In 1963 my mother left her home in Sweden for the first time and traveled to the US aboard the Kungsholm, one of the elegant passenger ships of the Swedish American Line (SAL). Now, fifty years later, the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia has mounted an exhibit about the SAL. Last week my mom and I traveled to Philly to see it. She was excited to rekindle some memories of that momentous trip.
My mother was not an intentional immigrant; she just wanted to see something of the world, and didn’t intend to stay in the US for longer than a year. She was a young art student, renting a room in Göteborg, working, and taking the train home to help her family on the weekends. She had saved her money and made travel arrangements; she had also secured a job in advance so that she could support herself while in the States.
Young Swedes have been making these kinds of trips since Viking times, and they still do today. In fact, working at the welcome desk at the American Swedish Historical Museum was a Swedish woman who is working as an intern both at the museum and at the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce. She seemed happy to speak Swedish with us. Was she just being friendly, or is she maybe a little bit homesick? At least she can email, skype and text her friends back home! The distance must have seemed much greater when my mother first came over. The trip from Göteborg to New York took ten days!
I wonder whether Morfar (my mother’s father) somehow knew that she would never again live at home in Sweden; he didn’t want her to go. But Mormor (her mother) didn’t share his reservations; if, as a young person, she had had the chance to go, she certainly would have done so – and gladly!
The SAL operated from 1915 to 1975, carrying cargo and passengers – including famous ones such as Greta Garbo, Jussi Björling and Raoul Wallenberg – between Göteborg and New York in high style. The Kungsholm, Gripsholm, Drottningholm and Stockholm were sleek, stylish ships, recognizable by the “Tre Kronor” (Three Crowns – a Swedish national symbol) that graced their smokestacks. The china, too, bore this traditional symbol of Sweden, as did the embroidered table linens. Everyone on the ship enjoyed the simple but beautiful table service for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the interior design and furniture were elegant, mid-century – very Scandinavian!
Together my mom and I look at photographs of the ship. She can’t quite remember for certain which type of cabin she lived in for the ten nights she spent aboard. No, there’s nothing wrong with her memory, but as she says, “I don’t think we spent much time in the cabin – there was too much to do. We were out dancing, eating, meeting people…”
One way to meet people was at your dinner table. My mother was seated with a group of young women like herself and some other people, including an “older” man – she says he was probably in his forties. I suppose he seemed nearly as old as tomten (Santa) to her! He predicted that one of his dining companions would not return. It was probably an easy call for him to make: the odds were pretty good that at least one of those young, adventuresome people would find a new life wherever they ended up – lots of the Vikings did, after all! Of course he couldn’t say which of them it would be, and maybe none of them believed him at the time, but whoever he was, and wherever he is now, he can be satisfied that events have proven him correct. I should know – I’m living proof that one, at least, of those young people found a permanent home in the US.
I’ve always loved rocks – even before I could say the word properly. When I was just over a year old, my Morfar visited from Sweden. There’s a picture of us – a man in a dark overcoat and a poof of white hair, and me, a rosy-cheeked toddler in white tights and a powder blue coat with matching bonnet – examining the “‘ocks” in our garden.
Beginning during his boyhood, which would have been during the 1910s, Morfar worked at a granite quarry in his hometown of Hunnebostrand in Bohulsän. As he grew up, Morfar learned how to fashion the hard stone into the building blocks of Europe’s town squares, buildings and monuments.
But Bohuslän granite is not only a resource to be harvested for human purposes. It is the very structure of the natural landscape, and the seascape, of that coastal province. The glittering Bohuslän archipelago is a vast scattering of granite left behind long ago by the ice-giants we call glaciers. About 8,000 isles and skerries rise from the sea in varying shades of rose and gray. They are flecked and veined with mica and quartz; splotched with lichen colonies of rust, chartreuse and turmeric. From their cracks and crevices grow grasses in green and gold, wind-trembled wildflowers and waves of purple heather.
No matter how cold and dismal the weather, summer outings to the islands will necessarily – if only for form’s sake – involve a swim. You might also go for a quick jaunt in a rowboat, or do some fishing. Saft, kaffe and kanelbullar are naturally a must. But whatever else you do, expect to spend plenty of time leaping from rock to rock with your friends, siblings and cousins, racing over the rocky outcroppings. Watch out for the sunbathers! They are nestled into the stone’s natural concavities, or lying flat and exposed to the heavens, soaking in the sun’s fleeting warmth.
I wonder if the ancient inhabitants of this place loved the rocks as much as we do? We know that – other than some variations in sea level – they saw the same rocky islands and coastline back in the Bronze and Iron Ages that we see today. I wonder whether they ever thought about us – the people who would walk on their rocky land generations after they were dead and gone?
Certainly they left many kinds of stone monuments. There are petroglyphs, cairns and other types of stone formations, including the famous stone ships. There are the towering, unmarked Viking gravestones at Li. In the past, some of these stones – their original purpose forgotten, or its urgency diminished – were taken to serve a second purpose: to form part of a wall, perhaps, or a hearthstone. But if those ancient people wanted to make a lasting mark on the landscape, and on us, their descendants, they picked the right medium. Their stone monuments will remain long into the future, standing right out in the open for us and our descendents to admire.
My Morfar loved stone too, and he knew it much more intimately than most. He knew how to score it, chisel it, cut it, polish it and fit it together. Even though he never had the chance to go to high school he could look at a giant slab of stone and figure out exactly how many pieces he could get from it, and he could cut it precisely, with perfect corners and edges all around.
Ironically, dust from the stone that Morfar loved – the stone that was his livelihood – settled in his lungs, making him too sick to work and ultimately hastening his death. Whenever I visit his hometown in Sweden I bring flowers to his grave. It is marked by a simple stone in the hard, sparkling red granite of his native Bohuslän.
I grew up the daughter of a Swedish immigrant to the US and for us, Christmas – jul – was the most important celebration of the year. In the days before email and Facebook and Google hangouts, when Sweden was so very far away that my mom called home only once a year, on julafton (Christmas Eve), Christmas was my mom’s best chance to share with my sister and me what she could of her childhood in Sweden.
These days I have my own household and kids, and I want to make sure that I pass on the same traditions that my mom passed on to me. I start at the beginning of December with my julbaket – my Christmas baking. As far as my kids are concerned, cookies are the most important jul tradition- right up there with the presents! The most significant cookies, traditionally speaking, and as measured by quantity, weight and volume, are pepparkakor – the famous Swedish ginger cookies.
Many celebrations center around special foods, but historically, at least, when Sweden was not as rich as it is now, and when there weren’t supermarkets stocked throughout the winter with a variety of foods, planning the julbordet (the Christmas table or buffet) must have implied a certain calculation, a reckoning of the sacrifices that might become necessary during the lean months ahead. Behind the display of Christmas bounty there lay the fervent hope that domesticated animals would survive the winter on the hay that (hopefully) filled your barn, and that your family could survive on the food stored in your cellar. It must have been a sometimes nerve-wrecking balance to strike: the mandate to mark the solstice (and/or the birth of Christ) today, versus the ongoing goal of survival!
But at this moment in time it’s all about pepparkakor! The dough starts innocently enough in a big heavy pot on the stove, filled with water, sugar, spices, lots of butter and some brandy. Here you can see it all melted together into a beautiful, silky brown liquid that makes the house smell delicious. Stir it and when it is cool add the flour, little by little. Then I let the dough sit out in a bowl, or maybe wrapped in plastic, until the following weekend. Don’t worry, the spices will preserve it; it won’t spoil!
When it’s time to bake, get started by preheating the oven, greasing cookie sheets, and getting out the rolling pins and cookie cutters. My mom always makes her pepparkakor heart-shaped, so that’s what I do, too. To me it wouldn’t seem right to make them any other shape, but there’s no law against it, so you can be as creative as you like. (Also like my mom, I make my smörkakor star-shaped; I’ll bake them when it gets closer to Christmas. I also bake bonnkakor, skärgårdskakor and havreflarn, but I do not roll them out and cut them into shapes.)
Pepparkakor are prettiest, and taste the best, if you can roll them out nearly paper-thin. Probably because I only make them once a year, it usually takes me a few sheets worth to get it right. Then I really start to roll! My recipe makes enough dough for 3 or 4 straight hours of baking, and by the end of that time I have three large tins full of cookies and two very sore feet!
I sometimes ask myself, why do this? It takes several hours of prime December weekend time; there are always other things going on and certainly other things that need to be done around the house. I wouldn’t have to bake all these cookies…would I?
Well, the truth is I do have to. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, and pride, in carrying on this tradition, and in demonstrating to my children and to myself, in a very tangible way, that, even though we live in the suburban US, where plastic Santas and Black Friday stampedes reign, we stand a bit apart. In our hearts we hold the dark northern sky, the moonlight on the snow, tomten with his sleigh, the julbord by candlelight. The truth is, I will probably still be baking these cookies when I am so old that I can barely stand!
This year we added something new to the big pepparkakor bake. My husband got our Swedish friend Lars to join us via a Google hangout. He gave us the shocking news that, nowadays, real Swedes actually buy their pepparkakor dough at the grocery store! We were horrified! But it’s okay for them, because they don’t have to make any special effort to be Swedish. They are Swedish 100% of the time, no matter what they do.
For me, though, the julbaket is more than just baking. Even more than a Google hangout, participating in this traditional activity shrinks the distance between me and the faraway land of Sweden. All of the effort, the stirring, the kneading, the rolling – even the heat from the oven and my aching feet – add up to time spent with my mother and my mormor and all the women who came before them, planning and preparing a special meal for their families. They accept me into their company, so that I, too, for a few hours at least, am a real Swede!