22 May 2008


LUND--As I walked towards the city park I felt as if I had been caught in some human-sucking gravity well that acted with particular force on people carrying ice-chests, cases of drinks and grilling paraphanalia. The park is partially bounded by a high, grassy berm that is the remains of the city's defensive medieval earthworks. I reached its crest and before me was a stunning sight. The grassy, flowered park was gone, invisible beneath a seething, shouting sea of Swedes. Columns of savory smoke rose from scores of points. Hundreds of portable stereos competed with numerous bands and DJs and the voices and shouts of thousands of people celebrating the triumph over the long winter. Beer cans and champagne bottles glinted in the sun that had suddenly, in the last week or so, broken out over this southern outpost in the mysterious northlands the Romans once called Ultima Thule.

I unlimbered my camera and put on the telephoto hoping its compression effect would give a better sense of the throngs than a wide angle and prepared to enter the fray when a middle-aged man walking his dogs stopped me. "Over there is a good picture," he said, grinning. I looked to where he was pointing, to a short line of young men waiting to urinate in the bushes. I raised an eyebrow. The man smiled again and said, "There is a picture of Prime Minster Rhienfeldt there. The sign says, 'You piss on us, we'll piss on you!'" Which, indeed it did. Back in the bushy cove it was stapled to a short stake, the neo-con PM grinning as his face dripped with recycled beer.

Within the field the city had, in the last days, fenced off the flowers and covered the rose beds in sturdy boxes. These now not only saved the roses from certain annihilation but provided some nice, high, seating. Many groups had brought in old couches, coffee tables even, and set up their own outdoor living rooms. Most sat on blankets and on the fringes there were tug-o-war competitions and dance areas. Students splashed in the fountains. This was Valborg day in Lund.

Valborg is the last day of April and is celebrated in different ways throughout Sweden. Usually, after a day of revelry, it climaxes in the old ceremonial fires of pagan times, traditionally made from the winter's deadfall to mark the beginning of the warm months.

I ran into Calixto, a recent immigrant from Cuba and one of my classmates from Swedish for Immigrants school. When I first met him in the winter he told me how much he liked Sweden. I guess that even the dark and cold can't repress the feeling of freedom. "If I didn't get here," he told me, "I was going to swim to Miami!" Like most Cubans I have met, Calixto has an irrepressable sense of humor. He is in constant motion, talking, laughing, sometime singing and half-dancing when he is not actually dancing. "Andrew!" he said, in his island accented English/Spanish/Swedish mix, "This is how life should be, man. Sun! Dancing! Girls not in big jackets, whew!! When he saw I only had a big camera and nothing else he offered me his beer. We stood for a while, sipping it and watching the crowds and the girls not in big jackets doing the same (though mostly not sipping).

We walked over to where a DJ was playing Reggae and Reggaton and he danced, immediately attracting a crowd. I took photos, my own rhythm, and wandered on after a while, back through the crowds, back to the old medieval wall keeping the not-so-savage sons and daughters of the Vikings safely outside the city. I paid a visit to the Prime Minister then walked home past people still flooding towards the party. Back at the apartment I stood on the balcony in the sun, feeling a little lost, feeling old, missing my friends and knowing that if Jake and Patrick and Jesse were here we would be sitting on a blanket. Not long after phone rang and it was Lena.

"Good. You answered your phone and that means you're alive."

"Yes, usually it means that."

"We just heard here at the paper that someone was killed by a bus." She named a street, one I had just been on.

We found out later that it was a girl, 23-years-old. Two young men had been playing around, pushing each other as young men do, and she was accidentally knocked into the street, in front of a passing bus. The day became a little gray.

I have debated whether to write of this, of death on a clear Spring afternoon. The irony is almost too heavy, the lessons too obvious, struck down in the flower of youth whilst all around the rebirth of life is celebrated... And there are all those barroom philosophers who raise their beery glasses and, to justify their alcoholism say, "Live for today for you never know when you might be hit by a passing bus." And it is always, inevitably, the bus they use as the metaphor for sudden death, the guise in which the reaper comes. They never say, "Drink now lads, for you never know when you might get malaria or dengue or a Katyusha rocket or an Israeli bulldozer or a tsunami. Perhaps the bus is the leviathon of the civilized world. Perhaps that is the point. That in the banal, developed world death comes secretly, closed off in a hospital ward or else from the ultimate innocuous, helpful, impersonal banality of public transportation. The bus never sets out on a mission of destruction like a roadside bomb. It is just a thing that follows a pre-planned route; a route that somehow intersects with your misfortune or inattention, someone else's foolish antics that had nothing to do with you.

Spring came to Sweden. The buses ran on time. And the sun was bright and the people happy and there was just one less young woman who would be there to dance and drink, lay on the beach and make love that summer.


Blogger Helen said...

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10:18 AM  
Anonymous lena said...

You have been unlucky so far in Lund, being several times in the vicinity of accidents. First the bike accident you passed, and then this horrible death accident.
I must say in this case, remembering the girl and her family, I really feel for the two boys. Who hasn't pushed someone around on the side walk?

12:51 PM  

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