The Vikings and I

By Jacques Tocatlian.

The Vikings and I.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.

Brigitte had offered to drive me to the airport since she wanted to do some shopping with Françoise at the IKEA department store in Roissy, only a few minutes from the airport.

Françoise, who for a long time believed that my missions were, in effect, disguised vacations, was now almost fifteen and taking a more mature interest in what I was doing in those distant places. Being very studious, she recently related my missions to some class assignment and bombarded me with questions. I was all the more pleased that my friends and the rest of my family seldom took a real interest in my work. As they used to say, “It sounds terribly technical.” Meaning, terribly boring.

Having learned that I was going to Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, Françoise decided to write her monthly paper on the Nordic countries and wanted to know the difference between Nordic and Scandinavian countries, the outstanding feature of each, and the reasons why, once upon a time, the Vikings came to Normandy. Good questions! Such matters did not preoccupy my mind when I was her age.

With an eye on the traffic and between two driving tips to Brigitte, I briefly explained that Scandinavia was comprised of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. These countries claimed a historical link to the Vikings and originally shared a common language. “When we speak of the Nordic countries, on the other hand, we mean these four Scandinavian countries in addition to Finland, whose ancestors and language are altogether different.”

I added that I had just read in my briefing that the total population of these five Nordic countries does not exceed 25 million people. To which Françoise added, “ The whole population of the Nordic countries could, therefore, fit in Calcutta and Bombay.”

Françoise who suddenly seemed to suffer from an unquenchable thirst for information about Northern Europe wanted to know also why I was skipping Norway and why such short missions. “Are you participating in a marathon race ?” she asked. In fact, I was scheduled to spend an average of two working days per country, including air transportation – except for Finland where I had to spend a weekend.

As we were approaching the airport I briefly explained that I was going to raise funds for a number of projects in which the Nordic countries had shown some interest. I explained that The Nordic countries were generous donors to the developing countries and to international programs. I was, therefore, planning to visit the respective Development Agencies which provide assistance funds for these countries.

Before parting, Françoise asked me to be sure to watch the people I was going to meet in each country very carefully so that I could describe to her the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of each. “How can you tell a Dane from a Swede ? Or a Finn from a Norwegian ?“ she asked.

My assignment was getting more elaborate by the minute! Feeling that she had to show some interest too, my wife added, “And let us know how the Greta Garbos and the Ingrid Bergmans look, up there ?”

So I flew…

In Stockholm, I attended a four-hour meeting organized on the occasion of my visit with representatives of the Swedish International Development Agency, members of the Nordic Council and of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I reviewed the projects I had come to ‘sell’, answered questions, clarified points, discussed suggestions, listened to comments, and noted down objections and criticisms. I was given a priority list of eighteen countries which Sweden helps. I was also reminded that the current Swedish budget for international development cooperation corresponded to approximately 1% of Sweden’s GNP – which made Sweden one of the most important world contributors. The message was that one could not reasonably keep asking for more.

Having noted the projects in which Sweden showed some interest, I paid more attention to Françoise’s assignment. I carefully observed Mrs. Annika Thomasson, Dr. Björn Holmström, Mrs. Elisabeth Karlsson, Mr. Gustav Knutsson and Dr. Gunnar Wilkens.

What were their common characteristics ? And their peculiarities ? How could they be differentiated from their colleagues in Denmark, Norway or Finland? Difficult to say! To foreigners, all Nordic Europeans look very polite, straightforward, cool, realistic, blond, clean, relaxed, honest, athletic, fair-playing and pragmatic. Any difference in temperament? Any distinguishing features? I continued to observe, analyze and register everything significant or insignificant all through the rest of the day and later on during dinner at Mrs. Annika Thomasson’s.

My first impression was that Sweden’s traditional lifestyle was gracious, standardized and sanitized. I noticed a nostalgic old-fashioned element, in spite of its very modern side. We were here in a rich, capitalistic system with strong socialistic aspects. In everyday life, the Swedes show an intriguing mixture of formalism, sophistication, and simplicity. They look conservative but tolerate originality and admire individualism. They never let excessive feelings transpire and keep their weaknesses under control. In summary, they struck me as being well-balanced. The key-word is ‘Lagom’ – which means ‘not too much, not too little, but just right.’

The Swedes have a well-established reputation for being taciturn and relish silence with special gusto. For a Frenchman, silence in the middle of a dinner signals that we are running out of topics or that we are beginning to be sleepy. Or both. Here, silence in the middle of a dinner simply means that we are in Sweden. It does not exclude, however, that we may also be bored. But you would never be able to tell.

I thought of Brigitte. She would not like it over here. Brigitte, like most French people, become very lively around the table. The better the food, the more scintillating the discussion. The French love to analyze, criticize, discuss – with humoristic repartees, flashes of wit, wordplay and double-entendres. You have to be a wit! And silence is to be avoided at all costs !

In Sweden, controversial subjects are not encouraged. Foreigners who may be used to inject in social conversation some audacity or mischief will have to remember that long, dark winters have a lasting, soporific effect.

I noticed that the Swedes respect other peoples’ points of view and are quite tolerant. They struggle to reach agreement and are strong believers of consensus. A common point with the Japanese.

Here, external appearance is always correct, elegant but never gaudy. Not too much, not too little, but just right. Remember: ‘Lagom.’ Naturally, the younger generation comes from a different planet. Dressed in eccentric black leather, with glaring jewelry all over and peculiar hairdos; their motto must be something like : too much or too little, but never right.

At Mrs. Annika Thomasson’s dinner the calm and controlled atmosphere warmed up a little as drinking proceeded. Her table was most elegant and lit by soft candlelight; the meal was copious and washed down profusely. At one point Dr. Björn Holmström said he was going to do a ‘Skâl’ in my honor. He stood up in front of me, straight as a soldier, put his glass on his chest, then raised it to his lips, mumbled a few words in Swedish looking straight into my eyes and emptied the glass in one gulp. With obvious clumsiness, I did the same and emptied my glass as well. It was liquid fire! They all laughed.

They explained that the real, formal ‘Skâl’ is now disappearing. They showed me how it used to be done in the old days, how it is done in the country, how it is done in more formal occasions, and so forth. To me all the ‘Skâls’ looked the same. I was only amazed at the quantity of ‘liquid fire’ that was swallowed. However, if the atmosphere became a little warmer, the talk a little more vivacious, and the laughter a little louder, it all remained very proper. ‘Lagom’ !

In this connection, Ulf Nilsson suddenly came to mind. When he went to Japan he must have left his ‘Lagom’ home. I asked if anyone knew him and was told that he had never returned from Japan; there were rumors that he had married a Japanese girl.

At the end of the dinner, Mrs. Annika Thomasson stood at the door of the dining room and all the guests thanked her, one by one, on the way to the drawing room where coffee and after-dinner drinks were served. Guests would say ‘tack’ (which means ‘thank you’); some would say ‘tack, tack’; a few who seemed particularly happy would say ‘tack sa mycket tack, tack’ (Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.) One said ‘Tack för maten’ (Thank you for dinner). In any case, there were a lot of ‘tack, tack, tack’ going on.

Next morning I was in Mrs. Annika Thomasson’s office when Dr. Gunnar Wilkens came in and, in greeting her, said something like ‘tack för sinast’ (Thank you for last time). I must have sounded discourteous since the number of ‘tacks’ I had distributed around was rather limited. I decided I would make up for it and from then on, at every good opportunity, I ‘tack, tack tacked’ everyone like a machine gun.

The three of us then met with Dr. Olof Erikson who was one of the three consultant candidates the Japanese had recommended. Dr. Olof Erickson was smallish, energetic, with dark sparse hair and a goatee. He looked young, confirming the fact that Sweden had the youngest managers in Europe. I thought to myself that youth was not an advantage in Japan where age is greatly respected, being considered a sign of experience and wisdom. But Dr. Olof Erikson had an impressive C.V. and a convincing business card. In addition, as a good Swede, he believed in consensus, he was polite, did not economize on ‘tacks’, listened carefully and did not talk much. I wondered, though, if that last point was good for an instructor. In any case, his candidature was retained and his name immediately cabled to the Japanese with the dates of his forthcoming visit.

As I flew to Finland I was happy and relieved to have settled among other things the question of the consultant for Japan.

In Helsinki, I attended a meeting very similar to the one just attended in Stockholm. We had representatives of the Finnish International Development Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nordic Council, a couple of non-governmental organizations and the University. The meeting was chaired by Mrs. Marja Haarala. The ladies outnumbered the gentlemen and the blondes outnumbered the dark-browns.

The outcome of the meeting was positive . No funds were committed on the spot but strong interest was expressed on two specific projects for Nicaragua. In addition, Finland promised to provide a couple of Associate Experts for two Unesco-sponsored projects in Peru. Associate Experts being young University graduates paid by the government to serve in a Unesco project. The meeting also helped in redrafting a proposal to the Nordic Council which they would endorse. That was a good harvest.

How could I describe the Finns to Françoise ? I had known many at international meetings and used a few as consultants in my work. They struck me as being rigorously honest, incapable of deceiving, pragmatic, unpretentious, generous and direct. I thought that they also shared with the Swedes many of the Nordic characteristics. They appeared laconic but had a more sensitive and easily excitable character. They enjoyed an elegant, clean and simple environment, disliking fuss, arrogance and ostentation. They showed a sense of national identity and pride, but at the same time seemed to be shy or lacking confidence. They impressed me as being very conscious of their geographical location, which they thought was too close to Russia. They were obviously eager to be considered as part of Western Europe.

I observed that the Finns liked fun but were restrained by a strong Lutheran influence. They showed a particular gusto for alcohol, in spite of its very high price. I learned that travel agents organized special excursions to St. Petersburg to enjoy cheap vodka. Mr. Keijo Rastas confessed to have been some sixteen or seventeen times to St. Petersburg but managed to visit the Hermitage only once ! Apparently, as the ship leaves the Finnish territorial waters, the alcoholic drinks are sold tax-free. By the time the ship arrives in St. Petersburg very few find their way to the Museum. Mr. Keijo Rastas then added – and I do think he was serious – that Finland was the only country to have a Minister with a portfolio for Alcoholic Affairs. I never checked on that one and did not mention it in my mission report.

When Dr. Wilhelm Perala found that I was not leaving until Monday he invited me to spend the weekend with his family at their country house. I had never met him before but willingly accepted the generous invitation.

On Saturday morning off we went in a minibus: Dr. Wilhelm Perala, his wife Merja, their two daughters, Helena and Ulla, a girl friend of the daughters, Eva Lundmark, the dog, Adolph, and myself. I wondered why they had not brought along the canaries.

Wilhelm’s wife, Merja, looked incredibly young to be the mother of two big girls in their early twenties. Assuming a French debonair attitude, I told them “To me, you look like four sisters”. The whole family was fair, tall and athletic, perhaps, with the exception of Wilhelm who had probably been athletic but was now rather plump. They all spoke English fluently. You could tell they loved nature and did sports. Even Adolph was big and muscular. Next to the Perala family I felt so very small!

As we drove through the countryside, Wilhelm explained that their country house was an old farm which they inherited from Merja’s grandparents. Having a country house is the Finnish number one dream. About 40% of Finnish families are second-home owners.

Then somehow the conversation shifted to Finland’s neighbors – the Russians and the Swedes. My diplomatic status and instinct told me to remain silent. I did not utter a word, as Wilhelm lost his Nordic composure in telling me about the 400 years of Swedish occupation and the many wars with the Russians. As he spoke about the battles, the occupation, the dead and the patriotic resistance of the Finns he got increasingly excited. At one point Adolph barked and Merja told her husband something in Finnish which put an end to the history lecture. After a long silence, which to me seemed like an eternity, we arrived at the country house.

The wooden cottage blended perfectly well with the surrounding trees and bushes. It was rustic and reasonably comfortable, with a particular old-fashioned charm of its own. It was definitely different from our French ‘maison de campagne’.

After an hour of hurrying to and from, and a fair amount of agitation, I asked what all the fuss was about. “We are preparing the Sauna,” Wilhelm answered. He added that every Finn, from the poorest peasant to the President of the Republic possesses a sauna. Originally it was the bathroom but now it is used for relaxation only.

An instant later I could not believe my eyes as four totally naked ‘Nymphs’ called Merja, Ulla, Helena and Eva joyfully crossed the room, rushed outdoors and disappeared into a wooden cabin. Wilhelm began to undress and invited me to do the same. I was not prepared for that. I did not have the heart to run naked in that weather and end up with those four Nordic beauties. I could not think of a good excuse, when potbellied Wilhelm, naked as a worm, told me to hurry up!

I mumbled, “I am not used to this. “

He looked at me in disbelief and laughed, saying, “I saw French lovers kiss in the streets of Paris, in the Metro, in the parks! And you come to play shy in Finland ! Ha. Ha! Come on !”

In no time there we were both completely nude like two Satyres running in the wilderness and joined the four Nymphs.

In the sauna we sat on benches, sweating in silence. I had two problems : the first, I was under the firm impression that they all looked in my direction to see how a Frenchman was really made. The second, I did not know myself where to look. The sauna was small and I could not very well stare at the ceiling. I do not remember ever sweating so much. Some sweat no doubt due to the heat and some to the inward commotion. If only somebody had said something! Anything ! No. Nothing disturbed that endless silence. Had there been flies, you would have heard them flying. But we were not in Cairo, although it felt like it!

When Wilhelm poured some water onto the hot stone the steam created a screen which gave me the illusion of some privacy for a few seconds. As time went on the Perala family turned pink. They looked like sweating shrimps. Then, Big Chief said something and we all moved out. Each one grabbed one of the young birch-tree branches that had been prepared on a wooden table and began to lash the others. Before I could understand what was happening I was being fustigated by all these women. After a while I noticed that I was the only one giggling and screaming hysterically. The Perala family was rather silent and looked concentrated, heroic and, by now, purple. Then, Big Chief said another word and we all jumped into the freezing lake. I thought I would never see France again!

Back into the house to dry and warm up with beer and sausages. Then back to the sauna for a second round. Then more lashing. Back to the lake. More beer and more sausages. At that point I thought I should write my last will or, at least, a letter to say ‘Adieu’ to my Brigitte and share my impressions of Finland with Françoise.

I have to admit that a little later, as we sat (dressed) around a wooden table , I felt great. We ate cabbage, potatoes, delicious salmon with dill, country bread and drank some white schnapps. I was glad the sauna part was over, but thought that if I had to do it again, I would not find it so difficult. In fact, I had become accustomed to seeing Ulla, Eva and tutti quanti totally nude. They had very nice figures, indeed. I was glad, though, to see the old Satyre, Wilhelm, back with his clothes on. I had noticed that his figure was more affected by beer than by the sauna.

Taking advantage of the relaxed atmosphere that prevailed I told them about Françoise’s request and asked, “What are the national characteristics of each Nordic country, inasmuch as one can generalize?”

From the discussion that followed I concluded that they agreed that the Danes were frivolous, the Finns taciturn, the Norwegians stubborn and the Swedes morose, opportunistic, condescending and dull. I remarked that the Swedes, who had colonized the other countries, were assigned four negative adjectives, whereas the others could get by with only one.

“And how do the French see the Nordics ?” asked Wilhelm.

“Well. Seen from outside, we tend to confuse the Nordics; they look very alike. One does not expect differences, tensions or disagreement among them. They are an example of pragmatism, fair-play, generosity and intelligent co-operation. But when you come on the spot you see that differences do exist. A subtle love-hate relationship prevails among them. It is a very soft and gentle one and kept as such, in accordance with good Nordic behavior and style.”

After the cognac we listened to Sibelius’ third Symphony. Then the girls sang some melancholic Finnish songs. Somber, morose, doleful. I dozed in gentle drowsiness. It had been an interesting, relaxing experience.

That night I definitely had a dream. But I shall not tell you about it.

My third and last stop was Copenhagen, Denmark.

There I was in the oldest Kingdom of Europe. The most densely populated Nordic country. The Italy of the north. The country where Hans Christian Andersen wrote his tales and Babette cooked her feast.

The Danes are known to be light-hearted, extrovert, ironic, fun-loving, informal and, as my Finnish friends said, frivolous. Apparently they have an aversion for rules and regulations, and a distaste for authority and formalism. They show a deep sense of independence, tolerance and equality. I love Denmark!

In Copenhagen my host was Mr. Niels Andreansen of the Danish International Development Agency. He was intelligent, knowledgeable and unconventional. From a physical point of view, Mr. Niels Andreansen was small and robust, fair with deep blue eyes. He was a free spirit, unbound by the need for status and recognition. He loved to make a joke of everything. Even in dealing with serious matters, he always looked for the funny side of things. It was a pleasure to be with him.

We first visited the Nordic Council of Ministers where I explained a Unesco project, exploring the possibility of a Nordic co-operative contribution. Mrs. Britta Johansen’s reaction did not sound too promising.

Mr. Niels Andreansen then drove me to the Danish Development Agency Headquarters to meet with Mrs. Birgit Petersen. There too, I felt that immediate financial participation from the Danes was unlikely. They were, however, prepared to finance an ‘Associate Expert’ in Venezuela. That was great news. Mr. Niels Andreansen suggested that we continue the discussion over lunch. So he took me to the Tivoli Pleasure Gardens.

In this rather cold season, the Tivoli was deserted but one could well imagine what it was like in summer. Magnificent. He selected a typical Danish restaurant where we sat behind a window panel. We ate, laughed and talked all afternoon. In so doing we wrote the job description for the Associate Expert and settled every useful detail. I was very pleased with the outcome.

Any remains of formality vanished with the fourth schnapps we had. Niels delivered a series of hilarious jokes. “Come on, Jacques, tell me some French jokes” he kept insisting.

By ‘French’ he probably meant lewd. I think I did tell some but I do not remember which ones. I hope Niels does not remember them either. If the Assistant Director-General could have seen me laughing so wholeheartedly at the Tivoli in the middle of the day, he would have cancelled all future missions.

I should have taken some notes since the Danish jokes caricatured various aspects of Nordic life and would have answered many of Françoise’s questions, but all the jokes dissolved in the fifth and sixth schnapps. They all dissolved except for a classical one, probably because I had already heard it before. A joke about the laconic and taciturn Finns.

It went something like this : Two Finnish friends, Karl and Mauno had not seen each other for a long time. They decided to go out for a drink. They met at a bar, sat at the counter and drank in silence. After some fifteen minutes Mauno asked, “How are you, Karl ?” Karl did not answer. After another fifteen minutes Mauno repeated, “How are you, Karl ?” to which Karl answered with some obvious irritation, “Look, Mauno, did we come here to chat or to drink?”

As we laughed some more, I became intrigued by the window panel across from our table. It was covered with mist. Behind the misty glass was the shadow of a man who appeared to be watching us. It seemed to me that as soon as the man noticed that I was looking in his direction, he disappeared.

I was still talking with Niels when my eyes caught the same silhouette behind the opposite glass panel, looking in our direction. I stood up. The shadow quickly disappeared into the dusk.

A few minutes later, the waiter came to me and said, “Mr. Dupont, you are wanted on the phone.”

“Me?” I asked. “Who knows I am here ?”

Then turning to the waiter I asked him how he knew who I was and where I was sitting.

“The man on the phone explained…” he replied.

I rushed to the bar and grabbed the phone. My heart was beating fast as I said “hello ?” After a fairly long silence a low voice whispered, “Are you having fun, Mr. Dupont?” I asked who it was but the unknown man hang up on me.

Niels laughed about the whole matter. I did not. I was intrigued and disconcerted. The call had annoyed me. I kept looking at the glass panels for the shadow to reappear, while Niels kept saying, ”Forget it.”

Then the waiter came again to say that there was the same man on the phone who wanted to talk to me. It was urgent. So I walked to the bar slowly. Very slowly. I could feel my heart beats. The same low voice whispered, “Are you having fun, Mr. Dupont ?”

Niels wanted to know if the man had any special accent. Did he sound Dane ? No. Did he sound Nordic or English ? No. Did he sound French? No. Did he sound German ? No.

I thought for a while and, all at a sudden, I said, “He sounds like Mr. Massaringhe! Oh. Yes, just like Massaringhe !”

On the way to the airport I did not explain who Massaringhe was and changed subject, pretending I did not care about the incident.

I was laughing by myself on the plane back to Paris, trying to remember some of the jokes Niels had told me. Then, as I recalled the shadow behind a misty panel, I lapsed into a gloomy mood.

All in all my Nordic marathon had been fruitful. I had found a Swedish consultant for Japan and two or three Associate Experts for my projects in Latin America. I had received strong encouragements on some proposals. I also had a terrible hangover. No coffee or aspirin helped. When the plane landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport I thought my brain was going to explode.

I did not expect anyone at the airport. Usually, nobody comes to meet me when I return from mission. This time Brigitte and Françoise were there. They had to exchange what they had purchased at IKEA the day of my departure, so they decided to come and pick me up. That was thoughtful, but I must have looked surprised. I am sure my hangover did not help my facial expression.

They said “Aren’t you happy we came? You look tired ! What have you done ? You can’t have had much sleep. Well, you’ll tell us all on the way home. By the way, the Blanchards and the Rousseaus are coming to dinner tonight. We had better hurry. They are dying to see Scandinavia through your eyes…”

In the car my two women would not stop talking. I somehow understood the value of being taciturn. Had I become a little bit Nordic ?

Then Brigitte said, “I think I saw one of your colleagues at the airport. The one you do not like”

“Who ? Massaringhe ?”

“I think so. But I am not sure, he was behind a glass door.”

Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American copyright conventions.

No part of this book, text and drawings, may be reproduced or transmitted, in any forms or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

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