Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stockholm - Gävle - Stockholm (Pt. V)

Note to readers: This is the fifth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part IV here.

Stockholm, the city built on the archipelago that rises out of the shallow westward-pointing finger of the Baltic Sea. Bustling, progressive Stockholm with all those clear-skinned, strong-boned Swedes, just bursting with health.  Even the drunks and the smokers. Even the 70-some year-old homosexual who made a crude pass at me while I was sitting on a bench outside the train station waiting for Nelson to purchase his ticket so he could go on to Helsinki.

As I was watching all the Swedes go in and out of the station this leering old gentlemen approached me. He must have known I was American. He asked in perfect English, "Have you a light?”

"Certainly," said I, accommodating him. No Ugly American syndrome from me. Overcome redneck stigma with friendliness and generosity.

He bent to the flame, drew. A cherry appeared on the end of his cigarette. He looked up at me from under his snow white eyebrows. "I'm gay, you know," he said, leering.

"How nice for you," I said. "Not me."

"But you don't mind if I talk this way?"

I shrugged. He took that for encouragement.

"Sometimes," he said, "I like a nice hard--"

"I told you I'm not gay," said I.

Nelson came out just then, and we set off to find a hostel. The old man stared after us as we climbed the stairs to the commuter train.

The hostel was a boat moored in the harbor. The main deck was a dining room with a bar and lots of young people getting drunk and laughing. The narrow companionway led below decks to a cramped cabin that Nelson (youthful idealist) and I shared.  Drop off the packs. Let's go see Stockholm.

Immaculate Stockholm
What a city!  More like a movie set. Clean, chic, colorful. No litter, no beggars. A maze of pedestrian walkways wound between parks and malls. It was September, and the weather was warm even though it was cloudy.  An intermittent drizzle made us glad we had our jackets. I'm from Portland, Nelson; I don't even notice it.
In the harbor
Stockholm is perhaps not New York. Neither is she Paris, nor London. But she is still cosmopolitan, still hip, stylish, mod. Everyone speaks English, perfectly. Everyone behaves within the confines of acceptable, socially responsible behavior. No litter, no beggars, no poverty. Socialist Utopia.

Au revoir, Nelson
But only a single night in Stockholm for me. I had arranged to travel north, to Gävle on the morrow to meet an old friend. So, at long last, it was time for Nelson (youthful idealist) and I to part ways.  We traveled together for 8 days . . . all the way from Arnhem to Stockholm. By now we were fast friends. Off to Helsinki for him, and thence to the Baltic states; going back to see the old country. That was where his people came from, even though they lived in Brazil now. Lithuanian blood flowed in his veins.

Au revoir, Nelson (youthful idealist).  Keep fighting the good fight, my friend. We may meet again.  If not, we both know that we've made a friend for life.

In the morning, I caught the train to Gävle.

Patrik Manlig
Patrik Manlig (good-hearted Swede) recognized me as soon as I got off the train. We'd never actually met before. We were email friends who shared a passion for the WWII board game, Advanced Squad Leader. "There aren't too many people who come here with a guitar and a traveler's backpack," he explained. "Come, I'll show you around."

Gävle is more of a town than a city. Also clean and safe. However Patrik and his girlfriend, Ingela, lived in the bad part of town:  bad by Swedish standards. "What makes it bad, Patrik?" I ask. Says he, "There was a murder here last year."

I smiled, wryly.  I'd lost track of the number of murders there had been in Portland that year. God love those Swedes. Upset about a single murder. Socialist Utopia.

Gävle waterfront
We walked around Gävle. He showed me the sights, told me the stories. The Russians had come here once, during the Great Northern War that was fought from 1718 to 1721. They ransacked the place. But that was a long time ago. The Swedes gave up on their imperial ambitions. Life is too short.

Now, if you're a Swede and you have the grades, you go to college courtesy of the state. Health care is provided for everyone. "We would be ashamed if we didn't take care of our people," said Patrik.  Socialist Utopia.
Ingela and Patrik
Nice place, Gävle. Real insights into Swedish life. Patrik and Ingela, tucked away in their idyllic corner of the world. Such a pleasure and honor to meet you both, to accept your hospitality. Tack, Patrik, you good-hearted Swede. Tack, Ingela.
Hej då. Back to Stockholm for me.


Back to the hostel on the boat in the harbor. Good scene.

By now, I was fully into the travel groove:  used to living out of a backpack; used to catching trains and buses even in places where I didn't know the language; used to finding ways to communicate and learning the international trans-language terminology. I took a moment that morning to relax on the pier next to the hostel. The sun was shining.  The little reflected diamonds twinkled off the water, stabbing at my eyes. The wind blew my hair away from my face. I've done it. I've scaled the mountain of doubt. I am an international traveler.
Stockhom harbor, again
Then it was time to go see the Vasa museum; time to go see King Gustav Vasa's super weapon in his fight against the Poles during the Thirty Years War.  That warship, the Vasa, was going to win it all for him, for Gustav. 

Well, King Gustav, maybe you were a little too terrifying. The shipwrights built your warship, all right. They built a monstrosity with two gun decks and 72 twenty-four pound cannons.  Nothing like her had ever split the waves. But, they knew she was top-heavy. They tested it by running 30 men back and forth across the top-deck to simulate the roll of the waves before they launched her. They knew, but they were afraid to tell you, King Gustav. You were an impatient man, after all.

So, on August 10, 1628, she cast off to go out and fight the Poles. But she never made it out of the harbor. Down she went, with some 50 souls. Her masts were so tall that, even with her hull resting on the harbor floor, they stood above the waterline, marking the place where Gustav's naval ambitions came to naught. Too bad, Gustav. But Sweden wasn't really meant for empire.  No need to get tangled up in all those messy European politics, eh?

Three hundred years later Anders Franzén found her there. Still sound structurally, because the water is too cold for shipworms to survive and eat her planks. He raised her up and brought her to shore and made today's museum. So maybe she's not the legacy you would have written for yourself, Gustav, but she sure is something.

Some people (Catholic propagandists, no doubt) say Gustav's grandfather, the original Gustav, had cut a deal with the Devil himself; and that was how he kicked the Danes out of Sweden. That was how he and his kinsman, tall, silent Lärs-Goren, and his sometime ally, treacherous Bishop Brask, had convinced the miners in the north to rebel, to rally behind him and seize control and found the kingdom of Sweden. But that was all in the past. Let bygones be bygones.

Sun sets on Stockholm harbor
From the Vasa museum to Skansen.  Skansen is the open-air museum and zoo that depicts life in Sweden throughout the ages with demonstrations of traditional crafts:  shoemakers, glass blowers and tanners.

Annie Lennox was playing that night, but I didn't go. Too tired. There was an anti-Nazi rally scheduled in town. Some Swedish hicks out in the countryside were coming to the city to preach their Fascist gospel and the people in Stockholm planned to show up to shout them down. It got ugly (at least, by Swedish standards). The police used tear gas. I slept right through the whole thing.

Somewhere along the line I met Scotty (a drinker, he) from Australia. Scotty was on his walkabout through Europe before going back to Australia to get married and become a chef, fully trained in l'ecole du cuisine francais. He was on his way to Berlin, and so was I. Let's go together, then, eh?

Katrina and I... forever unrequited.
The train to Berlin left at midnight. "Let's hit the pub first," says Scotty (a drinker, he). "Why not?" says I. It was there that I learned about Swedish women, about how they will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they like you.  That's where Katrina gave me the eye. Flattering, yes. I gave her a big kiss on the neck. But, alas, alas, the train is leaving for Berlin my dear. The road is calling and I must away. I'm an international traveler, after all.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Ridwan said...

Dade I am amazed by your memory.

I worry a lot about my inability to remember the details of my travels.

Nice read brother.