My Sweden, frozen in time

My parents took me to Sweden for a year when I was a child. They put me in a Swedish school in Nockebyhov, a suburb of Stockholm. We arrived on Aug. 26, 1954, in time for me to start first grade and experience the descent into a Scandinavian winter.

Nockebyhov Skola consisted of three classrooms on the ground floor of an apartment building. To get there from my house, I'd descend a hill to the intersection of Tennisvagen and Ferievagen, cross a snowy thicket, and walk up Tyska Bottens Vag to a stairway that led to the school. The route seemed long; the language, singsong and strange. There are even three more letters in the Swedish alphabet that I had to learn.

I've been to Europe nine times since then, including Denmark, Finland, and Norway. But I never returned to Sweden - until this past summer.

It was time to go back.

Swedes don't move as much as Americans do. I found Kenny Lagstrom, my old playmate from around the corner. His parents still live there; Kenny and his wife, Bitte, have a house a couple of kilometers away. He was happy to get together and reacquaint me with the neighborhood.

THE sky was brilliant blue. A soft wind played off Malaren Lake; yet even in summer occasional cool gusts remind you that the Arctic is nearby.

We stopped at Engstroms, the general store where, as we had so many years ago, we bought a 100-gram milk chocolate bar. Trying out what was left of my Swedish, I asked the cashier if he could please give me change. He looked at me strangely. It was the word "please." I had used an expression that translates into "pretty please." It's the term a child uses to implore. I was speaking like a seven year old.

It would not be the last time my first-grade Swedish drew amused reactions. I complimented someone on his pet cat. He thought I was weird: a middle-aged American judge had just told him he had a "pwitty kitty cat." I used "little girl" for "woman," "little boy" for "man," and the outdated formal "you." I referred to Skansen as a zoo when in fact it is an expansive outdoor cultural museum of which the zoo is only a small part. I guess I should have expected this, since whatever Swedish I know came from children's books.

Eventually, I went with it: To recall a word, I'd recite to myself the nursery rhyme that contained it. It was fun being 7 again.

Kenny got it right: My time in Nockebyhov is "discreet and frozen," which allowed me to react as a seven-year-old who'd made a quantum leap in age. By staying in the area, Kenny's memory blended the same period into the rest of his life. Our day together enabled him to retrieve his year from the continuum and return with me to a tiny world bounded by Malaren Lake, a bridge to Drottningholm Castle, the No. 116 bus stop, and a soccer field.

You could walk around our world in an hour. We reveled in it for nine. Our school building looks the same from the outside; Swedes remodel the interior but seldom change the exterior. We sat on a playground bench trying to recall couplets from our textbook, "Now We Shall Read." My favorite remains, "Now look who's coming: the porcupine and his wife." In Swedish, it rhymes.

We took pictures of each other outside the cafeteria. At noon we used to march two by two from class to that cramped room where they served boiled beef liver and blood pudding. If you did not finish your plate, you got it the next day.

The house where I lived has been remodeled; again, the exterior is unchanged. The cleaners' is in the same place. The No. 116 bus still comes, as does the blue-and-white Nockeby Bann trolley that, with transfers, takes you to Stockholm. We trotted down Ferievagen, where we bobsledded during the winter, and hiked through the forest to the rocky lake shore, where I once slipped and fell in when the ice thawed. We scampered across the soccer field, which was flooded in winter so we could skate. After dinner, Kenny and Bitte played records of songs we sang in class: "The Crocodile Family," "Mother's Little Olle," "My Dear Little Lisen," "Will You [formal "you"] Know?" "I Am so Happy That I Am Swedish."

When we finally parted at 1 in the morning, Ken and Bitte told me the word I used for goodbye now conveyed a formal, almost final "farewell." There was no way I would say "farewell" to Kenny, not after picking up where we'd left off after so many years. By evoking the innocence of two first-grader friends romping at Nockebyhov Skola, sledding on Ferievagen, and buying chocolate bars at Engstroms, Kenny provided a happy grounding to my trip. He made me recall the fun we'd had. We'll stay in touch. So to him and his family, as well as to the seventh year of my life, I now use the modern Swedish term, "Hej da" (hay dah) -"See ya!"

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