The Isle of Hope and Tears

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Whenever I don’t write about things right away, it becomes difficult to capture the impressions afterwards. With work and carnival and life getting on, it feels like it’s been much longer than two weeks since I set foot on German soil again.

But because this trip was so glorious, I will still try to recollect the experience, in pictures at least. Let’s get started with the first of my Throwback Thursdays: USA!

The Isle of Hope and Isle of Tears – that’s what they called Ellis Island where all immigrants were registered between 1892 and 1954. When you visit it today,  you are first taken to Liberty Island to see what they saw: the statue, Liberty Enlightening the World. I can only imagine what it must have been like to catch sight of this symbol when coming from oppression, poverty, hunger and persecution and it fills me with awe looking up at Lady Liberty. As we, actually both children of immigrants to our respective countries, walked around Liberty Island in brilliant sunshine, we learned, however, that she’s only been there since 1886 which means “my” emigrants from Sweden, namely Kristina/Utvandrarna, would not even have seen her.

“Freedom means the opportunity to be what you never thought you could be.” Daniel J. Boorstin, quote on a banner next to the ferry to Liberty Island

The next stop is Ellis Island itself. It is both the very well done exhibition at Ellis Island as well as the site itself that teaches the visitor about the history and that makes it possibly to grasp it, at least a little, emotionally, too. There, you get to go into the very registration hall that the immigrants sat in. Just think of all the people who waited there, people who built the United States, whose children shaped American culture. Irving Berlin. Cary Grant. The Trapp Family. They all went through the registration procedure there, proving their health and literacy and showing they had 25 dollars to enter the U.S.. Most people were admitted and many had relatives waiting for them at the gate. The officials, we learned, called it “The Kissing Gate” on the “Isle of Hope”. But some immigrants were rejected and for them Ellis Island became the “Isle of Tears”: in the audio guide, a Russian-American lady told the story of her whole family being granted entry except for their grandma who was sent back to Russia alone. She never saw her again.

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I was particularily impressed with how grand the registration building was.

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O’er the land of the free and the home of brave

 

What’s Welcome in German?

Photo: Pier53

Yesterday night, I made a film director very happy. At least that is what he told me and a couple of hundred people. But let me start from the beginning.

In the afternoon, Tina, known from Come Dine with Me, asked if I wanted to come along and watch the new documentary about refugees in Germany and how Germans react to them. I had heard about the movie and would not mind seeing it but ah, going home and then go out again? Cycling all the way to Abaton when one could spend the evening on the sofa? Geez, I told myself, this has got to end. I cannot live in a metropolis where I have the chance to see the smallest documentaries on big screens and still always choose to watch Let’s Dance on my couch. I already vowed before to bring more inspiration into my life so I’d better live up to my own ideas.

Because I had an important phone call to make, I was late. When I stepped into the movie theater, they were just dimming the lights and a staff member told me, “There is only one seat left, in the front row there”. I had to walk past literally everyone and found my seat. Then I sat for 90 minutes and saw Larisa and Malik and Rrko and Herr Prahm and Frau Oelker and Herr Freudewald struggling with their respective situations. Larisa was longing for a home, Herr Prahm felt threatened by the 53 refugees that were to be placed in his 400-people-village. I got to meet Ingeborg and Eveline, two 80-year-old ladies that impressed me deeply by caring so lovingly for the refugee children. I got to see how authorities are trying to make refugees feel welcome and locals felt unsafe. I learned what it is like when you arrive and what kinds of adequate but simple lodgings you are placed in. The thought of my comfortable sofa made me feel rather lucky.

After the film, there was a Q&A with the director. He opened the conversation with saying how happy he was to see a movie theater filled to the last seat. “When we were about to start, there was only one ticket that had not been sold. And then someone came in, that last person, and I was so glad.” So that’s how I made a film director happy last night.

The movie “Willkommen auf Deutsch” (Welcome in German) is playing in selected cinemas now.

Carthasis: Kristina frĂ„n DuvemĂ„la

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 frĂ„n DuvemĂ„la. 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 frĂ„n DuvemĂ„la”. 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 mĂ„ste 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 frĂ„n DuvemĂ„la 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. 

We need a German Ministry of Invitations

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When I was a foreigner abroad, especially in the beginning, I remember how the best thing would always be if a local invited you home. It was almost like an unofficial integrational competition among the other internationals: how many Swedish homes have you been to? Being invited into someone’s home gave you access to the society you were in, to find out more about how the people lived here and what they liked to do.

Last Saturday, I had guests for dinner. It is something that happens every now and then at my blue table. Young people in their twenties usually from different backgrounds, often different nationalities gather around that table that was the first one my mother owned herself when she was in her twenties. I put on that Spotify playlist, light the brass candle holders and uncork the red wine. That’s what I always do and that is what I did last Saturday as well. Actually, it was like any Saturday dinner with guests. Just that those guests did not come from Sweden or Spain or the South of Germany. They came from Syria and they did not come voluntarily.

Last year, Ebba Åkerman, a Swedish language teacher for immigrants, came up with the brilliant idea of the “Invitationsdepartmentet”, a Ministry of Dinner Invitations. She realized that refugees and immigrants are “let into the country but not into the society”. That’s why she started matching natives and immigrants who met for dinner together.

In Hamburg, we also have hundreds of refugees. They live in container camps with other refugees and contact with Germans is scarce or lacking. For the Germans, the refugee question is mostly a political topic that is discussed in media, it’s numbers, not people. In short: Hamburg, like probably any German city, is a perfect starting point for a German Ministry of Invitations.

Through friends I contacted Tina, an inspiring young woman who hangs out with the refugees and helps them with trips to the authorities. I asked her if she thought it would be a good idea and if the refugees would be up for a dinner with us. They were.

Last Saturday, I had guests for dinner. Young people in their twenties, from different backgrounds, different nationalities: two German girls, my colleague Sarah and Tina, and two Syrian guys. A PR professional, an engineer, an English graduate, an economist. We talked about Hamburg, about studying, about food, about parties, about what our parents do. We told each other of our childhood homes. We could have been a group of exchange students. When you sit down for a casual dinner, there is little difference between these guests, refugees, and other international friends if you don’t choose to focus on it.

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Sweden’s best book

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One of the most pressing socio-political problems of our time must be the migration and refugee movements. Who would have thought that a Swedish book could – in my humble opinion – contribute anything to the question?

A couple of years ago when I took a Swedish course in Göttingen, our teacher made us watch a movie where everything happened in what felt like real-time. I did not fully appreciate the movie but one scene was etched in my memory and the name “Utvandrarna” (“The Emigrants”) stuck with me.

When I came to Uppsala, my friends Michelle and Malin must have brought up the story and introduced me to the musical whose name I had heard before but as it is not the same as the film/book, I had never connected it to the story. To me, it was a musical about something on the Swedish countryside and despite the fact that ABBA’s Björn and Benny wrote it, it never succeeded to catch my full attention. When my favorite magazine published an article on the new, elaborate –redesign of the book covers in 2012, I decided that I would give the story a try. That’s where my story with Kristina, Karl Oskar and Robert finally began.

It is the story of a group of peasants from the South of Sweden who suffer from bad harvests and famine so that they decide to emigrate to America. My friends make fun of me because I read the books so slowly. One reason for that is certainly the advanced linguistics (with dialectal dialogues) but I also find the book series by Vilhelm Moberg to be very emotionally exhaustive. Every word in the thousands of page is carefully arranged, every character is fully thought-through and in every little substory, there’s a whole own drama going on. Moberg succeeds in sucking me into the life of Swedish peasants during 1860s in a way that only a skilled author can. Sometimes, I want to read with a highlighter to mark the passages that remind me of my own very much smaller-scale migration. And many times, I am amazed by the striking parallels between today’s refugees and Kristina’s family. Hundreds of years in between and yet, so much is so similar. This story, a national treasure in Sweden, manages to evoke such empathy for the characters that transcends the place and time and should contribute to changing one’s outlook on the Kristinas that come to Europe these days.

It is certainly true that I have no read all of Swedish literature but I am sufficiently impressed with both the story itself and the masterly way it is told to proclaim this one of the – if not the – best Swedish book. (Astrid Lindgren is, of course, standing outside all competition.)

The books in English and the movie trailer as well as the musical which goes under the name of Kristina frÄn DuvemÄla.

Coming up next: The Musical, Kristina frÄn DuvemÄla.

"Invandrarna", The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand

“Invandrarna”, The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand

On migration

Vad hon dock kunde förutsĂ€ga och sĂ€kert och visst veta, det var att hennes barn icke skulle behöva genomgĂ„ den saknadens och lĂ€ngtans smĂ€rta som hon genomgick och led: De bar inte hennes minnen med sig frĂ„n hemlandet, hennes saknad och lĂ€ngtan kunde aldrig hemsöka dem, inga klara syner frĂ„n ett förgĂ„nget liv i ett annat land kunde stiga upp och plĂ„ga dem. NĂ€r de en gĂ„ng hade vuxit upp sĂ„ skulle de inte veta av nĂ„got annat liv Ă€n det som levdes Ă€r i deras inflyttningsland. (…) Hennes barn och barnbarn skulle inte som hon spröja efter trĂ€d och buskar som de hade planterat i ett annat land, inte frĂ„gar sig om de knoppades och blommmade om vĂ„ren och bar frukt om hösten. De skulle aldrig som hon ligga vaken om kvĂ€llen och spana ut i mörkret efter ett land, dĂ€r kvĂ€llarna om vĂ„ren var ljusa. De som hon hade fött till vĂ€rlden och de som föddes av dem skulle redan i sitt livs början sĂ€ga vad hennes tunga inte förmĂ„dde sĂ€ga: HĂ€rhemma i Amerika – dĂ€rborta i Sverige.

What she could predict and surely and confidently knew was that her children would not need to go through the pain of deprivation and longing that she went through and suffered: They carried not her memories from the homeland, her deprivation and yearning could never haunt them, no distinct visions of a past life in a different country could rise up and torture them. As they grew up one day they would not know of any other life than the one they lived in their adopted country. (
) Her children and grandchildren would not wonder about trees and bushes they had planted in a different country, not ask themselves if they were sprouting and blooming in spring and cropped in fall. They would never like her lie awake at night and look out in the darkness for a country where the evenings were light in the spring. Those she had brought to this world and those who they would give birth to would already in the beginning of their lives say what her tongue was not able to say: Here at home in America – back there in Sweden.

(Vilhelm Moberg, Invandrarna/The immigrants, 1952)