After unloading my father and his chair, I piled a few bags onto his lap, strung a few others over my shoulders, stuffed extra materials into my pockets, gripped a folder of valuable information between my teeth, slid my sunglasses down over my eyes so people would think I was a rabid dog and not worth taunting for looking silly, and I pushed his heavy butt up and over the hill we’d parked on and down the three blocks to our new, Swedish residence.

Even the sidewalk seemed Swedish, it clicked when I stepped on it, as if I was suddenly wearing wooden shoes, or herding reindeer. It was almost asking too much to absorb what was happening. I was actually in the country from which my grandfather had sailed 60 years earlier, walking on ground he may very well have walked on, scanning a skyline he’d most certainly have found familiar. We’d been in country but a few hours now and I was already exhausted, yet I was tingling with the anticipation one would feel while trying to rocket across the Snake River canyon strapped to the top of a single saddled jet engine. I might survive, and I might not, but either way it was going to be a hell of a ride.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (1)

I don’t remember how I’d chosen the hotel; it may have been a Fodor’s guide or I may have even contacted the nearest Swedish embassy to have them package me a “spend your money with us” brochure. There was a time in my life that I was just that clever, or driven if you prefer. In any case, we picked up our teeny tiny car at the Arlanda airport where I studied a roadmap before jumping on a freeway and racing in the direction of Stockholm and the old world, 4 star Birger Jarl Hotel.

For weeks I’ve attempted to find the right words to explain how I felt at the time, and I can’t seem to nail it. I wasn’t ‘scared’ really; I felt completely competent, moderately confident and somewhat calm, on the surface. But my insides were churning. I was trying to adapt at light speed to what seemed to be new and different in every way. I didn’t understand many of the road signs, yet I needed to absorb, interpret by guesswork and decide actions based on the information I assumed I was getting. I was the captain of a ship setting sail in the arctic ice flows, one big mistake could ruin the trip and perhaps even change my relationship with my dad.

Suddenly I heard a beeping and scanned the dash for an indication as to the cause of my impending doom. I imagined the vehicle splitting in half because I’d loaded great big stuff into a teeny tiny car. I thought maybe I need to tell it I loved it in Swedish so it knew I wasn’t a Russkie, stealing it away to St. Petersburg to sell it to the Russian Mafia. I finally found the culprit. I’d driven about 30 miles and was already out of gas. So much for customer service.

Luckily, the fuel pumps in Sweden look just like the ones in Minnesota, tall, overpriced and surrounded by tons of extraneous crap the owner of the station wants you to buy, like Gatorade, marzipan snacks and leather jackets with “Husker Du” emblazoned on their backs. I pulled in, on the wrong side of course, and stepped from the vehicle as my father asked “are you alright?”

“Of course” I answered; “We’re in Sweden, home of our ancestors, what could go wrong?” That was my first mistake. I’d been in country for an hour and already I was too pleased with myself.

When I’d concocted the great idea of touring Scandinavia I thought I might want to learn some rudimentary language, just in case. I knew a little from my environment, phrases like “happy Christmas” and “in Jesus name” and “please pass the blood sausage”; but I figured I’d eventually run into someone elderly that hadn’t learned English in grade school and wouldn’t be able to converse in anything but Swede, Norse, or hand puppetanian.

It was the hardest part of the journey for me. My brain is like a sieve, with big holes in place of the little ones, its mesh covered with little arrows pointing toward the openings that read “Sentience! Get out while you still can!” I can’t even remember my phone number when I need it for God’s sake. Yet I took on the chore as an altruistic gift to my wonderful father who I loved and respected so much… that I knew if I didn’t do it we were screwed cuz he wouldn’t do it, ever.

60 words per language I figure, that’s what I had memorized in 3 weeks. Sure, a few cross over, the Swedes and Norse only hate each other in a moderate way so they share words like telephone and egg. I wasn’t so sure I was pronouncing any of them correctly anyway, but I ignored that part and made up an accent to go with each. If I hit it by accident, the locals would be astounded at my fluency and buy me a beverage of my choice. If I screwed it up… well, I’m an ugly American, what else would you expect?

I actually thought 60 words would be enough to get by. I didn’t know any sentence structure, but I figured if I could interpret a Greek relative saying “Shall we have many swimmings in your home?”, the Swedes could interpret my saying “Gasoline I need toiletries and much how is she?”

I couldn’t read the pump. I pushed every button offered me, I stroked the top of the box, blew it a little American kiss, kicked it ever so lightly at it’s base to show it who was boss, and still, nothing came out of the damned thing. So I went inside the building.

“Taler ni Svenka” I inquired cleverly. The cashier laughed. I had asked if he spoke Swedish. He spoke back to me, or at least in my general direction. It was like hearing a waterfall, or someone pounding on a piano soundboard with a hammer. It was fast, as if all the words were one giant word strung together like the freaking Germans do when they invent something and it needs to have the entire meaning of its existence in its name. And then he stopped and smiled. I’m not sure I even blinked, I was in awe.

“Taler ni Engelska?” I asked after I’d caught my breath. “Ni” he replied with a wave of both hands meant to emulate the digging of my early grave.

It all became clear to me in that single, simple moment. I am an introvert. In order to travel within these countries I would need to be an extrovert and not take a failure to communicate as a personal attack on my ability to lead a tour bus full of grumpy old men in wheelchairs.

I spun around, looking for a friendly face. Surely the Swedes of Sweden were friendly in that undeniably Swedish way. They’re neutral, they’re socialist, they get to eat meatballs every day! There couldn’t possibly be a Swede so preoccupied with his idyllic life that he wouldn’t rush to a poor tourist’s aid, what the hell would any Swede be less than happy about? And yet, all the people in the convenience store were busy inspecting their shoes, or reading the local newspapers I couldn’t possibly hope to understand. I didn’t catch a single eye and would need to actually interrupt someone’s deep thought in order to ask whether they knew English well enough to tell me how to pump gas in Sweden.

I thought “what if the first guy I ask shakes his head no? And then the people within hearing range of my question move away from us as if to say ‘don’t bother me I’m busy doing Swedish things that you couldn’t possibly understand’. I turned back to the cashier in desperation. He smiled again, and then shrugged. I was ready to drive back to the airport, get on a plane and go back to the good ole US of A; but instead I just went back to the car and got in, started her up and pulled back onto the freeway while the little ‘just about to run out of gas’ warning bell behind the dash sung it’s merry tune.

I’m sure my dad was just as boggled as I. “So, umm, we gonna get gas somewhere else?” He didn’t smile so much as grimaced.

“I’m sure there’s another station just down the road. Why Swedes drive just as much as Americans, and we’re damn near in the city already” I rationalized while staring straight ahead, hoping he wouldn't see me chewing on my lower lip as I spoke; “Maybe the next attendant will be more friendly!”

I held my breath. It was a perfect time to turn blue. Why, blue's part of the Swedish flag, betchu didn't know that!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (Preflight)

During the winter of 1984 my father lost his legs while working as a railroad switchtender. For the pleasure of donating limbs in service to the military-industrial complex he received a largeish chunk of change which elevated him from his position as one of 5 billion serfs, to one of a few hundred million people of means, or, lesser nobility if you like. He was less happy about it than you might believe. He had no idea what to do with all that money, in spite of the fact that out from under the world’s never ending supply of woodwork there crawled a never ending supply of termites that knew exactly what he could do with it. But he did have one idea right away.

He would buy vacations for all! My siblings and I were people of modest status and seldom took vacations of the kind that plantation owners might take. I do remember my youngest sister taking her husband and children to Disneyland for a week or so; that’s the sort of vacation he had in mind.

As for me, I was in the process of divorcing and what few friends I’d had to that point were generally driven away by my incessant caterwauling about my many miseries. So while I thought the trip idea was lovely for my sisters and their children, and my brother and his cruise loving wife, I really couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d want to go; at least anywhere where I’d not simply wallow in my black hole of despair oblivious to my surroundings. Until one day….

I have always had this curse; I like to call it “romanticized unrealism”. I chose the non-word unrealism because the goofy ideas that spring forth from my psychotically overactive imagination are mostly doable, so they don’t qualify as actual fantasy, and I chose romanticized because when these ideas hit, I see only the sugar plums adorning the lovely rolled marshmallow fondant iced petits fours, and not the dog poop the little cakes are made of.

I would spend my father’s gift by taking him to the place of his father’s and his mother’s mother’s births, to Scandinavia, where little rosemalled toy horses roam the countryside and trolls wait under bridges for children… at lunchtime…

It was brilliant really. I could be kind of sideways-ly benevolent, like I was receiving but then giving back sort of, so I didn’t have to feel as I did whenever anyone did something nice for me, embarrassed and debt ridden and a little like a loser. Lucky for both of us, when I have a really cool idea like this one I just can’t wait to tell people so they can see what a genius I am. Certainly, as you’re thinking, it usually backfires. But this time, I was a hit! The trip was on, and I was in charge! I was in charge. I was….

It took about an hour before it hit me. I was now taking my father to a foreign country and was responsible for his having an excellent adventure in spite of his post-traumatic stress, his generally negative attitude, his moderate judgmentalism and his new found neediness that having no legs had created. Yea, I was a genius alright.

Almost everything about the relationship between my father and I was written in code. In some ways we were a lot alike, but in many of the most important, we were opposites.

He was a man that always finished everything he started, who could concentrate on one item for hours at a time. He was industrious, untiring, dedicated. He was a man who loved order, not to an OCD extreme but he liked his life planned out as best it could be. He hated the fact that I took revolving door “entertainment” jobs rather than simply commit myself to some large corporation, the government, or a trade union, and have my path charted for me.

He tried once to be a salesman, a man in charge of his own destiny. He paid to take a course and then accepted a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners, after being forced to buy one of his own of course. On his first call he was faced with a woman who was obviously in poverty if not on a government stipend. Bucking up, he did his pitch perfectly and the client was immediately in his pocket. She was ready to sign a check for the down payment on a 600 dollar vacuum cleaner, money which could likely have fed her kids for six months. He couldn’t do it. He looked into her eyes as she held her pen and he explained to her how sorry he was, that she’d be far better off with “x” competitor’s 40 dollar model, even if it didn’t have ice crusher and meat grinder attachments. And then he went back to what he knew he could do without question, unionized labor.

I was a guy that started far more than I ever finished, that was a producer of nothing and a lover of less. I took jobs that held promise as something I'd "enjoy" without worry about what it would or would not pay. As a result I ate a lot of spaghetti noodles covered in ketchup or cream of mushroom soup. I was a man that had little esteem for so called "superiors"; for governments, for corporations… and I had exactly zero belief in their promises. I was indifferent to clubs, confabs, organizations or associations. I had nothing against unions; in fact I truly believe that at least in America, without them we’d all be making 6 dollars an hour, but I was always a realist about the widespread corruption in the unions' collective history, and my considering them imperfect at best sometimes turned my father against me. I’d been a member a few times though I did operate as a “scab” once, a picket line breaker, but it was out of desperation and smothered in shame on my part. So while he hated the fact that I had committed a mortal sin against his beliefs, he never brought it up in anger.

But what really annoyed him was that I hunted down and took jobs for the love of the experience rather than for the money, benefits and stability. By the time that we left on our trip I had worked at a bushel basket full of jobs, and none of them for over 13 months. Yet I was successful by monetary standards; not in any CEO way, but I made more money than he at my young age, and that was a never-ending grind to him.

Where it could have become a huge issue for us, had we taken this journey at any other time in our lives he would have wanted it planned out in at least average detail; not that he wasn’t spontaneous, but he wanted potential problems taken care of in advance. For Minnesotans trying to cover Sweden and Norway in a couple weeks, that would have taken a month of letters and phone calls, research, discussion, reservation making and assorted base covering; just the kind of thing that makes my head spin and would likely have seen me apologizing for my silly idea and instead offering to take him on a camping trip to Thunder Bay Ontario because I knew the territory.

As it was, he was far more intimidated by the concept than I, and uncharacteristically deferred to my judgment as to how, when, where and wheeeee! I have to admit, that notion intimidated me much more than the trip itself. I became a cruise coordinator, the ship’s fun captain and all around excursion leader. I would be responsible if anything went wrong, anything became difficult… or anything else I could imagine in my nightmares.

It was a fascinating study of human nature to me. I had to be positive, but not so positive that I made him feel I was condescending or lying to cover up my actual fear. I had to fend off any of his dissentions during the planning, or risk sinking into the hole of “let’s forget it, it’s impossible.”  I needed to blow off all suggestions that his new found handicap would be a major issue, and perhaps even a ball and chain on my own experience, though I had no clue as to whether his being in a wheelchair would make our time hellish or simply aggravating. He probably asked me if I was sure about doing this every few hours for a few weeks.

I was nervous as hell in reality. I’d been to Mexico a few times, and while there, was directly involved in bribing customs police; but that act only made it seem easy to me to survive south of the border, so long as you could afford to grease a few palms. Europe seemed an entirely different fish. Don’t ask why, perceptions are based on too many variables. I suppose it had to do with being alone in Europe as opposed to always having a Mexican ground supplier within a phone call’s distance.

But I didn’t want to wait too long before we left, as the more time he had to ponder his problems, the more chance that he’d wave me off and tell me to go alone. There was little point in that happening. I am simply not extroverted enough to travel alone to a foreign country for a few weeks of self guided tour.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was a matter of weeks from my suggestion until we’d packed and ridden to the airport. In that time I had booked our first hotel for three days, thinking that would be long enough to orient ourselves to the new world, had booked a car though they couldn’t tell me what kind of car but only that it would easily fit two people, and had learned at least 50 words of both Swedish and Norwegian. I knew the language would be a stumbling block, but I wanted to show dad that I could explain to the nice police officer that “yes I might have been driving over the speed limit but I might actually be your long forgotten cousin from America so can’t you forgive me just this once and not cart me off to prison and my father to the institution?”… so he wouldn’t worry.

He’d bought a video recorder well before this time; one of the originals that weighed 20 pounds and came in a huge suitcase. He really wanted to take it along, and though I was already bringing 2 full bags of 35mm camera bodies and lenses, I added the VCR to the baggage, never thinking about what a pain in the butt it would be.

Clothing was a bit of a problem as we went in late April, before tourist season, when it could be lovely or cold and miserable. We decided to bring what we needed for temperature extremes and then just wash clothes often. That would have worked fine had I ever memorized the word for Laundromat instead of “I shall have an egg and ham if you please”, a phrase I can still recite to this day though I never actually said it “in country”.

The flight went very well everything considered. We’d needed to change planes at Kennedy in New York, and that transfer was a bit of excitement as we had too little time to get from one side of the port to the other as traffic was at a standstill, so I got to run/push his wheelchair about a mile between cars, across boulevards and up steps to make it just in time to hear there would be a sort of seating lottery because the flight was overbooked. I was just beginning to imagine sleeping on the concrete floor as my dad paced in his wheelchair muttering about how this was a stupid idea and we should just go home, when thank God our names were called and we boarded the flight to Arlanda airport in Stockholm, Sweden.