Tess McMillan ©2015
I’ve just returned from Stockholm, this beautiful city on Lake Mälaren, and people have been asking, “So why did you go there? Do you have relatives?”
“Yes,” I say, “but not in Stockholm.”
I used to live in Stockholm, which caused some consternation for Swedish people that I met, who would ask me wonderingly, “How come you speak Swedish, if you’re American?”
I used to go into a long story about farfar’s far coming from Karlshamn, which brought a slight look of relief into their faces. “So you’re one of us, then,” they would say. But then they would look at me and ask, “But don’t the Swedish people there speak only English?” Finally, I settled on the short phrase “My dad’s Swedish.” The people who heard that line would sigh in relief and say, “Oh that explains why your Swedish is so good.”
It is a bit of mystification for Swedes that a Swedish-American could speak Swedish, since most Swedish-Americans do not. We live in the Midwest, wear ugly clothes, have lots of money and like to lord it over our Swedish cousins, right? Well…
There is a Yiddish saying: “The grandchild wants to remember what the grandparents want to forget”, and in Swedish North America there has been a rise in interest in ethnic customs and the languages which our ancestors forgot, and I am just one of many Swedish-Americans who delved into my ancestral culture and came out with the greatest of treasures, the Swedish language.
My great-grandparents left Sweden and found each other in Chicago. At that time, Chicago was the second largest Swedish city in the world, and there is a saying reflecting that time: “The Swedes built Chicago.” My great-grandfather, Carl Gustaf Wideburg, was born in Karlshamn, a small town on the southern coast of the province of Blekinge. My great-grandmother, Alma Sophia Jacobson, was born to a Swedish sea-faring family in Amoy, China. Her parents decided to return to Båstad, in the southern province Skåne, but felt that life in Sweden was not for them after so many years abroad, so they went to Chicago, and opened a boarding house. My great-grandfather rented a room in that particular boarding house, and, well, you can guess the rest. They were very much in love, and in my possession I have a collection of songs that my great-grandfather collected for his beloved, writing little love notes at the bottom for songs that reflected the feelings of his heart.
“We’re Americans now,” my great-grandfather told my grandfather and his siblings, who all knew some Swedish from home, “so I want you to speak only English.” In spite of my great-grandfather’s insistence, some Swedish words remained, and I, three generations later, thought that “sill” was an English word, since it was used so often at home with an English pronunciation. This is perhaps no surprise, when you consider that food is one of the last things to change, and our extended family met every Christmas Eve for our “smorgasbord” (pronounced the English way) for sill, potatiskorv (potato sausage), brown beans, head cheese, salmon, Swedish meatballs, and cookies, cookies, cookies. This is our Christmas food, which I have eaten every Christmas Eve since I could toddle, and I now make it myself. My great aunts, great uncles and grandfather did not express it much in words, but I learned the lesson anyway, that I was American, but I was also Swedish, and we Swedes ate our meatballs and potatiskorv.
When I was seventeen, I wanted to be an exchange student, and my father said, “Since we’re Swedish, if you go to Sweden, I’ll pay. Otherwise, you pay.” I ended up in the small, friendly village of Vrigstad, in Småland, and once there, I fell in love with the music of the Swedish language. “I’m going to major in Swedish at college,” I announced when I got home. My father seemed worried, “How are you going to make a living with that?”
And so, Christmas of 1982 found me enrolled at the University of Stockholm, and searching the grocery stores for potatiskorv. I finally confessed to my Swedish friends that I could not find an essential of the Christmas table. “Where’s the potatiskorv?” I asked. “The what?” they would answer. I was aghast. Swedes who did not know what potatiskorv was? Swedes who didn’t have potatiskorv even at Christmas?
Here is the difference between our cultures in a nutshell: My children have potatiskorv (with mashed potatoes and lingonberries) for dinner, and Swedish children have never tasted it (though if they read Astrid Lindgren’s Emil stories they will see it mentioned! Really!).
I now live somewhere between the two cultures, perfectly at home in Stockholm and in Seattle, alternating between Swedish and American novels at whim, making Swedish and Thai food, decorating the house in an odd mixture of American Mission and Scandinavian design. However, one thing has changed since my childhood. When I was little, friends would ask me, “What are you?” and I would say Swedish. Now when people ask me that question, I say, “Swedish-American.”. After all, I do eat potatiskorv on a regular basis, and that’s what sets us apart.
Copyright © 2002 Laura A. Wideburg. All rights reserved. Originally published in Swedish Press and excerpted in Swedish Book Review (2003 Supplement: Food and Drink in Sweden and in Swedish Literature)
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