Have overheads: Will travel


The Swedish Connection

I arrived in Stockholm from Oslo. It seemed that almost any discussion in Norway involved the visitor being told that while Sweden had in the past always been the richer, stronger neighbor, now, with North Sea gas and oil, and the faltering Swedish economy, Norway's was rapidly becoming the richer and stronger economy. Most Norwegians struggled with varying degrees of failure not to seem simply delighted in this wholly unexpected turn of fortunes. There has long been in Norway the kind of underdog resentment of the larger neighbor, common to Canada with the elephant to the south, and Austria with its nearby economic giant. It is now hard for the Norweigans not to feel a bit cocky. And the neighborly competitiveness of the two countries is exacerbated by a deeper and less commonly mentioned difference, though it is perhaps increasingly less significant to younger generations, between Norwegan resistance to the Nazis and Swedish neutrality.

My Swedish publisher, Ulla, had booked me into the Hotel Terminus, unsurprisingly across the road from Stockholm's central railway station. She phoned and we arranged that she would pick me up the following morning and give me a driving tour around Stockholm. She spoke slowly, with that Swedish lilt I find immensely attractive. The discussion moved from books to ideas as she pointed out different parts of the lovely city. There was one curious feature of the discussion though: the more abstract the topic, the slower she drove. At one particularly complex point she brought the Volvo almost to a standstill in the middle of the city. Traffic patiently built up behind us. I had recently been in Portugal, and was amazed that no-one klaxoned. Then there was a single horn. Ulla looked shocked. "It must be a tourist", was all she said before carrying on the discussion.

Her publishing house is called Runa. When she went to register her new company, she was told she couldn't call it such a name. Runa is from the same root as Rune, and means something like Word. In Sweden there is much more reserve about naming a company or product after something so generic. (Not that Bill Gates has been discouraged.) Well, she asked, what kind of name could she call it? Your own name, for example, she was told. So she took the legal steps to change her name, adding Runa. She then went back to register her company and call it by one of her own names.

Stockholm's old city is a delight to walk around. One emerges from the narrow streets always to water. "The Venice of the north" overstates it a tad, if only because the water looks everwhere so formally controlled and cold. The Royal Palace is duly royal with its guards at the gates. I thought I'd leave the City Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are given during a spledid banquet, until invited. The city is built on 14 islands between lake Mälaren and the Baltic. It's not clear what amplitude of water does for the soul, but it must be good.

My first talk was to take place in Falun, a hundred miles or so north of Stockholm. The train ride was smooth and fast, the carriages leaning over gracefully as we came to steep curves. This kept the coffee cup on the table, and also allowed the train to keep to supernatural speeds even along old curving rails. Developing high speed trains in Europe meant one of two technologies--massive expenditures on new tracks along which the trains could speed in straight lines for huge distances, or massive expenditures on new rolling stock that could accommodate to old curving tracks. The latter was cheaper, but had a lower speed limit.

The other attraction was that I was to meet the translator of my recently published book. I had been in e-mail contact with her for many months. From a formal beginning with technical questions about how one might put various bits of English slang or pop-culture references into Swedish, it became a delightful series of exchanges. She was by far the best and most engaged translator I have had, and she had a mischievous sense of humor, a nice wit, and an easy flexible style in English, which spoke well for the Swedish version. In the book I demonstrate a principle with an example about the Vikings. I wrote this from the perspective of the English schoolbooks from which I learned it. Barbro suggested that this example needed major revision, because Swedes' interest in the Vikings was not much involved in what had happened in an English marsh somewhere. Rather, she rightly pointed out, it was their domination of the the routes to Baghdad and Byzantium, their founding of states in Russia and Sicily and Normandy that mattered more. Over the increasingly funny exchanges, I had built an image of a young woman recently graduated from a good humanities program.

The following morning I was to meet Barbro for breakfast in the hotel. She lived in Gävle and had driven across. I walked into the breakfast room, but could see no-one like my image, until I was waved to by a small woman of perhaps sixty. I immediately recognized the mischievous and sparkling wit evident in her eyes.

Ulla arrived in her Volvo, with a folding table, a table-cloth, and a pile of books to sell. The talk went well, I thought, but I was a bit disconcerted at the end after calling for questions to be faced with a silent audience, of largely blond women. After an uncomfortable time, one of the audience took pity on me and said that in Sweden they do not commonly ask questions; they come to listen to what the speaker has to say, not to speak themselves. It can't have been too bad; as I came out of the lecture hall, Ulla was selling to a good crowd around the table, stuffing notes into her pockets with great cheer. I was asked to sign a good number, learning to spell a new set of names.

In the afternoon Ulla, Barbro and I, along with our host, were taken around the great mine at Falun--which I had read about in geography all those years ago. I remembered little, but the reality was stunning. In waterproof clothes and big boots we headed underground into the honeycombed caves of the world's oldest continuously-worked mine, that had given up its riches of copper, and endless other minerals. The Stora Kopparburg Mining Company was founded on the stunning wealth of the mine in 1347, probably the world's oldest industrial corporation. Despite collapses and fires, the mine was worked until recently. The last devastating cave-in happened on a Christmas Day, the only time of the year when it was not being worked by crowds of miners. In the period of its greatest productivity, it delivered a major part of the national income of Sweden. Inside, it was truly like a honeycomb. I can't remember how many gazillion miles of tunnel had been carved out of it. Perhaps Tolkein had taken the tour.

Then to Gävle. I was to give two talks. One was a fairly regular address, with overheads, to a smallish group. The other one, our host proudly told us, was to be very exclusive. The common-or-garden college teachers had been told that the afternoon seminar was being reserved for only the very most influential people. To which no-one came. Something of a relief to me, but annoying to Ulla, who had come all that way but didn't move any merchandise.

In Gävle, we spent the night at Barbro's old house, in an enclave of preserved ancient houses. We took an early evening stroll around the cobbled streets. This, she said, pointing at a house a few doors up from hers, was where Joe Hill was born. Joe Hill? Joe Hill, here? I didn't know he was Swedish. Oh Yes. He went to America in his early twenties. I looked in astonishment at the house, and the words of that most haunting of workers' songs came out unbidden. I was far from the first, no doubt, to have sung there sotto voce: :

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

Alive as you and me.

"But Joe, you're ten years dead," said I.

"I never died," said he.

"I never died", said he.

The words of Alfred Hays's song echoed in my mind for the rest of my stay. Joe was shot at age 33 by a firing squad in the prison yard of the Utah State Penitentiary on what is claimed to have been a trumped up charge, to get this union organizer out of the way. Woodrow Wilson's appeal to the Utah governeor was ignored. "I never died", said he.

Then back to Stockholm in Ulla's Volvo. I was uncomfortable that pretty well everyone we met spoke fluent English, and that many of them were familiar with the book Ulla had just published in the English version from Routledge. Perhaps, though, she would make money as from the book being required as a text. She told me that publishers in Sweden were being ruined by photocopying. She would hear that one of her books was being used in a course in some city, but, checking her records, she would see that she had sold no copies to the university there--perhaps one to the library. It was cheaper for students to make photocopies than to buy the original, and this was done on a huge scale. She was thinking of publishing a book printed in an uncopyable blue typeface as a protest, but was uncertain what useful effect it might have.

The next day there was a conference for, mainly, teachers, based on my principles for engaging students' imaginations in learning. I didn't have to arrive till a bit before lunch, so wandered around the city some more. I saw the gorgeous 17th. century battleship in the Vasa Museum on the island of Djurgården which used to be a royal hunting reserve. Like the British Mary Rose, the Vasa set out on its maiden voyage and, in the first cross breeze, keeled over and sank. It was a magnificent ship, and it was covered with silt, lost from view and largely suppressed from memory since its shameful sinking in 1628, until 1956, when Anders Franzén, a shipwrech specialist, succeeded in locating it. Then, immense ingenuity, and money, went into a five year exercise refloating the ship, gathering all its bits and pieces, keeping the wood from rotting once exposed to the air. Then, after the huge restoration project, the splendid Vasa Museum was built to give it a final home. One gets a vivid sense of the brutal squalor of the midshipman's life in early modern times on even the best equipped warship.

The first talks at the conference were given by people who had been using some ideas from my books. I arrived during the talk that preceded mine. The woman sounded pretty impressive to me, knowing no Swedish. I gave a talk, with overheads, about the theoretical background that seemed to go down reasonably well, then, after lunch, a more practically-oriented talk, with more overheads, about what the theory might add up to in schools. Giving talks after lunch is not ideal. You have to be pretty lively to keep stout parties awake.

I got out before the snoring overwhelmed the good public address system. I was followed by a man who had been using the ideas in his teacher training program. He talked with immense enthusiasm, but seemed unable to stop. He demonstrated his points by holding up students' work, but as this was in ordinary excercise books, no-one could see. As an exemplification of my pedagogical ideas, however, it left something to be desired. People began to leave, nodding apologetically, pointing at watches, trains to catch. I wanted to leave myself, but felt that even an empty room would not have slowed our speaker.

And early morning, the train out to Arlanda airport. Pulling my case with its overheads. Would making airports less dreary make them more confusing? Is that the reason, or is it just part of the general conspiracy to make public places as visually characterless as possible? Or perhaps it is intended to not distract our eyes from advertisments, on which more money and imagination have clearly been spent.

I can find my way round airports more or less instinctually now, but there seems no way, despite endless trials of various bags and wallets and multi-pocketed garments, to deal with the business of tickets, passports, boarding cards, landing cards, customs declarations, currencies, and travellers' cheques with ideal efficiency--which includes having a pen accessible at the appropriate times. It ought to be possible, I know, and I continue to work at it. I think I'm closing in with my Tilly jacket--tough with plenty of pockets, some big, some with velcro and one hidden (which I've not been able to find)--and a large zippered wallet, with small writing pad and slot for pens, and flaps for cards, money, etc., and, on its outside an open flap for temporarily slipping in passport, ticket and boarding card as one heads away from the check-in counter.

Curving up from Arlanda, lakes and fields and, more distantly, forests fill the window, snow sprinkled across them. Maybe its the Irish connection to the Viking empire, and maybe it's because everyone seems to speak English, but I feel at home in Scandinavia. But, even so, looking down at the land freezing up for the long winter, and rising into cold streaking clouds, it's good to be heading south.

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