ON KATARINA KYRKOBACKE, at 8:30 am or thereabouts. A small street winding with the cool air through the bluffs of Södermalm, damp and refreshing, creamy houses with mustardy finishes and black stovetop pipes protruding, cobblestones and fine hemmed in trees. These give way to red wooden dwellings with toys and yellow flowers in the windows and everywhere that faint chirping of Stockholm birds. In the distance the roar of construction by the locks of Slussen winds up. Outside a school, a father is gently combing through his daughter’s white-platinum hair and a black car breaks the silence, its wheels finessing the stones of the road. A man in a flat cap jaunts by, clears his throat loudly, spits on the street. Despite this, there is the feel of polished cleanliness everywhere, that well-to-do feeling, as if the Swedes have always known wealth and wealth is all they’ve ever known. Back at the hotel, we have a good breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives and onions, big bowls of yogurt, dried banana, crisp dried coconuts, and three cups of the finest coffee there is. “Of course, you drink more coffee here,” says Erland, a steaming mug in his hands. “You’re in Sweden.” He says it as if we have all died and gone to heaven. This Swedish angel is proud of his homeland. He even approves of its bike paths and pedestrian walks. “It’s not like in Estonia where BMWs and Lexuses blow by you, splashing you with water,” he says bitterly. I am surprised he chooses to recall the makes of the cars, but Sweden is old money and the Estonians are nouveau riche. It’s that old old money, new money thing, along with some shared hand-me-down of clumsy woodsman’s poverty. I feel blessed to be here. I remember my first trip to Stockholm in ’01, staring up at the wreck of the Vasa in the Vasa Museet, a museum I had read about in a children’s book my grandparents once gave me but never expected to see with my own two eyes. After breakfast, we head to the Nordiska Museet, where my children make for the playroom first and never really leave, hoisting toy wooden buckets into an old make-pretend farm. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay in Sweden, I consider, elope with that redhead from the Pressbyrån in Slussen, to lie beside her at night, listening to ship’s horns in the harbor, and hear of the inner workings of this marvelous convenience store. “We were out of Maribou chocolate.” “It was time to refill the cups.” To lie sprawled in bed sheets with a woman who reeks of cinnamon buns, kanelbulle. In the mornings, she is off to the shop, to prepare the coffee, stor cappuccino, lite cappuccino, the whir of the machine, and there she is again behind the counter, processing people’s payments in her blue shirt and saying, varsågod. The blue of her shirt brings out the blue of her eyes, just like the water licks at the docks of Östermalm where we step off a boat later and are surprised by the golden glitz of the gilded Royal Drama Theatre. I keep processing this idea for a children’s book, about a Stockholm teenage girl with a ne’er-do-well father who turns to petty theft to make ends meet. Then one day she is caught and sent away to Långholmen, the old prison island down the harbor. I play with this idea all the way to the ship that takes us back to Estonia, the front bar of which has been permanently converted into a playroom. The five year old’s balloon is still with us, believe it or not, this artifact from Gröna Lund. It may be the best balloon we have known collectively in all of our lives. It cannot be lost, deflated, or stolen. In the playroom, they play Estonian children’s disco music, oi-oi-oi, ai-ai-ai, a strobe projects dancing rainbow lights across the floor, and I take a seat beside a Swedish mother whose hair is a mess and is probably as full of ice cream as mine is. She looks to be about as tired as I am, sapped, haggard, and so hungover by life. This is how we sail on a gray day to face our decisions and memories.
from my journal, July 2017