Swedish American Line

life-buoyIn 1963 my mother left her home in Sweden for the first time and traveled to the US aboard the Kungsholm, one of the elegant passenger ships of the Swedish American Line (SAL). Now, fifty years later, the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia has mounted an exhibit about the SAL. Last week my mom and I traveled to Philly to see it. She was excited to rekindle some memories of that momentous trip.

My mother was not an intentional immigrant; she just wanted to see something of the world, and didn’t intend to stay in the US for longer than a year. She was a young art student, renting a room in Göteborg, working, and taking the train home to help her family on the weekends. She had saved her money and made travel arrangements; she had also secured a job in advance so that she could support herself while in the States.

Young Swedes have been making these kinds of trips since Viking times, and they still do today. In fact, working at the welcome desk at the American Swedish Historical Museum was a Swedish woman who is working as an intern both at the museum and at the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce. She seemed happy to speak Swedish with us. Was she just being friendly, or is she maybe a little bit homesick? At least she can email, skype and text her friends back home! The distance must have seemed much greater when my mother first came over. The trip from Göteborg to New York took ten days!

greta-garboI wonder whether Morfar (my mother’s father) somehow knew that she would never again live at home in Sweden; he didn’t want her to go. But Mormor (her mother) didn’t share his reservations; if, as a young person, she had had the chance to go, she certainly would have done so – and gladly!

The SAL operated from 1915 to 1975, carrying cargo and passengers – including famous ones such as Greta Garbo, Jussi Björling and Raoul Wallenberg – between Göteborg and New York in high style. The Kungsholm, Gripsholm, Drottningholm and Stockholm were sleek, stylish ships, recognizable by the “Tre Kronor” (Three Crowns – a Swedish national symbol) that graced their smokestacks. The china, too, bore this traditional symbol of Sweden, as did the embroidered table linens. Everyone on the ship enjoyed the simple but beautiful table service for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the interior design and furniture were elegant, mid-century – very Scandinavian!

Together my mom and I look at photographs of the ship. She can’t quite remember for certain which type of cabin she lived in for the ten nights she spent aboard. No, there’s nothing wrong with her memory, but as she says, “I don’t think we spent much time in the cabin – there was too much to do. We were out dancing, eating, meeting people…”

One way to meet people was at your dinner table. My mother was seated with a group of young women like herself and some other people, including an “older” man – she says he was probably in his forties. I suppose he seemed nearly as old as tomten (Santa) to her! He predicted that one of his dining companions would not return. It was probably an easy call for him to make: the odds were pretty good that at least one of those young, adventuresome people would find a new life wherever they ended up – lots of the Vikings did, after all! Of course he couldn’t say which of them it would be, and maybe none of them believed him at the time, but whoever he was, and wherever he is now, he can be satisfied that events have proven him correct. I should know – I’m living proof that one, at least, of those young people found a permanent home in the US.

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The Author



Yes, I'm wearing multiple jackets in the middle of July, but how can I complain when I'm digging into a smörgås or two? My name is Leslie and I'm not Swedish myself; rather, my mother is to thank for this condition of being not Swedish but not fully American either. Like so many of my "second generation" brothers and sisters I'm always searching for those elusive roots! My forthcoming novel, The Bear Wife, is inspired by that search, as is my writing for Swedish Freak. Trevligt att träffas!