EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 42:STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

Variation4

JULY 22, 2000

Crossing the Baltic in a train was a thrill. The train, an old Czech monster, was loaded into the belly of the ferry at the port in Malmo late in the evening. I watched the loading with my head stuck out of a window in the sleeper car’s corridor. Flags were snapping and rippling from various masts and flagpoles that towered and teetered around the port. Stadium lights glared. We rolled on groaning wheels into the ferry.

I stood in the corridor and watched the procedure like a kid on his first train trip. I hadn’t expected this at all. I expected a bridge or a tunnel. But this: a train in a ferry? I was too surprised to be afraid. I didn’t think once of all the ferry sinkings I’d read about, or seen on World News. I just stood there in the narrow corridor with my head out the window, feeling free and alive for the first time in weeks.

My compartment mate was out in the corridor with me. He was tall and thin, with the close-set eyes and beaky nose of a 40’s-era aristocrat; his mustache added to this impression; but there was something politely downtrodden, or washed-out, about him, that reeked of East German flat-bloc dweller. We communicated in a chunky goulash of English and German that suited the circumstances. We both used both languages. We never exchanged names, but made pleasant chit chat in a comradely fashion. He resembled the English actor Ralph Fiennes.

Our little sleeper compartment, equipped with dingy beds no longer than children, and with no efficient way for me to climb into my bunk without stepping on his, was a challenge that we faced together in good spirits. There was a tiny writing desk beside the curtained window that opened to reveal a sink (along with a stern warning in five non-English languages to avoid drinking the recycled water ).

We stuck our heads out of the corridor window and breathed the eggy air of the Baltic, and I whispered a goodbye to Sweden, and a goodbye as well to the affair that had ruined the city for me. I purged my mind of the only Swedish I’d bothered to learn (“Jag pratar inte Svenska,” I don’t speak Swedish) and we rolled into the belly of the ferry and were swallowed by it, and its metallic groans and echoes, and the bluish odor of diesel fuel, and I was glad.

It was a good crisp night. I had been sweltering from Stockholm until Malmo, stuck in a sun-baked wagon with sixty other passengers and no air conditioning. I was relieved to change at Malmo, despite the burden of having to heave my large trunk off one train, and across the station, and onto the next. I left behind a Dane I’d been flirting with; a tall, young, bespectacled librarian with a razor-sharp wheat-blonde bob and a pretty face that surprised me with the flattest profile I’d ever seen on a European. From the side she looked like a flaxen-haired Chinese giant. Quite beautiful.

We got off the train together and made our idle chatter, which shaded quickly into flirtatious adieus, when I was suddenly seized by an uncool panic because we were a hundred meters from the train and it dawned on me that I’d left my ticket on it. I stuck her there guarding my trunk while I dashed back through the crowd along the platform towards wagon number 2, seat number 17, which killed that fledgling romance.

I was huffing and puffing when I made it back to her and we finally shook hands (tersely?) goodbye; I think she may even have been pissed. It’s hard to tell with Northern Europeans. Romance, anyway, in most instances, is as reliable as a glass staircase. I have her number, if I ever get curious.

But then I felt fine, as I made my connection and rolled out of Malmo while hefting my trunk onto an overhead rack with help from Ralph Fiennes. I was now on a Czech-made renovated German-owned Mitropa train, able to speak the language of the conductor and my compartment mate. I was much more comfortable. I had stopped sweating and stinking of it. I felt more in control of my destiny and the night was crisp and clear and lit like a casino. We rolled into the ferry and could see only the industrial paint job of the belly of the ship, and the rivets in its seams, and stenciled specs and warnings.

I withdrew my head to avoid having it thunked by a girder we inched by and I ducked back into the sleeping compartment to have a look at a brochure that had been placed on the little desk by the window. It was a menu, and I briefly considered spending Dm 7.90 on Sechs Nürnberger Rostbratwürstchen (mit Antioxidationsmittel und Geschmackverstärker) but thought better of it. I got out my notebook and re-wrote the following entry, from scribbled notes:

JUNE 26

The air outside this cafe, which is a handful of stair steps down from street level (it’s like taking tea in a womb), is gray-green with the imminent force of a steaming summer deluge. The thunder is ready to bang like city-sized trash lids and cars are rushing by in the twinkling air, people darting for doorways.

I had been walking briskly along Kungsholmstrand, meaning to have a long walk today. Little boats were bobbing and knocking together like hollow skulls in the greenish water. I was thinking how lovely it all was. Those quaint old red-brick buildings, with black roofs and piping, lining the opposite bank and the relatively sweet air and the innocently dour Swedes crunching along the gravel bank in a trickle towards me. But I saw the blackness coming up out of the east like a magician’s cape and I knew rain would come exploding from under it and scurried back up towards a main thoroughfare and found this cafe.

A girl is singing along to the radio music coming over the cafe speakers. With her frail, shaky, touchingly unconfident voice. The song is in English, and she’s glancing intermittently at me, having pegged me as American, and I have to smile.

Horrible, silly, unmusical song. Sweet girl. But where has my sex-drive gone?

No mention of the terrible time with the beautiful neurotic I had been staying with in Stockholm. She kept all the windows closed, despite the hot summer, claiming asthma. I’d go into another room in her little flat to get something out of my suitcase and when I’d return she’d ask, no joke intended, “Did you miss me?” and act hurt if I laughed or said no. Every morning, her mother called to make sure she wasn’t late for her job at the family business and every morning she’d crawl back in bed until her mother called again, and again, it was a three-hour process and the supposedly-humorous melody on her goddamn phone was a very loud version of the William Tell Overture. I was hot and and nervous suffering from a lack of sleep and worried because she very cleverly “borrowed” most of my money on the day I came to Stockholm to visit her. I was her prisoner for six weeks. I was so scared of getting her pregnant that I secretly masturbated in the bathtub, sometimes twice a day, so I wouldn’t be tempted: I claimed I was too hot to fuck. But she was good-natured and highly intelligent and beautiful and nearly crippled with neurosis. What an amazing face she had and thick brown hair. What a hypochondriac. I suppose her mother fucked her up. She claimed that the orgasm she had when I went down on her the first night was her first.

We’d be in bed at ten or whatever watching ER in English, the midnight sun blaring through the curtains and when she’d nod off I’d very discreetly switch channels to the amazing hardcore Swedish porn, explicit threesomes and not-quite-explicit bestiality. I wonder, in retrospect, if Swedish porn on network television not every terribly late at night wasn’t some kind of psycho-social experiment of the CIA.

I was so glad to be on that train on that ferry on that Baltic.

Ralph suggested we look for the toilets on an upper deck of the ship since the toilets on a train of this type are unusable if the train isn’t in motion over open track. We waited for the orange-vested brakemen to secure the train, and for the ship to slide into the Baltic, and then we stepped out into the floodlit container along a narrow walk beside the train. Everything was painted beige or red or black, and the ferry throbbed bone-jitteringly as the engines strained against the waves. There was nothing of the wobbly ride I had come to expect from using the little ferries that connect one neighborhood to another in Stockholm.

My bunk mate led the way and shouldered through a heavy door that was stenciled with hieroglyphics referring to gift shops and casinos and toilets, and I followed him up three or four flights of painted metal stair steps, and we let ourselves in to an upper deck that was full of people in casual clothing, strolling back and forth on dull red carpeting. We mingled with these people; the other passengers on the ferry. Peculiar that I felt like a trespasser from steerage, since I’d crept up from the belly of the ship, when in fact I’d paid more for the ride then most of the passengers who’d boarded the ferry right there at the port. They were merely crossing the Baltic, whereas I had already covered a third of Sweden, and my journey was due to continue for hours after the ferry docked in Rostock. I was headed for Berlin, and had the rest of the night to go before the train was scheduled to ease into the Zoological Gardens, or Zoo Station, at around seven in the morning.

We found the toilet and separated with politely embarrassed smiles and vented our bladders. Outside the toilet again, we shook hands (a post-penis-handling shake, mind you) and I let him return to our sleeping compartment alone. He wanted to sleep through the crossing, but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I trusted him enough to let him alone for hours in that room with my backpack and trunk and most of my money, and I resolved to investigate the ship. It was unlikely I’d be crossing the Baltic again in the foreseeable future, so I wanted to make the most of my little adventure. It was funny that I should be coming from a state in America that was larger than most of the countries that my fellow passengers hailed from, and yet this ferry ride was my idea of a wild experience, while for them it was little more than an inconvenience of dreadful banality.

There were banks and banks of slot machines arranged along the promenade of deck seven, welded there cleverly to siphon off their coins and heal their trans-Baltic boredom with simulations of Vegas.

In fact I sat there for a bit, in a row of chairs facing the slots, and watched some Polish auto worker in a pale gray track suit go from machine to machine, dumping in coins and winning jackpots. If he was a shill for the management I was the only audience to the spectacle, and I remained untempted to gamble, so the show was wasted on me. I just watched him pull the levers, set off the jingles of the jackpots, and slide on over to the next machine, with nothing more than raised eyebrows on his part to register the windfalls. It was either a miraculous night for him, or the jackpots are paid in pennies. I suppose I should have gotten a closer look.

Never having been on an Ocean Ferry before, I must admit I was uncertain about how to behave on one. I’d walk right up to the smudged glass doors that opened out onto the wind-washed deck but I’d content myself with merely peering through them at the blackness that seemed to rise up in an infinitely gentle curve above the ferry. Then I’d pace the concourse, and cross a median, to the other side of the ship, and peer again, as tantalized by the outside as an insect in a jar. I was troubled by the paranoid fantasy that opening a set of these large double doors would set off an alarm, but then some sloppily dressed Russians with a moon-faced child in a slick red raincoat pushed through these very doors, squeezing by me, sauntering in from the prow of the ship, and set off no (audible) alarm.

It was fantastic out there. I was in California-style shorts, but bundled in a rubberized rain jacket, which features a hood, and it was perfect in the chilly weather of the Baltic. I had sweltered in the train from Stockholm wearing this jacket, and felt like a fool to have even brought it, but now I was vindicated. I was cozy and self-contained.

I had with me a British magazine about style and music and movies and I found a deck chair beside a pair of teen age girls and settled in under the flood lights, and I set about reading, or pretending to, running my fingers over the pictures but being too distracted to pay attention to the text. We were the only ones out there, the teen-aged girls and I. They were singing perfectly foreign pop songs in touchingly high and imperfect voices, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

One was blonde and sweetly unremarkable and the other had her hair pinned-up and cheaply dyed a beet-red color that had been some kind of proletariat fashion statement in this part of Europe for fifteen years and I relished the naïve energy that they blessed the prow of the ferry with. A thread-thin line of lights were dimly apparent on the German side of the water, looking like a hairline crack in the black bowl of the sky. The stars above us, unfortunately, were as invisible as anything at the bottom of the Baltic. But that didn’t keep me from being exhilarated.

In fact I thought of another moment in which hand-made music and the night and bright lights had blended similarly to thrill me with a sense of life’s possibilities: a time in London, ten years before, when I’d been crossing Leicester square on a Saturday night and I’d happened upon a combo of bryl-creamed street musicians… a sax and an upright bass and a guy thwacking a snare drum with brushes… playing the theme from A Hard Day’s Night in 5/4 time with totally sincere verve. Couples in white dinner jackets and evening gowns were flowing over the cobble-stoned square in droves, with British pomp-and-shyness and London suddenly swung for me, if only for five minutes, but what a five minutes. I could’ve licked the cobblestones with joy.

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