16 June 1980
Flag properly folded in my suitcase, we drive to Stockholm and meet Lena, Karin's sister. She is as stunningly beautiful as she was three years ago. We have a ice cream while strolling together in the pretty downtown area, and after saying good bye we hit the road again, direction Nynäshamn, a small port town where we board a ferry headed for Gdansk.
Once again we leave the world of opulence to return to real socialism. We also leave the world of stunning blondes.
15 June 1980
Rest of the day... rest. The previous weeks have been intense and we don't mind putting our feet up for a few hours. It's a warm and sunny day in Sweden, we wear T-shirts and it feels just perfect. Long chats with the Ericsons, we've got a few years to catch up on. They ask a lot of questions about the United States and Georgetown. I ask about Karin, who's got a good job, is living with a nice guy and come to visit once in a while. We also get in touch with Lena, her sister, and plan to meet when we go to Stockholm to catch our ferry back to Poland.
In the evening again we go out with the small boat, this time trying to catch salmon with a net. It is illegal, strictly speaking, to fish with a net, but normally law-abiding Swedes do it anyway for their own personal consumption. We do get some fish but, alas, no salmon.
14 June 1980
We drive to the Ericsons' apartment in Hasselby, near Stockholm, but there is no one there. It is a green neighborhood, lots of flowers. Quite a change from the last time I was here, in the depth of winter, with sub-zero temperatures and all the flora either frozen stiff or covered in snow. Given the difficulty of communication, I had not been able to advise of our arrival, though I had told them months ago we could come by in the Summer. And anyway they had always said I was welcome any time, and I know they meant it.
We then drive to Oxelösund, where they have their Summer house. No one to be seen. Unusual. We wait a bit and have a light lunch. After a while Bo and Ulla-Britt Ericson arrive. Ulla-Britt is a bit surprised but smiling, Bo is enthusiastic as usual. Maybe my mother-in-law-that-never-was is a bit disappointed that her daughter and my did not solidify our relationship? Who knows?
|Looking for salmon, or Soviet subs|
No luck today... we see neither fish nor subs.
(P.S. In 1981, scarcely a year after my visit, a Soviet submarine ran aground for all to see a few kilometers from here!)
13 June 1980
At the border station we must wait a good half hour before the Soviet guards even so much as look at us. Then another half hour inside the border station itself. The first thing to do is change the 7 rubles I have left into dollars. The exportation of rubles is not allowed. Not that we wanted to take any out of the country anyway. It's a non convertible currency and can not be spent anywhere else.
We are slightly concerned about the two bottles of Soviet champagne we got, strictly speaking illegally, from our waiters friends. Even more concerned with the Soviet Army belts we got from igor in Moscow that Andrew and I are wearing, but no one seems to care. This time they hardly even look at our luggage. They completely ignore the car.
We reach Helsinki easily and quickly. What a relief, the roads are clean and smooth, service station convenience shops are lined with shelves stocking everything one can possibly need while traveling by car. We are back to normalcy.
At Helsinki Andrew and need ferry tickets to Stockholm, the plan is to visit my friends, the Ericson family. Ann and Cathy head back to Poland. The Silja line, the best one, is fully booked. We get a place for us and the car on a Viking line. Viking is cheaper but the ferry does not really exist as a means of transportation between Finland and Sweden. It is a floating pub where kids from both countries can buy and consume cheap alcohol without restrictions. On board, everyone, from 12 to 82 years-old, is completely drunk. We are not going to have a very social experience, rather an anthropological one: Scandinavians trying to find any possible way to beat the system and get drunk.
06 January 1977
Today I had an experience that would change me for the rest of my life. I was in Sweden visiting my friend Karin, my high school sweetheart whom I had met in England a couple of years ago when we were both students of English in Bournemouth.
I had spent several days with the family in Stockholm when they decided to move to the summer house they owned by the sea in a town called Oxelösund.
It was a very cold January evening when they prepared dinner with lots of crabs, potatoes, and glogg, a potent Scandinavian hot drink made up of alcohol and melted sugar.
After we were done eating to everyone's satisfaction and had drunk substantially, though we were not quite done with that, Karin's father, Bo Ossian, proposed we all go and take a sauna together. I thought that was a very cool idea even though I have never done it before in my life.
Next thing I knew everybody started taking their clothes off, like... all their clothes off and grabbing some towels. I was brought up in Catholic Italy and attended schools run by priests so I was slightly shocked at the sight but played along and took my towel.
Once everybody was ready the father opened the door of the house and a swift draft of icy air from outside rushed into the dining room. The outside temperature was minus 20 degrees centigrade I was told, normal for an evening this time of the year. We all walked out into the dark night and in a minute or so reached an outhouse where this how now was located just next to the Waterfront. Their water of the Baltic Sea was frozen solid. We all went inside the outhouse where the temperature was about 90° Celsius, typical Scandinavian sauna
A few minutes later we were joined by a couple of friends, I think neighbors, covered in nothing their own skin. Once inside the sauna, everybody laid the white towels that had hitherto wrapped milk-white bodies on the wooden benches to sit on and here we were, completely naked enjoying the heat.
It is hard for me to describe what I felt being completely naked not only with my sweetheart but also her parents, her stunningly beautiful sister, who at age twenty looked quite old to me, her sister's tall and soft-spoken boyfriend, and a couple of family friends who happened to pass by and joined us. A few frozen beers served the purpose of toasting to friendship and avoiding moments of uneasy silence.
After 15 minutes my hypothetical father-in-law said it was time to go out and jump in the water. I was very perplexed at this idea, first because the temperature gap between inside and outside the sauna room over 100 degrees Celsius and, second, because the Baltic Sea was actually, as I said, frozen solid.
No fear: Bo Ossian took an ice pick and started to punch holes through the surface of the sea, which was frozen four maybe five centimeters deep. We could have walked on it, I am sure. But we did not, we swam into it. After a minute or so he had made a hole big enough for several of us to jump into. I hesitated but it was so cold standing in the night wind that I thought it could not be colder in the water.
So we all jumped in the water, I screaming and yelling, they calm and relaxed. I remained there barely floating for maybe 30 seconds before jumping out and running the few steps which separated me from the safety of the sauna.
Heat, sweat, drink beer, skinny dip in frozen Baltic sea, repeat. this was my routine for three rounds until Karin said it was enough and we could walk back to the house.
On the way, still dripping cold sweat, protected only by a white cotton towel around the waist, we met two neighbors who were taking a walk to the waterfront. they were fully clothed with fur coats and hats, boots and gloves. Karin waved to them hand decided it would be good manners to greet them. So we stopped and she introduced us. Then they started asking questions about Italy and how my trip to Sweden was going so far. I tried to answer politely but as concisely as possible to try and make it back to the house before my sweat froze on my skin. Which I did, and which it did, but about five minutes later we were all back in the dining room where more glogg was waiting to provide a stroke of the whip to our guts and restore a sensation of warmth and peace for the rest of the night.
What happened today might be dismissed as an insignificant episode in the life of a Mediterranean adolescent who is exposed to a more liberated, some would say emancipated, society, and culture. And maybe that is really all there was to it but, for me, it marked a watershed in my life. It drove the point home that the way things were done in Italy definitely not the only way and, more importantly, was not necessarily the best way.
In fact, I realized, there and then, while still under the influence of glogg, that "my way" was going to be more like the Scandinavian way than the Italian way. More like the secular, egalitarian way than the religious, compartmentalized way.
What I did not realize was that this would not be understood, let alone accepted, by most of my friends and family back home. But, like Frank Sinatra sang a few years ago, I would do it my way, anyway. It would bring me pleasure and satisfaction, but it would also make my life more difficult. It would create more obstacles on my path to life than a 17-year-old kid could even think of. This was definitely one of the most significant days of my life so far and, I suspect, ever.