Sweden had been on my radar for a long time. During my MFA program, I’d spent three summers studying in the south of France and Madrid, Spain, visiting a few other cities and countries on weekends. I knew that, if and when I returned to Europe, Scandinavia and particularly Sweden would have to be high on the list. Flash forward half a dozen years, and my wife and I answered the call and put together an ambitious five-country European tour that would land us squarely in Stockholm.
I’ve always been proud of my Swedish heritage. Proud of my Irish heritage too, of course, but my hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts was pretty much a fifty-fifty mix of Irish and Italian ethnicities, so I felt just like everyone else. There was something a little more exotic, then, about this Swedish side of me I kept hearing about. Exotic words like Scandinavian, Nordic, stereotypes I’d see on TV about Swedes being blond and good-looking, a stereotype I frankly didn’t mind. I liked the sound of the family name on my father’s mother’s side, Soderquist, in particular than funky suffix –quist, which I sometimes saw as the even funkier –qvist. And I loved my great-grandparent’s names: while my Irish side had a whole lot of Johns and Jameses and Marys, my Swedish great-grandparents were Enoch and Elin. And during extensive genealogical research on Ancestry.com, I discovered more cool names, like my great-great-grandfather Olaf, his wife Katerina Blomqvist, another set of great-great grandparents, Anders and Anna Johansson. The names alone sounded literary.
So getting off the train in Stockholm had felt like a return to a place I’d never been before.
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The city of Stockholm is actually an archipelago of small islands clustered around the mainland’s eastern coast. In fact, it’s only when one zooms in on Google maps that one realizes the city is not in fact fully attached but rather crumbs of land dispersing into the Baltic Sea.
Stockholm’s Old Town of Galma Stan is one such example. Wandering the city, Christine and I didn’t even realize that the short pedestrian bridge we’d crossed to enter Galma Stan actually brought us onto a small island. It’s not something you see or feel, but looking at a map you’d see that all entrances and exits bring visitors over water. It’s a classically beautiful old town: pedestrian walks curling and snaking along shops and restaurants, streets narrow and cobblestoned and uneven. There’s a lovely square in the center of Galma Stan that hosts the Nobel Peace Museum, which Christine and I visited and spent a couple quiet hours reflecting on the world’s endless and circling struggles for equality, peace, and connection. At the time, it felt as though we were experiencing the museum from a place of higher enlightenment, that our greatest struggles may have been more or less behind us, something to study and learn from—the Great World Wars and Northern Ireland’s bloody struggles, the Khmer Rouge, and of course countless, countless others. We wandered the exhibits, the powerful black and white photographs, the stories of heartbreak and resilience and hope. We separated at times to look at different rooms, then eventually drifted back to one another, finding each other’s hand. We were still a few years away from Trumpism, Brexit, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Obama had just begun his second term, our first black president rehired to continue his example of hope and possibility, Christine and I back in Europe for the first time in years, our eyes and minds open and eager for new experiences, new people and cultures, new food, different ways of thinking, oblivious to our country’s festering rejection of growth and progress, too many of our fellow Americans looking backwards instead of forwards.
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I love Stockholm’s Old Town of Galma Stan, and in fact I am enamored with many of Europe’s best-preserved old towns. While an obvious hit with the tourists, these are not Disneyfied recreations but rather well-cared-for historical treasures, the way a great-grandparent sitting in a family room during a holiday get-together commands such quiet respect and tribute. We’re honored they’re still here, with us, expounding wisdom and a kiss on the cheek, and we return our gratitude by taking care of them, giving them the good chair, fixing them a plate, refreshing their drink and making sure the fire is keeping them warm. If they share a story, we listen, even if we’d heard it before, happy to hear it again, being deliberate about committing the story to our own memories. That’s Old Town: beautifully weathered, classic and wise, sharing its stories of who we are and where we came from and what’s still important, despite the modern growth and frenetic pace of the city outside its walls.
Later, we meandered along the water, watching the boats bobbing in the harbor, the sun chipping off the sea like flickering stars. We stopped at the Royal Palace and watched the elegant pomp of the changing of the guard, then had dinner at a restaurant in the back of the Opera House that was highlighted in our Rick Steves book, a place we never would have stumbled into on our own. I ordered Swedish meatballs with pickled cukes and lingonberry sauce, one of the better meals I’ve had anywhere in Europe. Christine had the sausage with onions, potatoes, and capers in a Dijon sauce. We loved every bite. With our stomachs contented and us feeling a bit more energized, we decided to walk the city some more, our pace leisurely and relaxed. We were on the second week of our journey and Sweden was our fourth country, and we finally felt as though we had settled into the proper pace. The sun sets late here: it was well after ten p.m. and we had plenty of light left, the sky just beginning to shift into a dusky purple. An occasional hot air balloon drifted above, framed by the tops of the city’s ancient and colorful buildings. High on stone steps of the Parliament building, we sat, the steps still warm from the day’s sun, and watched the balloon, the night city, the moon.
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Another day we took a boat out to a couple of Stockholm’s many islands, some dotted with summer homes, others remote and populated with trees and walking trails. We tried some snacks and visited some shops, watched someone making glass art. I love the custom all throughout Europe of saying hello to the store owners when you enter, something we don’t regularly do here in the States. It’s one reason why some Europeans view Americans as rude. To them, it seems strange to walk into someone’s store and not greet the owner. It would be like stepping into someone’s home and start looking around without saying anything. Smile, say hello—Hallå, take a look around, and then, if you leave without purchasing anything, offer another smile and a thank you—tack, and maybe a hejdå, goodbye.
After, we visit Skansen, the open-air museum on the island of Djurgården. The museum imports authentic vintage homes and buildings that have been saved and preserved from all over the country, so visitors can see and experience how the different regions of the country have survived and thrived throughout their history, from the coastal area of Gothenburg in the south to the remote northern regions where winter nights never end. We see how Swedes toiled, the endless daily chores that needed to get done, how and where they slept and cooked. We watched bread being baked, thin and crispy cracker-like creations called knäckebröd, warm out of the hearth and tasty. The visit makes me think again of Enoch and Elin Soderquist, my great-grandparents, and ancestors Olaf and Katerina, and Anders and Anna Blomquist. Hard lives. Proud lives. A long history that begins here, in a town about ninety minutes from Stockholm called Eskilstuna, to Cambridge, Massachusetts over a hundred years ago, to North Reading and then, finally, to me. The shoulders I stand on. Strong, hearty, Swedish shoulders.
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When we visited Denmark just south of Sweden in 2017, we learned of—and fell in love with—the concept of hygge, which is said to have given birth to our English word hug and refers to a quality of coziness and comfort, a feeling of contentedness and well-being. Christine bought a hygge book in Copenhagen that sits on our coffee table, like a bible, and teaches the hygge way through things like candles and throw blankets, a fire in the fireplace, the right music, certain colors and comfort food. Sweden, like all of Scandinavia, has its own variation of this, called lagom, which, like hygge, has no actual translation in English (is there symbolism in that?), but generally means “not too much, not too little,” or “just enough.” It’s what Swedes aspire to and base their government on, where no one is left to be pitied but also not envied. The concept is that everyone has everything they need and no more than they require.
We bought some Swedish candy from a couple of young girls selling treats at a folding table in a park, mostly licorice-type things. Christine and I bought a few of our own choosing, but then asked what the best was, what was popular among the locals. They pointed to a licorice treat called salmiak, which we tried right there on the spot and found to be oddly salty and not sweet at all. I wasn’t sure if they’d just been messing with us—naïve tourists, after all—but then googled it later and found that, yes, this was actually a popular treat here in Sweden. But we took the rest of our licorice, raspberry and black and a couple other flavors, and found a spot in the park, near the water and under the afternoon sun. We’d seen a lot, the well-worn travel book tucked into my back pocket, its job done. Our legs were weary from morning to night exploring and wandering, but we felt good. I lay on a patch of green grass, my eyes closed to the bright sky. Christine positioned herself in the other direction, her head on my chest so that we formed a T. We talked some, reflecting on our days here, but also fell quiet for long stretches, chewing our licorice and surrendered to the sounds of the water lapping the shore, the boats bumping their moors, our bodies synching with the rhythms of this city of islands, a lagom moment if ever there was one.