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.