A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Twenty-seventh in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
The longest journey is the journey inward.
-- Dag Hammarskjöld
Growing up in rural Indiana, the only reason I knew Dag Hammarskjöld was seeing his face on a postage stamp.
At far too young an age, I was a stamp collector, certain that one of those cloth grab bags stuffed with bulk cancelled stamps for a buck ninety eight might improbably yield an upside down airplane worth thousands of dollars.
Apart from panning for philatelical gold, it remained that geography and history were personal fascinations. Stories about other places thrilled me, and imagining where those stamps had been provided hours of amusement.
Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat, was the second General Secretary of the United Nations. He died in an African plane crash in 1961, subsequently to be honored by commemorative stamps issued by dozens of countries, which in turn helped fill those cloth sacks, though how the stamps left their envelopes and came to be packed this way always mystified me.
We must concede that stamps were not how most Hoosiers learned about Sweden.
Rather, for predominantly clueless, corn-fed Midwestern American heterosexual males like me, coming of age during the decade of the 1970s, the most gripping (pun fully intended) stereotype imaginable was the Highly Sexed Swedish Blonde.
After all, at the dawn of the VHS generation, there wasn’t anything overtly Scandinavian about those pornographic videos branded as Swedish Erotica apart from naughty connotations preexisting in the minds of buyers.
And don’t ask me how I know this.
In like fashion, it is no coincidence that the only memorable aspect of otherwise seriously wretched Old Milwaukee beer was the label’s exploitative Swedish Bikini Team advertisements, which came along a bit later, in the early 1990s.
In 1985 during my very first afternoon in Stockholm, I was wandering aimlessly near the perimeters of an island – something that isn’t hard to do, given that quite a few of them combine to make up the city proper – when it occurred to me to descend from street level to water’s edge for a postcard photo of the Gamla Stan (old town), visible across the way.
Exuding cherubic innocence, with Pentax K-1000 in hand and exuding strictly touristic intent, I turned a corner and promptly stumbled across two archetypal young Swedish blondes, lying atop the pebbles on puffy blankets, blissfully absorbing the bright July sunshine.
Need you even ask? Of course they were topless.
Struck dumb, I made gurgling sounds to myself and bolted; nothing voyeuristic at all, ladies -- please excuse me, as I have a streetcar to catch, all the better to flee the scene in even greater haste, my beet-red complexion providing illumination well beyond the sun’s wattage, without so much as a “hello,” “goodbye,” or “can you direct me to the nearest G-rated meatball cart?”
In retrospect, I’m not sure they even noticed me. Welcome to my life as a young adult.
We try our best to be cultured, but it always comes back to sex and money.
At first glance, the many Eriks, Lars, Karls, Marias, Annas and Margaretas of this land might seem calm, cool and aloof. Also, as an outsider, you might feel they live in a country full of contradictions. Sweden is a country with a very high standard of living that happily mixes high-tech capitalism and a socialistic type of welfare program. It is a neutral country with compulsory military service and strongly promotes world peace, yet, at the same time, it is number one in the world when it comes to per capita arms exports and is on the top five list for per capita donation of economic aid to the developing world. Further contradiction is evidence by the fact that the Swede Alfred Nobel first invented dynamite and other useful devices for warfare, then instigated the world’s most prestigious award for promoting peace. A more recent contradiction involves prostitution. Specifically, it is not a crime to SELL sex in Sweden, but it is illegal to BUY sex.
-- Elisabet Olesiny, Adventure Guide to Sweden (2005)
To me, Sweden still seems an enigmatic place – a fusion of opposites, simultaneously conservative and left-wing, well-scrubbed and smug, experimental and open-minded, yet beset with repressions and neuroses of the sort exhibited in otherwise impenetrable Ingmar Bergman films.
My presence in Sweden in 1985 was far too brief to register much of note about national characteristics, or to retain more than a smidgen of what I witnessed -- blonde sunbathers happily excepted, because some things truly are indelible.
Unfortunately, I was zombie. Indomitable youthful enthusiasm had at long last yielded to exhaustion.
Think about it: I’d taken three very long overnight train rides in seven days. Arrival in Stockholm was on the 26th, only a week since leaving Brussels. As the kilometers mounted, the constant soundtrack in my head switched from pop melodies to monochromatic drumming in the incessant rhythmic cadence of a clickety-clack track.
Constant motion had a deleterious effect on personal hygiene. While I bathed almost every day, my clothes hadn’t seen a washing machine since Ireland, and were filthy, especially the jeans.
True to the budget traveler’s ethos, bathroom sinks, cold water and Woolite sufficed for long periods of time; still, at some point a laundry expedition was needed. I’d resolved to make Stockholm the place, damn the expense, and on Saturday, I did.
Wearing as few slightly dirty clothes as possible, I took the remainder in a garbage bag to a laundromat, paid the lady to have them washed and dried, went for a walk, and returned to comparative spiffiness. It was a profound relief.
Concurrently, three days and two nights in Sweden stood to strain the budget, and splurges for food and drink were out of the question. Forethought was key, and the plan came together admirably, with an early morning arrival on Friday in Stockholm, the purchase of a three-day transit pass, and a room at the Columbus Hostel, located to the south of the city’s historic center.
Here is what little I remember about Stockholm.
Though hardly Swedish, the film star’s revelation that he had AIDS was a huge international news story. It was announced in America on Thursday, July 25, yet I have no recollection of it until the beginning of the following week, standing at a news stand outside a pizzeria in Finland.
Why the delay? First and foremost, my lack of language skills eliminated most local news sources. Fewer natives spoke English than today, and while many fellow travelers were American, not all of them paid attention to current events. I was dependent on English-language newspapers and publications. They could be found in big cities, not always in smaller ones.
British newspapers were more reliably available than the International Herald Tribune and USA Today’s international edition, but without the critically important baseball standings appearing in the latter. Trumping all these considerations was the plain fact that I couldn’t afford newspapers on a daily basis, and perusing them on the racks at shops depended on the kindness of the attendant on duty.
If memory serves, USA Today bundled Friday, Saturday and Sunday into a weekend edition. The Herald-Tribune combined Saturday and Sunday. Either way, my guess is that Hudson’s revelation missed the weekend editions, which often remained on the racks into the following week.
It’s strange what one remembers, and doesn’t.
Sweden had a state alcohol monopoly, which in practical terms meant having to go to liquor stores to buy just about any kind of full-strength booze, with the exception of beer brewed to sub-standard strength, somewhere around 3.5% abv.
Naturally, weak (and relatively affordable) beer is better than no beer at all, so I indulged at a supermarket and bought oversized bottles of Beck’s and Budvar (Czech Budweiser), brewed and bottles to spec for the Swedish market.
Dag Hammarskjöld spent his youth in Uppsala, an historic university city roughly 45 miles from Stockholm. I went there for the express purpose of viewing Viking burial mounds in the oldest part of town (an ancient Swedish religious center) and drinking mead from a horn at Odinsborg, a restaurant adjacent to the mounds.
Mead might well be the oldest of mankind’s fermented beverages. Even before humans learned to farm, honey was a gatherable source of sugar. It was added to water and fermented with wild yeast. Mead was a Norse staple, and big wooden “mead halls” were built to facilitate its consumption.
My recollection is hazy, but the mead served at Odinsborg was striking by its similarity to a malty-sweet beer. I believe this flavor stood out because the only mead I’d sampled previously was produced by the Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana, and it reminded me of the homemade dandelion wine made in Floyds Knobs barns and garages, all the better to intoxicate under-aged drinkers.
Today, I’ve learned that mead can take many forms. At the time, Uppsala’s version was my favorite.
At a museum in Stockholm, I examined the remains of a wooden Swedish warship called the Vasa (or Wasa), which somewhat ingloriously sank less than a mile into its maiden voyage in 1628. It was located in 1961 and brought to the surface remarkably intact, to be housed in successive climate-controlled facilities.
Importantly, this ship is not to be confused with Wasabröd.
The Swedish company Wasabröd is the largest producer in the world of Scandinavian style crisp bread (Swedish: knäckebröd).
By 1987, packages of Wasabröd had become a staple of my mobile food pantry. There are some in my cabinet right now.
On Sunday afternoon, the Silja Line’s ship to Turku, Finland left Stockholm harbor. Deck passage was free with a Eurailpass, and on this boat there was a gratifying bonus: A room just for travelers like me, with lockers, where we could sleep on padded bunks without paying extra for the privilege.
This was so exciting that I joined the queue for the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, surreptitiously packed my freezer bag full of breakfast goodies, and sent the debit card a bit closer to default. The Åland Islands, a Baltic archipelago between Sweden and Finland were gorgeous in the early evening glow. I’d be greeting Turku fat, sassy, clean and well-rested.
For a change.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.