By the end of the day, we had done justice to three of Stockholm’s top ten in one of my guidebooks. And we did so effortlessly, all the while blending equal parts of Dylan references, city and Nobel history, and our back pages.
Today, guided by my new comerado Pelle Ekman, I went from Ostermalm, the tony neighborhood in which I’m happily staying, to Djurgarden, home to only 800 permanent residents and part of the Stockholm National City Park. To paraphrase Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” we followed the river and got to the sea. Walking along the Djurgardsbrunnsviken (“where Bob walked thirty years ago in his white hoodie,” Pelle told me before pulling up the picture on his phone), I heard a bit about the slow train of development that is making Stockholm less affordable for everyday people. We talked about a controversial new proposal by the Nobel Foundation to build a new center and the day’s rumor regarding who might be delivering Dylan’s address on Saturday night.
We ended up at the Blue Gate, which opens onto both the Baltic and the King’s hunting ground (Djurgarden means “Animal Gardens”). It was here that Pelle, in his working journalist days, interviewed the King fifteen minutes after drumming with his band of fellow journalists. They were Big Red, named for Dylan’s days with the Band at the famous Woodstock house called Big Pink. The reference, he suggested, was lost upon most of their Swedish audiences. But it tells you a lot about how deeply passionate we Dylan people are about our artist. I posed for a picture at the gate (if you want to see more photographs, as many of you good readers have requested, please check out @SouthwesternU on Twitter; and while you are there you might enjoy seeing the great things my colleagues and our students are doing in central Texas). By the end of the day, we had done justice to three of Stockholm’s top ten in one of my guidebooks. And we did so effortlessly, all the while blending equal parts of Dylan references, city and Nobel history, and our back pages.
Pelle asked me what I wanted to see and I immediately replied “Nordic animals.” Part of my preparation for the trip, along with reading Burton Feldman’s The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Compromise, had been to check out the DK Top 10 Stockholm and Rick Steves’ Snapshot Stockholm. From both volumes I gathered that Skansen, founded in 1891 and the first of what became a Europe-wide movement to preserve traditional architecture in open-air museums, was the only zoo with animals native to Scandinavia. It just seemed too Fantastic Mr. Fox for me to miss. Steves wrote, “Kids love Skansen, where they can ride a life-size wooden Dala horse (see today’s illustration) and stare down a hedgehog.” I got to do both and saw a few foxes (rodrav, in Swedish) to boot. The guidebooks advised against visiting in off-season. But I, and the school children around us on their field trips, found it absolutely magical. Although the bears were sleeping, we did get to see a few reindeer lock horns and a major moose doing his Bullwinkle thing sans Rocky. As well as riding the big red Dala horse with one of my hands waving free, I heard Pelle’s stories about painting eyelashes on his green VW bus in the late 70s and driving it to Dublin (“When we got to the left side of the Liffey what did we hear but Blonde on Blonde!” he told me as we time travelled together); about where Eric Clapton stayed when he came to Stockholm (“at the top of the Strand which is now the Radisson”); and about studying the screenplay of Chinatown in Oslo. As we went out of the Skansen, the kids kept pouring in and I thought of another Nobel Laureate, William Butler Yeats, and his 1933 poem “Among School Children.” I have always loved the title and the final lines: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?” It’s right up there in my book with “Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to Gay Paree/I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea.”
We danced past Grona Lund (Green Grove) amusement park—also closed for the season—and Pelle said Bob Marley once played to 32,000 people there and that Jimi Hendrix got so carried away that they had to pull the plug on him. We windshielded the ABBA Museum and took the requisite tourist shots as Pelle recounted how much ABBA’s Benny Andersson had done for the city. (He was also b among the first people to write Ann and praise her for her movie.) Lunch called—quiche for Pelle, shrimp salad for me—and we discussed our writerly passions and aspirations, about how the New Journalists—Wolfe, Talese, Didion, Thompson—had been our college heroes and still were for that matter, right up there with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and, of course, Dylan. We agreed how blessed we are to have grown up with not only with Dylan but also with Cohen, Springsteen, Simon, Morrison (Van more so than Jim), and Mitchell. As Pelle put it, “They have done something great and, yes, magical.” We discussed the word hombre.
After lunch we walked through a cemetery that Pelle had never seen and made our way to the Vasa Museum, which was the other destination on my Djurgarden itin (itin, by the way, is Gaines family argot for itinerary). Pelle went back to work, and I went in to look at an enormous and glamorous 1628 warship that had sunk in harbor forty minutes into its maiden voyage, been rediscovered in 1956, raised in 1966, restored over a couple of decades, and is (according to Steves) “the best preserved ship of its age anywhere.” I went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum years ago as part of my love for Moby-Dick and was much impressed with the scaled replica of a boat like Ahab and Ishmael’s Pequod. But that New Bedford replica is a minnow in every way to the Vasa. The Vasa’s scale is difficult to comprehend and the related exhibits—about everything from archeology to analysis of the remains of those who drowned—is breathtaking. The 17-minute film took me back to seventeenth-century Stockholm, put me on that sinking ship, and then moved me into the story of the Vasa’s raising and restoration. I hit the Museum Shop hard, getting postcards for my father-in-law, archeologist colleague Thomas Howe, and our oldest son who likes quoting Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy stating, “diversity is an old, old wooden ship.” I also bought the 48-page museum booklet about the Vasa. It will be terrific reading on the flight home and a crowd pleaser on a train trip we are taking with my father-in-law after Christmas.
All the Christmas lights were on as I walked back in the dark towards Ostermalm. It began to sprinkle a bit of rain—not buckets, just a sprinkle—and I thought of how Dylan had yet again brought me new friends and remarkable adventures. I was traveling the same road he had, just as I did in Hibbing at Dylan Days a few years ago and as I do every time I go to Greenwich Village. I thought about how effortlessly and joyfully Pelle peppers his stories with Dylan lines. In that way he is like many of you good readers who have been sharing Dylan references and impressions with me since I launched The Big Tent. “Yes,” I thought, working on the sound bite if I am asked for one, “that is one of the reasons Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. He has given shared language to a tribe that knows no borders. As did Yeats and other Laureates.”
A closing thought: I considered calling this post “My Walk with Pelle,” as a shout out and thanks to him as well as an allusion to My Dinner with Andre. But I decided to stay with the Paul Simon line, to demonstrate that I have some non-Dylan arrows in my quiver and because my newest brother Pelle and I talked about him as well during our time in the animal gardens. I walked into the lobby of the Mornington with rain fallin’ on my shoes and singing “Zebras are reactionaries/Antelopes are missionaries…” I know these are not Nordic animals. But that seemed a minor technicality on a day of major delights.