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A Trip to Kalmar: Part I

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.

I 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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