Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Making the Scandinavian Rounds: Sweden and Denmark

**Gotta love the smorgasbord. And am I the only one who immediately thinks of the song that Templeton the rat sings in the old animated version of "Charlotte's Web" when I hear this word?**

First of all, I'm so sorry that it's been a month since I've posted anything on the blog! I'm still alive, and I have new and exciting things to report. Things are still pretty busy and I'm preparing for my next break, but after that I'll try to be a bit more faithful about letting you know what's going on over here. Sorry!

And now for the good stuff--my semester break! The Austrian semester runs on a different schedule than the American semester, which means I had a random week free in the middle of February. A couple weeks earlier I'd called an old high school friend studying in Sweden to wish him a happy birthday, and when I got off the phone with him I found myself with plans to visit Sweden in a mere 10 days! Quite conveniently I'd found a 2-for-1 deal on airline tickets from Sky Europe, so I decided to drag my roommate along with me for five fun-filled days in Sweden.

Ironically, we spent more time in Denmark than Sweden--only 1 day out of 5 was spent entirely on Swedish soil! Because Copenhagen is the closest major airport to Lund, we flew into Denmark and took the train into Sweden. In about 50 minutes we found ourselves in Lund, a university town in southwest Sweden. The weather was overcast, cold and windy--as it tends to be from September to April (and in fact the month of January only saw 8 hours of sunshine!), but I was thrilled to be in a country with a language that sounds like skipping through a field of daisies. Having a "native" guide is always a treat, and the first day we toured historical Lund with a fascinating narrative involving haunted university buildings and cathedral-building giants. We stepped into one of the many cafes to warm our noses and rest our feet and experienced our first "going for fika"--coffee, conversation, and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with it, which is oh so popular in fighting the drab southern Scandinavian winter. Over fika, we discussed our plans for the following day--a coast-to-coast road trip through southern Sweden!

The next morning four of us piled into a borrowed car and set off in the direction of the little red arrows on our map. The idea is that we would start in Lund and work our way eastward, stopping at churches, castles, and little villages along the way to the southern coast. From there we could visit an old set of pre-Viking megaliths and continue up the east coast to a few more towns, before working our way back across the country that evening. The fantastic thing about the road trip and the borrowed car was that it allowed us to see parts of Sweden we never would have seen from a train or a bus--winding country roads, rural farmhouses, and quaint seaside villages.

Our first stop was in Dalby, to visit the oldest stone church in Scandinavia. It was old, it was stone, and it was not very helpful that the signs outside the church were all in Swedish. Unfortunately a lot of the historical and architectural significance was lost on me. Oh well.

We drove further through the countryside, past farms and fields, and we arrived at a castle dating back to the 19th century. However, it wasn't a castle in the sense of Cindella's castle or even Dracula's castle, but rather the Swedish version of a "castle" is more like an English manor house--for some reason I could just envision Henry James walking the grounds. We walked the grounds and then headed down to the town of Ystad in the middle of the southern coast for lunch and some desperately needed lithium batteries for my camera.

With full stomach and some degree of curiosity we then set off for Ales Stenar, the Swedish version of Stonehenge. Never having been to Stonenenge myself, I had more curiosity than expectations. This was probably a good thing, as megalithic structures can only capture so much intrigue. Impressively, these large stones have been arranged in the shape of a ship and have been sitting on a cliff by the sea for the past 1500-2500 years. There is still some debate as to their function--lunar calendar? burial site?--but they still get the important reputation of Really Really Old Structures of Unclear Origin from Ancient Societies We Know Little About. It was fun to see the rocks and even more fun to play on the cliff and take cool photos. After a final stop for fika in another cafe on the east coast, we returned to Lund. Surprisingly, it only takes about one hour to drive from coast to coast without any stops.

The next day my roommate and I went to Copenhagen. The entire train journey there, I had the chorus of "Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, salty queen of the sea..." from the 1952 Danny Kaye musical Hans Christian Andersen running on repeat through my head. And I have to say--Copenhagen was indeed wonderful wonderful! Our first stop into town was the tourist information office, where we picked up a map of the city with a walking tour mapped out. This was the perfect route for us--we got to see all the best parts of the city and didn't once have to board the public transportation! We wandered through town squares and pedestrian shopping areas, by government buildings and around central ice skating rinks. The city itself was beautiful--the architecture was lovely and the buildings are colorful (in typical Scandinavian style) and even the docked ships are full of flavor. But for me the best highlights of the city were my two great loves: The Little Mermaid and food.

I got the original video tape of Disney's The Little Mermaid in 2nd grade as a reward for a good report card. I then proceeded to watch the movie enough over the next several years that I can confidently say I had the whole thing memorized. I would grab a pillowcase out of the linen closet, pull it up over my legs, and hop around the house in my newfound "fins" singing "Part of Your World." Repeatedly. I wanted to be the Little Mermaid--and even in 1989 I could identify with Ariel as she longed to leave home and, oh I don't know, go live in a foreign country! As you can see, part of me never really grew out of wanting to be Ariel. (And please don't spoil my fun by leaving me a comment about the "real" ending to the story by Hans Christian Andersen. I willfully choose to ignore that version.) Despite the warning by pretty much every travel guide and former tourist to Copenhagen that the mermaid statue was not all that it was hyped up to be, my highest priority in Copenhagen was to see the statue of The Little Mermaid. I was determined to make her worth it--whatever that meant. I was not disappointed. In fact, you could say that my first reaction upon seeing her was one of suppressed glee--the mature adult trying to tame the inner 2nd grader squealing with delight on the inside. The Little Mermaid was, apparently, moved slightly farther out into the water to deter overenthusiastic tourists from physically accosting her or persistent vandals from once again beheading her. Did that deter me? Of course not! There were rocks leading out to the statue, and after some deliberation and mental calculations, I determined that I could in fact reach the statue by hopping the rocks. But the rocks, my friends, are much more slippery than they my advice to you is NOT to approach from the right. Especially in the wintertime. You will end up with cold wet feet and an algae-y bum. However, should you reconsider and decide to approach from the left...well, let's just say you may get to meet her in person. Needless to say, we took scores of photos to document the visit and very intentionally make it worth it!

Lunch was the other high point of the day. And what a high point it was. Friends in New York had already introduced me to the Danish lunch--and elaborate spread involving pickled herring, various salads, breads, and a particular schnapps-like drink called Aquavit. For those of you who would first react exactly as I did--"You want me to eat pickled fish?!?!"--let me just say that it will rock your world and change your life forever. Pickled herring is an incredibly tasty dish, and when properly coupled with some high-octane Aquavit (may the feint of alcoholic spirits beware!) it makes a most delightful lunch. Our real Danish lunch was worth every Kroner--pickled herring on buttered rye, fried cod with curry sauce, chicken salad, shrimps with mayo and lemon, and Danish "apple pie"...complimented of course by Danish beer and a bit of Aquavit. Best. Lunch. Ever.

That evening, back in Sweden, we had another particularly noteworthy experience--and this one quite possibly the best experience of the whole trip: we went to a Swedish sauna. And not only did we go to a Swedish sauna, we went to a Swedish sauna located 0.7 km out on a pier in the strait between Sweden and Denmark! It was dark, rainy, and windy as we walked out on the seemingly neverending pier. The incredible idea behind this sauna is that after spending awhile in the sauna itself, you run outside and jump into the sea! We could see whitecaps forming in the water, and I thought to myself, "It's stormy and it's winter and I'm jumping into that?!" I was actually quite excited though--where else can you combine the experiences of a sauna and polar bear jumping all rolled into one? The sauna was segregated by male and female sides, and I will leave it to the intuitive reader to figure out this very European way of things. I'd only been in a sauna once before (in the Roman baths in Budapest, where they also have an ice bath available), so I was looking forward to another genuine experience. And as the hot-cold combination is supposed to do wonders for your circulation, I was totally game to jump into the decidedly Nordic Sweden. The sauna was dimly lit and heated by hot coals; by throwing a ladle of water onto the hot coals, you could release more steam into the air. When you get to the brink of boiling, you run outside, fumble down some steps, and plunge into the 3.5°C water below. And involuntary cry escapes your lips. Depending on what kind of person you are, it could be a yelp or a bellow or a string of profanity--this sauna hears all types. If you're the competitive type, you may try to see how long you can stay in the water and scorn those who have the better sense to extract themselves before you do. If, of course, you were so inclined. And finally, pink and tingly, you'll run back into the sauna as swiftly as your numbed feet will carry you and your body will spend the next few minutes schizophrenically trying to decide whether it is hot or cold.

We decided to take a round trip from Sweden to Denmark and back again. We started in Lund and took the train up to Helsingborg, a tiny harbor town on the strait between Sweden and Denmark. From there you can take the ferry to Helsinor, a tiny harbor town on the strait between Denmark and Sweden. Wait...can that be right? What are those tiny harbor towns directly across from each other on the strait between Denmark and Sweden? Oh, yeah, right, they DO almost have the same name! Now was I talking about Helsingborg or Helsinor, I can't remember...

Approaching the Danish side on the ferry, Hamlet's castle (suspiciously dubbed Elsinore in what could have only been Shakespeare's personal jab at the two tiny harbor towns which bare ironically similar names to Elsinore) stands firmly on the coast. Defensively speaking, the Kronborg castle (its real name) is impressively well-fortified. A series of ramparts and moats and weapons successfully kept enemies at bay for centuries, but the strongest and most fearsome defense is found in the deep underbelly of the castle--it is there that the fabled Ogier the Dane (Holger Danske) lies sleeping, only to awaken and rise up when Denmark meets mortal peril, delivering the nation from its foes.

Our last stop was the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, boasting an exhibit comparing the works of Cezanne and Giacometti--the first museum to make such a leap, but quite a fascinating and successful one. It was really quite an impressive collection, and the art historian in me was really glad to make that stop.

We flew out of Copenhagen the next day. In the airport, I successfully purchased some orange juice and conducted the entire interaction in Danish. Nevermind that I said three words--the point was, it was Danish and it was a legitimate transaction and I was understood. Right before we flew back to Vienna, we accomplished our final goal: to eat a danish in Denmark. Clever, right? However, in Danish, danishes are actually called "Viennese bread"--oh the irony!

No comments: