My mouth struggles to form the sounds I’ve practised and I end up belching a pocket of swallowed air into the face of the teenager behind the counter.
He sighs. “You want an American coffee?”
As soon as we’ve left the McDonald’s, steaming brews warming our hands against the sharp winter’s morning, I turn to my guide, Freja. “How did he know what I wanted? And why did he reply in English?”
She squints against the weak sunlight glinting off the frosty pavement. “Swedes learn English very early and very well. We don’t even dub television or films here. And since he’s working in the service industry, he’s probably used to tourists coming in and ordering American coffee. Also, it’s pretty hard not to understand the word kaffe.”
I soon realise she’s right. Here in cosmopolitan Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, there’s plenty of English signage. But I enjoy working through the native tongue in advertising and menus. Kaffe med mjölk seemed an easy starting point.
I’ve quickly fallen in love with the peculiar sounds of Swedish: the thick tongue at the back of the throat mixed with the rapidly trilling tip on the hard palate and teeth. A Swedish conversation in full flight is a soothing fugue scored for oboe and Kermit, a whale-song cover of the Benny Hill theme. Nonetheless, it’s beyond me to accurately replicate its undulations. Freja sympathises. “I can understand most Norwegian,” she tells me, “because it’s very close to Swedish. But the Danes talk like they have a potato in their mouth.”
Freja has aided my integration into this super-hip city, Melbourne to Stockholm’s Sydney. Gothenburg is a historic port on the west coast facing the Skagerrak strait and the North Sea, a few hours’ drive or train north of Copenhagen. As the name suggests, the area was named for the Geats, related to the Goths.
The modern city was planned and built by Dutch immigrants, which is reflected in its canals. Today Gothenburg is multicultural, full of students, and very cold. Having toured the port quarter, strolled the city boulevards and visited the art galleries, I’m on my way to warm up in the Naturhistoriska museum, via Slottsskogen park.
The Slottsskogen (“Castle Forest”) is a former game reserve now used as a public park-cum-zoo. It’s still host to a dozen varieties of deer, elk and moose, but instead of serving as hunting stock for local aristocracy, they’re now part of an educational menagerie. They huddle together in groups of 20 or 30, flicking ears or tails and seemingly content to wait out the winter in a motionless mass.
Freja points out the minute differences between horns, hooves and fur that separate an älg (elk) from a rådjur (roe deer). I can barely differentiate the vowels, let alone the animals.
“This park is very Swedish,” she tells me. “We’d describe it as jättesvensson – ‘giant Svensson’.”
“What other things are ‘giant Svensson’?”
“Buying small candies at the shop is very Swedish. So is eating tacos on Friday. And there was a show in the ’90s called Svensson, Svensson, about a mailman called Svensson. That was giant Svensson.”
We wander over to a half-frozen pond and watch the silent clumps of sulking penguins. I’m struck that the business of blending in in Sweden seems to require a mixture of tradition and modernity, of adorable inanities and a laconic gloom. I remember a traumatising episode of The Muppet Show, when the Swedish Chef was strangled by a plate of spaghetti.
In a bare tree above us, a tiny bat fidgets and coos in its sleep. “Do you know the superhero Batman?” Freja asks. “We call him ‘Small-Piece-of-Leather-Man’.”
A gust of wind from across the lake arrives and sucks away, as though sniffing at us. “You should write about Swedish Batman,” she adds.
By the time we arrive at the natural history museum on the edge of the park, the early afternoon light is making a tea-coloured stain of the day. Inside the red brick building it is warm and quiet, and I’m soon leaving a puddly trail from my defrosting hiking boots, which I’ve painfully discovered are not the same thing as winter boots.
The collections are a quaint Victorian grotesquerie. Thousands of preserved animals, native and foreign, rest in cabinets. In adherence to some taxidermists’ code, their faces betray a mild alarm at finding themselves in such circumstances.
Some are more animated. Arranged in tableaus of their former lives, birds and tigers and älg are frozen in an eternal moment of hunt or play. In the near-silence of the museum, it’s difficult to imagine the scenes in action, even if the herds outside were not much less static. They are good representations but lack spirit; less a ruralia and more a very, very still life.
We move on down alleys of morbid whimsy. On our right are fossils and sawfish jaws; on our left the scrimshawed whale ivory and walrus tusks bequeathed by Gothenburg’s past as a fishing port. There seems to be an obsession with conjoined animals – the double-headed cow surprises me, but not as much as the conjoined human foetus.
At the museum’s heart is the Malm Whale – the world’s only preserved blue whale. It’s enormous, unsurprisingly, but at 16 metres still relatively small for its species. The dark blue hide is patchworked and monstrous. It has been stitched together over a hollow wooden framework and cured; a leathery sheath like Swedish Batman’s cape. Above us hangs the reverse – the disembodied skeleton, a skinless zeppelin.
After an appropriate period of respectful silence, Freja tells me the story of the Malm Whale Cafe. In the heady 1860s, the digestive tract of a preserved blue whale seemed an apposite site to enjoy a snug pot of coffee or a schnapps against the cold outside. Swedish royalty might drop in for an invigorating brännvin or two, while American tourists might hold quiet Bible study sessions, ruminating over the tale of Jonah and cinnamon buns at the back table.
In the dying days of the century, the whole affair was called off when a young couple was discovered, after-hours, deep in the shadows of the oesophagus and the throes of passion. The jawbone was rolled down for the last time, and the whale’s interior has mostly remained closed to the public since.
Rumours of grand orgies in the belly probably have no truth to them, but I record them here for completeness. “You can translate the word ‘festival’,” offers Freja in a whisper, “as fest-i-val: ‘party in the whale’.” I don’t know whether to believe her.
Nonetheless, the mouth is opened for cetaceaphiles, history buffs and earnest citizens alike to peek inside once every four years when Sweden’s national elections are held. Valdagen, or “election day”, also translates as “whale day”.
The Malm Whale – really only a calf of seven months, and named for the museum’s curator who arranged its preservation – is more than 150 years old. Like much of the museum’s odds and ends, it is more a novelty of antiquity than a serious educational tool. To me it speaks of the old-meets-new mindset of Gothenburg, where everyone is urbane and well-dressed and knows how to make their own jam. It is both a hopeful and a content city; in love with its past and future equally.
Outside, Freja shows me the nearby playground to which she sometimes brings her daughter, with its replica whale for children to clamber through. A man sells fragrant sausages as the last of the twilight skims the rusted copper rooftops and makes a verdigris field against which nightlife-lovers can run rampant.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Moby drink".
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