Ways of Seeing, Laurie Cox: Warm reception in cold countries
About one hundred years ago, all four of my grandparents immigrated to this country, two as children, two as young adults. They arrived not speaking the language, wearing the garb of their native lands, with little money or resources. Their transitions could not have been easy, but they did have the benefit of others who had come earlier.
My Swedish grandparents settled in a part of Illinois that was mostly populated by other Swedes. My Danish grandparents came to Seattle at a time when many Danes were arriving there. They were able to keep some parts of their culture, continue their native language with family and friends, while also learning English, creating homes, finding jobs. This June my sisters and I, along with our spouses and one cousin, headed off to Denmark and Sweden hoping to explore our grandparents’ towns of origin. En route, we spent two days in Iceland.
Whatever you may think of Facebook, it can be a handy way to track down old friends. When my sister first explored this potential, she began connecting with high school classmates. Finding success, she decided to look up a fellow who had been in her classes her senior year — an exchange student from Iceland whom I will call Gunnar. She quickly found him, still living in Reykjavik. They became “friends” and saw what most of us tend to see on each other’s posts: family photos, animal videos, political commentary, food. Some years passed.
This spring, as we prepared for our travels, my sister contacted Gunnar via Facebook to see if he would like to join us for coffee during our Icelandic stay. His response was positive. In fact, he invited our group of six to dinner at his apartment. And so we found ourselves in Reykjavik on that pleasant June evening walking to Gunnar’s apartment, knowing that the afternoon’s light would last late into the night. We brought with us a gift of whiskey, since I had read that in Iceland liquor is quite expensive and, therefore, highly prized.
Upon our entering their home, Gunnar and his wife greeted us warmly. She is originally from Thailand, and they have been married for twelve years. Apparently she loves to cook, so we were in for a fantastic meal. As we exchanged introductions, Gunnar poured wine and encouraged us to fill our plates with the appetizer — a huge pile of broiled lobster tails. My brother-in-law turned to Gunnar and asked, “Have you ever gone back to Seattle?” “I have never been to the States,” Gunnar responded.
A big question mark arose in my thoughts. Conversation veered in another direction, and Gunnar later shared that he was 59 years old. If this was true, he would have been a seven-year-old in my sister’s high school class. My husband whispered to my brother-in-law, “Is this the right guy?”
Meanwhile, we feasted on Icelandic lamb with all the trimmings. Gunnar, a musician, played some of his CD’s. We talked about his life, that of his wife, and our upcoming travels. We did NOT bring up any more reminiscences of high school. An incredible cheesecake topped with dark chocolate and fresh fruit was brought out for dessert. We talked about his job, her son, old guitars, and the Icelandic economy. We told of our life in Vermont and invited them to visit.
Leaving their home with hugs all around, we returned to the street filled with delicious food, camaraderie, and — curiosity. “Was he really your old classmate?” we asked my sister. She wasn’t sure. Maybe he lied about his age, since his wife seems much younger, we hypothesized. Maybe he just likes meeting people. Maybe he invites six strangers to his home for a feast all the time! A few days later he posted photos from our evening, captioned “Dinner with my American friends.”
I recently turned to Facebook and found the “real” Gunnar. He actually lists his time at high school in Seattle. So what about this other Gunnar? I think he did like having a “friend” in the States, having American friends come to his home for dinner. Geographically, Iceland is three times larger than Vermont, but its population is about half. Tourism is booming, but is a fairly recent phenomenon. Why not reach out to people? Why not be friends in real life?
In 2016, Sweden had a phone number you could use to “Call a Swede” and ask them about anything Swedish. We found that same spirit in Denmark where, while searching for a laundromat, we asked a woman for information. She said, “Oh, it has been closed. Please, you can use my washer and drier, just upstairs.” There is something so comforting in this openness, this welcoming, which my grandparents must have felt the need for a century ago as immigrants to America.
In all three of these countries we saw a significant population of people of various ethnicities, including recent refugees. Sometimes we worry so much about “the other”. Our level of trust dips as we see all the horrific stories that pop up on the sides of our email sites or on Facebook itself. Sure, bad things do happen in the world, but mostly not. More likely, you have a wonderful meal, make new friends, learn a bit of a new language. Welcome to my home, my neighborhood, our country. It’s been fifty years since the Youngbloods sang, “Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now.” Why not try?
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.
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