Saturday, February 10, 2007

Safe harbour: cruising and conversation

Took a 75 minute cruise of the inner archipelago that Sweden is built on. IIRC that's 14 islands and over 50 bridges. A cold snap last night caused some of these waterways to freeze over, which made my choice of an ice-breaker boat even more fun. The ice in many places has been broken up and refrozen, giving the effect of slabs of shattered glass floating in many parts of the harbour. At the conclusion of the cruise, the skipper hunted down some fresh ice to crunch through.

The statue above is "God our Father on the Rainbow" by Carl Milles, based on his 1946 design, which has an angel at the base of the structure tossing up stars for God to place in the heavens. I believe it was originally intended for the UN building in New York.

Dined at Kenneth's place. He invited some friends over so we had a lively party of 6 conversing for 5 hours under K's stewardship. Despite the excellent English skills of the 3/6 Swedes, it was sometimes amusing when an innocent slip occurred, such as "swimming with shawls [sharks]". There were frequent digressions on items of Swedish-Finnish culture such as Linnaeus, ABBA and Tove Jansson's Moomins. Apparently the Swedish press is often surprised or bemused by overseas attention for these local entities.

2007 is the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus' birth. He's the Swedish botanist who introduced the modern system of taxonomy: the division of living things into kingdoms, then classes, orders, genera, and species. The Ice Hotel had some markers to commemorate this event.

Yesterday I succumbed to nostalgic pressure, buying a set of bowls depicting characters from the Moomin books, which I first encountered some 35 years ago while living in the small seaside village of Urunga. In this evening's conversation turned on Moomins, the Hemulan and Hattifatteners (Hattifnatt in Swedish/Finnish). Kenneth produced Moomin mugs for after-dinner coffee, so there was some competition for those with favourite characters.

A lot of the evening's conversation turned on similarities of language: English, Swedish and the related Norwegian and Danish, as well as the dialects of Skåne, Dutch, French, German and Gaelic. Coming from a monolingual Anglophone culture, I feel like a tongue-tied barbarian in such company, despite recent attempts to boost my language quotient.

I reflected later that Australia's small corner of the English language - 20 million speakers in a global pool of say a half-billion speakers of it as a first language (and all bets are off for English as a 2nd,3rd,4th,... language) may be one reason for a cultural cringe. It's hard to stake out space in a territory so broad and vigorously competed for. In comparison, those from smaller language communities (Scandinavian and Dutch languages being a case in point) have a manageable horizon for their first tongue, which I think gives confidence: ideas get a new sheen in a different language.

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