Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Notes from Uppsala [10] - To be continued...

Published in The Guardian Life Magazine (Sunday, December 07, 2008)

This will be the last of the Notes from Uppsala.
The varied wanderings – physical and mental – of the last three months have now come to an end, and it is time to embrace the life that I let go. Time to readmit the life of sweat and of cold baths and repudiate the one of snow, steaming breath and hot baths.
Wherever two or three Nigerians are gathered (outside Nigeria), ‘Nigeria’ insists on being in their midst – in their words, in the perplexed tenor of voices, the involuntary wringing of hands and shaking of heads – the silent listener provoking speech, the unacknowledged protagonist of all stories, the overbearing waka-pass in an impromptu (& purely absurdist) plot.
I spent my final Sunday evening as guest of a Nigerian family. The second Nigerian family to invite me to dinner in Uppsala. Away from home it is the closest one can get to home; sitting across a table from people who know – or knew – Nigeria from the inside; who despite packing their bags and leaving at some point, still allow themselves to face and to feel the wayward homeland.
At every such gathering of fatherlanders it is impossible to resist dwelling on the great African territory that owes its famous name to a British Dame.
A land that inspires, constructs, destroys and re-invents stories. All sorts of stories – the surreal, the merely comic, the tragic, the nostalgic, the brashly magical. As Nigerians we congregate in far-away lands to speak of (failed) politics, corruption, migration, of encounters with new cultures and new languages, of the negotiations of disparate (and often violent) forces that play in the many vacant spaces of the exiled mind. The recently-arrived are expected to regularly update their ‘seniors’ on the state of the green-and-white union.
There is plenty to laugh about, and to shake the head about. There is the air of undeclared contest – my story is bigger than yours!
And there is of course the food – the mention of pepper or an apology for its absence; the delight at seeing that garri and/or ogbono are not averse to exile; the possibility of abandoning fork and knife and settling for the flawlessness of painstakingly-washed fingers.
I spent the day before the Nigerian dinner enjoying another dinner. My Nigerian colleague (at the institute) and I were invited by another colleague (a Sri Lankan whose husband is Swedish) for dinner at their home in the Stockholm archipelago, about 15 minutes from the city centre. The area is what you might call the ‘Banana Island’ of Stockholm, with generously-gardened houses priced in the tens of millions of Swedish crowns. On the drive to her house she pointed out the houses of famous persons. Tiger Woods (whose wife is Swedish) has got a summer residence there. On a tiny island all by itself lies the home of one of the members of the famous Swedish musical group ABBA.
In the thick of winter, the sea, which lies only metres away from the twisting road, freezes over several inches and becomes a giant skating rink.
Someday, when I do a ‘Highlights of a Scandinavian Tour’ piece, certain experiences will stand out, one of which will be this:
Walking through the Uppsala cemetery one evening, in the dark, trying to see which tombs were Viking tombs amidst the sprawl of concrete slabs. The only available light was the weak, ghostly (no pun intended) one from the lanterns that burnt on some of the tombs (it was a few days after ‘All Saints Day’). It was so calm, so peaceful, that before my eyes ‘Requiescat In Pace’ seized for itself new meaning (or perhaps merely reclaimed the purity of its original meaning).
Perhaps I should just do a Top 5, or Top 6 countdown of most exciting experiences in Scandinavia:
Top on the list should be the 17-hour ferry trip from Finland (Helsinki) to Sweden (Stockholm).
Then there would be my guided tour of Oslo, worth every cent of the cost – starting from the Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded annually, to the Holmenkollen ski resort, to the Vigeland Sculpture Park to the Kon Tiki Museum to the Viking Ship Museum, and finally the newly-built glass wonder, the Oslo Opera House.
There would be Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s ‘Old City’, with its imposing entrance and quaint air and narrow walkways and tiny shops.
How can I forget Helsinki, wet, windy, gray city, with its bloody history and Stone Church (which played a role in the Biafran War) and colossal bookstore and a language so generous with vowels you can’t but wonder if consonants are not being victimised for some disguised complicity in the Swedish and Russian conquest of the country.
Oslo, hands folded in a gesture of perpetual apology; a plea for understanding, for being so self-effacing in the midst of so much wealth.
Copenhagen, city of bikers, joggers, and artificial lakes. And an elusive Little Mermaid.
Last but not least, Uppsala, the oversized University campus, suffocated by designer shops and famous graves, and watched over by the oldest church in the whole of Scandinavia.
Thank you for not swallowing me. Or at least for not forgetting to spew me out again.

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