THE WAY HOME, PART TWO. COPENHAGEN, ROTHENBURG, GARGNANO, MILANO

 

a Danish schoolmap for you
Reluctantly you leave Copenhagen after dinner, you just tasted it but fell in love with the city. Night falls as you arrive in Rødby, at the boarding area for the Germany ferries: it’s just half an hour journey on some kind of floating mall, you don’t even realize that it’s moving. The only passengers are four German truck drivers that lay numb on the sofas, while your kids storm in the tax free shops shrieking like monkeys each time they bump into an Haribo dealer. As the ferry arrives in Germany late at night, a creepy fog rises from the sea: clouds thick as cotton wool floats in the dark, reflecting the lights of the few cars passing, such a spooky atmoshphere… You are forced to stop, it’s really too difficult to drive. All around the van it’s impossible to see anything, so you put the kids to bed and fall asleep thinking about that Carpenter’s movie.

 

Daphne! Velma! Shaggy! Jump on the Mistery Machine, it’a time to go home!
You leave early in the morning, you have to drive for a lot of miles. Once you drove in the Swedish roads, driving everywhere else feels like being stuck in a traffic jam; but actually the traffic flows quite easily, while you travel across Germany. You all listen a Radio Drama inspired to Salgari’s novel “Yolanda, the Black Corsair’s Daughter”: your son Mitia is an enthusiast fan of Salgari. You don’t understand a fuck of the plot, but who cares: there’s this lady, obviously beautiful and kidnapped by Spanish soldiers, and the pirates make a mess chasing them all across the Caribbean to set her free. The pretty lady is dubbed by an Italian actress with a sexy voice, that continuously sighs thinking about her beloved Captain Morgan; maybe a little too much, sometimes it sounds like a porn movie radio drama…

 

the city of Playmobil
 It’s night when you arrive in Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauer, where you stop following a friend suggestion: you pay a tribute to Italian emigration in Germany cooking spaghetti all’amatriciana, that your kids devour in a blinking of an eye. Before you go to bed you have a surreal chat with an old toothless man that cleans the public toilets: he speaks only German and insists on telling you the whole story of his juvenile trip in Italy. You don’t understand much of German language, furthermore you have to deal with his toothless delirium pronunciation, you understand only that he enjoyed a lot Modena but then something happened and he found himself cleaning the toilets in Bavaria. All the rest unfortunately is lost in translation.

In the morning you have a walk on the medieval city walls and then in the centre, a real Bavaria jewel. You have breakfast in a Konditorei hosted in one of the many colored marzipan houses, and then hang around.  

Rothenburg Christmas Inferno!
You find out that Rothenburg is famous in the world not only due to the folkloristic character of the “public toilets toothless mythomaniac”, but also for the Christmas decorations shops: by the way, this is the real Santa Claus city, not Rovaniemi! After an hour wandering around Käthe Wohlfahrt you feel close to a sugar shock with all this Christmas stuff, definitely out of season. This year it’s like that: with Rovaniemi and Rothenburg you celebrate Christmas in August, then you will celebrate mid-summer in Christmas. Picnic with lemonade, sandwiches and cold beers in the park, even if it’s -7°. Everyone is invited.

You leave Rothenburg doubtful. It’s gorgeous, for sure, perfectly preserved and really pitoresque. But. But there’s something you don’t feel comfortable with: maybe everything it’s too perfect, clean and tidy that it doesn’t feels really ancient. Or maybe is the way the cashiers look at the foreigner tourists that fill their bank accounts. That gaze, just above their clean and polished glasses, the same gaze they probably aim also to those unbearably barking Yorkshire dogs. You don’t know, but this postcard Germany is light years far from the one you love. Bavariais beautiful, but it’s not for you: it’s a place that probably is loved by those petty bourgeoises from Northern Italy. You prefer Berlin and Hamburg, with their run-down public housing, noisy coffee bars, dirty U-Bahn and open minded people, yet a little bit weirdo. Radical chic? Ok, hurray for the radical chic, then. Hurray for radical chic Germany.

You turn on the Volkswagen engine, there’s the last stretch: crossing Austria and its Alps, carfully displaying the road tax vignette on the car’s windscreen. You’re not in Sweden or Denmark anymore, there’s the police crouched under each overpass that checks each car passing. Really: you saw two officers standing next to a POLIZEI car and moving their head frantically from left to right in the desperate attempt to control the cars running at 100 mph, so comical. You pass beyond the Brennero, and there you are, back in Italy.

You exit the highway at Rovereto, and descend the Garda Lake until you reach that village facing the lake with the mountains behind. Here there is what your kids call “Casa” more than any place you have ever been living in. The “home” feeling is something impossible to control, you should know it well, being an architect. It’s not just a matter of choosing the right materials, lighting, furniture and tissues that allows the changing of the perception of “home”: it is something more complex, based on instinct, and that takes time to settle. It is made of warmth, protection, light; of kitchens full of drawers and shutters hiding treasures that can be eaten and obscure kitchenware; bookshelves chaotically overloaded; bathroom where the steaming hot water roars filling the tub; posters of exhibition you never visited and pictures of places you’ve never been, but you feel familiar; wardrobes filled with strange clothes that nobody ever wears; books about unintelligible things left opened on the bedside tables; dusty attics where you can hear the sound of raindrops falling on the roof shingles, and where sometimes toys and comics that you lost long time ago magically reappear. And finally scents, because it’s the sense of smell that irrationally seals the deepest emotional bonds, with homes as with love.

 

wake up you’re Home
Your parents, priceless resource and shelter for your kids forever and ever, are waiting for you. You can rest just a couple of days: Sunday evening you say hello to the kids, that will remain here for another week, and leave for the last travel with the faithful Volkswagen.

As you drive along the A4 highway under the cloudy sky, don’t ask yourself what will this travel leave in the eyes and in the heads of your kids: you won’t be able to know it, not now. Don’t even ask yourself what has left in you, or if you learned anything. It’s not important. Stop trying to find a name or a sense to whatever you do, or happens. What matters is that you lived this thing: the meaning will come on his own, later.

The forest is inside, by now.

Milan – Rovaniemi – Milan, 30/7 – 22/8, 2015

  

The long way home, part one. Östersund, Orsa, Copenhagen.

yeah!

So it’s time to take the long way home, driving through Sweden along the street that runs through the whole country parallel to the Inlandsbanan, the railway that connects Gällivare in the far North with Kristinehamn, not far from Stockholm. The impressive forests now often leave space to small villages, not much more than a few detached houses with fresh-cut grass lawns, where old men in shirtsleeves wax their vintage Saab smoking pipes: you feel like being in an American 50’s movie, even colors look a bit faded in the sun, that has always been at your side for the whole route (such good luck you had with the weather). You make a stop for sleeping in Östersund, on Storsjön lake, whose waters are haunted by a Loch Ness monster relative, they say, the jawbreaker Storsjöodjuret.

???

The camping’s concierge describes it, laughing, as a mix between a snake and a pig: not much frightening by the way, not even for little Maia. The King of Sweden in person included it in a list of protected animal species! We too in Italy should invent some kind of creepy story about a monster living in an Italian lake. For instance the Garda lake monster: result of a genetic experiment led by Nazi scientists during the infamous Repubblica di Salò period, in order to create a sea monster to fight against Allies landing in North Europe. They say it still crawls in the depths in front of Gargnano…

The day after you have a break in Orsa, on the Siljan lake, renowned vacation destination: the mood here is much different from the wild North, is not crowded as usual (is there any crowded place in Sweden?), but you meet plenty blonde families strolling along the lake front promenade in the late afternoon sun.

It used to be a placed loved by Swedish painters, the Siljan lake, for his peaceful atmosphere: you visit Anders Zorn museum with his gentle, and a little boring, watercolors. It’s getting late for the Scandinavian timetable (why everything has to close at 5 p.m. even during summer, when the days are so long?), and unfortunately you have to renounce to visit the house-museum of Carl Larsson, the Swedish Norman Rockwell (actually it is correct to say that Rockwell is the American Larsson), and even the infernal Falun copper mines! What a pity. After dinner you fix the Volkswagen’s back seats so the girls can sleep safely even in case of sudden brakes, and you can drive through the night.

You and Mitia sit in the front row, talking and listening to Tom Waits while you drive; in the backseats the girl enjoy their own very special mobile pyjama party. Darkness falls, there is no more that dim light that used to be in Lapland all night long, and Swedish do not love street lamps: the Volkswagen lights foxes and rabbits crossing the dark road in front of you. When you feel tired, you stop in a parking area close to the road and sleep.

The day after you pass the Øresund bridge, and Sweden loses its bigger Kanelbullar consumer… The other junk food you have been all eating in these days is Marabou: Swedish chocolate bars, definitely delicious. Why the hell the product’s name is the same of an horrible African bird whose diet is based on animal carrions, it remains a mystery… Passing the border you think that you travelled all across Sweden and did not encounter a single policeman; whatever this may mean.

You plan to catch the ferry from Rødby that arrives directly in Germany, this will avoid you to travel more miles across Denmark; as there are night time ferries too, you decide to hit Copenaghen first.

The traffic circulation in Copenhagen with the Volkswagen is quite difficult, and requests all your concentration, due to three reasons: first, the city center is quite intricate; then, there are thousands bicycles running fast in every direction; last but not least, the female population. You didn’t consider that it is clear that the women of Copenhagen are the most beautiful in the world;that’s what you think while you try to keep the control of the situation with the kids. You park in the first place available you find, and then you continue by walk. Here too museums close at 5.00 p.m.: by chance on Wednesday the National Gallery closes at 8.00 p.m. You pass through the beautiful Rosenborg gardens and reach the impressive Staten Museum for Kunst building, with the large pool where you can place the iron chairs and sit with the feet in the water.

artists at work

A sign for the visitors is placed at the entrance: please, take photos. You don’t have much time, and the collection is huge: therefore you choose to focus on the Nordic art. The kids run happily in the desert halls (you and a couple of Spanish tourists are the only visitors), until they find the “draft room”, where visitors can use all kind of pencils, papers, wooden boards and chairs to wander around copy dal vero the pictures and statues: this will keep them busy for one hour at least. You are then free to visit the museum on your own, and search for Vilhelm Hammershøi paintings passing through the exhibition’s rooms that covers all the Scandinavian art of the last three centuries. There some kind of, well, depressive/tragic/somber taste in Nordic art, unless it represents landscapes:

“and in his eyes I saw death”, AKA the cheerful mr. Ejnar Nielsen

natural size statues of Death taking away a baby from his mother’s hands, a young tuberculosis girl drawing her lasts breaths portrait… the good ol’Edward Munch looks like a merry guy here! You find a room dedicated to your beloved Emil Nolde, with exploding colors painting of sea landscapes. You catch your kids while the custodians start closing the Gallery, and exit.

Ocean and dark clouds. Emil Nolde, 1935

Well: maybe it’s just the frustration about the fact that you have to go back home now, but you feel a little in argumentative mood. Ok, let’s go then! Denmark National Gallery is a massive museum , with a huge collection and, moreover, big temporary exhibition. The quality of the exhibition spaces is gorgeous, and also all the services, shop and cafe/bistro are excellent. Entrance is free for everyone, as the Nationalmuseet, while all other museums in town have one day free entrance for week. Under 18 is free always and everywhere.

Meanwhile in Milan, a recently opened new museum offers just a passable temporary exhibition and proudly announces that has reduced the ticket cost from 15 to 12 €, during the Expo period. Under 18? Only 10 €! Gosh. But anyway, you did not earn any Master in a Business school, probably you don’t understand the point of it…

It’s time to leave, now; sun is going down. You have to return in Copenhagen, with more calm. Greet the Danish girls, and drive.

Rovaniemi hit-and-run; through the endless Swedish Lapland, 15/17 August, 2015

 

daddy, can we take one of those?
Bravo. You reached the turning point, touched it and turned the nose of the van toward South.

You reach Rovaniemi after lunch: you woke up early and drive through the last miles in the Sweden territory. Passing the border, the landscape changes: now the austerity of the forests has some kind of naïve touch. Naïve, yes: on the side of the road suddenly appear flowers, the Finnish houses are different and vary in shapes and colors, even a little bit cheesy sometime.

Approaching the Polar Circle you begin to encounter the first cars with Italian plates: you did not meet any Italian since you left Germany. As you arrive to the exact point where the 66.33’39” parallel you undestand why.  

It’s the Santa Claus Village, with crowd of tourists, Japanese and Italian leading. The most of them have just been dumped by some bus directly coming from the airport. You can’t avoid a visit with the kids, obviously, they’re excited by the place (horrible) but also because you reached your goal, even if just a symbolic one. Well, let’s drop the Iron Hand of your private censorship on that afternoon: as you finally succeed carrying away the kids it’s already time for dinner.

You get back to downtown Rovaniemi, that looks exactly as you expected it: a modern city with no particular style, with desert streets even if it’s Saturday evening 15th August (goodness knows what happens on January Mondays).  

Rovaniemi saturday night fever
But anyway it has its own, secret appeal: the charme of a border town, with a few pubs and restaurants crowded by pale, long haired guys dressing plaid shirts and carrying longboard skates(Seattle in the 90’s!), couples with 1.000 kids, so blonde that they look almost albino. You have the Victory Hamburger in an alternative bar, managed by funny local hipsters. The waitress is a muscular girl with lots of piercing and half of the skull shaved, her steely-eyes glaring at each customer…

You all sleep in a parking area outside the city, and the day after with no hesitation cross the border and get back to Sweden. You have a break in Haparanda, the kids want to have lunch in the northernmost IKEA in the world: Maia insists on being left in the children area to play with Swedefinnish kids, communicating in the universal children language, while you wander around the store.

It’s now time to begin the travel back home, and you decide to do it passing through Swedish Lapland: as you reach Luleå’s surroundings you turn West, direction Harads, where the Treehotel is placed.  

What happens if you come back home drunk in the night?
As an architect you can NOT avoid to pass here, and not even as a former-child-now-supposed-adult. All have seen pictures on every magazine/newspaper (it has been published almost everywhere): and here it is, in a place far from everything and everyone. This is already a good reason to book a room here: unfortunately, it is definitely NOT cheap. You content yourself wandering in the park that hosts the hotel rooms, drowned in the sea of the Lapland forests.

You just have to climb to any higher ground to become aware of that: an ocean of trees surrounds everything. It’s shocking: a Realm ruled by someone else, not by human beings.  

You leave the Treehotel and enter this boundless forest, almost uninhabited. You travel for dozens and dozens of miles without meeting any car or human being: only trees, huge silent woods, interrupted by dark still ponds, and the infinite cloudless sky above you. Every now and then a track penetrate this forest that looks like an huge entity, a single living being as Solaris, with its mysterious way to communicate.

This is what you were looking for, don’t you? Now you feel so far, far from everything, in the middle of a nature that is even a little frightening. 

 Though, is some kind of a solace being aware that it exist, somewhere: a huge creature totally indifferent about passion, love, illusions, sorrows of men. It is no good nor evil: moral concepts do not apply to it. It will visit you again, you feel it, when you will be back home in Milan: she will come at night, eternal and silent, to remind you how much insignificant are the scratches on the car’s bodywork, the jealousy, the dishes to wash, the job’s delays, the school grades, the taxes, the ambitions, the parking fines, the signs of age on your face…

Abandon yourself to this moment of your own, while the kids sleep on the couch and the van slides gently in the light of this suspended sunset, that seems to be eternal. The shadows of the trees grow longer on the ground, and the van is filled by music. When one searches for something with such perseverance, usually he never finds it; and if he happens to find it, usually is something different from what he expected. But that time, unique, that it reveals as one imagined it, it’s an incredibly strong emotion, though it is so brief. This is what fools us (save us?) in life, what urges us to search, search, search that tiny instant. Maybe it’s true that a tree that falls in a forest when there’s nobody around makes no noise; but when you are the only one to hear it, the sound is a rumble that remains inside you forever.

At least you pass through some “populated” area: a bunch of house on the two sides of the street. They remind you the popular image of rural America, as suggested in old movies: two level homes at the side of the main road, the town drugstore managed by some kind of bearded redneck wearing a jeans overall, that supplies gas and fuel as well. You even see an original black Impala (did we talk about the Swedish people love for U.S. vintage cars?)!

 

I hope they’re insured
When dusk falls the forest creatures come out of the woods. You were warned about, and here they are: big as horses, with huge antlers crowning their heads… reindeers with hair shiny as silver, crossing the road careless of the cars. Each time you meet one is a deep emotion for all of you: we are all used to domestic animals (doesn’t this sound as an oxymoron?) that when we meet a real animal in his natural environment, we are overwhelmed by an unknown feeling. You get to Arvidsjaur at night, where you camp in a parking area and meet the other Queens of Lapland: MOSQUITOES. At 10 o’clock in the evening it’s impossible to stay outdoor: they are billions. You take shelter in the van and go to sleep. A little entomology notation about Lapland mosquitoes behaviour: they are 1.0, which means they are the kind we used to have when we were children. They come out at dusk, move very slow, and the pricks are not that itchy. In other words, Milan mosquitoes are much worse; but, once again, here they are BILLIONS.

You leave early in the morning, and visit a Sami Farm where you meet a pack of reindeers: you all are fascinated by their gentleness and sweetness. Let’s pass over their taste: it’s a wild world, after all.

You now have to lead your pack back home: be a good reindeer-dad and drive, the road is long.

INTO DEEP NORTH: Höga Kusten, Norfällsvikens, Skuleskogen National Park, Luleå – 10/14 August, 2015

 

enter in the postcard
You leave Stockholm in the morning, and enter again the E4 highway that passes through the whole Sweden from Helsingborg to Luleå, up to the Finland border. Sky is cloudy, sometimes rainy. Beyond Uppsala the street lanes reduce to only one for each sense, this kind of “fast country road” is the main route of all central/northern Sweden. It is almost never traffic congested, literally: you meet just few cars on the way. Often you see damaged cars on the side of the road: nothing serious, except an overturned articulated truck carrying logs with ambulances, firemen etc. Remember to drive carefully, and keep on being concentrated. By the way, you are always concentrated when you travel with the kids, not only when you drive. Maybe a little bit too much, as no time remains for yourself: you do not even have time to read. It’s just like sailing across the sea, there’s always something to do: cooking, cleaning clothes, tidying up the van, studying the route for the next day. It’s allright: that’s what you were looking for: in return there’s the world that flows out the car windows, the silence and total solitude in the night dusk, when the kids sleep and you smoke a cigarette,  

Breakfast of champi(gn)ons
the hot coffee in the morning as you awake first, and above all, that infinite sky above you all.

The same sky that suddenly opens, as you pass over the terrific suspension bridge that leads to Höga Kusten, that means High Coast, a Unesco World Heritage area that hosts some of the most beautiful landscapes you expected to see in this trip: green perfect meadows, dark thick forests, still ponds reflecting the red painted houses, each of them with its own little dock for the rowboat, fishing villages facing the calm sea…  

You stop in one of these villages, Norfällsvikens, and place in an original Swedish camping: it means almost desert, in the middle of a forest, with a lot of facilities totally free! A thousand red houses host kitchenettes, dining rooms, verandas on the sea, kids recreation rooms, reading rooms, saunas… And the price is definitely INEXPENSIVE!  

dinner in front of the TV?
While you heat up some ragout sauce a fox comes out of the woods and approaches the camping site. It looks like a dog’s puppy, with big and nervous eyes. You eat a generous plate of Maccheroni and goodnite.

The following day you wake up under the rain. You all feel so lazy, therefore you pass the day enjoying all those famous facilites: the kids study a little, you clean the van, pick raspberries and blueberries in the woods under the gentle rain, you even take a little nap in the afternoon. And, last but not least, you take everybody to have a gorgeous sauna with a view on the foggy sea.  

 You meet a Swedish dad with his two kids and a beer, evening finally arrives and you are still talking, sweating, refreshing in the cold grey sea. The night you all sleep very well.

You wake up early and have a rich breakfast (especially you, with loads of cinnamon sweets) and drive to the near Skuleskogen national park. A reindeer/elk/deer/thingwithantlers crosses the road while you get to the small parking area. You wear raincoats, take the backpacks with the food and get into the wild.  

toward the deep heart of the forest
The forest is made by three levels of vegetations: above all the Swedish pines as a roof that prevents the rain to reach the ground; than a layer of medium height trees, firs and birches, and finally the lower part, made of ferns and bushes (inevitably raspberries and blueberries…). The ground is covered by lichen and musk, from time to time crossed by creeks and swamps, that you easily pass using wooden boardwalks. Everything is surrounded by total silence, you just meet a couple of guys on the way (as when you walk on the mountains, here too there is the famous law “we all love and greet each other”; only, here when you meet somebody in the forest it’s natural to say hello), while the path gets more arduous and passes through fields of red and green granite stones, typical in this area. The girls start complaining: they are tired and hungry. You stop and eat the sandwiches you prepared, and barely succeed convincing them to go ahead with the walk: not for long, actually, after another hour they stop and refuse to continue. You prepare a small camp lying a towel between the rocks, give them water, food and a card deck and leave them alone in the forest as Hänsel and Gretel. Actually, there is just a quarter of an hour to the end of the path, but it’s a little game after all:  

Mitia opens his way through the mountains with his hands
you and Mitia quickly walk through the last part of the route, that leads to a dramatic crack in the rock (it’s a lively telluric area, it grows 8 mm per year) that is the Skuleskogen highland. After a while you get back to the “camp” to take the two poor orphans, that don’t look upset at all, and merrily ate the whole muffin box. Great. You reach the camping tired but happy: after dinner it’s sleeping time, the day after you are going to leave again. Destination: Luleå, the gates of Lapland.

 

midnight
During the night, a cold wind wipe out all the clouds from the sky, that the following day is clear, the air is sparkling and fragrant as it is on the mountains. You have a quick breakfast and then you leave. The road twists and turns along the usual beautiful Swedish landscape, woods, meadows, ponds, now the houses are made in raw wood, with the walls slightly inclined. The van proceeds quietly along the road, while you listen to a radio drama based on a popular Italian comics, Tex, even more grotesque than the original. The western setting is grotesque, full of funny incongruities (we are in the Far West, there is a medieval castle and they talk about “savana”!); you are all amused by the routine of fixing each and every problem, according to the actors words, with “hot lead“. Obviously from now on it will be the leit motiv of the travel:“Can we stop for a while? I need to go to the toilet” “Again? Maia, we stopped a quarter of an hour ago” “Dad, nothing a little hot lead can’t fix!”, and so on…

 

crowded Swedish camping
You meet just a few cars along the way, until yu get to Luleå, the last “big” city before the Finland border. You settle in a camping just outside town, here too huge spaces hosting just a few camping vans. You buy fresh local salmon at the supermarket, and you roast it and serve with potatoes. The morning after Emma awakes with a swimming pool desire. Emma has always been this way: sometimes she wakes up with a compelling desire, often of something absurd and totally out of context, something she pulls from the hat as a rabbit unexpectedly. It’s not some kind of childish whimsy, those are different. In this case instead it’s something full of glee and enthusiasm, you can’t resist: it’s a side of her character you love so much. “Swimming pool: so be it!”

 The swimming pool you go to is more than an exquisite architectural object, with elegant and well finished interiors, and a special attention toward the relationship with the external spaces and the natural light, so delicate at these latitudes. It is almost desert, except for some old men that gently smile as your noisy kids dive into the pool. You are thoughtful: you already saw this place, those steps in colored mosaic tiles, the wall covered in wood, the high steel railing. You have a sudden doubt: you ask to the lifeguard, and the answer confirms your thought. Now, let’s see if somebody recognize this place: it’s not difficult, a famous scene of a famous movie was shot here.  

The one who guess it wins an exclusive black plastic swim cap (one of those that tear off your hair) bought exactly here.

In the afternoon you visit Gammelstad, another Unesco World Heritage: XXVII century church town, built around a majestic church, once the center of Luleå, before it was moved at a lower level to follow the natural growing of the ground (yes, it’s funny: there is a part of Sweden that grows like a primary school pupil).  

A stream of red houses, of every shape and dimension; it reminds the Truman Show town, but here everything is real and inhabited. You return to the camping, while the girls play and Mitia studies you write these lines on the Iphone.

Tomorrow it’s time to leave again, destination Rovaniemi, the final milestone. You don’t expect much from the city, reconstructed after the WWII bombings; after all it represents just a name for you: a geographical place, the turning point. And who cares about Santa etc., none of your kids believes in Santa Claus anymore, except Maia (and even her is not that sure anymore…).

You didn’t came up here for Santa, or to see the reindeers. You came here because you had an appointment: with me.