Should I Learn Swedish?


Major disappointment: the first time I went to Sweden, I kept seeing signs that said “Runt Hornet” on doors. I was enchanted. What a fine way to say “Ring the Doorbell!” Then I saw this sign on the corner of a building and went to investigate. Bummer! It actually meant “Round the Corner.” Oh, well, it still sounds cool.


And “Obs” must mean “Careful!”, especially if it’s printed in red.

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Smoking is “rokning.” I like the sound of the words.


Ok, I freely admit I’m a klutz in any language. Obviously, I don’t want to run for my train and risk “snubbeling.”

There are practical reasons to know the language.

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Every breakfast buffet has a big tube of this stuff. I thought it was some kind of hummus.


No such luck! It’s really “Fish Roe Paste.” Not my favorite. In fact, I had to discreetly spit it into my napkin and then look around for something to erase the taste. Lingonberry sauce?

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Sometimes, admittedly, words are not needed.


Sometimes, I’m not even interested in the words.


I don’t really want to know the translation of this sign in a subway car in Stockholm. For me, it says, and always will say “Sucks your job?” Or, for English speakers, “Does your job suck? Call this number and we’ll hook you up with a better gig.”

One big point in favor of learning some Swedish: it’s the second language in Finland. And the Finnish language looks much, much harder to learn.

In Finland, almost every single sign and caption is printed in both Finnish and Swedish. English is hit or miss.


At the Helsinki dog park near where I stayed in April, the rules are spelled out in great detail. Finnish and Swedish speaking dogs are all set. English-only speaking dogs are out of luck.

Yup, I guess this is telling me something. After years of traveling in French and German-speaking countries where I can at least muddle through with the native languages, I’ve found that  I love Scandinavia. Time to learn a little Swedish.

Now, about those Danish and Norwegian languages…

Viking Artistry in Oslo

Talk about spectacular resting places! The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway displays boats and artifacts from four different boat burials along the Oslo Fjord. Three of the boats are well preserved, and the fourth was reduced to iron nails and other bits and pieces. They date from about 820 A.D. to about 900 A.D. All the boats were used at sea for some years, then drydocked and fitted with burial rooms before being dug into the ground. They were found and excavated between 1852 and 1904.

The most beautiful of the three, the Oseberg, was used to bury two women. How important must they have been? A pair of the legendary shield-maidens, perhaps? Maybe a couple of princesses? How did two powerful women die at the same time? There’s a story here, but it’s lost in the mists of Scandinavian history. Modern dating techniques place this burial at 834 A.D.

The intricate carved wood detail is beautiful.

Oar openings are still present–fifteen of them on this boat. Still-intact shields were hung from some of the oar holes.

Some elements, like the serpent above, were reconstructed from fragments. Mostly, though, preservation was excellent, because the ships were buried in moist ground with high clay content, and covered with turf for centuries.

More beautiful carving…

The solemn fellows shown above worked on the excavation in 1903. The photo clearly shows the intact wood carvings. The graves had already been looted long ago of precious materials, but plenty of grave goods survived.

Who is the bearded fellow above?


He’s part of a fantastically carved wooden cart found with the Oseberg ship. Vikings were known to use utilitarian carts, but this elaborate one was most likely used in ceremonies and religious processions.

The cart is made of oak. Every surface is covered with carved people and animals, possibly showing Norse legends or historical events.

Did Vikings have cats? I think so! The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to have sailed on ships. Who doesn’t need a good mouser?

The cart is not only beautiful, but quite a feat of engineering.

The cart was most likely pulled by two horses. A bridle, decorated with metal studs, is on display in a case nearby.

There’s also a sleigh, proof that the Vikings knew their way around snow and ice.

The sleigh carvings are as elaborate and beautiful as the ones on the cart.


Solid wood sleigh shafts are intricate carved and studded.


Burials included cooking pots and a good supply of food for the journey to Valhalla.


Rattles were most likely used in religious ceremonies. This one would make quite a racket. Maybe it scared away evil spirits?


Leather shoes? Sure.


There are even a few surviving textiles. Most likely some were woven at home, and some were came from trading–or raiding.


This is by far the most complete Viking exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. I wouldn’t care to see fearsome Viking raiders on my horizon, but from the safe distance of many centuries, their faces are fascinating.

Art Nouveau Vikings at Frederiksborg 

Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark houses tons of fine historic art, but one of my favorite pieces is pretty humble: it occupies a long lower-level hallway leading to the exit.

From 1883-1886, Lorenz Frolich painted a commissioned piece: a 37-meter frieze depicting the Danish conquest of large chunks of England. It was to be a Danish counterpart to the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which documented the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The style of the frieze was from the very early years of Art Nouveau,  also known as Jugendstihl, also known as Skonvirke in Denmark.

The Danish Vikings began sailing their shallow-depth longboats across the sea and up the rivers of England in the late 700s. Before that, they had only ventured as far as the Baltic countries on their raids. The trouble was, the Baltics were almost as poor in resources as Scandinavia. Pickings were slim. But England had rich soil where Danish settlers could grow much more food than in their own rocky soil. English monasteries were crammed with gold and silver candleholders, crosses and chalices.

Raiding was wearying work, but somebody had to do it, right?


After a couple of centuries of striking fear into the hearts of the Brits, and much bloody axe-swinging, the Dane Swein Forkbeard was crowned King of England in 1013.

When Swein died, his son Canute the Great took the crown, and in due course Swein’s grandsons Harold Harfoot and Hardecnut had their turns at ruling the rich land of England. The printed information at Frederiksborg skips over the period when the Danes lost their grip on power in 1042 after the death of Hardecnut. But we’re informed that 1066 was all about the Danes: the Normans were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings who had conquered the part of France that became Normandy.


The Frederiksborg frieze is at pains to depict the conquering Vikings as reasonable, law-abiding fellows willing to sit in orderly rows and debate issues like gentlemen.


There’s also emphasis on their domestic qualities. And it’s true: they were fine farmers and they had domesticated animals.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, photo from review in “Variety,” Feb. 21, 2014

 

All the qualities of the Vikings are on display in the History Channel’s TV series “The Vikings.” I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th season. A disclaimer: yes, I know the show is full of appalling violence. Don’t even ask me what a Blood Eagle is. But for the first time, I begin to understand the Vikings, their world view, and the elaborate mythology that guided their behavior.

The series tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, an early Viking of song and legend, and his descendants, who eventually became the Normans of 1066 fame. Following the time-honored traditions of TV showrunners everywhere, real events are compressed and characters invented. But historical research is said to be quite accurate as far as clothing, houses, community organization, laws, and religion.

Travis Fimmel, pictured above, plays Ragnar. He is a former Calvin Klein model, but he has real acting chops to go along with his fierce blue eyes and intimidating tattoos. I’ll watch him do anything, from his early daring voyage to pillage Lindisfarne monastery, through adultery and divorce, and right on into the murderous madness of his old age.

Katheryn Winnick and Travis Fimmel in “The Vikings,” photo from review in “The Telegraph,” May 3, 2014

 

Another big selling point of “The Vikings,” for me, is the depiction of strong women. Lagertha is Ragnar’s brave and loyal wife, a formidable “shieldmaiden.” Even after their messy separation after he takes up with a tall, graceful, ladylike beauty, Lagertha graciously returns again and again to bash heads alongside Ragnar and their sons. Axe, sword and shield in hand, she’s ready save Ragnar’s bacon when he finds himself in trouble. What a woman!


I like the kinder, gentler version of the Vikings depicted in Frolich’s frieze paintings. But I’ll take my Vikings at their fiercest, too.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Helsinki Design Museum


Past and present are comfortable together in Helsinki. The Helsinki Design Museum occupies a neo-Gothic building designed by Gustaf Nystrom in 1894.


Inside, it’s the liveliest and most forward-looking museum I saw in Helsinki.


It’s all about beauty and color…


and form and function.


This intriguing outfit was part of an artist’s MFA project.


A Finnish necklace, designed by Bjorn Weckstrom in 1977, adorned Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the final triumphant scene of  “Star Wars.” (May the Force still be with her).

Finnish design is more than fashion, though. Finns are a practical lot whose work has found its way into all our lives.


Doesn’t everyone own at least one pair of orange-handled Fiskars?


Nokia’ first cell phone was about the size of a lunchbox. But the design kept getting smaller and better.


I especially liked a display by designers working on solving the problems so many women across the world face: giving birth in less-than-ideal conditions.


Designers have come up with portable, easily manufactured childbirth beds and chairs.


How about a portable shower stall?


Worn out from admiring all that fine design? Take a break in Eero Aarnio’s iconic Bubble Chair, a classic since the day he invented it in 1968! After a bit of a rest, head out to enjoy more of Helsinki.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, from ancient to contemporary, of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles.

Frederiksborg Castle: Renaissance in Knitting Needles

Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark is a riot of Renaissance elegance. A recent exhibit featured a jaw-dropping collection of hand-knitted ensembles based on the costumes in royal and noble portraits in the castle.

I love the idea of knitting, but I’m terrible at it. A simple scarf from my hands turns into a lumpy mess. So I was in awe.

The source portraits were hard to identify in Danish, so I gave up and just enjoyed the knitted versions of the costumes. How about an artfully ruched sleeve on a simple gray sweater?

Or an elegant dress based on two portraits from the 1500s? I’d cheerfully wear this if I had an occasion fancy enough.

Perhaps an elaborate lace collar?

I’d wear this dress too, if the artist knitted me one in a different color combination. Maybe subtle blues and purples?


The same goes for the pantaloon-turned-skirt number, based on a portrait of one Captain Sir Thomas Dutton. I’ll take one in grays and blues, please.

Two of my favorite colors, and an Elizabeth vibe…

A peplum number in deep blue.

Textures and colors fit for a long-ago princess…


I’m not sure of the inspiration for this creamy white wool coat. It kind of looks like a gentleman’s long-sleeved undershirt, lovingly sewn by his lady. Whatever. Just ring it up. I’ll wear it home!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, past and present, of Europe and the British Isles.

Santa Maria della Scala in Siena: Going Medieval on Health Care

Directly across the square from the glorious cathedral of Siena, Italy, there’s one of the oldest existing hospitals in the world. It’s a vast complex, partly underground, built over centuries beginning in the 1100s.

The exterior looks modest, but just inside is the spectacular Pilgrim’s Hall, where over the centuries anyone could wander in and find free food, medical care, and compassionate social services.

The fresco above shows the Augustinian friar Agostino Novello, believed to be one of the most important leaders of the hospital, around 1305. He’s being robed in the modest dark cloak of his new job. Previously, he was a high enough churchman that he was entitled to rich and colorful silks. A pauper leaning on a stick stands to the right. The artist was Priamo Della Quercia, 1442.

The fresco above shows the (possibly legendary) time in 1195 that Pope Celestine III gave the hospital brothers the privilege of running their own affairs and choosing their own rector. The artist was Dominico di Bartolo, 1442-1444.

Above, a fresco shows one of the hospital brothers kneeling before an archpriest, describing a vision. The hospital cared for orphans and foundlings; possibly the vision was of the naked children climbing a ladder toward heaven and being scooped up by the Virgin. The artist was Lorenzo di Pietro, known as il Vecchietta, 1441.

I’m not sure why the guy in the foreground above is working in his tighty whiteys, but he’s working with a sextant: part of the continual hospital expansion. Somebody else is piling up bricks. A group of nobles are inspecting the building project on horseback. A bishop rides a mule as a mark of humility. A person in a long blue robe is handing out money.

The two frescoes above show the wet-nurses for the foundling babies being paid their wages in grain. The artists were Pietro d’Achille Crogi and Giovanni di Raffaele Navisi. They worked in the Florentine Mannerist style, 1575-1577. Grain was collected from outlying farms, measured into sacks, and payments carefully recorded.

This fresco, “Caring for the Sick,” shows a crowd of clergy, doctors and servants taking care of patients. The surgeon in the center is about to operate on the fellow with his foot in the basin. A brother wearing the order’s square headpiece tends to a patient on a bier. An Augustinian friar hears confessions on the right. The place looks a lot like a crowded emergency room in a contemporary hospital. The artist was Bartolo, 1440-1441.

Another Bartolo fresco, “Almsgiving,” shows a crowd receiving bread, which the brothers distributed to all comers for centuries. A near-naked man in the center receives a nice warm cloak.

Bartolo also did the fresco above, “Marrying the Hospital’s Girls,” 1441-1442. Foundlings were not only raised and educated, but were launched into adulthood. Boys learned a trade, and girls received dowries so they could marry respectably. 


Today, a tourist qualifies as a pilgrim. A ticket to Santa Maria della Scala buys a little loaf of bread like the ones handed out for centuries.

To this day in Italy, emergency rooms treat anyone–including tourists from the USA–either for free or for a nominal fee. This is true in most European countries.


Traveling in Europe, I am mortified to think of the dismal medical options available to Americans unlucky enough to have no private medical insurance. In July of 2017, thousands of people waited for hours to be treated at a once-a-year free medical event at a fairground in Virginia, while the United States Senate dithered and threatened to take away health insurance from millions of people who only recently acquired it. The photo above is from an article in the Daily Mail

I’d like the USA to “go medieval” and provide health care for all, as the city of Siena was somehow able to do centuries ago. 

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Christiania: Danish Hippie Haven

In 1970, a peaceful invasion took place in Copenhagen. A  small group of anarchists broke through a fence and took over the grounds of a former military barracks.


The area had defensive ramparts dating from the 1600s, when Denmark fought endless battles with Sweden. After about 1950, the military more or less abandoned the site. Hippies moved in and set up shop, making up the rules as they went along. They eventually gained legal use of the land and became one of the top tourist attractions of Copenhagen, right up there with Tivoli Gardens.


Today, about 900 people live in Christiania. Over the years, they’ve worked out ways to police themselves and cooperate with local authorities to provide some services. But it’s still all about freedom, just as in 1971.

I ventured inside early on a sunny but chilly spring morning. What would I find?


I had read that photos were generally ok, but to ask permission before taking any photos of people–especially those selling marijuana, which is illegal but freely sold when police are not around. Maybe it was too early, or maybe I was oblivious, but I didn’t see anything remotely like a drug deal. Residents themselves outlawed “hard drugs” some years ago, and they enforce the rules strictly.


Much of the artwork was a throwback to the psychedelic 60s and 70s.


Other murals looked more contemporary. I liked it all.


I liked the sculptures too.


I didn’t bring a skateboard! Too bad.

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Hippies were the first great recyclers. They figured out how to survive and thrive on the leftovers of materialism. Christiania has a huge warehouse stocked with recycled toilets, sinks, bathtubs, stoves and refrigerators, and all kinds of building materials.


The community depends on tourist traffic. Restaurants look friendly and appealing, but there are probably no Michelin stars.


Venturing out of the main tourist area, I found charming handcrafted homes, bright with flowers.


Nobody is allowed to actually own a home or property in this enclave. If a resident leaves, the community decides whether to invite someone else to move in. I’ve read that about 180 of the original residents remain.


After I left, I learned that tourists had been assaulted for taking pictures of residents. I figured this dog, supervising the warehouse, wouldn’t mind.


There are plenty of grungy sights within Christiania, but my impression was of a tranquil haven of social freedom. Yes, I’d go back!

Travel offers so many doors to open! Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia.