Carthasis: Kristina från Duvemåla

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

Almost a year ago, my friend Michelle asked me if I wanted to travel to Gothenburg to see the musical version of “Utvandrarna”. I replied that I did not even know where I would live then and also “then I am 27” (as if that would change anything really) but I knew that I would come from wherever to see this musical, Kristina från Duvemåla. The world premiere 1995 is one of the things, alongside with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, that make me want to have been born earlier. Because then, I might have had a chance to see the musical with its original cast featuring Swedish national icons Helen Sjöholm and Peter Jöback.

But even this new version with different singers was deeply moving. When the show was over and we walked to the restaurant to have dinner, we were rather quiet. “I think we need some minutes to gather ourselves before we can discuss”, one in our company said.

It is hard to fail when you are working with such excellent material as Moberg’s story and Björn Ulvaues’ and Benny Andersson’s music. I remember how my mother taught me the word congenial and it certainly applies to “Kristina från Duvemåla”. The music doubles and triples all the feelings the story depicts and makes it possible to connect to the emigrants’ fear, hope, desperation, joy and love on a different level. The musical has to leave out parts, of course, but those that it covers are intensified.

Even here, all the words are carefully chosen and in a poetic union of sound and language, a whole world is built up in Gothenburg’s opera house, a venue only metres away from the port through which countless Swedes emigrated to America.

There is one song in the musical that corresponds to the main aria in an opera,”Du måste finnas”, the song I would use if I was a history teacher trying to convey how people in the past felt about faith and God. The song is very much associated with Helen Sjöholm, the singer who sang it when the musical first premiered. Her face is even on the poster –even now in Gothenburg where she is not playing Kristina. It must therefore have been a great challenge to make an own version of this piece and I found that the Swedish-Finnish singer that played Kristina succeeded to vary this grand song and give her touch to it, especially in the angry passages when Kristina in her deepest despair asks God if he exists and why he has abandoned her.

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

However, the song that made me lose my composure entirely (I never cry at movies or musicals) was another one, “Gold can turn to sand”. I have listened to this song time and again but it almost felt like it was the first time I heard it. In this piece, all the heart-breaking themes come together: the loss of a dear friend, the end of all high hopes they have worked so hard for, the death of two men much too young. Who would not sob when an 18-year-old sings about how they got lost in the desert and how his only friend, “a brother”, died from drinking from a poisened well? (And yes, the two dying ones happened to be my favorite characters as well.)

The events are from more than 150 years ago, the story is 66 years old, the musical turns 20 this year – but the strength and beauty is still there, as one press reviews put it. 

Kristina från Duvemåla is still playing at Gothenburg’s Opera and will move to Stockholm Circus for the fall. You should go see it. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

As this story is part of American Immigrant History, there is even an English version of it. Many of the songs are excellently translated: Kristina at Carnegie Hall (not available in Germany) and on Spotify. My favorite songs, although all are terrific, are: Path of Leaves and Needles, Where you go I go with you, Down to the Sea, We open up the Gateways, Summer Rose (can’t listen to it because I start crying), Gold can turn to Sand, You have to be there. 

Xenophobia

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Last week I went to Lohmühlenstraße. I was sent there by a hairdresser who I had gone to. She was undeniably Persian, her hairdresser’s shop was called Mojgan’s. (My parents considered calling me that as a second name and I wish they had, so I am always happy to meet Mojgans.)

I always prefer Turkish and Persian ones because they know how to pluck eyebrows with a thread. Also, I could ask Mojgan where to buy lamb meat. My favorite dish is a stew my mom makes after a Persian recipe that requires lamb. No, pork won’t do. Beef will make it taste very differently. Lamb is expensive, but you can get good value for money in the so called Turkish shops. Mojgan directed me to Lohmühlenstraße. I get off the metro and saw a lot of oriental shops, some women with veils, and the minaret. That is not the most unusual sight in a big city and I proceeded into a store. I bought lamb at the counter. The butcher switched between German and what I think was Turkish. Most people did not speak German in there. I wanted to buy sliced tomatos as well and checked the shelves. Everything was in Arabic. I didn’t understand a word and I could not find out by the red packaging if the tomatos were sliced or not. For a short moment of irritation, I thought, “This is so annoying. Do they really have to be all-non-German in here?”

I believe that being an immigrant somewhere significantly can change the way you look at non-natives. Because as I stood there in the store where I could not understand the tomato can, I re-examined my own behavior. I remember how going to the German Bakery was the Saturday Morning highlight in Stockholm. I remember how I went in and greeted them in German. One time the shop assistant replied, “Eh, du får prata svenska med mig, jag kan ingen tyska”. I wonder if he thought, „Do they really have to be all-non-Swedish in here?“ I usually did my grocery shopping at Lidl because that was cheap. While that was the foremost reason, it was also pleasant that you knew what you got because they sell the same stuff as in Germany. Sometimes I held a tomato can in my hand that had only German (and Finnish?!) writing on it and wondered how Swedes find out if the vegetable in there was sliced or not. And in Hamburg, I have been to the Swedish grocery store because I craved Marabou Salt and Pecan Nuts which only exists in Sweden. The shop assistant switched between Swedish and German. Just like the Turkish butcher.

It’s very close to being the same story, just that people regard German and Swedish foreigners as ‘better’ foreigners. The Swedish store is in the fancy part of town, Lidl was on a nice street. Lohmühlenstraße is, well, close to the central station. Germans and Swedes are not feared – in this current period of history. But really, the differences in habits seem small to me between the good and the better immigrants.

I think about how luxurious it is that I can make use of trade and craft that originally does not exist in Germany: like thread-eyebrow-plucking and Marabou Salt and Pecan Nut.

Sweden is voting in their national election on Sunday. I am genuinely exasperated that I, not being a Swedish citizen, cannot vote. I rely on the sanity of the Swedes to go to the ballot box. I rely on the citizens of a once proud modern state to manage to change course so that I don’t have to feel embarrassed by proxy for four more years: The xenophobic right-wing party has 11 procent in the polls, making it the third strongest party. My thought experiment above is what I have to say to that.

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(Video can’t be embedded so I am linking to it:) This little girl is crying, “I also want to vote!” as her daddy tells her you have to be 18 to vote in Sweden. I feel a bit like her.