Now I may have mentioned this before but for me the highlight of going to Skansen is actually the bakery and its cinnamon buns. (Skansen is an open-air museum in Stockholm, where you can experience how people lived over the different centuries and in different areas of Sweden.) Kanelbullar are believed to have originated in Sweden (though some sources online seem to claim they come from France – quelle horreur!). We eat them all year round but these days, at least in our family, it’s mostly over the Christmas break that we actually have time to bake them. There’s something so satisfying about kneading the dough, watching it rise, breathing in the warm cinnamon smell that seeps out into the kitchen and beyond.
This time, however, Skansen offered more than carbohydrates. Since the Christmas market was on, they had opened up many of the houses that you usually don’t have access to.
In Älvrosgården, a farmstead that looked closed from the outside but into which we anyway ventured, we found a man and a woman playing traditional music in regional costume. The man was playing the violin but the instrument that gave the music its special sound was the woman’s nyckelharpa. The ‘keyed fiddle’ is a Swedish string instrument that dates back to the 14th century, with keys that change the pitch of the string when pressed.
In another corner, two ladies sat by the fire, carding wool. This is an old manual process to untangle and clean the wool fibres before spinning it into yarn. My sister and I got to try it when we were little, and somewhere we each have a piece of yarn as proof of our efforts.
The room we were in, in fact, the whole house, was built with thick, heavy beams, the ceiling low and windows small. It was in the early afternoon but still it was dark, inside and out. It could have been depressing, making me feel sorry for my ancestors who lived without central heating or electric light; but the music, the fire, the candlelight filled me instead with a sense of nostalgia.
I look around the room I’m in now and there’s a flat screen TV, a pile of Nintendo Wii games, two laptops (okay one is actually on my lap), a tangle of chargers and cables, books, papers, and, well, STUFF.
In fact, yesterday morning for a few hours the internet didn’t work. Naturally I was horrified but then I felt relieved as I started working on my non-internet list of tasks (yes, there are some things you can do without needing to be connected) and then settled onto the couch to write this post. How strangely peaceful everything suddenly seemed, without the incessant vibration of my iPhone.
Leaving the strains of folk music behind us, we went to the printing and bookbinding workshops. My paternal grandfather worked in the printing industry, as a typesetter. He was born in 1905, at a time when Sweden had just six years of compulsory education. When he was 12, his teacher came home to his parents and made the case for Werner to continue his schooling: he was bright, he must be allowed to continue his education. To which his father replied that this was out of the question, “Werner needs to work.” His income was needed to support the family.
My granddad did have some choice in the matter, though. He decided he didn’t want to work outdoors, fearing the cold winters. He chose the printing press, working ten hours a day Monday to Friday and half-days on Saturdays.
We were shown how the letters (so small, I couldn’t read them) were arranged in the type case, with bigger compartments for the most commonly used letters: a, e, n, r, s, t. The retiree volunteer knew exactly where each letter belonged, explaining that it would have taken a new apprentice seven months to learn – a process that was helped along the way when he inevitably would knock the whole lot onto the floor, and have to sort them all back into the right compartments. My granddad had the idea of drawing up the layout on paper so that he could study it at home. He stayed at the printing press his whole working life.
In the workshop, they had beautiful manuscripts that had been treasured by their owners, put proudly on display, as printing was expensive.
Again my attention comes back to my bookshelves overflowing with mass-printed paperbacks and hardbacks. There are reference books that I never consult but still keep as I think they could be useful. There are self-improvement books full of wisdom on how to be more effective, get things done, be a better leader – all books that I want to re-read at some point. There are ‘coffee table’ books, which I’ve bought for myself or received as gifts. And there are reams and reams of novels, autobiographies, memoirs.
My optimistic goal for this year is to read a book a week. Why is it so hard?! I love reading. And it’s not like we don’t do a lot of it, it’s just in a different form: articles, blogs, tweets, infographics… There’s a kind of false sense of productiveness, at least for me, when I spend hours on the internet reading predictions for the coming year, top ten tips, news of the latest social platform. Curling up with a book, though, feels far too indulgent, like I don’t really have time to take a break.
The final stop before leaving Skansen was the tobacco museum. Our reason for going there was, I’m afraid, caffeine-related, with a saffron bun thrown in for good measure; but the tobacco museum is another place that holds special relevance for me. My grandmother, this time on my mum’s side, was one of the few women of her generation who went to university, graduating in 1945. She applied for two jobs and got both of them. The one she chose was that of a “male administrator” at Svenska Tobaksaktiebolaget, originally a government-owned monopoly, which later became Swedish Match. She too worked there until she retired.
Another reminder of how different things are today, how different our expectations are. My grandmother loved mathematics and would happily crunch away at the numbers in the pensions department, day in, day out, with no thought of looking for something else. How unlike the dreaded Generation Y with their expectations of salary, promotions and showers of praise along with constant excitement as well as work-life balance. Though in fact my grandmother did have many of those things: she moved up in the ranks, received a gold watch after 40 years of service, and left the office promptly every day to arrive home in 15 minutes. And, in the end, she was happy. Not such a bad way of life after all. Just a shame it meant working for a tobacco company. Hmm.