Sunday, September 13, 2015

Scandinavia II: Norway and Sweden

Oslo was great; not to denigrate Copenhagen, or Stockholm, but we liked it a lot. The Cathedral (a block from our hotel) is beautiful but small enough to be taken in and appreciated, kind of a shorthand for the whole city. There was an impressive exhibit of quilt patches about “the enemy” inspired by the mass murder in 2011, where a right-wing gunman in a police uniform killed 69 people (and injured 110) in a youth camp on an island. The theme of the quilts was that we lose our ability to effectively address hate when we objectify the “enemy” as other, something we could never be, something non-human; rather the enemy, or potential enemy, is in all of us as humans and we need to realize that and address hate.  

We walked a lot. The Cathedral is a few blocks from the Central Station on the pedestrian street Karl Johans Gate. At the other end is the Radhus (City Hall), where they present the Nobel Peace Prize (the very impressive Nobel Peace Center is across the square), is very beautiful. The huge room where the Prize is presented has a wall covered with murals, depicting primarily the Nazi occupation during the war, but also workers struggles for food (and being beaten). It is also decorated outside with reliefs (woodcuts, I think, but like frescos) of Norse myths (descriptive plaques conveniently in both Norwegian and English).

The Nobel Peace Center is extremely interesting, and moving. The first floor is dedicated to the 2014 co-recipients, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education". Malala, of course, was the Pakistani girl shot in the head by extremists for the “crime” of going to school as a female, who has bravely recovered and waged a speaking campaign for children, girls, education, and peace. Kailash, less known, is a life-long campaigner against child labor and the exploitation of children, in his native India and around the world. The other floor is dedicated to past recipients of the prize, all impressive. Several have been organizations; for example, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013 and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1985.

Probably the most impressive single site was the Vigelund Sculptures in Frogner Park. Vigelund spent over 20 years creating them, supported by the city of Oslo. The emblematic one is the “crying baby” (Vigelund reportedly got his model to act this way by giving him, then taking away, chocolate). But there are much more impressive sculptures, showing the stages of life, and love, and the world. The people of Oslo are said to revere it, and in fact the park is unfenced, unguarded, and “un-grafittied”; the only mark of human use we saw was that the baby’s hand is polished from all the people who hold it while their photos are taken! We took the train at 6:30 on a rainy evening and walked a half mile in the rain to get to them, thinking we were crazy but it was our last evening in Oslo. It was totally worth it. Incredible!

Another place we really learned a lot was the Resistance Museum, housed in the old Akerhus Fortress. While, as I have described in “Denmark and the Jews”, Denmark was at “peace” with Germany from 1940 to October 1943, Norway was invaded in 1940. When the government considered signing a peace treaty with Germany, the king, Haakon VII (younger brother of Christian X of Denmark), while recognizing the right of elected officials to do so (when he was named the first king of Norway in over 500 years in 1905 on its separation from Sweden, he agreed only to do so if the populace accepted the monarchy; it did) said he would abdicate if it did so. His moral sway was high, and Norway remained officially at war with Germany, and the king eventually made it to London where he broadcast throughout the war as the pro-Nazi Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor” took power. Of the 2,000 Jews in Norway, mostly in Oslo, many did escape to Sweden, often by the heroism of regular Norwegians; one was 12 year-old Leif Gusd, who we met 73 years later at the Jewish Museum of Oslo where he works. Out of Oslo to a small town near Sweden, taken by two farm boys across a lake in rowboats to Sweden in the dead of night as they stayed in the dark while German lights raked most of the lake, he and his mother and sister were very fortunate.

We took a train from the beautiful modern Central Station in Oslo (Sentrum with an “s” in Norwegian) to the Central Station in Stockholm (Centrum with a “C” in Swedish), and it was night and day. OK, day and night: We left Oslo at 11:20am and arrived in Stockholm at 4:30pm in rush hour, so undoubtedly this was part of the sense of moving from peacefulness to bustle (plus the station is not so new). But we learned there was more to it; Stockholm is twice the size, and generally busy and bustling, more reminiscent of New York or Chicago or London. People are dressed up, and hurrying, and staring at their cell phones, and walking into you, and there is lots of noise (frankly, in Copenhagen and even Oslo there was lots of construction; I guess you can only do it in the summer!).

Stockholm is very beautiful; the old city on the island of Gamla Stan has enough charm and alleys and churches for anyone, as well as the Royal Palace (where we watched the changing of the guard). There are several harbors (like Copenhagen), and impressive public buildings (the National Museum, Opera, hotels, etc.) and super neighborhoods to walk around, from the grandeur of 

the Strandvagen to the narrow alleys of the old city. The City Hall there, Stadhus, is also bigger than Oslo’s but there are no external murals, and we didn’t get inside. It is huge, with lots of gilt. It is the site where all the other Nobel Prizes are awarded (in Nobel’s time Sweden and Norway were, as noted above, one kingdom, but why he chose the Peace Prize to be awarded by a Norwegian committee is open to speculation), and stands, as most important buildings in Stockholm, overlooking the water. As in the other countries, public art is prominent, from the tiny child in the garden of the Finnish church to a sculpture of a wolf in a shawl (red riding hood’s?) to famous people.

We realized later, reviewing the new sequel, that most of the sites in Stieg Larson’s “Girl with the dragon tattoo” series were in Sodermalm, a part of town we didn’t get to; had we known, maybe we would have sought them out. We went to a four-different-styles-of-guitar-playing-together concert at the “German Church” in Gamla Stan, and a great market across from another church in Ostermalm. We also took a 2-hour-each-way boat trip through the Stockholm archipelago (30,000 islands! Take that, St. Lawrence River!) to the beautiful island of Sandhamn. Different from Aero, but great to walk around in the woods.

So all of the Scandinavian countries we visited were beautiful and interesting. We spent the most time in, and saw the most, of Denmark; we saw a bit more of Sweden than of Norway because of the train ride and the trip to Sandhamn. In Norway we did not see any of the magnificent fjords or glaciers (another trip!). But we had a great time, saw a lot of fascinating and beautiful things, and learned a lot of history. We would, and will, do it again. Hopefully we can be assured of the same wonderful weather (our Swedish friend said it got cold again the day after we left!), and people.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Scandinavia is different...

Scandinavia is different. Some of that difference is stuff you knew about. There are a lot of tall, blond, blue-eyed people. There is a lot of water. They have social welfare states where no one (more or less) is hungry, or homeless; where there is free public education, and free public health care, and the elderly are provided for in the appropriate setting (home, assisted living, nursing home) for their needs. The people are nice, and they are prosperous. There actually is some social cohesion. It is cold, I am told, in the winter, but we were there in August, and it was nice – warm and sunny but not hot (we were told it was cold and rainy in June and July). When we were there, of course, we learned more – some of it necessarily anecdotal, based upon the people we talked to, some of it related to the individual places we were and the things that we saw.

One thing is that there are difference among the 3 countries we visited, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They all have a lot of water and they all have a lot of tall blond people and their languages all sound (to the American ear) a lot the same and they all, as far as I can tell, speak English, which is good since I understand virtually none of what they say in their languages, except “tak” (or “takk” in Norwegian), which means thank you. Even in the few cases where I can understand a written word, I can't the spoken; on the way from Copenhagen, to Odense, the conductor asked if we were headed to "OON-seh". “No,” I said, “O-dense”. “OON-seh,” he replied. We spent the most time in Denmark, and went to the most different places. The first couple of days, in the beautiful city of Copenhagen, might have been more fun minus the jet lag, but we got to visit (on the first afternoon!) the Jewish Museum (I’ve written earlier about “Denmark and the Jews”, August 23, 2015) and took a canal boat tour around to get our bearings. Tivoli Gardens was a great disappointment; right by the train station it is not the lovely garden I envisioned, but a rather small amusement park. The next day museums were open and we saw the Glyphotekhet art museum (funded by the owner of Carlsberg) and walked the Stroget and saw the university and a few lovely churches. And walked in Christenhavn, and in the neighborhood of Christiana, with hippies and open drug dealing. There are signs indicating no photography, apparently somewhat enforced (a guy came up and asked me if I’d taken a picture of the area, which I denied; “we’re drug dealers here, man”), and also a bit ridiculous since if the police had any interest in identifying or arresting them, they could just go there, not try to find a tourist’s photographs!

We went to Odense (OON-seh!) for a conference for Pat and an incredibly gracious day of presentations for me from the researchers at the Research Unit on General Practice at University of Southern Denmark, coordinated by director Jens Sondergaard. My own private conference; I learned an incredible amount of information about both how practice exists in Denmark and about cutting-edge primary care research applicable most places. Although Hans Christian Andersen wrote most of his stories while living in Copenhagen, and there is an avenue named for him there, he was from Odense, and there are dozens of statues of him, and when we were there it was the week for his festival, with actors all over and lots of performances. Unfortunately, while I loved the Danny Kaye film, especially his singing and his renditions of “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and others, Andersen’s actual stories are grim, scary, and depressing (I remember having nightmares from “The Snow Queen”, but even “The Little Mermaid” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” are horrifying.) It is incredible to think of reading these stories to, or having them read by, children. They make the Brothers Grimm seem cheerful and upbeat. Stick with the English A.A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, J. M. Barrie, or the Swedish Astrid Lindgren, or the Englishman-born-to-Norwegian parents, Roald Dahl. But Odense is quite lovely, and the City Museum great.

We spent much of a day in Svendborg, on the southern end of the island of Funen (located between the island of Zeeland on which Copenhagen is situated and the mainland, Jutland), where Odense is the largest city, hosted by Allan and Elisabeth Pelch, and then took the ferry to the island of Aero. Thanks to Rick Steves for recommending this; it was an incredible place to spend two nights and a day, kind of the best of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard with a whole lot fewer people and a whole lot older houses. Incredible to bike around the island, and to spend time in the main town, Aeroskobing. Then, with trains, planes, and automobiles (OK, no planes or automobiles, but two ferries and two trains and a bus) we went from Aeroskobing through Svendborg and Odense and Copenhagen to Oslo, Norway, the last part on a 16-hour ferry. Since you have to get there somehow, and have to stay in a hotel every night, this was a great deal; super smorgasbord buffets, and wonderful views coming in through the Oslo fjord.

[more later]