July-August of 2009:
After a tiring, sixteen hour long flight, during which I got to feed my ginger ale addiction, I arrived in Arlanda airport close to the city Stockholm, Sweden; the country that would be my home for the following four weeks. Not knowing much about the culture, and not being able to reach the woman I was supposed to meet at the gate immediately, I sat on my luggage and uneasiness began to set in. Was I going to be stuck in this terminal forever? Did Ganilla (the now absent gate relation mentioned above) forget about me? Thankfully, I only had to wait twenty minutes until she arrived with a large apologetic smile across her face; she had been waiting at the wrong terminal. Ganilla’s shirt had the emblem of my next distant destination on it, VÃ¤ssarÃ¶, an island off the coast of Sweden. She welcomed me and was nice enough to accompany me on my fifty minute train ride into the city, and give me a short tour of Stockholm’s city center before I had to board a two and a half hour bus ride to a richly forested harbor. From the greenery of the harbor I approached my final point of transportation. The scout camp that I would spend the following two weeks working for, located on most of VÃ¤ssarÃ¶, provided a boat to transport my baggage and myself to the island.
After plain, train, bus, and boat ride, I finally began to realize that I was in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. And despite the two unrestful days I spent getting there, I was excited and ready to begin work. I worked on the island as a skipper for the scouts preparing for their confirmation, a special ceremony among Swedish scouts comparable to the Jewish Bat Mitzvah, or the Catholic communion. I helped the scouts learn how to manage the boats on the island. Being mostly familiar with the Hobbie Kat, it was a learning experience for me as well, especially on the subject of tacking. My pay was symbolic and I gained the most from experience rather than monetary means, and it was worth it.
I lived in one of the many cabins on the island with two other girls and two boys who were also instructors in different areas of the camp. All the furniture was from Ikea so comfort wasn’t a problem; this also boosted my Swedish national pride. Every morning while walking out to solute the flag (mandatory for sailors) I walked through the greenest earth I had ever seen. The ground was composed of massive slabs of a grey rock that cumulated the softest and thickest moss. Nature was rich with foliage and in the middle of it all were pockets of red cabins; it was something out of a storybook. Everyone one on the island ate meals together; this is where I got a sense of the real, pickled herring-potato-and-meat-eating Swede. The dining hall provided some of the best memories of music and laughter; almost to a surreal and fantastical extent.
The two weeks I lived on VÃ¤ssarÃ¶ opened my eyes to not only the comfort of living in the wilderness (as opposed to my hyper-urban upbringings in Hollywood, California), but the cultural strengths America misses out on. Everyone in Sweden had an overarching connectedness that by being able to observe, I felt a part of. I feel that this is the conviction of a country; an area in which everyone feels connected because of a shared culture and context.
One particular cultural experience I took home with me was the Basta (Sauna). I’d grown up knowing a sauna to be the hot wooden box you sit in to relax after a swim in a chlorine-polluted pool. But it Sweden, I found the Sauna to be much more than that. A large hot and wooden box sat on top of one of the many large slabs of rock that compose the land with handfuls of naked men and women sweating, talking, and mostly watching the incredible view of the surrounding water. The horizon extended beyond my peripheral control and particularly at sunset the colors burst across the sky as a reminder of how incredibly vast the world really is. The custom is to swim out to a floating buoy about twenty feet away from the shore in 30 degree water and swim back to the 100 degree sauna that awaits. My first thought was; that sounds like a nightmare, but when I actually performed the ritual, it was rejuvenating and liberating. I visited the sauna almost every night during my stay because of this experience.
This side of Sweden I could get used to, but my friend and I had plans to visit family friends in Stockholm for the proceeding two weeks and had to leave the mystical island where we made so many friends and met so many humble people. In Stockholm, I had my first crawfish party at a family friend’s house and although I was a tad bit disgusted by the oversized lobster of whose brains I was sucking out of its shell, I was compelled to continue the process. The lure of culture didn’t stop at crawfish parties however, my friend and I had the opportunity to go site seeing during the day, and attend the kulturfestivalen (culture festival) at night.
We toured museums, including the Vasa museum and the Skansen open-air museum where Swede’s reenact Swedish history. We also got to visit, Ã–regrund, one of the few theme parks in Stockholm. All transportation and navigation we handled by ourselves, that’s just a hint of how easy it is to get around the city, and how trustworthy locals’ directions are. Everyone spoke English fluently and didn’t display the chauvinistic French mentality against English speakers; they were quite humble. At night we visited historic Viking bars, met up with friends from VÃ¤ssarÃ¶, and enjoyed dancing to live Finish Tango bands.
By the time our two weeks were up we were dreading the flight back, and already starting to make potential plans for the next summer. The flight back home to LAX took much faster than the flight to Arlanda and when I arrived to the familiar airport, with its familiar airport smell of over sterilized floors, rubber, and brand new luggage, the dreadful sixteen hour flight to Sweden seemed so much more appealing. My family greeted me at the terminal, on time, with the usual box of chocolates, nuts, and sparkling water and I felt comforted and aware that the reality was that Sweden will always be a visit in my memory, one that I reflect on to this day.
VÃ¤ssarÃ¶ Info: www.ssf.scout.se/stockholm/vassaro/vassaro-in-english/
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