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Late Night With Royalty

August of 2022 trip to Sweden was ABBA, lots of vegan options and non-alcoholic wines.

1976 and I was starting my new life as a cartographer, though I had only a glimmer of understanding of what that meant. As the Geography Department’s only cartography master’s student, I didn’t get an office, but rather a light table in the cartography (cart) lab. There were a half dozen or so of these tables, the others occupied by undergrads with internships or projects that they were working on for an instructor.

I settled into my light table and began working. In a small, attached room was a large copy camera, and on the other side of that a small room for laying out projects. The windows of Davis Hall opened at the time, and the building had no air conditioning. I was there at my table almost every night until two or later, sitting next to an open window to catch the warm summer breeze. The lab was on the first floor, and I frequently heard people walking by, talking about classes or more often, dating. Not me, I was drawing maps.

After my first semester, we graduated from drawing in ink to scribing, a negative engraving process that sometimes made my eyes cross. After hours of staring closely at tiny lines, they would start to waiver, merge, and drift apart as I watched. In the background, there was music coming from a small transistor radio that had been given to me for nights like those. Most nights it would have been playing WLS out of Chicago, one of the few stations I could get out in the corn fields of Northern Illinois.

One night as I worked alone in the dark, the radio started playing Dancing Queen, a song I had never heard. I stopped to listen. Teenage bubblegum, but different. It was by a Swedish band, but they sang in English. The Geographer in me wanted to know why. ABBA went on to produce other songs which I grew to like and which accompanied me on many dark, lonely nights. I didn’t think any more about it until Sue and I decided to go to Sweden.

It was three years since we last ventured out of the U.S., a hiatus mandated by Covid restrictions. After 37 years of marriage, we retired to what we thought would be a life of travel. Instead we retired to a life of seclusion, away from people who might infect and kill us. Finally, we were brave enough to test the international travel waters and bought tickets to Stockholm, Sweden, a new country for us and our 70th one. At 71 years of age, we were embarking on yet another adventure, just the two of us.

We studied the map of Stockholm at home in Virginia and decided to stay in the Gamla Stan, or old town. The first time we stepped outside of our small hotel on to the street, I had a strong sense of belonging in that place at that time. We were travelers again, seeing, smelling, and tasting a new place, and learning from a new people. I said something like, “this is right”, to no one in particular, maybe just to the warm, summer breeze.

A short walk across the old town, a crowded island mix of tourists and office workers, took us to a ferry dock. Part of the city’s transit system, a ferry took us to a large island to the east where we and hordes of 60 and 70 year olds visited the ABBA museum. Once we realized that there was such a thing, we knew we had to go there.

ABBA is certainly not the only museum worth visiting on the island. There is a very well-done museum of marine archaeology and an open air collection of Swedish traditional buildings among others.

The ABBA Museum, however, became the sound track to our vacation in Sweden. Several times a day one of us would ask what is playing now (in your head). It might be any number of tunes from the ABBA sound track that played non stop in our brains for more than two weeks. It’s even playing now.

Sue played ABBA on her cellphone whenever she got the chance. Two weeks later as we finished packing and surveyed our hotel room in Orebro for items left behind, Sue’s cell began playing Dancing Queen. She closed the cell and we closed the door behind us. The 17 year old dancing queen who was there at the start of my professional career was there at its end fifty years later, except she is no longer 17 and neither am I.

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