Thursday, September 2, 2010

First Stop: SWEDEN

Our odyssey begins: we arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, last Monday, at 7:15 am via Toronto after an overnight flight, a bit weary having slept only a couple of hours but happy to be on the ground. It was a pleasure maneuvering through the Copenhagen airport, with friendly Danish smiles greeting us everywhere, no long custom lines nor TSA agents looking us over and funneling us through security stations. We picked up our luggage and showed our passports to a friendly customs agent and proceeded to the train tracks where we waited a brief half hour to board the train for Sweden.

The early morning light peeked through slightly overcast skies as we whisked past small towns and over the famous 5 mile long Oresund bridge just opened in 2000,connecting Denmark with Sweden. We stopped
first at Malmo, one of Sweden’s three largest cities and then continued on through many smaller towns stopping at a few, such asLund and Kristianstad.  Three hours later we  arrived at our destination in Sweden‘s southeast, Ronneby Station.  Boris, my second cousin and his daughter-in-law, Anne, were there to meet us with open arms and smiles as we descended the train. We hadn’t seen Boris, who is now 87, for 39 years since we first visited him, his wife Sonja (now deceased)  and their two sons, Torkel and Torlief, in 1971.  At the time, we were camping  through Europe,  in a VW van, with our two young daughters (then only 3 and a half and 5 years of age). The years between our visits seemed not to matter and we quickly slipped into easy conversation with Anne and Boris.  Boris still speaks some English and where he could not find the words, Anne filled in beautifully. Their fluency in our language humbled us as I know next to nothing in Swedish, even though my mother was a “Svenska flicka”. Being of immigrant parents, she and her sisters never really learned to speak the language---in those days, they were embarrassed by their parent’s lack of English and wanted to assimilate into American culture. Later, she confided she really regretted not learning her parents’ native tongue. She did preserve the customs, however, and shared many of them with me and my brother as we grew up. For that I am thankful, as it has enriched my life and was the inspiration for wanting to once again visit this land of my heritage.

I digress. Back to our Swedish adventure. My cousin, Torkel’s wife, Anne, asked if we were too tired to see some sights. She had prepared a picnic lunch and explained we could stop for that after they took us to see a few places. Tired but happy to have arrived and filled with curiosity, we accepted her invitation. The first thing Boris wanted me to see was the childhood home of my grandmother, Gunhilde. I had always thought it was Malmo but it was actually in Ronneby, just a few streets up from the train station where her father had his blacksmith shop, back in the mid 1800’s. She left Sweden at the young age of 14 and took a ship across the Atlantic to America.  It was a thrill for me to see the actual house that she had lived in. We continued on to a nearby park, once famous for it’s hot springs where the elite came to bath in the healthy mineral waters. The skies were clouding over and it was very windy but we bundled up in hats and jackets and had our picnic at a lovely site near a waterfall cascading down a sheer wall of granite. 

It was then time to leave Ronneby and head out to the Blekinge's “deep dark woods” as Boris and Anne called the place they live. Blekinge is like a “county’ of southeastern Sweden just above Skane which was once Danish until it became part of Sweden in 1628 after a terrible battle for control of the territory by the king of Sweden. Skane has always had a certain pride in its Danish past and resistence to the powers of Stockholm telling the people of the south what to do. Though Malmo is a thriving cosmopolitan city the outskirts, including Blekinge and Smaland to the north are very rural and consist of many birch, oak, alder and elm forests and massive amounts of granite stone. Wonderful old stone walls lace its lands marking the boundaries of farmlands going back to medieval times. The countryside is pocked with “runes”, large upright vertical stones marking ancientViking burial sites. Over the next four days, Torkel, Anne and Boris filled us in on many fascinating historical details of the region.

In 1972, shortly after our visit with my cousin Boris and Sonja moved from the city of Malmo three hours North to Blekinge, where they bought what they always described to me in letters, as a “forest”. Though we knew they had moved back to the land, we never quite understood the extent of this “forest” they had bought. We now learned that it was 300 hectares, nearly 600 acres, a vast estate on which there are ponds, lakes and wetlands, and beautiful rock canyons and thick forests of birch, oaks, elms and lindon trees and many other botanical riches as well as deer, moose and other small mammals and birds. Later, Boris and Sonja gave this land to their two sons, Torkel and Torlief, now in their fifties, with grown children of their own, to care for and keep in the family. Torlief, a businessman at heart, moved to the city of Gothenburg in Northwestern Sweden,  and sold his parcel to his brother, Torkel, who is the true “country farmer”. An erudite educated archeologist and artist, with a profound interest in the history of this land, Torkel works 55 kms. away in Karlskrona, as an art director for one of Sweden’s largest publishers of Sports magazines. He loves his work but is even more enamored with “husbanding” his vast Blekinge woods and protecting its past by inviting people to come and experience Sweden’s medieval past.  He, with the help of Anne, friends and neighbors, has built a small medieval village in the midst of their land. You can visit it by going on line to www. One interesting thing we learned was that Sweden, much like England, has a law that says the land though owned privately, must be open to the population to explore and hike upon. People seem to respect this freedom to enjoy but not abuse the land.

We were awestruck as Torkel’s wife, Anne wound her way down narrow forest roads and crisscrossed their land finally stopping at a small red house next to a beautiful lake, surrounded by a few old outbuildings and birch forests. She announced this was their newly acquired “guesthouse“ where we would be staying. We had expected a rustic cabin and instead found we were staying in a charming 1000 sq. ft. house with windows looking out to the lake; We had our own small boat dock and they invited us to feel free to use the small rowboat to explore the lake if we wished. Anne announced she would pick us up at six after we had a couple of hours to rest and recover from our jetlag. She left to drop Boris off at his house, called Lockansmala, a km away on their property. Boris was happy to inform us that we would be having dinner at his house in Lockansmala that night.

As they pulled away, we realized how exhausted we were and quickly fell into a deep afternoon nap. We awoke just in time to freshen up for Anne’s arrival and our wonderful evening of sharing our first Swedish meal of herring, boiled potatoes, Schnapps followed by caffe and kakkar, coffee and cake. Much laughter and merriment ensued and we quickly fell in love with my cousin, Torkel and his delightfully extraverted and generous wife, Anne.

The next 3 days unfolded with many new discoveries about this wonderful place where my relatives live and some of the stories of the family which go back a hundred years or more. Each day we fixed our own breakfast with the food Torkel and Anne had left for us, in the house called Sjotorp. Boris or Anne would pick us up and off we would merrily go visiting many surrounding sites. The best day of all was the one we spent with Torkel and Anne hiking around the woods of their property, muchroom hunting and visiting their small reconstructed medieval village called “Medeltidsbyn” and the huge lake at the southend of their property where they often “bath”, as they say, when describing a swim. Most days had been overcast and cool but that day we had sun and beautiful blue skies. For that night Anne had organized a wonderful family gathering and party with the traditional crayfish feed which takes place each August in Sweden. Torlief and his partner, Annette, arrived from Gothenburg (3 ½ hrs to the northwest from Blekinge..) His daughter Hanna and her boyfriend, Karl, students from Lund, came and Torkel’s daughter, Lena and her partner Fredrick arrived from another area. In all, with Boris, the patriarch of the family, and the youngest son of Anne and Torkel, seventeen year old, Terje, we were fourteen around a beautifully appointed long farm table in a reconstructed timber house built by Torkel last year. The room was lit only by oil lamps and a glowing fire in the big stone fireplace. We drank schnapps and wine and Torlief, quite the singer, led us in Swedish drinking songs throughout the meal. Lena had even made a delicious gluten free cake for Gary for dessert.
You can see our family spoiled us and we fell asleep that night quite happy and contented to have made this our first stop in our adventures. The next day, our family whisked us off to the small local airport where we took a plane to our next stop, Stockholm,  feeling a bit sad to say good bye, “hey da” in Swedish, as we departed.