“You ought not to do that.”
The first time I ignored her because, frankly, I couldn’t believe someone would be speaking to me. A complete stranger, just off the plane.
“I say, you really ought not to be doing that.”
The second time I ignored her, because, although I now appreciated that a complete stranger was speaking to me, a complete stranger, I had no idea what she was saying. Swedish not being a part of my linguistic repertoire.
“You see . . . “ she, now switching to a version of English -- (proving that she wasn't simply a deranged crackpot reciting gibberish in my direction, but, rather was a multi-talent, with an aim to communicate, and quick on the up-take) -- “it really isn’t . . . safe . . . to leave your bag sitting by itself like that. It simply is not safe.”
Now I not only understood her words, I also caught her drift.
“This is not a country . . .” she started, then stopped. Maybe it sounded too critical, possibly even unpatriotic. So she reloaded: “here, if you leave your bag alone, it could be . . . taken.”
The way she said it wasn't as much informative as reproachful; authoritative, even. Like maybe she had once been a kindergarten teacher, or perhaps just a mother. The kind of voice that made me immediately feel like I had to justify myself. And even apologize. So that's what I did. "I'm sorry," I dithered.
Obviously not the correct answer, judging from her disapproving frown. So I pointed to the camera hiding in my palm and added: "I was taking pictures."
Still not good enough, her resolute posture announced. So I continued: "But I was right over there. You see – just over there.”
My God, I sounded like an idiot. A guilty idiot.
She allowed her eyes to stray; to regard the distance from there, where I had been, to over here, near the personal property I had left abandoned, untended, undefended. The old schoolmarm/mom offering eyes as blue as the three p.m. Stockholm sky; eyes that saw life in clear and possibly even stark terms. She proceeded to shake her head in two swift, demonstrative shakes.
“No. You simply must not.”
The closely-cropped head of hair as white as swan tuft, and the wrinkles acquired over the last 70 years of life added gravitas to the pronouncement.
I simply must not. Never. No exceptions. Write it a hundred times, in a straight line, on the blackboard.
So as to never forget. Get it in your head, bud.
Grandma says so.
Grandma could discern the sincerity of my contricity. Or is that contritiousness? Maybe I was suitably contrisorious.
Where is a schoolteacher when you need one?
What I mean is, I was, you know, abashed and appropriately ashamed.
Whatever the word, whichever the condition, like any retired schoolmarm worth her vinegar and allspice, this one understood the fine art of coddling after doling our chastizement. No lesson can be fully internalized on a steady diet of brine.
So she changed the subject. Pointing at the far wall of the subway, she said: “you know, that theme. That is about the Spanish war. You know? The paintings?”
Never can stop teaching.
Truth be told, as grateful as I was for the ego-massage, it seemed like we had probably approached the threshold of her linguistic capabilities; she, probably giving it a go in her second (or likely third or fourth) tongue. Europeans being infinitely cultured and shamelessly poly-communicative.
But that was okay. At least she wasn't calling me out on the carpet (here in the concrete-lined subway platform). At least she was making an effort to nurture, to be nice.
In that effort one could see her sincerity; her underlying humanity. Which was fitting. Seeing as how the theme of this station was about giving. Forgiving. Sharing. Embracing. Extending fellowship. Loving.
All metro stations in Stockholm have their own distinct theme -- their own personal signature -- and here at Ostermalmstorg one can’t stand on the platform and avoid thinking about, to quote Nicke Lowe: peace, love, and understanding.
Great lyrics . . . if you are game to give 'em a go. And if not, then try this metro stop -- which amounts to near about the same thing. The images are courtesy of Siri Derkert, one of Sweden's (few) preeminent female artists. She looked like this when she gave birth to the art featured at Ostermalmstorg, and in this entry.
Her contribution to the walls of this station, a living work of art. An enriching "must see" for any traveler venturing to Stockholm.
While the biggest pleasure of peripatetic encounters may be their distinctiveness, another delight is their associativity. What we see in one place reminds us of something else somewhere else. It may be accidental, it may be the thread of commonality that declares us all party to the same race, basically no different one from the other. And that associativity may lie in a direct reference to another place, a person, an event, a thought or time. As is the case of the engravings etched into the walls of Ostermalmstorg.
The schoolmarm may not have had it completely correct. This is not really about the German bombing of a Spanish village in 1937. And we would not be able to match any particular image on these subway walls to any specific quadrant of Picasso’s Guernica, but the style certainly is his. And, so, too, the narrative voice. The tenor, the intent, the cry, the shoutout, the call. As such, we might label Derkert's effort a kind of spiritual collaboration, a moral fusion; we can file it under the “inspired by” label of artistic expression, and the "universal color" of human experience.
Lonely Planet has a couple of books out on Signspotting from around the globe, which, somehow, gave rise to a website, and then, through someone's inspiration, an exhibit – cum out-of-body experience – in Stockholm, this past month; a life-sized, “can you identify this where-in-the-world sign?”
And that is what Ostermalmstorg Station is like. A permanent what-in-the-world ode to Picasso but, even more -- most of all -- a plea for non-violence, a testimonial to love, a silent scream issued into the void for a world without war.
As if any random collection of world leaders would ever pay that plea any heed.
Yet, there is always hope. Standing in this station, walking through it, riding on trains that stop here, settles the soul. Ostermalmstorg better prepares one for creating a better world, improving on the potential misdeeds in the average workday to come.
Well . . . at least one can dream.