Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I never saw the Vasa.

In 1628, Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus commissioned the most glorious ship ever built, the Vasa. The Swedish Empire was at the height of its power, and the king wanted a ship that would reflect that image. So not a single expense was spared, and the ship was loaded up with the finest bronze canons and ornate sculptures, just as the king insisted. Yet no one had the guts to tell the king what all of the engineers so obviously knew – all the stuff he required be on the deck made the ship top-heavy, and the vessel was not seaworthy. The Vasa never made it out of the Stockholm harbor – 200 meters into its maiden voyage, a light breeze caused the ship to sink – and it remained at the bottom of the harbor for over 300 years.

In the 1960’s, they pulled the Vasa out of the water almost completely intact (the frigid Scandinavian waters had apparently preserved it quite well), and today it is the most popular tourist attraction in all of Sweden. At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me – because I’ve never seen it for myself. I may have spent 100 days here in 2011, but I never really had much interest in seeing it – anyone could tell you that a ship built purely for pride’s sake is destined to sink.

Instead, I spent most of my free time in Sweden at Blasieholmens Akvarium o Restaurang, B.A.R. for short, eating the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Ashley and I discovered it on a whim a few years ago, fell in love with the place, and it’s been my home away from home ever since.  Tonight I waddled atop my usual bar stool, like Norm settling in at Cheers, and Dave asked me “So what will it be tonight, Jay – an aviation, or an old fashioned?” He knows me too well. Dave has a pretty cool story – born in Hong Kong, his family immigrated to Manchester, England when he was a kid, and he moved to Sweden a few years ago just for an adventure.

A Superb Aviation Made by Dave
Tonight I told him my role with the company had changed, and that I wouldn’t be traveling to Sweden anymore. I was surprised by how genuine he seemed when he told me how much he was going to miss having me as a customer. He said he appreciated how I always challenged his mixology skills and took the time to learn his story, and he asked me if I minded him adding me as a friend on Facebook because he wanted to keep in touch. I don’t know why, but that meant a lot to me.

Yet the greatest memories I have of Sweden are the times I spent with a Welshman and a Brit - Rhys and Roland. Anyone who has ever enjoyed one of my cocktails has Rhys and Roland to thank – they introduced me to the Pegu Club in New York, bought me my first aviation at Restaurang 1900 in Stockholm, and Rhys made me my very first old fashioned at the house they used to rent on the island of Lindingö.  During our dinner discussions, we solved all of the UK and US political problems, they shared their superb advice on entrepreneurship with me, and they gave me some of the heartiest laughs I’ve ever had. After sometimes tumultuous weeks of working with my Swedish colleagues, they were always a joy to share a meal with.

My Swedish coworker, Fredrik, and I used to have a difficult time getting along. We’re pretty different, and just had trouble seeing eye-to-eye for whatever reason. Yet one night we were having dinner at a traditional Swedish restaurant, and as I was biting into my Lörjom on Raggmunk (imagine bright orange caviar spread on top of a potato pancake), he said “See, this is what I like about you. You don’t come here and order the cheeseburger – you always dive into the most Swedish thing on the menu.” We’ve been friends ever since, and now we joke about how different we are.

Sharing a meal with others is just innately special. Every country I’ve been to and every culture I’ve experienced puts sitting down with others to eat in high regard, and always has unique traditions for celebrating it. When Jesus had some important concept that he needed people to understand, he made an analogy to a feast or a banquet. When Jesus was about to die on the cross and wanted to give his disciples a way to remember his sacrifice, he chose the last supper. Jesus didn’t just talk to “tax collectors and sinners,” he dined with them in order to fully enjoy their company, which was considered an honor. This perplexed the religious leaders of the day – “Whydoes your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When I think about where I’m investing my time and life, I look at where I’m having my meals. As I look back on my adventure in Sweden, I’m satisfied with how I spent my time here. While I never made it to the Vasa, I had some awesome meals that created some great relationships, and those are the kind of ships that aren’t built on pride and don’t sink in the harbor.


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