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Rubén Figaredo — Sweden and the Remnants of a Shipwreck.

I set out onto sea with the secret intention to get shipwrecked. Not to lose life, but to recover it, to dress up in that what’s left, to conserve the four essential things that at some point, I believed I had lost. In this manner I will know what I miss of all that I once felt was mine. My treasure sunken into the sea only serves as refuge for the fish, the sea breaks itself into free words. What’s essential is the air that surrounds objects, the gesture that precedes the impact, the sun that bathes us with time.

Aboard the Gabriella, a gigantic floating hotel where French roulette lives side by side with Finnish Karaoke and torrents of tax-exempt alcohol, I arrive at a rainy break of dawn at the Port of Stockholm. Somewhat randomly the city appears through a constellation of islands—fourteen my tourist guide says—which would make it far more easy to orientate oneself by way of a canoe than as a soaking wet pedestrian. In the alleys of the old quarters of the city there are no blond girls with starched bodices that guide flocks of geese. The baroque palaces appear as gaudy méringues that stand out against a sky of lead.

The Gabriela was the first ship that on the 29th of September 1994 picked up the desperate call of the Estonia which hopelessly lopsided on a freezing sea, and ended up capsized, resulting in 852 deaths. It had been of no use that “The Herald of Free Enterprise” had sunken seven years earlier, also because water flooded in through the access gate for vehicles. The unlucky ones who perished on that journey left from Zeebrugge, thinking they would arrive at Dover; but the free enterprise had no scruples at the time to exercise the liberty of maximizing its profits and minimizing its costs. This is all about maximally reducing the time of embarkation and loading, and doing that with the minimum personnel possible. It may well be that she unforeseen change of destiny, normally embarking at Calais, or that the deficient cargo of forty-seven trailers provoked the swerving, but the reality remains that for some reason it did not appear to anyone to close the floodgates at the prow, designed in such way that it could not be seen from the bow. With a calm sea perhaps the waves would not have entered into that enormous hole, but the bad placement of the trucks did provoke a “nose-diving” course that after the “all to the front” lead to the inexorable entry of water at a rate of three tons per second on a deck with moving cargo, without compartment dividers that could have limited the damage. Three hundred tons of water was all that was needed to make a ship of eight thousand capsize in three minutes, at only half a mile away from the port’s entrance.

As I intended to keep pride at bay, I felt like learning about foreign disasters, and once in Stockholm I dove into the museum in which the darkness protects remains of the Vasa, the biggest warship of its era, constructed on orders by Gustav Adolf the Great who had dreamt it up as the amphibious lion that would be able to finish with the bellicose German Catholics, and that sunk on the 10th of August 1628 on its maiden voyage. The ship remained sunken at the bottom of the Swedish port during more than three hundred years, until it could be rescued in 1961. Three years of work and a thousand oaks were needed for this colossus with 69 meters of length to sink itself in front of the eyes of Stockholm’s inhabitants, at only a few meters off the quay. Lots of canons and a little butter, although both things have survived in this lump of frozen history. A light gush of wind was all that was needed for this vessel to list so that water ran in through the canon gates and to let half of the hundred persons present on board perish, including a number of women and children who had special permission for the inaugural party.

The affair ended like a tango of Edmundo Rivero but my journey had only just begun, and I saw myself sliding down the Swedish map towards the Vättern Lake, the greatest surface of potable water in Europe. In one of its extremes is the island of Visingsö, whose mere mentioning makes me shudder. According to legend, a mysterious subterranean canal unites this lake with Germany. For that reason the lakesiders have memories of seeing the appearance of all sorts of objects that float through its waters, whose descriptions venture a German origin? This island had to have something for which Katherine Tingley chose it to have her house, a scale-copy of the Greek Parthenon, built here, at which the Dame organized The Theosophical World Congress for Peace in 1913. The islanders still remember her given that she was the one who afforded the installation of electricity on the island, amongst other things. With only seven year her parents abandoned her, because she spent the hours hugging trees. The small ferry that brings me closer to Visingö bears her name, but first a long far walk to Granna awaits me, where one catches a boat. Erik accompanies me, a real Viking in his thirties, loquacious, who wears his red beard bound together in a tail, who smokes one cigarette after the other to keep his smile yellow. He has been born on the island and he cannot understand what could have brought me from Stockholm to here.

-    I come in the name of Mario Roso de Luna, a Spanish Theosophist who could not make it here in 1913… The looks of the Nordic ginger head was of an authentic shrink softened by a tavernal solidarity with the stranger that came from the promised land of bars and cheap alcohol.

-    I’m only interested in beer, red wine and the love of my fiancée who’s got me nailed down here. I should be in Stockholm where it all happens; I escape there as often as I can…

The immense mirror of the lake appears in between the houses of Granna and my ginger companion says goodbye and wishes me luck. This village is known thanks to Amalia Eriksson who discovered here “polkagrisar”, a peppermint flavored candy. We contemplate thousands of children’s caries for that, but the main street looked like the Promised Land of Pinocchio with shop windows full of bicolored candy canes. In 1897 S.A. Andrée left for the North Pole in a hot air balloon from this village, together with two friends. His adventure passed from legend to reality when their bodies were found 33 years later. The villagers who are grateful for the departed visionaries have commemorated them with a minuscule museum.

Blessed by an auspicious full moon I planted my tent besides the ruined fort of Visingsborg, while, without my knowing it, Paco crossed the Threshold from where he would not return. Behind the cemetery from where about a hundred interned Russians at the end of a Swedish-Russian war would neither return, appears the scenting botanic garden exclusively dedicated at the cultivation of aromatic plants, and to the elegant roof of the chapel of Brahe, facetted as if the tiles were bars of soap. Here Greta, an old little lady of around 80 explains the mysteries of one of the most colorful and lovely temples of which I have ever had the fortune of contemplating, to half a dozen of visitors.

-    Coming from Spain you must be Catholic, no? Our church is Protestant, you know that, don’t you? 

-    Yes, I’m Catholic by birth and tradition, but I simply believe that we are all facing the same mountain, and every one must take their own path to reach the top. 

-    That idea would summarize the sense of tolerance that reigns in our Sweden.

-    May God bless her. You have a precious church.

Mounted on my rented bicycle I put myself out to pass along the fifteen kilometers that this tempered Eden where beauty assaults you from by the sides of the roads. A few granaries there, and stables from the XVIII century, pertaining to the Swedish Crown. Further on the church of Kumlaby whose truncated tower divides the whole of this toy Eden, as if the lake were an immense tear of God after expelling us from Paradise. I stuffed myself with pears like a fat Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, meanwhile seeing how a small Electrolux robot rushed over the grass carpet of a small house. At a meter of distance to the sympathetic apparatus, my attention was drawn to a rock that was accompanied by a small sign. I was dealing with the Piggesten Stone, a reddish rock that according to legend smells like pepper. The sign told how funeral cortèges would hold in front of it while someone would hit it with a piece of wood while the church bells were tolling, on that moment the elves released the last aroma due to which the departed was taken with him to the ‘other village’.

The small Parthenon built by miss Tingley nowadays is the studio and museum of local artist Olle Krantz. I encountered him reaping the grass in between his sculptures. He did not speak a word of English but in spite of that he posed in front of my camera while sitting on his shiny harvesting machine. 

After the Island of the Theosophists my steps wander me to the North. In the same basin as Vättern, Vadstena is located, the place where St. Bridgid of Sweden had her famous visions. This Nordic Saint Theresa always has called my attention. Birgitta Birgersdotter, was a widow with eight children who beside her dreams had another idea of founding her famous mixed convents, or double orders, in which monks and nuns lived side by side in the daytime, without the need to resort to passage ways and nocturnal hustling like in other monasterial foundations. At eight in the morning I run into the Bishop who is on his way to give the first mass of the day at the abbey, and he greets me. Linköping, Norrköping and Nyköping show me what the average Swedish city is like. I bump into one bum after the other and with a youthful woman in her late fifties, the local version of the bag lady, with socks in different colors, like Pippi Longstocking, thoroughly searching through the opulent disposals of the neighborhood without a Mister Nilsson on her shoulder.

My last hike before embarking from Stockholm is the native city of Bergman, the university and the city of books. The closed inn obliges me to plant my tent out in the open close to a suburb on the outskirts of the city. A helicopter with a searchlight had almost discovered me, but it would only be the frozen morning that kicked me out of my refuge. At seven in the morning, with my belongings in a locker I had already slipped into the Botanic Garden founded by Linnaeus, where I enjoy myself watching the inertia of the cleaning brigade. In the Museum Gustavianum I visited his famous anatomic theater, restored in such a manner that it resembles Fontan Square in Oviedo, the truth is that I stick with the one in Padua.

Many years ago I wrote a poem in which I proclaimed: “Never will I see the Bible of Uppsala”. In that verse I made my renunciation of what is nonessential, of the objects that substitute the histories that some day fold themselves in. I remember that it was a love poem, but that does not say much, all that we write deals with the same. We write in order they’ll love us, or at least to recover the love for ourselves when we find ourselves pressed down, rather like reflections, on a blank surface. We disgrace the primordial silence of our child’s play in which only the sound of the kitchen clock could be heard and the absence of a mother who was always working. 

There in the Carolina Rediviva they keep the aforesaid Bible, but the one they show you is only a copy. We travel to escape our own landscape but we carry it tattooed on our retinas, we search for different silences to escape what we carry with us, we believe we find the way out of our labyrinth while in reality we only expand it with the false illusion of traveling.  Without wanting it, in that old verse I compared that antique Bible written with silver letters with the one we are always looking for but never find, but the facsimile reminded me that the fallacy of whatever object is only effective in front of gullible eyes.

Rubén Figaredo, September 2007.

Galeria con fotografías del viaje - Gallery with photographs of the journey

[Originally published as 'Suecia y los restos de un naufragio' in Ángulos muertos - nuevas entregas para viajeros; CICEES, Gijón, Asturias-Spain, 2008.
Translation into English: Ingrid van der Voort.]