A Journey with My Father
Story of a father-son bonding on a day spent together in a small island in Sweden
The rain had stopped falling, the grass was still moist. A sliver of sun had appeared from behind the clouds, not adequate to warm the frigid Swedish air. We waited for the ferry in silence, not in an uncomfortable reticence, but with a patient stillness that we both had polished over the years. When the ferry arrived, rattling the still waters of Oresund Straight under its weight, I stepped aside to make way for my father to step in first. The ferry would take us to Ven, a small island in the middle of Oresund Straight, a sea body between Denmark and Sweden that connects the waters of the North Sea on the West and the Baltic Sea on the East.
People go to Ven to bathe in the sun, to eat good food and drink rich wines, to ride around on tandem bikes, to do kite-surfing. Not us. We were driven by our own intentions. My father, once a nuclear scientist, wanted to visit the Tycho Brahe museum, and I was impelled to make that visit happen. Left to me, I would have designed another holiday, perhaps a road trip across the mountains for few days. But when my father, who was visiting me in Sweden, casually enquired how far Ven was, I was intrigued. My father had never shown a particular interest in travelling – his only journey those days being a daily walk to the city library where he preferred to spend most of his hours.
“How do you know about Ven, papa?” I had asked him.
“Arey! At Ven, Tycho Brahe carried out his most famous measurements! His observatory is located there” replied my father with a dismayed look. Being his son, he perhaps expected me to know about the fundamental sciences, and the origins and associations of the same. In my defense, when mulling over a trip to Sweden’s outlying islands, images of centuries-old observatory doesn’t immediately come to mind.
The following Sunday morning, we both woke up early in my apartment in Malmo, the third biggest city of Sweden, and prepared for the trip. My wife fixed us a few sandwiches and other tidbits; the carefully wrapped food rested deep inside a ridiculously oversized picnic basket that I carried. The rain started just when we stepped out to take the train to the city of Landskrona, from where a ferry would take us to Ven.
In the ferry, I followed my father, just like I had done when I was little, to the uncovered upper deck. The sun had prospered further, and despite the blowing wind, it was tempting to be on the open deck. We walked to a side overlooking the water, dried a still wet plastic bench with a wad of paper towels, and sat. The deck filled up pronto; around us were tourists and day-trippers carrying umbrellas, cameras and picnic baskets similar to ours. The rest carried larger bags – perhaps they had longer layovers, or had their homes on the island. A slight cheer settled in the crowd as the ferry began to cruise, and the deck reverberated in a consistent hum, punctuated with the swish of opening of the beer cans. I poured hot black tea for both of us; it’s a preference that we both have carried for many years now. From the other end, the sound of guitar filtered through, pre-empting the need for any frivolous conversation.
Ven, called Hven by the Danes, materializes like a hump on the back of the otherwise placid sea. The ferry touched the island at Bäckviken, one of the four villages, or more appropriately neighborhoods, on the island. A green public transport bus waited for the passengers. A few boarded, but many continued to walk straight ahead towards a stunted hill. Few hundred meters up, at the summit, is a cycle hire shop. Outside the shop, hundreds of yellow-framed bicycles of all types – mountain, tandem, flat bar, men’s, women’s, bikes with child trolleys, bikes with baskets to carry picnic stuff – all stood waiting in neat lines bound together by a common thread, the color yellow.
“Do you want to rent bikes, papa?”
Father gave it a serious thought, and for a moment I thought he would agree.
“Some other time”, he said a few moments later and started walking downhill on to a dirt-trail.
The solitary trail curves around the island, running parallel to the coast, all the way up to the north, a distance of 4.5 kilometers. The island is 7.5 square kilometer in the area, and the circumference is close to 11 kilometers. We decided to walk a part of it on foot before heading to the observatory. Though not many people live on the island, less than 500, it’s a top draw when it comes to owning a summer house.
The trail weaved through the bushes before merging into a slightly wider track, along which the sea-facing summer houses queue up like clusters of brown sugar cubes stacked next to each other. The monotony is broken by the bold colors of the front doors, quirky postboxes, the blue of swimming pools held within the sprawl of some of the cottages, and bright blooming colors from the flowers in the gardens that appear unannounced along the trail. Far off, yachts dot the sea, waiting in a relaxed informality for the wind to heave up.
We found a bench under a tree on a grassy slope, looking across to the Danish coast line, and un-wrapped our sandwiches. My father asked me the time. I sensed him growing impatient with my casual dilly-dallying, so folding away my plan of lingering on the waterfront a bit longer, we continued on the trail to the Tycho Brahe observatory.
“There are actually two leftovers from Brahe’s time”, father spoke abruptly as we walked on.
“Which ones?” I asked.
“Uraniborg, which was Brahe’s castle and an observatory, and Stjerneborg, his other observatory next to the castle”
Tycho Brahe was a 16th-century Danish astronomer, who was gifted the island of Hven (then owned by Denmark, as was most of southern Sweden), for constructing his observatory, by the Danish King Frederik II in 1576.
“The idea was to keep him home, safe from being poached by other European universities”, father informed me on the way, “He was one of the brightest of that time, one to map the distance between the stars precisely. Kepler was his protégé.”
Tycho Brahe Museum is the island’s main draw, and is surrounded by a beautiful garden called ‘Renaissance Garden’ – one that can be enjoyed without buying an entrance ticket. Fruits and herbs were cultivated here, which were later used in Brahe’s medicine studies. It’s an absorbing preface to the museum; it doubles up as a playground, and an open air exhibition hall. The play area presents some of the popular games from Brahe’s time, most of which involved balancing on wooden bars or throwing rings.
“Brahe’s now ruined castle, Uraniborg, was in his time a meeting place for scientists and royals from all over Europe”, my father explained as we walked around studying the ruins. Stjerneborg was Brahe's underground observatory next to Uraniborg. Today only the foundations of this observatory remain.
By now, a faint drizzle had begun again. Despite the inconvenience from cold showers, father had spring in his steps, as he hopped from one information plaque to another, carefully reading them end to end, making mental notes, and studying the leftovers from the observatories in detail.
“You know, this island is one of the most important places in the history of science”, my father said, more to himself than to me.
I had carried a camera with me. For most part of the day, it had stayed inside the bag. My father has little appetite for getting photographed, but as I stood there watching him pouring cheerfully over the remains from the middle ages, I decided to click him. Hearing the sound from the shutter clicks, he turned around and stood in rapt attention posing for the camera.
“Can you take one more picture? In front of the museum”, he asked.
It was the first time ever he requested being clicked. I spread the tripod, and settled him on a perfect spot outside the museum. He sat erect, waiting to be clicked. As I zoomed in the lens, I discovered the childlike smile spread over his face.
A version of this story appeared in Mint