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

 

Helen in Wonderland

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Ja ja jag bjuder väl på den här

Hello from the other side! I have been admitted to the States! I actually made it through border control at record speed, 43 minutes after landing I was out at the Freedom Shrine waiting for Emily. (Yes, Freedom Shrine. God Bless and everything.)

I will admit that I was not very comfortable going through border control. Partly because I never have to do that. Literally the last time was 12 years ago and also in this country. Because I never travel outside of the EU so I just walk into Belgium, Sweden and Portugal like I own the place. In America, it’s more like I walk in trying my best to come across as the perfect daughter in law. After endless hours on the plane, not to mention the ticket price, it would not be fun to be send back. Not that I there is any reason to send me back but in Europe, people always retell these stories of people giving border officers a strange look, pissing them off so much that they were refused entry.

Different from 12 years ago, there are now self-border-control-machines (and wifi and tinder and whatsapp didn’t exist back then either). I chose the German language one because I wanted to err on the side of caution and be 100 % sure I would not get anything wrong. Unfortunately the translation was kind of odd so the English version would definitely be easier to handle. At the end, they make you take a photo of yourself which is printed on a slip of paper you have to hand to the officer. You only get one try to take the photo. When I saw mine coming out of the printer, I was like, “Oh geez, I look like a criminal on drugs. Now I know why everyone reapplied their make up before landing!” I am very thankful the officer let me in despite that photo.

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So in the arrival area there were literally at least five signs saying this. “We will treat you with respect and dignity when you go through border control”. Eh, why do you even have to say that? Non EU readers, are there these signs in Europe as well when you enter?

It only took Emily and me three times as long to get home as usual. The train stopped for like an hour because something broke down. Emily called it “a real DC commuter experience”. I didn’t mind because after being so bored on the plane, I finally had great company. At her house, I am now familiarzing myself with how everything works. It’s Wonderland for me. It’s actually foreign, an experience I don’t have often. I’ve been texting Emily all morning (yes, it’s morning here, I am still so amazed by time difference. It’s great, I won 6 hours last night!).”How do I open the window? Is the tap water drinkable? Your fridge keeps beeping. How do I get the shower to work?” I am very fascinated.

Emily also did me a huge favor. This morning while I was still slumbering in my guest bed (amazing bed! the best bed! terrific bed!), she got me a ticket to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s so popular that if you don’t get a ticket at 6 a.m., you won’t get in at all because the queues are immense. So that’s where I am going now, in splendid sunshine and zero degrees.

Hello from Heathrow

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At the Harry Potter store

Some people think I am experienced jet-setter. They’re quite wrong. It’s only the route Hamburg-Stockholm and Düsseldorf-Berlin that I can do in my sleep. But today as I make the journey across the pond, I – at least inwardly – seem more like a provincial person. I am the one who marvels at the size of Heathrow where I have a stop over, the one who strolls through the shops and gazes at all the exquisite things offered at Harrod’s and the Harry Potter store. I am the one rejoices in seeing all the diversity that, despite being a relatively international city, Dizzel does not have: Orthodox Jews putting their hats back on after security, Indian children swirling around with turbans at Boots or an American reading from her Bible before boarding.

O lands! O all so dear to me – what you are, I become part of that, whatever it is. (Walt Whitman)

 

To the sun

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“Hej solen!”, my co-worker would always exclaim full of affection during rainy fall, winter and spring days when the skies outside the office cleared. Now my co-worked is no longer working with us which resulted in much less entertainment and discussions during office hours and at the same time, it has become official that I need to intensify my relationship with the sun. My general practitioner called today and told me my vitamin D levels were almost below the limit of detection. What?! Have I survived all these dark Swedish winters without problems only to fall to “severe vitamin D deficency” in Düsseldorf of all places?

In German, there is a song from the workers’ movement called, “Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit” (Brothers, to the sun, to freedom) – sounds very fitting for my starting a shock treatment to restock my reserves and leaving for the U.S.. Whether you want to attribute the freedom part to the country or to my being on vacation, that’s up to you.

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My friend Henrike came to visit and we finally went to the film museum I’ve wanted to visit since a year. They had an exhibit about Lotte Reiniger, the pioneer lady of animation. I made my own animated movie! It was a one-second-movie.

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I loved these pictures that were lighted up from behind

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We also went to a muscial about Luther. They had a choir consisting of 1000 people. Impressive!

 

To the land of the free

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Emily and me, 2010-today, Stockholm, Malmö, Kiruna, Damme, Bremen, Juoksengi, London, Hamburg. And soon: Murica!

Yesterday, twelve years ago, I set foot on American soil for the first time.  I have not been back since that high school exchange semester. The first five years, I didn’t feel like I had to return. When others felt New York City or Los Angeles irresistably calling for them, I just wanted to go Stockhome. But it was there, in Stockholm, I met Emily who I came to call one of my very best friends, and she was from across the pond. When political and cultural news coming from the U.S. depressed, disillusioned my European soul, I had her  restore my faith in the American people.

And all these years, I’ve been wanting to visit her. Today, I booked! We’ll be spending our birthdays together (because we’re born just one day apart) and I’ll be in Washington, Philadelphia and New York City at the worst possible time: February. But I don’t care, I’ll meet Emily and I’ll see my 2004 host sister Bridget again and I’ll go to the Swedish American Emigration Museum. This is going to be grand! Now I’ll just have to apply for a passport.*

*As a German, you only need a passport if you are travelling outside of the Schengen area which includes all of Europe.

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.