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Greetings from a high-speed train somewhere between Stockholm and Oslo.
Yes, after a year of largely staying put in the Elm City, I have ventured to Scandinavia for a couple weeks, accidentally finding myself observing the Jewish high holidays among millions of Lutherans. So far, they haven’t seemed to mind my presence.
(By the way, skål is the word for “cheers” in Scandinavia.)
…Traditional Culinary Experience I Had This Week
Meatballs For the People — Stockholm, Sweden
I did so in the hipster-ish environs of Meatballs for the People, a 10-year-old restaurant in the Södermalm neighborhood of Stockholm.
Though there were other options on the menu, the point of going to this joint was to have, yes, the meatballs, especially since I am nothing if not a Man of the People.
The menu features about a dozen different meats and, with apologies to my vegetarian readers, I opted for the main course listed on the menu as WE LOVE MEATBALLS.
This selection is the Swedish version of an omakase menu, giving the chef the freedom to choose four different meats to make into eight meatballs alongside mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and preserved lingonberries.
As the voices of James Brown, Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield, and others serenaded me from the speakers above, I awaited my fate. What, pray tell, would the esteemed chef put into my meatballs? As I sipped a local pilsner, the fate of my Swedish experience seemed to hang in the balance.
I soon had my answer, thanks to an explanation from the server (and some handy miniature flags that adorned the different varieties). My lunch would consist of reindeer, boar, chicken, and beef. Let’s do it.
I poured the accompanying brown sauce over this bounty and, as they say in Swedish, “chowed down.”
As local delicacies go, Swedish meatballs have nothing on New Haven apizza. But rest assured that I enjoyed my meal, leaving nary a trace of meatball, mashed potato, lingonberry or pickled cucumber on my plate.
…Museum I Visited This Week
Vasamuseet — Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm’s most popular museum — and best, in my limited experience — is the Vasamuseet, which houses one of the most ornate and expensive warships of the 17th century.
The problem with the Vasa, the 64-gun ship built from 1626-28 to the exacting specifications of King Gustav II Adolf, was that it sank almost immediately upon undertaking its maiden voyage.
In fact, a mere two gusts of wind sentenced it to death after just 20 minutes, dispatching the mighty vessel to the bottom of Stockholm harbor in 1628. (Exactly why it sank is a matter of some debate though the consensus is that its center of gravity was too high.)
The Vasa would remain at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for 333 years until it was hauled up to the surface in 1961. Amazingly, the ship was largely intact because it had marinated in water that was cold, oxygen-poor, and brackish (i.e. not as saline as marine water), so its wood had not rotted away.
The 1961 recovery mission led to a lengthy restoration program, and today visitors can see the unique fruits of that labor — the Vasa is said to be the only preserved 17th century ship in the world.
The museum also houses an array of exhibits about the era and the people who were on the ship, 30 of whom died in the wreck. The bones of several are on display as well (if you’re into skeletons and such).
…Cinephile Experience I Had This Week
Filmstaden Råsunda — Solna, Sweden
Though it’s probably not in the top 20 Stockholm destinations on TripAdvisor, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to Filmstaden, the bygone movie studio in suburban Stockholm that once helped turn Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman into stars and where Ingmar Bergman learned and perfected his craft.
Calling Filmstaden the Swedish version of Hollywood is perhaps a bit of an overstatement as it was just one studio. But when it was founded in 1920, its soundstages and production buildings were among the most advanced in the world.
Movies haven’t been made at Filmstaden for a few decades, but the streets still bear the names of the legendary figures who once worked there, and a few buildings from the Filmstaden era remain. I took a self-guided audio walking tour and soaked up the history as best I could.
That night, I went back to the apartment I was renting in Stockholm and rewatched The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film that became an instant arthouse classic and made him an internationally renowned director. Much of the movie was shot at Filmstaden.
Set in the 14th century, the film tells the story of a disillusioned knight (Max von Sydow) who returns home from the Crusades to ask, essentially, “Is this all there is?”
He has just fought a pointless war on behalf of a God whose existence he now doubts, his homeland is being ravaged by the plague pandemic, and, worst of all, a pale character wearing a black robe and carrying a scythe arrives to tell the knight that his time has come.
To stave off his demise for at least a bit, the knight challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess, during which the knight learns the importance of humanity and kindness in a dark and Godless world.
Almost seven decades after its premiere, the film retains much of its allegorical power though it’s hard to watch and not think of the many parodies it spawned. (Even I wrote an unpublished short story 20 or so years ago in which a man named Jim challenges Death to a game of curling. I’m totally serious.)
Having now been to Filmstaden, I feel a personal connection to Bergman and his work more deeply than ever. Maybe I’ll even dust off that short story again and see if it’s any good.