I don’t spend much time with poetry. Two lines in particular, though, among others, have hung on since high school: “Good fences make good neighbors,” and “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” They sum up the classic boundary issues in two lines; I was surprised to (re)discover that they came from the same Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall,” where the neighbors cooperate each spring in re-building their boundary wall even though only one of them values it.
The lines came back to me today as I reflected on our growing relationships here in Linköping; they are becoming more real and interpersonal instead of being restricted to people’s role descriptions–hair stylist, neighbor, artisan, Harry’s co-worker. I saw Håkan, the gifted woodworker, in the grocery store on Saturday. It’s always marked a turning point for me in a new community when I start seeing people I know in places other than where I first met them. My manicurist works weekends at the candy store; when I saw her there I just stared: she looked like Madeleine, but…finally she smiled and said, “Yes, it’s me. Hello, Melissa.”
In the past week relationships have grown beyond mere out-of-context sightings. After dinner last Tuesday evening I walked through the spindly hedge-to-be to chat with Valentin and Lavinia about their kitchen project that had started that morning. The woman with them looked vaguely familiar; their children were running around them and munching on rhubarb stalks from our garden. “I thought uncooked rhubarb was poisonous!” I marveled, but they assured me that only the leaves are poisonous and that they’ve all been eating raw rhubarb for years with no ill effects–except for the one time Viktor ate too much at daycare, and…well….
Emma, the oldest, flitted by a bit more often than the other children, and eventually it dawned on me that she was speaking English! This is her first year in the English school, and up until now I’ve heard only a few words from her in “my” language. Her accent is barely perceptible to my native-speaker’s ear. She and I are learning one another’s languages in parallel, and it’s turning into a special bond. When I used my Swedish to compliment her English, she beamed, and said a perfect “thank you.” A little later she let drop, in English, “Next week is my birthday.”
“Really?” I said. “When?”
“I don’t know.”
“What?? You’re how old, and you don’t know when your birthday is?? Oh, you don’t know how to say it in English.”
“Right.” So we put our heads together and figured it out. (It’s today, by the way…Tuesday, the 22nd of May.)
That night I thought of a fitting birthday present: an American birthday card! So the next day I asked her, in Swedish, how old she would be. “Tio.” And I called Sharon to request immediate shipment of a birthday card for a 10-year-old girl. It arrived yesterday, and it’s perfect! It’s waiting in Emma’s mailbox for her to come home from school.
And what would go with that? An American birthday cake, of course! Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. The only Swedish cake I’ve eaten was very different than American cakes. It consisted of a thin cake layer supporting a 2-3″ high mound of whipped cream, all covered with about 1/8″ of sugar-dusted marzipan. This is what they picture on their birthday cards, too, although when I googled “Swedish birthday cakes” looking for a picture to insert I found lots of different cakes–just like in the US–but not our usual layer cake.
I had planned to make a 3-layer cake, but I couldn’t find cake pans–nor has Rosaura in her 16 years here. So it’ll have to be birthday cupcakes. And I just read on a blog post from another expat that the Swedish birthday starts in the morning with the birthday kid being “surprised” in bed with birthday cake. Oh, well. On top of that, the cupcake papers I found in the store didn’t fit Monica’s cupcake pan, and they mushed up the cakes; so I’ll make a second, paper-free batch and hope for the best. Needless to say, Emma will get her cake in the evening, like American kids. For now I’m headed back to the kitchen for Attempt #2!
PS One other thing that came out of our rhubarb chat–an invitation from Therese and Richard, on the other side of Rosaura and Rafael, to join them (along with Valentin et al.) for rhubarb pie and coffee on Sunday afternoon. I’d met Therese only twice: the first week we were here, when I was looking for my bank log-in-card reader and thought I might have left it in her car (which Monica had borrowed to take us to town for the bank and our first grocery run); and Tuesday evening–she was the “vaguely familiar” woman in Valentin’s yard. I’d never met Richard, and Harry didn’t know either one of them. It turns out he and Lavinia hadn’t met, either. (Really, Harry, you should get out more!)
Sunday afternoon was delightful! A balmy 70°, sunny, with a light breeze. We sat around on the patio for 3 hours sampling rabarb knacken (similar to our rhubarb crisp but with a smoother topping) and rabarb paj (rhubarb pie, of course, but much shallower and with no bottom crust), with a choice of vanilla sauce or vanilla ice cream on top; and drinking home-brewed coffee and sipping a home-brewed wine, from Lavinia’s uncle, out of communion glasses. And how fitting to bring things full-circle: the rhubarb came from “our” garden! It was the last of their frozen stash from last year. Therese will be coming back for more this year, with our blessings: there’s way more than enough to go around, and Heaven knows we don’t have freezer space: ours is full of fish! It was fun to get to know the neighbors better, relaxing in the back yard and enjoying each other’s company with no agenda; watching the kids, supervised but not hovered over, adding lots of toppings to their ice cream, stirring it all up into a mush and then abandoning it so they could change clothes and run through the sprinkler; the youngest trying valiantly to protect what was his and to keep up with the “big kids.” It felt like the 1950s…except for the battery-operated bug-zapper gadget and the iPads.
The byline of the afternoon was, “It’s not poisonous.” I think as much as we come away from Sweden with “It’s a very short walk,” their lingering impression of us may be “It’s not poisonous.”
This neighborhood has only low walls–boundary markers, but not dividers. Just like the 50s, kids play in the street…and Wizard sits in the street…untroubled by Stranger Danger or traffic. The back yards are connected by paths through the woods. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
PPS Emma loved her card! She’s really into Hannah Montana, so the card was a major hit. (So Harry guessed right: it was Hannah Montana. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be someone in particular. I guess I need to get out more, too!)
Emma blew out the candles–10, and one to grow on!
The birthday cupcakes were a real hit, too. The chocolate frosting was a bit goopy, but hey–it’s birthday cake! We sang “Happy Birthday” in English, explained about making a wish, and she blew out her candles. She and Valentin declared the cake delicious, and Emma went back outside to play with the neighbors while Harry and I visited with Valentin and drank Swedish sparkling wine–very good! And they have 15 cupcakes to spare. That’s the way to bake: eat some and give most away! (Lavinia will get hers later: she was doing mom duty at the schools. This evening was new-parent orientation for Viktor’s first grade class next year, and also parent-teacher conference night for Emma’s school.)
Valentin assured us that when both parents work and both kids are in school, the birthday child does not lie abed waiting for an early-morning cake. It’s 10 minutes to wake them up and 20 minutes to get ready and out the door, just like any other morning. I suppose the other scenario was in the Swedish version of Leave it to Beaver…