Serenity and Scandal in Scandinavia
© Copyright 2019 by Joseph Pravda
Summer, 1971, and we were in that part of Europe known to most Americans via Saab, or Volvo; even fewer by way of some very masterly painters.
We came to know it through the seemingly unconnected phenomena as Wilt Chamberlin, The Nordisk Museet, the world’s oldest amusement park, ‘Baaken’, Hamlet (okay, his statue) and a holocaust survivor.
My bride of one year and I had decided to go, for an indefinite period, perhaps to escape the impending responsibilities of my (legal) career, her motherhood and, well, parents.
All that could wait, except the nine month lease the unnamed entity held on her midsection; we had several months until its natural eviction would come, and we were intent on making it count.
Our travel agent had obtained the privilege of our dwelling in deserted campus digs-----lovely, right off the harbor, with a Soviet commercial vessel just outside our window. We debated whether we were under surveillance by the KGB (my grandfather’s White Russian Czar’s Army desertion must have been known to them); ultimately, after the ship’s departure, we concluded that it was too obvious, and that the often over-imbibed persons frequenting benches almost everywhere we found ourselves were more likely spies. Whether they sought to congratulate me on my sensible grandfather’s decision or interrogate me as to what he had undoubtedly told the Americanski authorities on arriving at Ellis Island remains an unsolved mystery to date.
Telling them that we were exchange students worked, at first, in securing us interpreter duties for English tourists at the Nordisk Museet, until we were summarily dismissed as ‘not serious’ having posed AS exhibits during down time; it was sent us by an bemused British couple who found our antics ‘bloody outrageous’, a strange idiom we later decided was not a compliment owing to the fact that they charged us for the photos, and a sum which, on reflection, can be described by the self-same phrase).
So, it was time for a picnic, neath a certain American’s statuary; as we munched on great cheese and breadstuffs, we determined that our services would be all the more valuable in Copenhagen, much more sophisticated we told ourselves, and easily reached by inexpensive rail. By then it was clear that the Nobel committees for this and that of my little known (certainly to me) achievements in various realms of literary and scientific endeavors had gone unnoticed, again; that this included my too-recent aplomb during repeated encounters with a brooding KGB and its minions was a source of particular pique aimed at certain judges of those awards. Doubtless, they had been.....’gotten to’. Pity. I would have gladly accepted such accolades on behalf of any of my future selves.
Before leaving, we decided to attend a local festival where we chanced to meet a person who would cause us to take stock of our privileged, whimsical attitude toward the world, and our place in it.
She was both painfully reserved and gentile, with Old World mannerisms which her brutish oppressors would have resented per se; the invitation to her home for dinner was life-altering for us both, my wife in particular as her family was far more religious than mine, where my mother had been a convert from Catholicism to Judaism.
I deeply regret not having kept in contact with her and her lovely granddaughter, yet, as I write these words, I see her face, hear her voice, feel her humane warmth, all qualities which would have impressed even Kurt Vonnegut, the survivor of a harrowing POW experience in the midst of the needless firebombing of Dresden. In an interview before his death he said something in reply to a query about the future: “Look, most people find life itself embarrassing----their teeth are crooked, they’re awkward, and not especially interested in much that matters; you figure it out.”
The future was too remote for us to contemplate, that future, anyway. The future we knew was the next day, on the train to Denmark, having learned that, for some time now, whatever had been ‘rotten’ there had long-since been dealt with by Fortinbras and his successors.
It was not Tuesday, nor was it Belgium (Note: this has been a recondite reference to a Bob Hope film of that era; we now return you to our tale).
And, just where do we decide to take lunch, and just whom is the first entity I encounter whilst dining there? Yes, at this fabulous seafood spot, with ornate metal filigre, very bistro-like, and the American Bar Association. This escape from all things American (and Russian, see above for the harrowing details of the latter) was going to be even harder than we thought. As the shrimp (partly owing to the size implied by their name) failed to preclude me from politely, forcibly responding to the mundane offerings of the far older counterpart sitting astride me, I was reminded by this future-mirroring of myself that I had better make the most of this experience.
Teaching English to our hosts, we found the lodging we had arranged surprisingly affordable, as in free. We even were entitled to complimentary dinners. Marshalling the funds we had brought with us from America and Norway, we were doing nicely in terms of resources, especially time. It was during the expenditure of this then least-valued commodity that another American idol (why didn’t I conceive of that TV concept?) crossed our path; there, in the immaculate streets of Stockholm’s less than immaculate red light district was the dark giant, doubtless running up the ball score (yes,that kind), as he was wont to do, wantonly.
Just before our leaving this moveable feast, North branch, we attended Baaken often, the very non-Disney collection of owner-operated attractions............simply dazzling.
Finally, to be or not to be.........an expatriate: somehow, I wish that we had never left; the mores are progressive, the people stoicly pleasant.
I certainly would have loved to have met and known Stig Larrsen, and gotten a commemorative tatoo, mine of Orick’s head, hers, possibly a...........dragon.