I was seven years old the first time I flew on an airplane. Sandwiched between my mother, brother Pete and grandma in the back seat of a small rickety airplane, I braced myself. “Don’t worry,” Mom said. “This plane isn’t taking us to Sweden.” The plane began its slow takeoff shudder.
The first flight was very brief and uneventful. The second, the one heading to Stockholm, Sweden, was special. This airplane was big and glossy like those in movies, with three wide rows of seats divided by a pair of aisles. My mother sat down next to me. Grandma and Pete sat right behind us.
The long dull flight became very eventful with the endless procession of meals. The flight attendants served me things I had never seen before. I remember breakfast best. In a metallic container lay three delicately rolled golden pancakes dusted with powdered sugar. Beside them sat a small white container of deep crimson jellied berries. “Wow! What’s this Mom?” I asked excitedly.
Grandma leaned forward and smiled between the seats. “Those are pankakor, Swedish pancakes with lingon berries.” She explained. I took a bite, caught her eye and said, “Mmm!” I gleefully tucked into my first Swedish pancakes.
Hours later the plane landed gracefully at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. It was the height of Swedish summer and the chilled morning air smelled sweetly of pine and earth.
Thirteen years later when my flight touched down in Skavsta in the outskirts of Stockholm, the air smelled the same. I boarded the white airport shuttle bus that would take me to the city center, my heart full with memory. The slender pines ascended into the pale Nordic sky, golden birch leaves fluttered down on to the graveled paths that traversed the forest. Two men practiced for ski season on wooden roller skis. It was all so very Swedish.
I had only seen my Swedish relatives a handful of times over the years and yet they were closer to me than my American cousins whom I saw often. I had never felt particularly American. Although I grew up in an All-American small town in Upstate New York called Adams Center, where the cows out numbered the people, most of which were farmers and small business owners, my family and I had always stood out.
Perhaps it was because our roots in Europe were not so far removed. My grandma immigrated from Sweden to America at the age of 22. Her parents, brother and two sisters remained in Sweden as did their children. Despite her many years in this strange country, my grandma, Kerstin Peterson, never truly became American. In her heart, she was always Swedish– we all were.
Her narrow trailer was filled with paintings from the nearly famous Swedish painters her parents liked to patronize and with the wildly beautiful post impressionist paintings of her sister Boel. I grew up surrounded by art and a cultural attitude that was decidedly European. In conversations, socialism carried a positive connotation, education garnered weighty respect and conversations about history and politics buzzed around the table.
The small talk favored by the locals gravitated towards more standard American themes: guns rights, America as Greatest Country In The World and a “pull-yerself-up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality. My grandma had no taste for small talk and was notoriously private. Cruel jokes about her accent and the standard idea of Swedish women during the ‘50’s and 60’s (blonde, brainless bimbo) prompted her to retreat into the comfort of her family.
I inherited my grandma’s thirst for ideas, travel, art and language. I felt trapped in small town life. A sense of happiness and home eluded me until I discovered New York. The thrumming beat of city life and the overload of art and language freed me to be something other than American: Cosmopolitan. And still my roots travelled deeper, back to Sweden.
Returning to Sweden meant more to me than treading the familiar streets of my hometown. Coming back to Sweden meant returning to my heart.
My mother’s cousin Ulf met me at the center of Stockholm. A welcoming smile crossed his elfin face and crinkled the corners of his sharp blue eyes. “Hello,” he greeted me in the eerily perfect English of the Swedish. “It’s great to see you again.”
We descended into the sleek underbelly of Stockholm where the metro Tunnelbanna resides. The polished train car glided to a stop and Ulf opened the automatic doors with a push of a yellow button. Inside the seats were covered in bright blue fabric with red, orange, yellow and green pictures of Stockholm’s famous buildings. We got off after two stops and exited through a grocery store. “I’m just going to pick up some bread and cheese and things for lunch,” Ulf said.
The grocery store was exactly as I remembered it. Perfectly organized with more breads and cheeses and jams than anyone could possibly need, juices and milk in square cardboard cartons and plastic bags for sale at a discouraging price (you’re supposed to carry your own reusable bag).
After a short lunch, Ulf gave me a tour any historian would be proud of. He spun a tale of the city; its construction and its evolution from small medieval trading hub to modern retreat rooted in a fairy tale. His quiet voice echoed against the cobblestones of Gamla Stan, the medieval part of the city that retains its original meandering street plan and cellar taverns. Inside a small Konditori café, eating sweet breads and cookies, drinking incredibly strong coffee, I smiled across the table at Ulf and said, “I missed this.”
Recollections of that first trip to Stockholm are scattered with only a few crisp in their lucidity. Shadows of memories echoed against the realities of my second visit and merged into one. Swedes love views and will do anything to show off their cities from above (I’ve seen Stockholm from a T.V. tower, a hillside and a well-situated bridge).
I remember being seven, standing atop a hill covered with glorious trees, looking down on the archipelago of Stockholm. In my memory, all of Sweden looks like this: red roofs, golden rod yellow buildings, cobblestones and pale blue streaky skies. The music of the language bubbles and flows happily like a brook. The people are deeply kind and rich. Every door is open and Wilkommen, once spoken, means more than welcome, it means home.
By Malarie Gokey