I landed in Stockholm feeling like it was a new trip, partly due to boarding a plane again. Trains seem to keep everything continuous while flying literally rips you from the ground. My great-great-great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden, and while our family history is well documented back to that time, we know little of our Swedish roots. On the bus from the airport I imagined what it would have been like to live in Sweden. In fact, it felt a little bit like coming home for two reasons. First I had lived vicariously through my Westfeldt relatives while reading their biographies, and second the landscape looks a little like my home state of Maine.
Before arriving I did a yahoo search on the Wästfelt, the original spelling of the family name. It returned only one person, Lars, in Stockholm. I sent him an email explaining who I was and that I hoped to find information on my Swedish ancestry. He replied that his father, Sven, had similarly been trying to trace his grandfather’s brother who immigrated to the New York. While it was not the same person, Sven had done much research on the family and explained that we were certainly related. We agreed to meet when I arrived.
I checked into a fun hostel, City Backpacker’s Vanderhaven, on the Friday of the Midsummer Night’s Eve weekend. Many locals had traveled out of town for the long weekend, but a bunch of us at the hostel joined forces to hit the town which promised to stay up to see the shortest night of the year. The sun set around 11:30, but it never really became dark, more of a dark blue for about 1.5 hours. We were quite an international crowd, represented by the Portugal, Turkey, Italy, Canada, and the U.S. Unfortunately being backpackers, some had only sneakers to wear out that night. This kept us out of several nightclubs, until one where all of us got in except two. I solved the problem by greasing the bouncer with a 50-crown note. Filipe from Portugal was amazed, saying it was just out of the movies, a very American approach. Perhaps it was, but he was surprised to learn that I had never bribed anyone before. The second night was more or less a repeat of the first. On the third day I met Sven.
We spent the Sunday morning walking around the city and discussing family history. We have to go back eight generations to find a common ancestor, meaning he is my mother’s sixth cousin, and that we share a common 6-greats-grandfather, while Lars and I are seventh cousins. We walked into the old town, Gamla Stan, and then to the south island of Stockholm (which is basically a bunch of islands) called Sodermalm (forgive the lack of accents), where we walked along the cliff for a commanding view of the city. Sven used to be the director of a gymnasium (high school) and has distinct love of history, so he gave quite a tour. He showed me where Christian the Terrible (or Christian the Great, depending on whether you are Swedish or Danish) chopped off the heads of 200 noblemen and clergy to make a statement. We then visited the Great Church on Gamla Stan to see the statue of Saint George and the Drake and the first painting of Stockholm that documents the Perihelion phenomenon from around 1510. Later we would discover that the father of the first Wästfelt is buried in this church.
The next morning we started at 8 a.m. for the National Archives. The first Wästfelt was born Westeman, but he changed it the state conferred him with nobility for his service as a judge or lawyer. Since he was a noble meticulous records have been kept of his descendants. After some time poring over the Swedish documents I realized that Anders and I share the same birthday, April 19, though he was born 320 years before me in 1652. Furthermore, my first name is Andrew, the English version of his. (Yes, thoughts of reincarnation entered my head.)
Though the Wästfelt line traces back to the early 1600’s, the line can be traced further through some of the women of the family. Soon I had a chain going back 25 generations to England in the 1100’s, though the data is less reliable for before generation 20. I captured most of the documents digitally with my camera and fed them to my laptop for later analysis. After we exhausted the archives, we proceeded to Riddarhusset, the royal house, for photos of the coats of arms are stored.
On Wednesday I bought a Stockholm card, intending to spend the next 24 hours in museums. That morning was the first sunny day since I had arrived so I spent my morning retracing my steps through the city to capture all the photos I had passed up in the rain. For lunch I rang up Lars Wästfelt, my seventh cousin. He is a year older than I am, and the last six months of our lives had been eerily parallel—both of us had long-term relationships end, made career changes, moved, etc. He is now working as an art director for a high tech advertising company called Futurniture, a combination of “future” and “furniture”. After buying me lunch (thanks again Lars!), he offered me the use of his Ethernet connected Mac. I jumped a the chance to finally get content online and ran to get my equipment, flying through the Museum of Architecture and the excellent Museum of Modern Art on the way. While Lars ducked into and out of meetings I gleefully uploaded photo after photo. Most of the office had gone home including my host by the time I finished.
The next morning I hit the Vasa Museum. Over 300 years ago, during the war with Poland, the Swedish king Gustaf Vasa commissioned a flagship for his navy. This was to be the first ship in the fleet with two gun decks—the first of its kind for Swedish shipbuilders. The entire hull was covered with ornate carvings. Near the end of the constructions the king insisted that an additional level be added to the stern despite the concerns for stability of the designers. Finally the day arrived for launch. The Vasa looked magnificent as she launched from dry dock. A gust of wind blew, and she keeled slightly but righted herself. Two gusts later she keeled so far that water began pouring through the bottom row of gunports. She was not built with enough ballast to keep her vertical and quickly sank to the bottom, taking 30-50 men with her.
Years went by and the location of the ship was forgotten. After much searching, one dedicated man finally discovered the grave of the 300 year old ship. Because she had never reached the open ocean, she was in fresh water, which meant that the wood-eating-sea-worm could not devour her. The Vasa had been remarkably preserved mired in the mud. After much engineering over several years the Swedes succeeded in making her watertight and raised her to the surface where she floated on her own for the first time since the tragedy. Massive cleaning, cataloguing, and preservation with paraffin began. A building was erected around the suspended gleaming black oak vessel, and the Vasa Museum opened. It was truly a remarkable exhibition.
Wanting to see something outside of Stockholm, I caught a bus to Uppsala, a university town north of Stockholm near some archeologically important burial mounds. I arrived with directions to student housing that had just begun serving as a youth hostel for the summer. I arrived at the bus stop just as it began to rain. As I got closer to the campus it began to rain harder. Soon I found myself on a poorly numbered rural road outside of town. Finally I found the address in a cluster of buildings a mile and a half from where I started. The door was locked, and there was no buzzer. I walked further until I finally found a phone. The address had been for 13D; I had found building D13 in a nearby complex. When I finally arrived I was soaked to the bone. Johan took pity on me and warmed up some coffee. We began to talk. I explained my success in tracing my ancestry, and then he asked the name. Small world, it turns out he is related to the Wästfelt father and son photographers from the north. We were traceable cousins. The rain had subsided soon after I arrived, so once I dried out I headed back in to town to see the church, museum, and to catch the Italians playing in their Euro 2000 match.
The next morning under sunny skies I headed off to see the mounds fabled to be the resting place of the ancient kings of Sweden. I ran into a Minnesotan theology student on the way so we joined forces. The hills look like the back of a sea serpent. Quite odd looking. The museum nearby gave a good history of the archeological progress. Just as interesting however was the nearby church, theorized to have been built on the site of a pagan temple. The worst part of the excursion was the pint of "traditional" mead that I drank with lunch at the Odinsborg restaurant next door.
I caught the return bus to Stockholm in time to meet Lars for dinner at his house. After a fine meal of pasta with a Roquefort sauce (melt the cheese in some crème fraiche) and some wine with his friends, we headed out to see the nightlife in Sodermalm. Lars' tour of the sights of Stockholm was just as interesting as his father's, albeit in a different way. Suffice it to say that it was difficult to catch my ferry in the morning. So difficult that it was pulling away as I got to the dock. Woefully unprepared, I had no phone numbers with which to warn Sven that I would be an hour late. Luckily I called the hostel, and Michael ran down to find Lars' cell number in my book. Lars was quite happy to hear from me so early in the morning, but he did give me his father's number- though no one answered when I called. Luckily it all worked out, and I spent the day on an island called Edlunda in the inner archipelago. Before arriving in Stockholm I had not realized how many islands are in the region. The city itself has at least five within its limits while thousands more stretch for miles. Edlunda is a quaint small one of forty or so houses. We walked from one end to the other before sitting down to a lunch of pickled, salted herring, potatoes, pork, schnapps, etc. All things "typitska Svenska," typically Swedish (fyi, the language is comparatively singsong, but not nearly as much so as the Swedish Chef on the Muppets.). After a lovely day I head back to the city for my last night.
The next morning I caught the 6 a.m. train to Oslo.
Suddenly I heard a rumble different from an approaching train. Looking up
in my half awake state I saw an entire Japanese tour group wheeling their
identical luggage from one end of the platform to another. It was
surreal. On the train I sat across from two Americans, Brett and Scott,
and we joined forces for an assault on Norway...