A Trip to Kalmar: Part I

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My great-grandfather Ernest emigrated to Boston from Sweden, but I never knew him. I hardly knew he existed. My grandfather was a quiet man and never told me a single thing about his parents. Sometime in high school was the first time I considered how much I liked the idea that I could trace my last name (and a slice of my genetic makeup) to one particular country. And not just any country, but a country with a claim to two things that delight me: meatballs and vikings.

dscn3491I don’t need to explain my love for Swedish meatballs. That should go without saying. As for vikings, though I realize they’re basically glorified murderers and thieves, and they raided during a rather short slice of history, one has to admit they evoke a stirring sense of adventure–basically a cross between pirates and Norse mythology. Picture Thor peering into an icy ocean spray as he clings with one hand to the starboard rail and the other to a warhammer. He grips the blade of a dagger between his teeth, snarling in defiance of storm and sea. Some people, when they think of Sweden, think of IKEA and Socialism. I think of warhammers. And meatballs.

Several years ago I was blessed to meet a few guys from Sweden who ended up working really hard to make a way for me to play a few shows there. I called my dad, who was happy to hear I would be singing my songs in the Fatherland. (My grandfather, had he been alive, might have smiled and grunted.) I discovered that my great-grandfather was born in a town called Kalmar. The name was perfect. It sounded like a place in one of the fantasy novels I loved to read when I was a boy, and I promptly changed Tink Igiby’s name. Kalmar Wingfeather was born.

That first visit to Sweden was a joy. I was surprised how much the Swedes were impressed by and interested in my small claim to Swedish blood. They often asked where my roots were, and when I told them “Kalmar” they smiled and nodded because they knew the place–a town on the southeastern coast of their country where stands one of Sweden’s old castles. Their next question was always, “Will you have time to go there?” and my answer was, sadly, no.

Near the end of that first trip I walked through old town Stockholm, the oldest part of the city, where the narrow streets look and feel the way an old European city ought to look and feel: alleyways, cobblestones, arch-topped wooden doors, stone gates, shingles, foot traffic, merchants peddling ice cream and artwork and little collectible vikings. I stumbled on a store that sold old maps and prints. They hung from the walls and bore the names of Swedish provinces and villages: Warberg, Malmo, Gotland–all written in fine Olde Worlde scripts.

It was in this little shop in Stockholm that I first saw Kalmar Castle. I bought two rare prints, one from 1840, the other 1870. Both were finely detailed, softly colored, and depicted a stout, bold castle with its back to the sea. The land around the castle was green and lined with trees and tumbledown stone walls. In one of the pictures a man and woman in 19th century attire stand near a rock wall and converse, probably about harvest time or the fitful weather or the birth of a neighbor’s foal.

Those pictures are now in nice frames and hang in my house in Nashville, little shrines to an old way of life, reminders of the land where my forefathers fought and farmed (and, perhaps, set out to pillage lower Europe). Granted, I have just as much Irish, English, and German roots as Swedish, but not nearly as recent as the late 1800’s, and those other ancestors and I don’t share a surname. So if I had to pick one to get excited about, it would be the Swedish branch.

Last week I finally set foot in Kalmar. It was my fourth tour of Sweden, and this time my friends managed to book me a show in this little town. I was greeted at the airport by two women from the church who drove me to my hotel–but not before pointing out first the library where I’d research town records the next morning, then just a few hundred yards from the street, the castle. For five years I’ve looked at those 150 year old prints of this place, wondering how much had changed, wishing I could run my hands over those ancient walls. I admit, it feels silly to be so drawn to a place to which I have so little claim. But when I saw it I couldn’t deny myself a grin. “Ah, there it is,” I whispered.

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Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


14 Comments

  1. Vicki Stanford

    Really nice writing, Andrew……your writing has a way of drawing your reader into the depths of your feelings about Kalmar……which is what good writers do.

    Keep on keeping on. Your ministry blesses me every day in some way.

  2. Peter B

    Stirring.

    You’ve given me a renewed desire to visit Italy someday (despite my own respectable smattering of English/Irish/Dutch/German).

  3. Laura Irick

    Next time you go to Kalmar, maybe you can ask to spend a day at the elementary school there to see what your life would have been like had your descendants stayed. We did that in Germany, and it was very interesting. We didn’t know the language well, but about halfway into one particular block of instruction we recognized, “Samuel, Samuel!” “Heir bin Ich!”…At a public school in Germany, the children were being taught the bible for 11/2 hours. For English class, the instructor played, “In the Jungle” while a child flipped a spiral notebook to a photo of choice, an animal in which the children were to put the name of it into the song as they sang it with the English pronunciation, and then they played “Simon Says”- woe be unto the poor soul who didn’t know his English well and was left sitting at his desk while the others stood on their chairs with their left elbows skyward. No lined paper there- only graph paper, and even the longest division problems were done without the writing of remainders on the chalkboard (the children use their fingers to keep track of them.) And yet, some things were delightfully similar on the other side of the planet. There were two little boys in the back of the room, for example, who would watch for the moment their teacher would turn their back to write for a while on the chalkboard, and out came their hands under the table… playing rock, paper, scissors.

  4. Jud

    Sorry AP, the Norwegians make a much better meatball. But despite that, it sounds like an awesome trip. I wish I had some kind of clear tie to my history, but I’m just a Dutch/German mutt.

  5. Chris Yokel

    I have a feeling that we’re getting an insight into the future picture of the ruins of Anniera in an upcoming Wingfeather Saga book…a ruined castle facing the sea…yeah….

  6. Aaron Roughton

    Beautiful. Both the sentiment and the castle. I like how you took the picture above from the same view as the painting. Nicely done. I’ve often thought about tracing my Belgian roots to see if I’m related to Jean Claude Van Damme. But then I realize that no matter what the outcome of the research, I’d probably be disappointed.

  7. Dad

    Great blog, son! I’m looking fwd to our being able to get caught up with you about your trip to Kalmar and to the library for some research. I still correspond a little with Samuel on FB. He seems like a great guy!

  8. E

    If you like vikings and thoughtful stories, I would recommend the Icelandic saga “Njal’s Saga.” I’m not sure there is a lot of Swedish stuff there, but it may be indirectly related.

    Tis a great read about law and wisdom and viking action… and in a surprise move, about halfway through, all of Iceland comes to Christ at once at their yearly Althing. Seriously. A Viking Missionary comes out of nowhere to kick some butt and preach the gospel, it is fantastic.

    Lots of action and romance and courtroom drama and intrigue. Just blow by the names with 17 letters without a vowel and you’ll be fine.

    In the end, it is a story about change and redemption. It makes me sad that almost no one in our school system has ever even heard of Njal, or Flosi the saga’s unlikely hero, or Gunnar (who could jump as far backward as he could forward). In an axe fight, that might be a bigger deal than you think.

    Sure, it isn’t as much fun as The Grapes of Wrath, but if you like vikings and want a page turner, Njal has the stuff.

  9. David H

    While Viking does mean pirate, those coming from Sweden are known primarily for trade established in the area now known as the Ukraine. The tribe of Vikings that settled in the region were known as The Rus and they largely originated in what is now known as Sweden. From them the nation of Russia got its name.

    What’s more, the Russian royal dynasty comes from this group of interlopers. The descendants of Vladimir the Great, a Norman-Rus illegitimate son to the ruler of Kiev, ruled the Russian empire in an unbroken line for six centuries.

    Vladimir is also credited with determining the direction of Christianity in the region through his conversion to the Eastern Orthodox faith. There are some interesting stories regarding martyrs that led to his conversion, but it was probably mostly about politics and power.

    But you have to hand it to those Vikes. They may have started as thieves and plunderers, but they were amazing explorers and played an integral role in the establishment of two major European empires (the British one being the other).

  10. Chris R

    If walls could talk, I imagine that castle would tell some stories… Thanks for telling us your stories in the Wingfeather Saga.

  11. Robert Treskillard

    Andrew,

    Thanks for sharing this story about your family history.

    I grew up in Minnesota, the land of 10 million Swedish mosquitoes, so I know the wonder and delectabiltiy of Swedish meatballs.

    Looking forward to hearing more…

    -Robert

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