Friday, September 28, 2012

A Dream of Italy

September 28, 2012 – A Dream of Italy

I can’t remember the exact moment Italy entered my thoughts. But, whenever it did sneak in it was with picture-painted clarity; orange-hued sunshine, a mountainous backdrop, tree dotted hillsides, sky-touching church spires, vineyards and hay colored patches of farmland interspersed with rectangular valley villages. There was a villa with a balcony and a town within walking distance that sold fresh fruit and vegetables at a daily market. 

In the dream, in my wishful thinking, I was going to live there in that place, in that villa and write book after book. I was going to be eccentric. Mysterious. Productive.

One day.

But Italy was a world away. Too many dreams distant.

In the real world I had things that tied me down. Job. Bills. House. Worry. Future security. Common sense.

The years passed. The Italian dream hung like a wall painting in my mind. Occasionally I’d walk in that imaginary room, straighten the painting, dust off the frame, sigh at the beauty of it and walk out again.

When I was particularly dissatisfied with life matters, I’d explore the Italian countryside via the internet, look through the coffee table book of Tuscany my grandmother bought me, and practice Italian.

Buongiorno. Grazie! Prego.

One summer I even took a trip with both my sisters to Italy, Texas as a way to fulfill my dream. I thought the real place was out of reach. I thought that Texas might be as far as I’d get.  Yeehaw.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned over into months. Dissatisfaction rumbled, growled, roared. Finally I really listened. I had to. I had to do something. I had to go somewhere. I needed change. The way I was living wasn’t the way I believed I should live.

Imagine my surprise when I didn’t end up in Italy but in Peru.

I think about all this as I take a spot next to the window on the bus that’s about to transport me from Rijeka, Croatia to Trieste, Italy. Even more surprising than my year in South America is this current life. My life. Reality has exceeded imagination. I don’t exactly know how this happened. Sheer (good) will? Magic? Forward momentum? Recklessness? Luck? I’ve crossed an ocean by ship, visited countries I never thought I’d see—Belgium, Germany, Denmark, for instance—spent time with friends I’d met online and encountered a slew of new friends along the way. I shove my bag underneath the seat, leaving space for my hostel roommate Nile (Nial?) to sit next to me. He’s flying from Trieste back to Scotland later this afternoon after having attended an electro music festival the week before with a friend. He and I have been sharing the six-person dorm room at the Carnevale Hostel for the past three nights. We’d chitchatted about travels, music, life, and moved around each other as if we were siblings.

He’d offered to share his last joint with me (which I kindly declined), recommended I see the Rijeka Naval Museum with its spectacular Titanic exhibit (which I’d done and now also recommend), and talked American politics (of all things) over a dinner out. In the course of conversation we’d discovered that we were taking the same bus the next day. 

“I’m not as well travelled as you,” he says in the middle of some greater context, and his words stop me cold. I want to pinch myself except that I’m afraid I might wake up from this spectacular dream. I never in my life thought I’d hear that, especially not from a European. I mean, they’re born as world travelers, right? But there’s no one else in the room. I’m the one he’s talking to. The world has become my oyster. I hadn’t known, when I first dreamed of Italy, that I was dreaming small.

I hadn’t had any idea of all that there is to see.

The bus starts up and we move out from the stop onto the street.

“Do you mind if I plug in?” Nile asks me politely, holding up his iphone and earbuds when we’re half an hour into our trip. 

“Of course not,” I reply. I put my own music on and stare out the window. The rain slobbers the glass and I gaze through the drops. My brief--brief, passionate, beautiful-- affair with Croatia is nearly over. I love you, I think. I didn’t know I’d love you. Maybe I can come back again and explore the whole country, go down farther, slide over into Bosnia- Herzegovina, slip down to Montenegro, make my way to Greece.

Who knows what the future will hold?

Today’s future holds a short excursion through Slovenia. Slovenia! I didn’t even know it existed until Josko had seen my hand drawn map of Europe in my notebook and said, “This is wrong. Slovenia isn’t even on here.” (My most recently hand drawn map includes Slovenia.) Slovenia--where the mountains are turned rusty gold with the changing leaves of fall, where the towns stay tucked like secrets around corners, where the rain fresh grass promises something, everything. I want to stop and stay. But we only get off the bus long enough for a custom’s official to stamp our passports and wave us through. Only long enough for one old man to be denied entry and get taken back to the Croatian border by our bus driver. Only long enough for me to know I want to stay longer.

But just up the road is a dream.

Just up the road is a dream come true.

I’ve got my nose pressed against the window glass. I’m looking ahead trying to catch my first glimpse of Italy.

I’m almost there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Devil Church or Well Met, Old Friend!

September 23, 2012 – The Devil Church or Well Met, Old Friend!

Neither Martin nor I say goodbye. We don’t like them. The farthest we go in getting sentimental is him saying, “How will I sleep now that you’re gone?” and me responding, “I know. I’m sorry.”

It’s not even dawn yet, and I’m on a bus heading to the Nyköping airport one hour outside of Stockholm. I’m sleepy and full of transition blues. I’m already missing the peace that domes over Sweden like its gigantic sky. I’m missing the easy routine of living as a part of Pontus’s family. I’m missing the wolf pack den comforts of home I felt with Martin. In straight opposition to all that I’m excited. I’m on my way to Croatia, of all places, to see my best ship friend Josko, and to meet his family. But now, not in the mood for emotions, I ignore both excitement and melancholy by falling asleep with my head against the bus window.

At the airport, I get through check-in, security, and passport check. Sweden stamps me out and I get on a plane bound for Rijeka. Josko’s invitation for me to come visit his country had stuck with me and, as the master of my fate and captain of my itinerary, I thought why the heck not. It’s just a border hop from Italy where I’d intended to go originally anyway, the pictures he’d shown me were beautiful, and I’m always willing to expand my horizons. I’d sent Josko an email to make sure he would be around and wouldn’t mind me stopping by. He responded with, “I will be glad to give you a tour, my wife would like to meet you.” (I wonder what he told her about me) “We can go with my bike around. I hope I will see you soon.” I decide not to tell my mom or grandmother about the motorcycle. I have travel insurance.

A week ago, when I was packing up to leave Motala and head into Stockholm, I warned him once again that I was set to arrive soon.

“Oho, my favourite spy is alive,” he wrote back. “We are waiting for you next week.”

And so it was all planned.

I catch a cat nap in the plane and wake up as we land. The flight attendant’s voice crackles over the intercom, “Thank you for flying Ryanair. For the Swedish passengers, enjoy your vacation. For the Croatian passengers, welcome home.”

Hey, I think, what about me? But I grin. I feel like a spy. Traveling incognito, under the shadowy banner of some other country’s flag. I just wish I knew all languages. Why can’t I be Jason Bourne except without the amnesia? I’ve got my fifteen words of Swedish down just in time to try and learn the same expressions all over again--this time in Croatian.

Bok means hello. Hvala means thank you. Rijeka means river.

I take the bus from the airport in Krk to Rijeka. Croatian reality is more beautiful than Josko’s pictures. Mountains. Water. Cities built up the hillsides. Old Roman walls. Tall buildings adorned with intricate statues. Not for the first time--and definitely not for the last--I marvel at the unexpected and incredible adventure that is my life. Printed out directions in hand, and stopping only twice to ask locals if I’m on the right path, I walk from the bus stop to my hostel. After I get checked in I send an email to Josko to let him know I’m there. He replies with: “Ok, we are going to my parents on lunch, when kids fall asleep I will contact you. C U.”

Modern technology is great. I love having connection to the world through the internet, but I occasionally, like now, rue the fact that I don’t have an internationally working phone. I’m in a new place and I don’t want to sit tied to a computer screen waiting when I could be out exploring. Oh for the simple ease of having text and calling capabilities from a small mobile device (or set meeting times). But it was get a fancy phone or have a couple extra weeks’ worth of money to travel. I chose the travel.

I choose to travel now too. I go out for a quick walk about town. I don’t go far though and soon make my way back with my lunch in hand to sit by the fountain in the plaza outside the hostel. I keep an eye on the door in case Josko shows up.

The sun is out and it’s warm. I’ve found summer once again and it’s glorious.

I see Josko right before he catches sight of me. He’s easy to spot. He’s six foot five. He’s dressed in his normal black. He’s hand in hand with his wife, Marina. They’re natural together. Like puzzle pieces joined at the fingers. I like her immediately; even before we’ve said a word to each other. Then he sees me, says something to his wife and they make their way my direction as if all along he knew exactly where I’d be. (Later I find the email he’d sent: “We will go soon to city, we can meet at square near your hotel. Do you have some number to reach you or only on email?” I’d inadvertently been in the right place at the right time.)

We shake hands hello like the old pals we are. Josko introduces me to Marina and she and I exchange “So nice to meet yous.”

“You want to take walk?” Josko asks.

“Yeah, sure,” I say.

“Marina needs to get her glasses fixed at a shop near. Then we can take coffee.”

“Sounds good,” I say.

We haven’t gone more than a hundred feet when Josko asks, “Where is Swedish guy?”

“What?” I ask.

“You stay in Sweden for one month—where is guy?”

I laugh. Raise my eyebrows. Yeah. Right.

Marina elbows him. “You don’t have to know everything,” she tells him.

“He didn’t fit in my luggage,” I say jokingly. “So I left him behind.”

We grin at each other. We’re used to him teasing me.

We walk past the old Roman arch. Past the wheel fountain (why reinvent it?). Down a maze of streets and around a corner. The glasses shop is closed for lunch. “I can get them fixed tomorrow,” Marina says after she and Josko check the hours written on the door. On our way to “take” coffee, we continue our walking tour around the city center. “I was baptized in this church,” Josko tells me at one place. “Marina went to school here,” he says at another. He’s full of facts and history. I’ve missed his stories. I’m glad to be in his company again.

After coffee, we go by car to the new shopping mall that’s recently opened. “He shops more than me,” Marina says in a whispered aside to me. Josko goes to look at something and Marina takes the moment to tell me, “When he told his parents and our neighbors that you were coming he had a big grin.”

That’s exactly what I’d had every time I’d thought about coming to Croatia and seeing Josko again. Some friendships are great in their happenstance. It makes me happy that the feeling is reciprocated.

We complete the tour of the shopping mall and it’s time for them to collect their kids from Josko’s parents. After a brief conference they decide to take me along and to get a pizza for dinner. We stop first at his parents’ apartment. His parents are very friendly. His dad speaks a little English, but doesn’t understand much when I respond. His mother and I exchange kind smiles and kind words in our own languages. His grandfather is there too. “He can’t hear anything anymore,” Josko had said. “You have to talk loud like hell for him to understand.” So he and I wave at each other, smile.

Josko and Marina have two children; Ivan, two years old and Karla, six months. Josko introduces me to them as “Teta Amanda.” Teta, Josko explains later to me, is a title of respect similar to Miss or Ma’am. But it’s also the word for Aunt. It makes me part of the family. That’s just the way it is.  Altogether we go to the apartment, get pizza ordered and sit out on the patio with the neighbors.

It’s companionable. Familial. Pleasant.
After dinner, Josko takes me back to the hostel and says he’ll be in touch with me tomorrow by email when the family transportation gets figured out. He’d emailed me two days before to say, “Bad luck, my bike just died on the way back home, it was kicking like your bull from the story” and “I can't take car from my wife for a long time.”

His bike is supposed to be repaired by the morning, but I know too well from my own car repair experience just how those estimates can be.

The next morning I go to the outdoor market and buy fruit for breakfast. I get a macchiato from a café and sit in the patio, eat my breakfast, drink my coffee and feel lucky and European. When I mosey back to the hostel, I have a message from Josko: “I will pick up car from my parents and I will come to your hotel to pick you up.”

I go wait by the fountain. I don’t have to wait long before a little red car pulls up near the curb and Josko calls out my name. I jump in and we drive off before anyone can complain about him parking in a non-parking zone.

“We go to Devil Church?” he asks.

“Yeah!” I say. I’d wanted to go from the moment he’d told me about it. He tells me Rijeka, Croatian, and Yugoslavian history as we go. I stare out the window as he talks and ogle the landscape. It’s so picture perfect it seems fake. I start to think in clichés: I can’t believe I’m here. This is too good to be true. It’s a wonderful life. To my writerly relief, I stop that pedestrian train of thought when we park alongside the road. We get out, head up some steps, and then we’re there at the Devil Church.

“Tell me the story of why it’s called the Devil Church again,” I say as we walk down the pathway, past a statue of the pope, and toward the church’s entrance. I remember the gist, but have forgotten the details.

Details are my favorite.

Josko doesn’t mind retelling. “Ah, yes,” he says. “When they built the church no one came because there were no steps up the mountain. But there was a pub nearby. So the church made a pact with the devil for him to build steps up to the pub. When the stairs were finished, the church demolished the pub and kept the church.”

Those churchers, I think, they’re tricky. The devil should have known better than to make a pact with them.

It’s a special church besides its devily history because it’s the church dedicated to seamen’s protection. Josko, chief engineer and seaman, takes me through the apse (he touches his fingers in the dish of holy water and makes the sign of the cross when we go inside), through the nave, out through the outside patio with plaques of thank yous dedicated to the blessed mother of healing, and into the special room with all the pictures and thank yous from seamen who’d survived wrecks, storms, dangers, perils and plight.

He’d told me about this room too.

When I sat in the chair in the living room of his cabin on the DALIAN I didn’t imagine that I’d find myself in the places of his stories. Sometimes real life exceeds even my own imagination.

Josko points out the dates on some of the pictures. They date from the fourteen hundreds up to the current time. They’re pictures of wrecks and storms that the seamen who survived made or had made in order to honor the God or Holy Mother they believed saved them. The walls are covered with them. So many disasters. So many survivors.

From the Devil Church we go across the road to the castle. We sit on a ledge overlooking the entire city. “From here,” Josko says, “you can see the river that gives Rijeka its name.”

Josko snaps my picture, “So you can prove to your family you were here,” he says. I blink the moment away and then we go to the touristy and rich town, Opatija, which was built up by the Austro-Hungarians as a getaway some time ago in the past.

We take coffee at a fancy place with an ocean view. While I’m admiring, Josko gets a message that says his motorcycle is fixed. “Ah good,” he says. We have to return the car to his mother soon because she has an afternoon appointment. So we do. Josko and his father take me back to the hostel and Josko goes to get his motorcycle and then the other helmet, it’s a complicated situation of item, personnel, and vehicular logistics. “I’ll come pick you up on bike,” he says.

“What,” I ask to clarify, “in a couple hours?”

“No, no,” he says. “Sooner than that.”

I’m waiting by the fountain when he arrives, this time by motorcycle. He gives me a riding jacket and the helmet.

“You’ve ridden before so you know how.” It’s a statement, not a question. I had a boyfriend who had a bike. He’d drilled into me that the passenger never moves with the bike’s motions—that’s a sure-fire way to dump the bike. Josko knows this. “I’m the driver not you,” he goes on though. I smile. I know. I remember.

I zip up the jacket and tighten the helmet strap under my chin. When he’s on the bike, I climb up behind him and settle my feet on the pegs. I put my hands lightly against his sides, the way my old boyfriend had had me ride.
“Not like that,” Josko says. “You’ll blow off. Find a spot up against me,” he instructs, “that’s comfortable and don’t move from it.”

Okay. Forget personal space. Forget old pal handshakes. It’s a moment of two bodies melding into one on this motorcycle. Now, and for the remainder of the ride, I’m an extension of his body. I feel his breath as my breath, the movement of his foot, his leg, to shift gears as if I were shifting. I don’t have any movement of my own anymore. I’m only his motion. For a nanosecond I’m sorry Josko is Josko and I’m me. If we were other people and not just and only ever friends, this would be a sexy as hell ride. But Josko is Josko. I am me. And in reality, I’m glad.

Boys complicate things.

Josko weaves us out of the city and onto the open road. The view, the ride, the speed, the wind strong enough to blow me away if I wasn’t pressed up tight--everything is perfect. Even the pain in my neck from the awkward position of my helmet against Josko’s shoulder ties me to the moment. Life is impermanent. Pain is temporary. Happiness is fleeting. The two together—pain and happiness—that’s the paradox of life. My only regret is I don’t get a single picture. I try to capture the trip up the mountain in my head. Castles, trees, rivers, old crumbling walls and small towns. I hope I can keep the images forever. But I’m afraid they’ll fade. 

Eons later, we pull into a parking lot. I step off and take off my helmet. Josko does the same.

“You want pancakes?” he asks.

“Yeah, alright,” I say. I’m always down for food.

We cross the street to a restaurant with outside seating--my favorite. We order macchiatos and pancakes with fresh raspberry filling. Croatian pancakes are what I’d call crepes and they’re good. I enjoy every bite with the stories that Josko tells of his family as we eat.

“Tomorrow I have to take my grandfather back to his town,” he tells me over the last drops of our coffees. Their daughter’s baptism had been held the day before I arrived and his grandfather had come to town for that. Josko’s father had planned to return him home, but got called into work so the trip got passed to Josko.

What that means, and doesn’t dawn on me until he shakes my hand after he’s taken me down the mountain, past those incredible views, and back to my hostel, is that this is it until we meet again on some other shore, in some other time, at some other place.

“Thank you,” I tell him, returning the jacket and helmet. I think I say something as trite as, “That was an amazing ride.” But it’s true. It was.

“Amanda,” he tells me. He holds out his hand. The dawning dawns. We shake. “It was good to see you.”

“Thanks for inviting me to your country,” I say. I hate goodbyes.
Maybe we say, “Until next time.” I don’t know. I do say, “Tell your family I enjoyed meeting them and hope to see them again.” Our words are exchanged. There’s nothing left to be said. Take care. See you later. All the best. These phrases hover in the air. I step back and watch him ride away.

Then I turn and look around. Hello, Rijeka, I think, you’re beautiful. I love you. Let’s be friends forever.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Most Boring Castle in the World

September 19, 2012 – The Most Boring Castle in the World

“What do you want to do while you’re here in Stockholm?” Martin asks me.

We’ve already been to the Photography museum which had been item one on my list. I try to remember what else I’d written down as options. “I’d like to see the castle maybe.”

“It’s the most boring castle in the world,” Martin says.

“Why?” I ask. I’m American I didn’t know castles came in boring or not boring options.

“It’s shaped like an old cigar box. There are no towers or anything.”

“Oh,” I say.

“But I’ve never seen the inside,” he goes on. “We could take the tour.”

We’ve just met with Pontus and his coworker Pierre for lunch at Bliss Café, a raw food restaurant and now we’re wandering around Stockholm. Martin and I are easy in each other’s company. He doesn’t mind that I stop every so often to take a photo, and he’s doing his best to show me the main sights and give me the history and stories that he knows. He’s a storehouse of interesting facts and I’m jealous that he remembers things so well. I have vague ideas—like blurry blue-tinted memories—of stories I’ve heard, of anecdotes, of history, even jokes, but they slip from my mind and fade into abstracts and when I want to retell them it’s always like, “I heard about something once where there was this thing. And a person who did something really great. I think it was funny. Nevermind.”

Eventually, we find our way to the steps near the water that separates us from the castle. We sit. Martin points at the flag flying from the roof. “When that flag is flying it means the king is there.”

“Really?” I say. “Hmm.” That’s interesting. See? He’s got good facts. He tells me stories of the king and about a girl who stayed at the hotel where Martin works. How the king had seen her at some party and said, “Hey aren’t you the JoJo staying at the Rica Hotel?”

“You’re pretty famous if the king knows your name and where you stay,” Martin says.

The king (and Martin) is ahead of me on this one; I have no clue who JoJo is. I write the story in my notebook so I don’t forget, scratch down Martin’s words, and the king’s, and think I’ll have to look JoJo up online later on.

I wonder what I’d say to the King if I met him in the castle courtyard. “Hey.”

“What’s up?” I don’t know that I’d even recognize him. To be completely honest, I didn’t even know he existed until I got to Sweden and asked Pontus about their government. He’d told me the monarchs of Sweden no longer have any real political power, that’s all left up to the Prime Minister and the parliament. His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden, is (according to Wikipedia, Pontus and Martin) an amiable monarch who tends to be thought of as more of an endearing mascot than anything else. He’s the face of Sweden and responsible for things ceremonial and representative. He’s the one who hands out the awards for the Nobel Prize winners. The one who makes State Visits abroad and receives those who come for State Visits to Sweden. And Carl Gustaf, king since 1973, has been seen as a relatively calm “ruler” until recently when his penchant for parties and drinking leaked out and stirred up the Swedes with disbelieving shock. “But even with that,” Martin says, “people like him.” He’s eccentric, he’s dyslexic, he’s against seal clubbing. What’s not to love?

I cross my arms and stare at the castle. One part of me thinks it’d be cool to be able to say that I’d met the King of Sweden while on my brief stay in Stockholm; the other part of me thinks it’s silly how we ascribe power to people based on birth, looks, notoriety or monetary value. People are just people.

Castles are just castles.


The next day, after another lazy, cozy morning, Martin and I ride bikes into town and he buys us tickets for the full castle guided English tour. We’re in time to take the tour for the old part of the castle and can come back the next day for the treasury and royal apartments tours.

We make our way around and are in time to see the changing of the guard before we head down to the dungeony darkness of the old part of the castle. The guards all look like twelve year olds, dressed up pretty in blue, white and gold, playing make believe.

“I just added another job to the list of jobs I’d never like to have,” I tell Martin in a half whisper so that the guard standing duty nearby can’t hear me. “Guarding.”

“It’s got to be really boring,” Martin agrees.

We head inside and go down a set of stairs. Our guide’s name is Kristina. She knows her history and is enthusiastic about it. She takes us through the door and we’re in the past. It’s dark and musty and old. We brush up against walls, breathe the dust, pass under arches of stones laid in the 1200s.

This might be the oldest place I’ve ever been inside.

Kristina shows us a model of the castle as it had been in the 13th century. The palace started as a defensive fortress and grew, over time, into a real live castle with towers and everything. It even had an impressive spire with three crowns, giving it the name Tre Kronor, which stood for Denmark, Finland, and the South of Sweden (if I remember correctly). However, bad news, in 1697 the castle burned. It was an accidental fire, but most of the place was destroyed. Sweden lost over one-third of its records, the Royal Library was sadly and badly damaged. Quick thinking guards removed the body of King Charles XI who had died a month previously and hadn’t been buried yet (Royal burials were a To Do, not any kind of slapdash affair). They saved some of the important artifacts such as the crown, scepter, orb, jewels and the key of state. And in desperation they managed to toss out many of the massive tomes into the snow where they acquired water damage. Out of the fire into the sno….
But it was disaster.

When the castle was rebuilt and repaired, the new king, a young John III, didn’t want to build in an old style. He wanted Sweden’s palace to be something great. So he chose the newest and latest architectural designs which were all the rage because of the Renaissance. This is why the Royal Palace has no towers or spires or turrets or balconies.

Kristina tells us how the three men blamed for the fire and its destruction were punished. Two of the men were given the death penalty in fact, but it was later commuted to running the gauntlet and something like six years of what they considered community service (aka forced labor at the Carlsten Fortress). The third man just had to run the gauntlet. Sounds great, easy sentence, but no, not so nice, one of the men actually died on the gauntlet run. Which just goes to show another reason why I wouldn’t want to be a guard. Not only is it boring, but if I got distracted from duty and the palace burned down there’d be hell to pay.

“And then the witch hunts came,” Kristina says. I’ve missed the segue because of my guard thoughts (oh lord, what else don’t I want to be, a witch?) and I scramble mentally to catch up. I’m listening now. “You need to blame the bad luck on someone,” she says. Sweden wanted to return to its former glory, to those days when it seemed like it ruled so much of Scandinavia. But they’d lost Norway. Denmark got away. And they probably only just managed to keep Skåne in the south of Sweden by the skin of their teeth. So they chased after anyone who seemed witchy enough.

It’s crazy how history just ends up being the stories of all the ways we’ve managed to kill each other off.

The next day Martin and I visit the Royal Treasury. It’s a glittering, gaudy, intricate display of clothing, armor, weapons, scepters, orbs, keys, jewelry and crowns. So many crowns. There are crowns for all occasions, coronations, weddings, funerals, random events. One of the kings had crowns made for all his brothers and sisters. He didn’t want his royal siblings left out of the whole crown experience.

Our guide is an older gentlemen who has a British accent and wears a thin mustache that makes him seemed dignified and peer-like. He talks in clipped and fragmented sentences. Half the time he seems to be answering questions in his head, having whole conversations that we only hear one side to. “Karl. Cousin of Katarina, the Sovereign of Sweden,” he says. “He went to the countryside.” He pauses. One beat. Two. Three. “Hunting.”

I hold my breath for every piece of information. It’s like a surprise each time. I don’t know what tidbit or fact we’ll get.

He tells us about Erik XIV who married a commoner much to the chagrin of the royal house. “Her father was a soldier,” he says. “A private soldier.” I wait for the next part with eagerness. “A nobody.” I think she got her own special crown. Or not. I gaze at all the paraphernalia and think, What a weight to carry around.
After this, we’re still not done. We take the Royal Apartments tour. There are so many rooms. Martin and I wonder how much fun it’d be to play chase through those rooms. How it’d be to be a prince or princess and have free reign of the palace. I want to go through every closed door and peak behind every curtain. We’re having fun.

Hours and centuries of history later, we emerge back out into the open air. I breathe deep, clearing my lungs of ancient dust. We head back to the bikes we chained up across the street. I look over my shoulder.

Looks can be deceiving. Underneath the boxlike boring quality of Stockholm Palace’s exterior there is a whole lot of Interesting. The moral of the story is: Don’t judge a castle by its cigar box like shape.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Spooning in Stockholm

September 19, 2012 – Spooning in Stockholm

I feel like a split custody child being handed off from one dad to another when Pontus takes me into Stockholm and hands me over to Martin. 

I’d met Martin at the Raw Food Festival when I sat at his table one day at lunch time. He’d been wearing a baseball cap, had pretty blue eyes, a nice smile and spoke English with an American accent. We hit it off right away. Not far into our first conversation I find out that he and Pontus grew up together in Trelleborg, a town in the south of Sweden, and that he is there as assistant chef.

A couple more sentences in, we both realize that Pontus had told us of each other. “Ah,” we say, pointing. “I know about you.”

Maybe it’s the familiarity of the accent, maybe it’s one of those instances of meeting a kindred spirit, but whatever it is, we click. Over the course of the days, we say hi in passing, smile at each other, and occasionally join all together—Martin, me, Pontus and sometimes Isak—at mealtimes.

The night of the Red Fulka concert I make my way across the room to be close to Pontus and Martin. I don’t want to watch from the outside, I don’t want to dance alone. I want to be included. I want to be one of the guys. I step nonchalantly in time to the music to where they are. We all nod to each other. Just as the feeling of camaraderie is descending, Isak weaves his way through the moving bodies and pulls his dad down to talk into his ear. It’s bedtime.

“You don’t have to come now. You can stay as long as you want,” Pontus says to me over the music when the family conference is done. It’s been the ritual here at Ängsbacka for the three of us to go to the shared bathrooms and brush our teeth before bedtime every night. I’m sad to miss out, but not yet ready to call it done with the evening.

“Okay,” I say. “See you in a while.”

The beats go on and on. I’m flagging, starting to feel like I should have just gone to bed, especially when Martin goes to lie down on one of the mats against the wall. I’m alone again. I give it a second and then I follow. When I sit next to him, Martin moves over and puts his head on my thigh. “You’re more comfortable than my bed here,” he says.

You calling my leg fat? I think with raised eyebrows and imaginary trash talking flair. In reality, I smile. Martin’s head is comfortable on my leg. I don’t like to be touched by just anyone, but with him I’m at ease. And the contact in this moment is just the kind of human connection I was needing. He pulls my arm over his chest and lays his hand over mine. I can feel the rise and fall of his breath, I can faintly feel his heart where my thumb rests against the edge of his ribs. It feels like we’ve been friends forever.

We sit like this for a song or two.

“Do you think you’ll make it to Stockholm?” he asks me.

It’s the kind of night for promises, but I can’t make a promise I don’t know if I’ll keep. “I’m not exactly sure. I might,” I say, “before I fly to Italy.”

“If you do, you’re welcome to stay with me,” he says.

“Thanks.” And I mean it.

“There are a couple conditions,” he says.

Wow, I think, that was fast.

“Not conditions,” he amends. But he can’t find the right word so he goes on without it. “I only have one bed. It’s a big bed,” he assures me. Then he shrugs and turns his head on my leg to look up at me. “And I work a lot.”

Oh. Is that all? I can live with those conditions. I’ve had plenty of strange bedfellows so what’s one more? I also like my own company so time on my own never scares me. “I could live with that,” I say.

That’s all that needs to be said. He settles back into place against me and I run my fingers over his shaved head. It’s comforting. Familiar. Friendly. When the concert is over we say goodnight and go our separate ways.

The day the festival ends Pontus, Isak, and I go, after all, to Stockholm. Pontus has a business meeting there the next day so we check into a hotel and then meet up with Martin at Stockholm’s amusement park Gröna Lund. We have fun in the Fun House. Isak and his dad go on a few rides. Martin and I talk about movies and music. Overall, we’re amused.

Since he’s off work the next day, Martin tells Pontus that he’s going to steal me while Pontus is in his meeting.

“You can steal them both,” Pontus says of me and Isak. They arrange times and locations and I stand next to Isak like a kid having my future decided for me. It’s nice.

The next morning dawns. The air is chilly and holds a hint of rain. Pontus gives us our instructions--English to me and Swedish to Isak--and tells us he should be free around 1:00. Martin will meet us on the steps leading down to Sergels torg so Isak and I stand there and wait. We entertain ourselves wordlessly by jumping up and down the steps; on one leg, from one shape of tile to another, backwards, forwards, sideways. Just when we’ve run out of jumping methods, Martin arrives by bike. After hellos and good mornings, he takes us around the corner to the market and buys us a variety of fruit. The hint of rain turns into the real thing then into a downpour. We sit on the steps of Koncerthuset, far enough under the roof’s overhang to avoid getting drenched, and eat our weight in fruit. Music sifts out through the Koncerthus’s walls and I settle back and listen to the stolen concert.

“This rain,” Martin says.

Could life be any more perfect? I think.

Life continues on perfectly and a month later--my invitation to stay with Martin still valid--Pontus and I drive into Stockholm. The three of us spend the day together wandering around Stockholm and touring the Stockholm Fotografiska (Photograph Museum). The pictures that catch my eye are the ones of caged things. I want to free them all. I want to always be free myself. I’m not ready to land. I’m not ready to touch ground. For a brief second I send a thought out to all the boys who think nicely of me: Don’t fall for me, I think, I can’t stay still. I don’t want to be locked in or caged. I can only love from a distance for now.

After we’ve stared at enough art, we leave the museum and wander around Stockholm some more, admiring the buildings and enjoying each other’s company. The day darkens. The wind brings a chill over the water. I shiver and zip my jacket up to my chin as we walk back to the car. At Martin’s place I give Pontus a hug. Goodbyes are no fun so I tell him, “See you later,” and then it’s just me and Martin.
We get pizza for dinner and watch standup comedy until I can’t keep my eyes open any more.

“You want to go to bed?” Martin asks.

“Yes,” I say. At this moment I want to go to sleep more than I want anything else in the world. I crawl into my side of the bed. He’s gotten me my own pillow and comforter and made the bed as if it were two separate ones.

“I have to warn you,” Martin says, getting in next to me. “I am known to cuddle and sometimes I’m violent.”

“Huh,” I say. Cuddling is okay, but I’m not exactly keen on getting a broken nose from a dream thrown elbow (though maybe that’d be an improvement to my nose). “Well.” I get comfortable, adjust the pillow, turn my face to the wall and pull the covers up to ward off the cold.

Martin gets under his comforter. We could be in different rooms with the space between us. 

“Goodnight,” he says.

“Goodnight,” I say.

I sleep like the dead. In the morning I wake up before Martin does. It’s cozy, warm. I don’t have anything I have to do and I revel in the laziness of the moment. Minutes, hours, maybe years pass. Time doesn’t have any meaning. There’s no place but here. No time but now.

Eons go by. Martin stirs. Sighs. As if we’ve slept together all our lives he pulls me to him and drapes an arm over my waist, wraps his fingers around my arm. I lean into him, curving to fit the mold of his body. I think back to my college Speech class where our teacher said humans need twelve hugs a day to survive (at least that’s what I remember, but I know how unreliable my memory is), that human touch is vital to health, and how as adults we stop being spontaneous with touch the way children are and start associating simples things like hugs or hand holding with all things sexual and adult (at least in America where touch is so taboo).

I’ve been spoiled with my time around Pontus and Linda’s five year old daughter Agnes who was free with hugs and kisses and kicks and hits and cuddles, and I’m glad for this continuation of touch. I wonder how many hugs spooning counts for. I wonder if hugs can be collected in mass and stored up for hugless days.

Martin shifts, puts his head up against mine. “Damn,” he says. “Your hair smells good.”

“Does it?” I ask. I scan my memory to when I washed it last. It wasn’t that long ago and apparently the results still stand.

“It smells like candy,” he says.

Candy is good.

I feel like a cat on a windowsill in the sunlight; content and sleepy and liquescent. There’s no other place I’d rather be. I could hum.

Happiness has many facets. Many expressions. Sometimes happiness is a Wednesday morning in bed, spooning with a guy I hardly know, but feel I’ve known forever. Sometimes that’s all it needs to be.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

June Evening All the Time

September 15, 2012 – June Evening All the Time

It’s a late August day that still carries a hint of summer. A memory of June. A memory of childhood delights. I follow Pontus through the forest. He’s identifying trees and I’m talking to mushrooms and taking pictures of them. We’re in Östergötland County on the eastern hillside of Lake Vättern at Övralid, the home of Swedish poet and novelist Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam, on our way to collect spring water. We’ve left our shoes in the car. I feel the freedoms that I had when I was young now, again, being barefooted. The ground is spongy and pleasant. Soft light elbows its way through the leaves. There’s a fairy-like quality of magical possibility in the air. It’s even warm enough to shed my jacket.

“Here,” Pontus says. He hands me a few raspberries. I’ve never had anything like them in my life. They’re sweet like candy; disintegrating in my mouth. One is almost enough. But I find another couple ripe ones on my own, and then we keep on our way down the trail.

It’s my third time here to get spring water. I’ve been with Pontus and his family for weeks by now. I feel like I’ve always been with them and that I’ve only just arrived. I’m caught up in a strange static stillness of time. I’m so liquid with peace I could slip through a drain by accident if I stumbled over one. At the house on Klockarevågen I live in my own room in the basement. I have a place at the table (which sometimes shifts depending on if the kids want me nearer or want me farther away). I leave my shoes by the door next to all of theirs and keep a glass out next to the sink for my tea and water.

My wakeup call each morning comes when Isak slams the garage door shut on his way to school. With the sound, I turn over and stretch, knowing that Linda and Agnes will leave soon after and that I should get up and start my own day. Some days Pontus has phone conference meetings, some days he goes in to the office to work, and on others we do things like collect spring water, talk, take forest walks, pick berries, stroll alongside the canal, go to the beach, listen to music or stay at home and sit in companionable silence as we both work on our own things. For me this means writing, reading, and planning the rest of my travels. 

Some days we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we forget to eat our breakfast until the afternoon. Pontus makes us nut yoghurts and I collect blackberries and raspberries from the garden to go along with it. We eat apples picked off the tree in the back yard. We have blueberries that Linda, Pontus and I gather from the forest. For dinner we have salads and stuffed peppers, Swedish pancakes and lentil soups, roasted vegetables and raw veggies. I get addicted to the Swedish hard bread knäckebröd. We have it with our meals, covered in butter and jam. Or plain. Or with butter and cheese and jam. Or butter and cheese. Or tahini. Or peanut butter. Or peanut butter and jelly. I feel like the badger Frances in the children’s book Bread and Jam for Frances who only wants to eat bread and jam.

“In this memorable story, Frances decides that bread and jam are all she wants to eat, and her understanding parents grant her wish at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snack time. Can there ever be too much bread and jam?”


It’s a good question and one I ask with only a slight variation: Can there ever be too much knäckebröd and jam?

So far the answer is no.

The kids get picked up from school at four. Sometimes Pontus and I pick them up, sometimes Pontus gets them by himself, and on other days Linda brings them home. Isak, now that we’re not on our own together at the Festival, mostly ignores me like an inconvenient pet. He has his bike and his friends. Our interactions are civil, but he’s not going to buy me a BFF necklace and keep half for himself. Agnes, Linda and Pontus’s five year old daughter, is at first shy of me the way Isak had been when I met him at the Festival. But she quickly warms up. Despite the fact that I only speak three phrases of Swedish she soon bosses me around like a pro. My Swedish vocabulary goes up incrementally thanks to her. I learn, “Will you play with me?” “Look!” “Watch this!” “Come here.” “Stay there.” “Stop.” “Yes.” “No.” “Up.” and understand by her insistence many other things. We play dolls together on the trampoline. She trounces me at her favorite video game Rio. She sits in my lap and plays with my ereader. We build a sand crocodile together at the beach. We share food. From me she learns, “Careful.” “Be nice.” “What happened?” “Where are you?” and just like I do when she speaks Swedish, she repeats the things I say, tasting the sounds of English in her mouth. From her I’m learning the language the way a child does, one word, one phrase, one command at a time. She’s my best teacher and I’m her best living toy. 

It’s not long before we all--me, Pontus, Linda, Isak and Agnes--settle into routine around each other. I feel a part of the family. I could live like this forever.

Motala, where we live, has a population of something like 30,000 people. There’s elbow room and breathing space. It’s a peaceful place. I’ve never known silence like this. I’ve longed for it all my life. When I step outside here the atmosphere is like a hug. What a contrast to Lima, Peru where every time I left my apartment I felt I had to take a deep breath and tense up for the noise, for the crowds, for the chaos. Even when it rains, when Linda and Pontus say, “This weather is so boring,” to me it’s soothing. I love the changing sky. The insistent storms. The variety. I know that it won’t last forever.

Nothing does.

For now, life moves at a viscous pace, seeping through my pores like molasses sunshine. I like watching the neighbors bike by. The dogwalkers and dogs. The kids playing together. I like listening to the birds, to the hum of bees, to the flight of the yellow jackets, to the sound of apples hitting the grass. I like how we sit together after dinner and talk. Even when we’re out doing things; visiting IKEA for my first time, attending Isak’s fútbol games, getting groceries, going to the Medieval Fair in Vadstena, seeing the old town part of Linköping or going to a kräftskiva (a traditional Swedish crayfish party) there’s no frenetic hustle. No mad dash haste. No rat race hurriedness.

Here I can just be.

Pontus and I make our way out of the forest, come around the corner and climb the hill to where the spring bubbles out of the ground. Pontus fills up the water jug. Then we walk up past von Heidenstam’s house. We stand underneath the cherry tree on the terrace that overlooks Lake Vättern. The landscape is so perfect that if I wasn’t there looking at it with my own eyes I wouldn’t believe it.

“It looks fake,” I say. “It’s too beautiful to be real.”
We sit on the edge of the terrace, our feet hanging down in open space and gaze out to where the green meets blue and to where the blue meets more blue. It’s every shade of green. Every shade of blue. I must be living some kind of incredible dream. 
It’s time to go pick up the kids so we head up to the car. I turn once or twice to look back. To capture this moment forever in my mind, in my soul.
We get the kids. We eat dinner. The sun sets. Another day dissolves with a sweet and sugary aftertaste. We all bid each other good night. I go to sleep content.

And I wake up content. The weeks fade into each other and when it’s time for me to leave Motala, I do it with wistful sadness. I’ve been humming nearly incessantly here. Humming is what I do when I’m most happy. And I’ve been really happy here.

If I had to sum up how I felt I couldn’t do it with better words than Verner von Heidenstam used when he wrote in a letter to a friend of his life at Övralid:

Upon this earth there is no lovelier place to live.
Never have I felt as good as here.
I have spent hours sitting on the terrace.
Why can’t every day have a June evening?
It’s so sad one has to die!

Why can’t it be June evening all the time?
And why do we have to die?

*[Translated from Swedish by Pontus Kristensson 2012]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dancing Like No One's Watching

September 11, 2012 – Dancing like No One’s Watching

The time at Ängsbacka is best summed up as motion. Slow motion. Forward motion. A lazy timeless changing motion. The sun, the clouds, the stars moving across the sky, birds flitting from ground to tree to air, insects milling about everywhere, children running in play, grownups running for the joy of it, chickens ambling (it seems pointless to ask why), plants growing, air shifting and me dancing.

I feel free. There’s nowhere else to be, no other place than here, no other time than now. For a short time this works. I don’t touch my computer, I don’t cart my camera or notebook around, and I haven’t had cell phone service for a while. I’m in technological isolation and it’s pretty damn great.

As I walk around barefooted, I find myself thinking terms like “This is really grounding,” or “I can really feel the earth,” and “This earthing is magical” and I know I’m letting myself go into the new agey mentality. It’s more than that though; it’s like being a child again. Not worrying about a little dirt on my feet—or a lot. Not stressing about keeping up with things. Climbing a tree because I want to. Skipping. Wearing whatever combination of clothing I feel like wearing and knowing that at this place I’m still on the conservative side of hippy.

At meal times and between festival workshops, I touch base with Pontus and his son, Isak. We sit together on this roof thing and eat gourmet raw food prepared by the German chef Boris. He looks like a character in a Brothers Grimm story and I love him for that. A wild, little blonde girl, probably no more than four years old, her mother and grandmother eat near us. The little girl sings,
“Kundalini, Kundalini, Kundalini,” in a nice repetitive melody as she flits like an impatient bird from rooftop to grass to her food and then back around again.

“Some kids,” Pontus says to me in a soft voice, “sing children’s songs. Some kids sing kundalini mantras.”

I let out my laughter. “I was thinking the exact same thing,” I say.  

Later that afternoon Pontus, Isak and I go for a swim in the nearby lake. “It’s my other office,” Pontus says. If I had to have an office, I’d take one just like that. We eat blueberries off the bushes as we walk through the forest. We play Frisbee, fútbol, and catch. At one point all three at once. Then we go back to the Ängsbacka grounds and to the start of the festival.

The days blend together into a continuous and perfect stream of color that looks like the Swedish sky; blue and white and huge. The Festival has a good variety of workshops to choose from; food prep classes for gourmet raw dishes, talks about raw food lifestyles, wild food walks, permaculture introduction tours, musical healing sessions, and dance. I’m in the mood for motion. So as often as possible I choose those sessions to attend.

One of the session leaders, Felix, one of the most graceful human beings I’ve ever seen, leads us through a slowemotion dance.

“Imagine,” he says. “You are a tree.”

I imagine it. I feel my legs thicker than they even are in real life. I feel my weight stretching through the floor, looking for a place to set my roots. But we don’t stay as trees. “Imagine now,” he says. “That you are a bird. Going up into flight as a bird, coming down to the earth as a tree.” My arms wave upwards, I’m light as a feather. I almost believe I could really fly. When I am a tree I feel the air between my branches, I feel the wind brushing my hair. With my eyes closed I feel graceful. I feel as beautiful as Felix makes his motions to be.
During this hour of dance I am perfect. Although the room is full of other dancers, there is no one judging me. It’s as if nothing I do could ever be wrong. I’m paradoxically exhausted and exhilarated at the end. It’s one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done; a mixture of yoga, dance, and tai chi. My muscles ache against the strain and yearn for more. I don’t want to do anything else. I can’t sit in a lecture after that. I don’t even feel up to listening to the musical healing concert. So I go for a walk in the forest with a new friend from Norway. His name is TJ. We’d met during lunch or breakfast when I’d wandered around looking for someone to sit with while Pontus was off working and Isak was off with his friend Mio.

TJ and I talk about life, raw food, love, friendship, family, the past, beauty, choice, soccer, martial arts, and dreams. I blab for a little bit about my time at the Vipassana ten day retreat. I’m suddenly thinking again about equanimity and balance and the two extremes of aversion and craving. About avoiding misery. We talk about the idea of enlightenment. We talk about spirituality and existence. We pick some blueberries and swat away mosquitoes. Rain begins to drizzle down and we make it back to the café before the deluge comes. TJ buys us some tea and a raw dessert. We talk for a little longer than bid each other goodnight.

Another day just like all these days, completely new, completely familiar, I attend the Five Rhythms Dance taught by lady named Prakteesha. Again, in the dancing, in the motion, in the moving, I feel just like a child, without inhibitions, without judgments, only with joy and the permission to move however I’d like. 

One afternoon I go on the wild food walk with our guide Ola. I eat weeds, flowers, plants, berries as we walk across the grounds. I learn about medicinal leaves and stalks and stems. I learn which plants work well for salves, teas, or as a mosquito repellent. I wish my memory were better than it is.

At another meal I sit with two ladies and a man. The ladies are volunteers. I never figure out who the man is. But they’re kind enough to switch from Swedish to English so I can join the conversation.

“What do you think about all this raw food stuff?” one of the ladies asks.

We all give a brief summary of our opinions or experiences. Then we segue from raw food to other types of life styles. The same lady goes on, “One of my teachers studied under a breathatarian.”
I’ve read about this form of diet before. I’d long ago decided not to try it.

“What’s a breathatarian?” the man asks.

“It’s a person who’s learned to live off breath. Off prana.”

Prana, in ayurvedic tradition, is life force energy. I’m all for life force energy, but I like food too.

“This person my teacher studied under lived without food or water,” the lady continues.

I’m thinking skeleton. I’m suddenly feeling like a skeptic. I don’t say a word.

“My teacher lived for a while just with a little water and an occasional piece of chocolate just to have some taste. But she said they received all the nourishment their body needed from their life force energy.”

“That makes sense,” the other lady says. The man nods as if to agree.

I sit still with my mouth shut. It does not make any kind of good sense to me. Except for the chocolate part.

Somehow we get from prana to coconuts. The lady sings some old Swedish coconut song. Translates part of it for me, discusses the words with the others. It’s a song about trying to crack the coconut and how hard that is.
“Sometimes that’s just how I feel,” she says. There’s a pause in conversation. Then she says, “We’re all coconuts in a way.”

And that statement, I think, does make sense.

That’s just the kind of place I’m in.
I dance with my thoughts and am glad there is a DJ concert tonight where I can dance again for real. Dance for myself. Dance because it makes me happy.