A German friend emailed the other day to tell me that she’s going to Mallorca to celebrate her 50th birthday. She felt a little sheepish, she said, because the island is so popular with her compatriots that it’s sometimes called “the 17th state.” (She wondered if she were the only German who hadn’t been there yet.) This delighted me because it gave credence to my claim in The Joys of Travel that the Germans are the world’s greatest travelers. The closest thing we Americans have to a 51st state is not an island that we flock to but one that, as Doug Mack suggests in his excellent new book The Not-Quite States of America, we colonized.
Sunday I met a man whose business used to take him to Jordan. One day visiting the American embassy in Amman, he noticed a group of people gathered in a room reading Bibles. He asked if they were part of a Bible study group, though it seemed an odd thing for the embassy to host.
"Oh no," he was told, "they're just trying to figure out where to go for the weekend."
Saturday we went to see Kedi, the beautiful movie about the cats of Istanbul which is also a movie about the residents of Istanbul. What's impressive is not just how they look after the cats, but the noble attitudes that inspire them to do so. They are everyday people but their thoughts sometimes transcend the mundane and touch the spiritual; their sentences are often quietly poetic. The movie makes you want to visit (or return to) Istanbul not just to see its cats but to meet its citizens.
PBS's The Durrells in Corfu appeared two Sundays ago out of the blue and has quickly become my favorite show on television. Not surprisingly, since it involves travel (eccentric family uproots from England to go live on a beautiful Greek island) and has as its main characters not one but two nascent writers: the novelist-and-travel-writer-to-be Larry and the zookeeper-and-memoirist-to-be Gerry (on whose trilogy the show is loosely based). While clearly taking advantage of the popularity of more recent expat-in-paradise books (A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun), The Durrells in Corfu has a different feel. Here it's not just the locals but the family members who are odd and colorful. (The first and most famous book in the trilogy is titled My Family and Other Animals.) When I lived in Greece, in the winter of 1979, I met a woman, an expat, who told me that people generally preferred Gerry to Larry, who came across as a bit of a prig. When you watch the show, this sounds about right. But I should add that the woman shared a house with six dogs.
We were telling our French friend about our visit to Sweden, remarking on the attractiveness of the people, and he said: "That's because the Vikings, when they went to Normandy, picked all the pretty girls and took them home."
Our second night in Lund happened to be Culture Night, a once-a-year celebration of music throughout the university town. Walking through the campus we passed students heading to a dance, the men in dark suits, the women in long dresses, their blond hair lit by the late-summer sun.
After dinner with friends, Polish doctors working in Lund, we walked to the Romanesque cathedral that dominates downtown. We found five seats near the back and listened as a black-robed choir sang liturgical music. Touring the empty cathedral the day before I had thought how wonderful it would be to hear a choir in this great sanctuary, and now I was hearing one, surrounded by a hushed, multi-generational crowd. Before this moment, I had only heard Swedish choirs on classical music stations at Christmas. Or on A Prairie Home Companion.
After the concert we found a courtyard where a band was playing blues. Jacek said that some of his colleagues were singing in the building behind us so we headed inside. (Blues I can get at home.) A group of about thirty people, the majority of them middle-aged women, belted out "A Hard Day's Night." Then they sang a Swedish song.
They all worked at the local hospital. "Seven hundred thousand Swedes," Jacek told me, "sing in choirs."
They sang "When I'm Sixty-Four" like all the other numbers, with a contagiously delighted gusto. During one of the last songs, a man in a bright red sportcoat detached himself from the group and spoke very rapidly into the microphone. "He says that singing is good for you," Jacek translated. In all my travels, Lund was the first city where I thought it wouldn't be so bad to be hospitalized.