For hours I had driven continually through tall black forests on narrowing roads. By 10p.m. it had been dark for over four hours. Instead of cars I now met with hares - hares sitting upright in the middle of the road at regular intervals. Dazed by the headlights, they would freeze momentarily, and then be gone, much to my relief. I was rather hoping to see moose. This is moose country, and catching sight of these large, gaunt creatures in their natural habitat is always awe-inspiring. It can, of course, also be dangerous, should the animal choose to show up unexpectedly in front of the car. I drove with extreme caution. Having just bought a new Saab, I was not about to take unnecessary risks.
My Småland odyssey had begun. Instead of having the car shipped directly to the United States, I was first taking it for a test run through the region known for, among other things, its many superb glassworks. Even though it felt as if I were in the middle of nowhere, this was familiar territory. I was born and raised in Småland, which incidentally is famous, or infamous, for thousands of people having emigrated to America. Much of its history is that of small farmers carving a meager living out of a land that never lent itself to farming. It is generally conceded that their long battle against an excess of stone left a mark on the local character: hardiness, thrift, and inventiveness being its main components. More than elsewhere in Sweden, a spirit of free enterprise prevails here. The notion of inventiveness is rather borne out by the impressive numbers of family businesses that owe their existence to clever little ideas. An example is the man who patented a wooden stick with a streamer to attach to the packet holder of bicycles. (That way the bicyclist can, at a reasonable cost, increase his or her territorial claim by a foot or two.) Some enterprises are much grander in scale. The man who built the IKEA empire is a Smålander, and before him there was Ivar Kreuger, the financier who brought safety matches to the world. The products emanating from many businesses are mostly made of wood and, as I gazed through the darkness from the push-button warmth of my high-tech cocoon, it was easy to see why. Every now and then I saw rectangles of yellow light from some isolated habitation, but for the most part it seemed to be all forest.
It was at the Paris Exhibition of 1925 that the world's attention first riveted on the excellence of Swedish glass. Exhibited were the works of Simon Gate and Edward Hald, both from Orrefors. Before being engaged as glass designers, Gate had worked as a book illustrator, and Hald was a painter studying under Matisse. The notion of bringing outside artists to work side by side with skilled craftsmen was at the time relatively new. Previously, glass was produced to order, or new designs were created by the craftsmen themselves.
Today, the close cooperation among artists and craftsmen seems the obvious prerequisite for a superior product. To realize his or her intentions in the glass, the artist must depend on the consummate skills of glass blowers, cutters, and engravers, many of whom draw from generations of experience. Just how these things work I would soon be able to see for myself. With that thought I arrived in the tiny town of Orrefors. As far as the town was concerned, I had noticed only a scattering of red cottages. Stillness, and the jagged edge of pine trees surrounded me as I left the Exhibition Hall to visit the factory, where glassblowing was now in full progress. The orange light from the furnaces could be glimpsed through a long row of windows.
Inside was warmth and beautifully orchestrated action. Blow pipes - the magic wands of glassblowing - were thrust into the furnaces and twisted to collect gobs of molten glass. As the burning liquid turned syrupy, it was rolled on steel plates, rotated in large wooden spoons, or coaxed into shape by bare hands, protected only by a few layers of wet newspaper. As puffs of air were blown into the pipes, shapes expanded. Like a carefully choreographed ballet, workers joined and disjoined at precise moments. A round shape scissored out of congealing liquid was suddenly the foot of someone else's nearly finished wine glass.
The next morning, after starting up my new Saab, I nearly jumped out of my seat. Glancing over at a gravel-covered side road, I saw one of the largest living moving things I’d ever encountered in a Swedish forest. A bit too close for comfort, a large moose bull was contemplating his next move. I grabbed my camera, enthralled by this chance encounter. Its majestic features seemed to me to be larger than life.
After recovering from the shock and securing a few shots, I pulled out from the parking area and left Orrefors to drive to the Baltic coast. Next on my agenda was Kalmar Castle, an 800-year-old stronghold on the eastern coast. As with many European castles of similar age, this one began as a defense tower, evolved into a fortress, then became a Renaissance palace, and slowly deteriorated, until recently it was spiffed up and turned into a tourist attraction. Kalmar castle has a long history. I recall one event which, incidentally, I couldn't find mentioned in the guide books. It took place in the winter of 1552-53. At age 56, Gustav Vasa, one of Sweden's most notable kings, married for the third time. His bride was 16-year-old Katarina Stenbock. The wedding and honeymoon were spent in Kalmar Castle and lasted 13 weeks. During that period, the newlyweds and their 360 guests consumed 226,800 liters of beer.
Now driving in a northwesterly direction, I reached Växjö, the town where the House of Emigrants is located. Of the nearly 1.3 million Swedes who left between 1846 and 1930, primarily for the United States, one-fifth came from Småland. This was the obvious fictional birthplace of Karl-Oskar and Kristina, the quintessential emigrant couple, created by the Swedish author Wilhelm Moberg and later portrayed by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman in a series of three highly acclaimed films by director Jan Troell. It is questionable whether there would have been a House of Emigrants if it hadn't been for Wilhelm Moberg. The large exhibition hall, called “the Dream of America,” echoes the spirit of his epic novels. There, in old prints and photos, cross-sections of ship's models, and montages of various kinds, the dreams, hopes, and quite incredible hardships of poor 19-century peasants breaking away from their native land spring to life in loving detail.
Adjacent to the exhibition hall is a research library where a steady stream of Swedish-Americans come to trace their ancestry. On the second Sunday in August, the goodwill between the countries reaches an all-time high as Växjö celebrates its annual Minnesota Day.
Zigzagging through the forested landscape towards my last stop, Gränna, I felt extremely pleased with my new car. It positively purred, and reminded me that Saab was always the engineer's choice in a country of engineers.
In Gränna, a small town on the northern border of Småland, the forest stopped suddenly, giving way to a breathtaking view of Lake Vättern. Remembering Gränna, visions of summer and blue skies dotted with colorful balloons come to mind. It is the balloon capital of Sweden and the birthplace of Salomon August Andrée, the nineteenth-century explorer who, in 1897, with two other Swedes, set off in a balloon in an attempt to reach the North Pole.
The story is fascinating. They took off from Danes Island in the Spitsbergen archipelago and three days later came down in the frozen wastes 298 miles away. For nearly three months they tried to get back to civilization on treacherous ice floes that kept carrying them off in different directions. The story might have ended there, but 33 years later the remains of Andrée's last camp were found. There, beside their bodies, were André's extraordinarily detailed diary and exposed film. The film was later successfully developed. Large blowups of these photographs, along with the camera that took them, and all the other paraphernalia found in the camp, can now be viewed at Gränna's André Museum.
My professional instincts roused, I headed for the display case with the century-old 13x18 cm camera. Equipped with compass, spirit level, and a registration apparatus to mark the time and direction each photo was taken, it presented a dazzling example of 19th century engineering. To make handling and transport easier, the expedition's photographer had, for the first time in history, used roll film instead of glass plates.
A large polar map, tracing the course of the expedition, seemed to carry an important message. The odds against Andrée and his colleagues ever making it must have been staggering.
That's another thing about Smålanders. They never give up.
Text and photography: Bo Zaunders
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