Lindy Hop Camp in Herrang. Stockholm and the Story of the Vasa.

Bon Jour, Tout le Monde!

or if you prefer

Hej! (That’s Hello in Swedish)

Well, here I am sitting in Cafe le Depart. This is a favorite hang of mine for people watching. The food’s not great, but you can’t beat the location. Right on the corner of the Place St Michel looking down the Seine. The tourists all milling about, meandering toward recommended scenic destinations, the Parisians ignoring them, walking as quickly as the can toward places so hip only a Parisian can understand them.

Last night,Virginie and I hung out at a cafe nearby playing “Guess the Origin”. We tried to guess the origin of whoever walked past. (No fair saying his/her Mom). It’s harder than you would think. Often we were reduced to clues like what did their tour books say (If it says “Parigi” they’re Italian). Viriginie had some interesting rules of thumb – Dark and flat chested = French. Dark and large chested = Italian or Spanish. Walks fast = Parisian. Big ass = American. Often we were confused (Well that guy is French, but he must have bought his belly from an American.). It struck me just how global fashion (especially summer leisure-wear) has become. In a way it’s sad. Nobody was wearing lederhosen.

I’ve just come back from my trip to Sweden (see Toute Le Monde volume 1 #6 dated 7/24/96). The Lindy Hop camp was a lot of fun – a real glorification of obsession just like a good camp should be. There were about four hours of lessons a day. Then there was dinner and a meeting, often followed by more lessons if you wanted them (usually in some alternate style – Charleston, Jazz, even Milonga which turns out to be an early form of Tango). Then dancing every night until the last couple went home, which was usually someplace around 6:00 AM). At breakfast people would say things like “I didn’t get much sleep last night – only about an hour and a half.”

One thing that I hadn’t expected was the sense of humor of the people running the camp. Lennart Westerlund is the chief, and he ran every meeting with a deadpan sense of humor that I found hysterical. For instance – “if you find it boring here, you might take a bus to Halstavik to see all the interesting things there. (Beat). Good luck.” Or: “If you smoke please don’t throw your cigarettes around, because there are people who have to pick them up. Find a place to put your cigarette. (beat). An ashtray would be a good place.” (Pause, nodding, as if confirming with himself that an ashtray would indeed be a good place to put your cigarette butt.) It works better when he does it.

Anyway, the dance lessons were a bit humbling as I soon learned that “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG”. I think this might be the title of my lessons here (drumming and otherwise) or perhaps “Moving backwards to move forward”. I arrived ready to move onto complicated stuff only to learn that my basic technique needs work. I start working on my basic technique, and some of the more complicated stuff I could do with my old flawed technique is now difficult to execute with my new, not-quite-mastered technique. Sigh.

European women have very clear ideas about how certain steps are to be executed, and are nothing loath to tell you when you’re not doing it right. I accepted the fact quickly that the camp would be the Swingout intensive for me. (For those of you non-Lindy Hoppers, a swingout is one of the basic Lindy steps, where the partners come in, rotate and swing out in opposite directions.) I worked on it with Valerie from France once – it was pretty amusing, because she would stop me whenever she felt like I was getting it wrong. Our practice sounded like this – “Un, deux NON” “Un, deux, trois-et-NON”, “Un, deux, tros-et-quatre, NON”. Luckily for me, I found partners who enjoyed my dance style during the evening social dances so I could gather back up the pieces of my ego scattered by the day’s classes.

Every Wednesday night is Blues Night where people show up in their Lindy finest – Zoot suits, high-waisted pants, slinky dresses with spaghetti straps. And you should see the women! The whole night is dedicated to slow dancing which Laurence the goofy Swiss described as “Not so much dancing as leaning against each another.” Laurence is another fixture, as whacky as only a totally restrained person can be when he finally breaks loose. He announced that he would be having a sausage party in the sauna and boasted “My average sausage throughput is about 120 sausages an hour.” You’ve got to love the Swiss. He would speak often at meetings, usually concluding by saying “It is important that you stay up as late as possible.”

After the camp I went to Stockholm. Since I’d made friends with various campers, I was able to hook up to the Stockholm dance scene. The swing scene in Stockholm is often outdoors, and is composed of the various Lindy Hoppers, and a large number of fox-trotting Gliding Geezers who use their unusually sharp elbows to shepherd the Lindy Hoppers out of their path.

Stockholm is a much more beautiful city than I had imagined. (To tell the truth, I haven’t spent a lot of time imagining Stockholm). It’s in an archipelago, and is built on 14 islands. To its east the archipelago extends out to the Baltic. There are about 24,000 islands in that archipelago. The water is very clean in town – you can swim off the town hall (I did several times).

I went to a museum which was called the Vasa museum which houses a ship called the Vasa (ironic, huh). The story of this ship will be familiar to anyone who has built software or worked in a large corporation. The Vasa was a warship built in 1628 when Sweden was at war with Poland. As first designed, it was to be one of the largest ships in the fleet, designed to blockade Danzig harbor. She was to have a gun deck sporting 32 cannon. After the keel had been laid (no giggling, please), and the dimensions of the hull fixed, the king decided that he wanted to have 2 cannon decks, not just one. If you add another deck with a lot of weight, you really should change the dimensions of the hull. But they’d already started, and invested money in this hull, and they probably had a deadline to reach, and the decision had come from the higher-ups, so they went ahead and hoped for the best and just stuck the other deck on there (another deck with 16 more cannons each weighing about a ton). Maybe they figured they could throw in a little more ballast and offset things.

When the ship was constructed, they tested it for stability. They usually did this by having thirty men run from one side of the boat to the other ten times. The Vasa was so unstable that after three times back and forth, it was threatening to capsize, so they stopped the test. Well now, they’d spent a whole lot more money and they were right up against the deadline. So what to do? The answer is obvious – deliver the faulty product and hope the client doesn’t notice.

The Vasa set sail with all of her banners flying and the whole population of Stockholm watching. She got out into the harbor and was hit by a cross breeze, heeled over, righted herself, heeled over again. Water poured in through the gun ports, and the Vasa sank, heading straight to the bottom where it rested on it’s keel, bolt upright. The Vasa sank in 30 meters of water. But with its masts, the Vasa was about 52 meters tall which meant that after it settled, its masts must have stuck out of the water, its banners flapping wetly and forlornly in the breeze in the middle of Stockholm harbor.

A really interesting part of the story which the guide pointed out to me is that everybody must have known that that ship was going to sink. There were 400 people working in the shipyard. They were experienced ship builders. They had to know that you couldn’t just stick another cannon deck on there. They had to know that the Vasa would probably capsize. Which means that all the sculptors (there were at least three master sculptors creating wood carvings adorning the boat) must have known that those sculptures were probably going to end up on the bottom of the ocean. And most interestingly, the sailors who went on board what they knew was a doomed vessel. Fifty were reported drowned, but only twenty five bodies were recovered when they raised the Vasa. At the time, service in the navy was compulsory, but you could buy your way out by substituting another able-bodied male in your place (like in Civil War U.S.). Only the poor got stuck there. Were there sailors who got themselves placed on the Vasa knowing that it would sink, and hoping to use that as a cover for desertion? Is that what happened to the other 25 “drowned” bodies? I think there’s a nice novel or screen play in there.

One other fun thing that I did in Stockholm – I took a hot air balloon ride. It’s pretty fun, and really very calm. It’s like standing on a really high balcony. One thing that I was not prepared for – that burner is really hot. (Okay everybody – One, two, three “DUH”) Whenever the pilot would fire it up, it would toast my head pretty well. And she had to fire it up pretty frequently. They had the prevailing winds figured out pretty well, because we drifted right over the center of Stockholm’s old city (that’s Gamla Stan to you Swedes) The funniest part of the trip was landing. It’s all very serene and dignified up until then. But There are no wheels or anything on the basket, so when you land you just hit and kind of bounce for a while. We landed in an empty field and then had to wait there for our pursuit vehicle to catch up with us. The pilot kept the balloon inflated, and we kind of swayed back and forth with all the locals looking at us. Then the pursuit driver checked us out and decided that that field wasn’t good, because it had a drainage ditch around it and he couldn’t get the van in there. So three of us got out, and we dragged the balloon to the side of the field. The pilot kept the balloon just inflated enough so that it was barely hovering (about an inch clearance). It was like if one of those hovering air-cars in Star Wars had broken down, and Luke Skywalker had to have his pals drag it into a garage.

The best part was when we had to cross the road to get from our landing field to the better field across the way. There was a car coming , and the pilot had to wave it off (Careful, balloon crossing) before we could drag the balloon to its final resting place.

I’ve got a few more travels planned before I get back. First to Geneva to visit Aunt Liz and Uncle Dimi and then to London to attend the Swing Jam. Then back to the States by Labor Day. I’m very much looking forward to seeing all my pals, and dancing in all the old familiar places.

See you in the flesh soon? I hope so!

Mpangi ya beno,