Our host opened a second bottle of champagne to have with dessert and right after the cork popped out he said, “Ah, that is the sound of a civilized home”. Hans Blix has an amazing sense of humor, dry as gin. He was the nuclear inspector who kept trying to convince the USA that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This evening he was also a supremely gracious host to a mini-class reunion that included my dad and 3 other classmates.
Even before Hans made that witty comment, I sat and watched an ever-so-familiar evening unfold. My father and I walked to “Hötorget—an open air market in the center of the city—to buy some nice flowers to take to our hosts. When we got to the Blix’s home, I saw how everyone else had brought lovely flowers too. I’d say that’s another mark of ”civilization”: small gestures of appreciation and the discretionary income that allows them. The apartment was not large by American standards and filled with the most stupendous art imaginable—an original Picasso, a series of paintings by a a Swedish-Mexican artist, and the most incredible antique Persian rugs.
We sat down to a 4-course meal that began with a mushroom dish Hans had fixed with mushrooms he’d picked himself at his family’s summer cottage. Eva his wife had fixed the main course, Hans made the dessert—a rhubarb pie that was delectable. A young woman from Nicaragua who is getting her PhD in chemistry helped serve the dinner. My ”Swedish ear” is working again and I listened to the stories of five remarkable people. Einar is a retired civil engineer who worked on mining and aide projects on behalf of Sweden in Egypt, Tanzania and other countries in Africa. Arne was a doctor with the World Health Organization who served in 94 countries helping to address issues of childhood malnutrition. Hans is currently leading a project to build a ”sarcophagus” over what remains of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Barbro is a well-known social scientist who has consulted across the world on issues of peace-keeping and reconciliation.
One of the lovely traditions of a Sweden that probably hardly exists any longer is the tradition of trying to put words around what matters beyond words when you give a toast. Hans, as the host, was the first. He talked about the class of ’46, the first class to graduate after the war and how they were the first generation of true “internationalists” as represented by the five of them gathered together over the meal. There were toasts that gently ribbed about my dad, whom all the girls used to swoon over. And about the English teacher that would beg him not to come to class because his English was so lovely (and he could quote Shakespeare plays almost in their entirety) that she was ashamed of her own English pronunciation next to his. My dad was class president and it was quite remarkable, watching the deference with which his “klass kamroter” talked about him.
I know am a child of privilege and that what might easily be called a “very civilized evening” is really about the spaces privilege opens for this kind of encounter. I hope I don’t just take it for granted. I know that as much as I loved being in what felt old and familiar and comfortable, I was also standing on the edges. I think about the crazy wonderful wedding we just celebrated at St Ambrose, with the mess, and energy threatening to spin into chaos and just remembering fills me with energy. I feel so much more at home there. But I do. I just absolutely love and cherish this part of my heritage and am glad I knew to take flowers, that I knew the etiquette for the toasts and I understood exactly what Hans Blix meant when he said “That’s the sound of a civilized home”. I’m home for a few days.