Trip Journal - Birka




Birka -- 30 June 1998

We had the whole day to kill before we could (hopefully) go to Eva and Daniel's place (we'd called but only go the answering machine, so we didn't know if they would be home or not). Stefan had an hour before his connecting train so he agreed to play some tunes for us on his violin before he left. Paul was excited to learn some Swedish folk music before we left the country. So we stowed our packs in a locker at the train station and went outside to find a nice place to sit down and play. There was a church yard park about a block away so we went in and found a bench and they began to play. Stefan plays quite well and he and Paul played a well known mid-summer tune together. Pretty soon, the park's other inhabitants, who on closer inspection appeared to consist entirely of drunks and prostitutes, began to pay attention. An Asian woman with a beer can in her hand came to stand next to me and started shouting "Fortsätta!" ("Continue"), exhorting the players to keep playing while she danced around. Suddenly a guy was there pushing her and demanding to know where "the money" was. I thought I might have to intervene on her behalf and was very scared. Paul said later that he was worried that I'd get involved and then he would have to join the fray, which could have quickly grown to include all the men in the park. Luckily, it never became an issue, because the man and woman got tired of arguing after a while and went to sit down next to their friends to discuss matters over another beer. It was weird to see these down and out people, outside the church, reclining on tombstones, closer to death than to life. The music was very enjoyable, though, and Paul came away with a new song to play on his recorder. Soon it was time for Stefan to go, so we walked him back into the train station and said goodbye. I'd like to see him again sometime. I felt like he was "people like us". We headed to the Tourist Information Office to find out about getting a boat out to Birka, which is an island which has the remains of the first known village in Sweden. On the way we had breakfast in the park near the City Theater - our established standard of bread, cheese, and lingonsylt. The boat for Birka was leaving in an hour, so we walked over to catch it near City Hall.

Once on the boat, we sat on the top deck out in the open opposite an oh so gooey couple. She was very tall and blonde with perfect hair and wearing a sleeveless white linen dress. He had his hands all over her. She kept having to relocate his hands to a more suitable location on her person. I thought they were merely "too cute" until I overheard him say, in Swedish, "I'll just keep this map for my children. Do you have children?" It was chilling they could be so obviously intimate and yet not know something as basic as whether the other had children! The ride was beautiful but a bit longer than I had been expecting. I'd left my jacket in the locker at the train station and the wind out over the water was quite brisk, so I was a bit cold. But Birka was more than worth a little discomfort.

Birka was a Viking village on the island of Björka (Birch Island). In Sweden the Viking age lasted from about 750 until 1050 A.D. Birka was founded in 790 and ceased to be around 970 for unknown reasons. 793 was the date of the first recorded Viking plunder in England. About 700 people lived in the town, which was only 70,000 square meters in area. It was a village of craftspeople, making glass beads, bronze works, and other tradable items. All the houses were laid out on a grid with alley ways between that ran down to the harbor. The houses measured 8 x 5 m and were built of horizontal wood timbers slotted into upright ones. The workshops were made of wattle and daub and were slightly smaller than the houses. After the village was abandoned and fell to disuse, the area was used farmed, and over the years the village was covered up, so now there is nothing there to see, its just a big field. Almost more interesting than how people lived is how they were buried, though this is in part because there is more information preserved from burials than from daily life. There are three distinct types of graves on Birka: cremation mound graves, with or without goods in them (the graves of slaves probably had little or no goods); chamber graves where the body wasn't burned; and stone cist graves, which were very simple. Some of the mound graves also had stone ships or tricorn patterns. One grave was found in which a man was buried with an arsenal of weapons. A set of elk antlers was by his head and he was with another man whose head had been chopped off. There are thousands of graves on the island. According to Norse mythology, when a Viking died in honorable battle, he went to Valhalla to spend his days with other warriors feasting and fighting. There was a great pig on a spit that was regenerated each night so it could be eaten again the following day. Ordinary people went to a place called Hel when they died, and when the Christian missionaries came, they took that to be the same as their Hell, but that was because of the close spelling and pronunciation, not because Hel was supposed to be a bad place.

Viking society was very interesting: there was a whole system that worked to create chaos and an amazing game of King of the Hill. Leaders demonstrated their power and status in society by giving gifts to other leaders. By giving you a gift, I showed that I ranked higher than you did, and so you were beholden to me. But in order to keep you loyal, I had to keep giving you gifts, otherwise you would be loyal to some other wealthy person who gave bigger and better gifts. It was a strenuous system - you had to constantly acquire new wealth in order to maintain your status, and those at the top had to constantly give more than they received. One way to do that was by plundering, for which the Vikings are well known. Another was through trade, or if you were at the top, through the control of those doing the trading. The king of Sweden realized this and so formed Birka as the first true village in the country so that he could put all the craftsmen in one place and so control the trade of the goods they produced. Of course, plunder was also quite popular. It seems that plunder was also popular amongst the various clans and kingdoms in Europe and Britain at the time, but the Norse Vikings (Viking is a Norse word meaning raider) got such a bad reputation for it in part because they were very good at it, and in part because they always came a-raiding by sea, and so the wronged parties, not being the able seamen that the norse were, had no way to follow their attackers back home and then later retaliate. The Norse were also pagan prior to about 1000, and so had no respect for the Christian church. When raiding, some of the wealthiest targets were the monasteries, and so they targeted those preferentially. This really put off the local Christians, because even when they went to raid their neighbors, they would never dream of desecrating a holy place in such a way. The histories are also a bit biased, because it is the monks of those same monasteries that supplied the bulk of the written history from that period.

The Vikings navigated by the sun and the stars. They traveled all over the Baltic Sea, and down the Russian rivers to end up in the Black Sea and trade with Persia. The voyage to Persia would take years, to do they would often take employment along the way. For example, the Emperor of Constantinople had Swedish bodyguards. Many Arabian coins have been found on Birka, as well as glass beads from that region. Arabian dress was often worn by wealthier people on the island. The younger sons of chiefs would lead the expeditions, since they did not stand to inherit wealth, they had to travel to foreign lands to trade or plunder to get it.

In 829, Ansgar the Benedictine monk from Frankonia came and began to preach Christianity to the people of Birka. He stayed for a year and a half and some were converted. There is a cross at the highest point on the island where the fortress used to be commemorating the 1000 year anniversary of his visit. Its a funny addendum to the story that the cross wasn't actually out up until 1832, but sufficient funds could not be raised. You'd think after 1000 years... Also it's a Celtic cross, and of course Ansgar was from Frankonia (in modern day France and Germany) so they really got it all wrong.

We had arrived on Birka, and before taking the guided tour in English, we set out to explore the island. We wandered off in the opposite direction of the tour groups, walking along a narrow road down the coast, through meadows and small birch trees. It was sunny and a light breeze made it a splendid day. After passing through the several houses and a barn or two which constitute the village, and then came upon a beautiful outdoor chapel on the edge of a large wheat field and backed by a pine forest. The chapel was built in honor of Ansgar in 1930. It's done in the art deco style and is open to the air, except for the alter which is covered and can be closed behind huge wooden doors. After the chapel, we took a little used pathway across sheep fields, past some burial mounds, and around to the other coast of the island before heading back to catch the english language tour. After following the tour guide around, we stopped in to see the wonderful museum they have set up displaying many of the archaeological finds they have made, including a wonderfully detailed scale model of the village as it was over 1000 years ago.

After the museum it was time to catch the boat back to Stockholm, so we boarded and set sail. This time we sat inside on the lower deck where it was warm and had drinks and some cake. When we got back, we walked back to the train station, picked up our packs, found out about the bus to the airport the next day, and then set off to the subway to take us to Eva and Daniel's house, hoping that they would be home. By some miracle we remembered the security code to the front door of their building, otherwise, I don't know how we were supposed to let anyone know we were outside. Happily, Eva was there expecting us. She didn't even flinch when we told her we hadn't had a shower in four days! We had showers straight away, threw all our clothes into the washer downstairs, and went out to dinner to a trendy hotel restaurant downtown. Paul and I both had mushroom ricotta, which was incredible. You could order each dish as an appetizer, medium or large dish. Daniel met us there, looking tired from overwork as usual. We had a great time. Afterward we walked to another place near the theatre (near the park where we'd breakfasted that morning), ostensibly to have ice cream, but we ended up having coffee and passionfruit cheesecake. Yum! It was fairly late when we got back and Eva went straight to bed. Daniel and Paul had a beer and hung out chatting for awhile before the three of us headed off to bed as well.

In Transit -- 1 July 1998

Our flight to Glasgow was at 3:45 pm, so we figured we'd head to the airport at about 12:00. We retrieved our laundry, which had dried very nicely in the heated drying room, and packed up, ready to carry our packs again. Our first stop was the little kiosk near the subway station for cokes and popcorn. It makes for a great lunch. Then we took the subway to the central rail station, where we got a bus out to the Arlanda airport, which took about 30 minutes. Every available surface inside the bus was devoted to ads for Ericsson mobile phones, which, as we have mentioned, are all the rage in Sweden. We ate the popcorn and had our drinks on the way to the airport. Eating in public is becoming a way of life by now. Once at the airport, we had to wait a little while for our ground crew to set up. We were the first in line, although others tries to push in from the side. The woman behind the counter firmly told them that we had been there longer and asked them to move aside. It was very gratifying. We had been told by Mishla, our wonderful travel agent at Ticket Planet that our tickets for the first leg of the flight had been mistakenly issued as business class even though we had only paid for coach. She warned us that the mistake might be corrected before we arrived for the flight, so we were prepared to be bumped back to coach with the rest of the riffraff. But when we checked in, business class it was, so after making sure everything was in order, the nice woman told us we were welcome to wait in the Lounge if we so desired. The Lounge? Of course we wanted to wait there. (For those of you who regularly fly first or business class, this is no big deal. But this was a first for me.) We waved goodby to our packs at the xray machine and made our way through the noisy airport crowd. Once we slipped through the portals into the business class lounge, all the hubbub faded away. It was suddenly so civilized! So sane! There were cozy over-stuffed arm chairs grouped around nice big coffee tables, and desks where you could set up your laptop, a complimentary phone for making local calls, and even a computer where you could surf the internet (for a fee). Then we discovered that the food and drinks we saw there at the bar were FREE!. Beers, sodas, wine, coffee and tea. Cookies, nuts and cake. It was heavenly. It was afternoon and all we had had to eat that day was a bit of popcorn, so we sat down, trying to look as sophisticated and worldly as possible, and began putting away as much of the free food and drink as possible. Pretty soon I had a good coffee buzz going. We didn't even have to go back out amongst the rabble to use the toilet. We had our own right there in the lounge and it even had real towels in it. I was almost sorry when they finally called our flight, but at least it was delayed a bit, we were able to maximize our enjoyment in the lounge. Then we got on the plane and again were treated like royalty. We had row 2 all to ourselves, and there were only 3 other people in Business Class with us. We had 2 flight attendants waiting on the five of us. We were served wine and then dinner, or I guess it was just a "light" snack, since it was such a short flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen. The meal was roast beef and brie on bread, with real linen napkins. When we landed and "de-planed", we were allowed to get comfortably off the plane before anyone in coach was allowed to cross the curtain barrier which separates the rabble from their betters on such a flight. I could get used to this. Unfortunately, hubris always exacts its price in the end, and our payment was due in full much sooner than we would have thought. Once in the Copenhagen airport, we followed the signs which said "International Transfers", since we did not have seat assignments on our connecting flight, so we would have to check in. We soon found ourselves immersed in more rabble and mob than there had ever been during the French Revolution. It was absolute, standing-still, seething chaos - only nothing was happening. There were a dozen lines extending back from the long "International Transfers" counter, each with at least 20 people in it, and none of them were moving. There seemed to be several dozen delays and cancellations that the staff were dealing with, along with all the regular boarding cards, and the staff did not seem to really know what they were doing. The room was thick with pent-up frustration, it felt awful just being there. Paul went out to the gate a couple of times after it was announced to see if there was anything we could do there, but there was no crew there yet. We found out from the woman ahead of us in line, who was from Norway, that all the SAS Engineers in Denmark were on strike in order to put pressure on the contract negotiations that were currently underway. This was why everything was such a mess. She said it happens all the time, which is a shame, since it is such a nice airport. So we waited and watched a man who was floating between our line and the one next to us, as he slowly wormed his way ahead of people in both lines by pretending to be first in one line, then in another. It was a slow, agonizing process, and as far as I can see it only gained him two or three places ahead in the line, and I'm sure he aggravated his ulcer as a result. I could feel the waves of anger and frustration radiating from him. I almost got caught up in it for a minute, when he elbowed me a couple of times, but once I realized what was going on, it became something amusing to watch during the interminable wait. Just before we had our turn, a Polish man indicated to me with gestures and showing his ticket that he wanted to jump the queue, but his flight was leaving at the same time as ours, so I said "No". Then a french woman came up and asked Paul if they could cut in for just a moment to ask where to get an identity voucher, and Paul acquiesced, but before we got to our turn, her husband got the attention of someone behind the counter and they were taken care of. The people working behind the counter were so wrapped up in what they were doing that there was no one available to answer questions and tell people where they were supposed to be. The lack of communication with the people who were waiting was a real problem, but that's always the way it is with airports when things go wrong. While the Norwegian woman in front of us was trying to get assigned to a new flight, along with two of her friends on the same flight which she had pulled in when she got to the front, our flight was announced as boarding at the gate. So we jumped out of the line, much to the relief of those waiting behind us I suppose, and headed to the gate, hoping that there were still seats available for us. When we got there, the flight was already boarded and we were that last two on. Fortunately the flight was not full, so we even got two seats together. We actually had a meal on this flight too, which was pretty good - chicken and rice with the usual assortment of roll, cheese, salad and dessert. The British Midland flight attendants have these very attractive dark blue bowler hats. It reminds me of the native women who live in the Andes. The flight attendants weren't dressed as colorfully, however. The flight actually stopped in Edinburgh, and then flew on to Glasgow. If we had known, we would have changed it, because Edinburgh was our destination, but we had to go on to Glasgow because that is where our bags were going. Paul was sitting on the aisle, and he had a nice conversation with a somewhat tipsy Glaswegian sitting across the aisle. He has lived in Copenhagen for the last 20 years, and flies up regularly to visit his family in Glasgow. He is a professor at the university in Copenhagen, teaching history of religion and English. He recommended a good pub to visit in Glasgow, and apologized that he would not be able to show us around after we arrived, as he was being picked up by his family.

When we arrived in Glasgow, we were the only 2 people who had to go through the non-EC passport control. We got a good natured grilling from the passport control officer. He asked us things like "Have you got any money with you?" to which I answered "Yes, I have 54 pounds." But of course what he really wanted to know was whether we had the means to support ourselves while we would be in the country. He asked to see our departing plane ticket, ascertained that we had credit cards and were not planning to try to get jobs while were there, and then let us through. We picked up packs, which always seem to get heavier the later it is in the day. We called Gordon from the airport, and he was there expecting our call. I was surprised because we'd tried to call several times and gotten no answer. But we had called Irene down in England, so I guess she had told him when we were coming in. Anyway, he told us which bus to take to get to Edinburgh and told us to call when we got there and he would come to pick us up. We got on a bus and I asked the driver whether he went to Edinburgh. All I understood was "no," but there was a lot more to his answer. I didn't get any of the rest and had to ask him to repeat himself. "I've only been here ten minutes," I said sheepishly. The bus we were on would go to the Glasgow bus station, then we could switch to another bus that would take us to Edinburgh. We paid our bus driver the whole fare (6.50 Pounds each) and got on. I have to admit, it was great to hear English again, and not have to have your brain constantly translating, or attempting to, all the time. I knew we'd get used to the accents; that was just a temporary setback. While we were waiting for the Edinburgh bus, a man, who may have been of Indian or Middle Eastern descent, engaged us in a conversation about Clinton and his love life. He wanted to know all the latest, but we couldn't tell him very much since we hadn't really heard any news in a month. The man offered the opinion that Clinton needed to have a lot of women, because he was the ruler of everything else, it was too much to ask him to limit himself to just one woman. In fact, he said, he thought all men were entitled to 4 or 5 wives. I smiled and said that in theory it might sound nice, but the men would have to be careful or they might find themselves being ruled by their wives. He seemed a little taken aback by this. This same man got on the bus with us and was very soundly reprimanded by the driver for putting his feet up on the seat. The bus ride was uneventful, and we came into Edinburgh just as the last of the sunlight was snuffed out. The bus station was a very confusing place, with narrow, dark pedestrian tunnels running between the different busses. We had a hard time finding a phone - or maybe it was just that it was 11:00 and we had been traveling for almost 12 hours, no matter how satisfying the Business Lounge may have been. Finally we found a phone, called Gordon, and he said he would bring the car and pick us up at St. Andrew's Square, right outside the bus station. We found out later that Gordon had a major presentation to make at work the next morning at 8:30, and works an hour away in Perth, so it was very nice of him to come out to pick us up. [The presentation went very well, and he is now being besieged with questions and new projects]. We got to the flat which is in the top floor of an old Jesuit college, just past a "house estate" on the Water of Leith in the village of Juniper Green. Gordon now lives in England, so the flat is now a bit emptier than the last time I saw it, but still very comfortable. Gordon graciously gave us his bedroom, and he took the sofabed in the living room. Everywhere we go, we keep getting the royal treatment. We went to bed right away, ostensibly because of Gordon's presentation, but I admit I was a "wee bit" tired myself.

Tune in next time to find out how we spent our first day in Scotland.