Min Otroliga Svenska Resa: Första Stegen

aka My Incredible Swedish Journey: First Steps

sharon hope fabriz
7 min readJan 13, 2022
Soren Pedersen’s Houston catering and gallery venue, 12/2019 (photo by shf)

A few weeks before my scheduled trip to Houston in December of 2019 B.C. (Before COVID), my sister texted me.

“Interested in going to The Norwegian Society of Texas Annual Julebord Traditional Norwegian Christmas Party?”

I digested the mouthful of words and focused on PARTY. My sister and I saw little of each other, especially without the rest of the family around, and a chance at some sister time AND a party was a flat-out YES.

My time in Houston spent with Mom during her 87th birthday month would culminate with the occasion. At my favorite thrift store haunt, I nabbed a festive ensemble. The subtle animal print on the embroidered black pants and the metallic lamé jacket were my not-too-flashy style.

“You’re lookin’ good!” I said as Sis sped away from Mom’s apartment. Her glamorous blond hair let me know that she was up for a good time. I sneaked a peak at the address on the GPS and saw that we were heading for Montrose, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Houston, a tree-rich eclectic mix of old and new, all shades and stripes, and friendly in all the right ways. “Woohoo!” I exclaimed between our bursts of family news chatter. “No Mom talk,” we both agreed, laughing.

The dinner was to be catered by Danish chef Soren Pedersen and would be hosted at his Scandinavian-inspired catering venue. Before we found our way to the North Sea Blue door, my sister dug into her purse for a small envelope. “I want to give you something,” she said. Curious, I tracked her movements and saw her fiddle with an item inside a folded Kleenex. “My best guess is that this ring is Annie’s. Her wedding band.” A thin, silver ring appeared in her palm. “You should have it,” she said as it stretched into the space between us.

I gasped. Annie was our Grandma Sig’s mother. Annie Ahlstrom immigrated to the United States from Sweden after her father, Olaf Alfred, earned enough money to have his wife, Stina Kajsa, and their several children join him. Over the same period, a youthful Carl Leo left Sweden and his family behind, finding work in southern Minnesota cutting stone, the trade he had learned from his father. Both Carl and Annie ended up in Mankato where Annie married Carl. She bore three children, two girls and a boy. Tragically, in his 39th year, Carl was killed when a piece of equipment at the quarry malfunctioned. Eighteen months later, Annie died of an undefined illness, but Grandma’s explanation was all I ever needed. Death by broken heart. My grandmother was the oldest of the orphans, a girl of 14 when her mother died. The connection between her parents’ Swedish homeland and the young girl’s new reality was fractured by fate. Annie’s parents remained in Grandma Sig’s life, but she never saw the homeland of her bloodlines despite living until the age of 101.

“Are you serious? Where did you find the ring?” I implored. She had uncovered it and other precious cargo in the haul she had brought home from our infamous trips to empty Daddy’s storage units in the months after his death. Boxes that had been taped shut for decades, kept revealing, amidst the clutter, the treasures of three generations.

“Take it!” Sis said, her hand entering my airspace in an act of playful aggression.

I succumbed and tried on the gift. A few diamond flecks remained, but empty pin-head holes spoke of loss and time. I slipped the band on the ring finger of my left hand. This remnant of the Ahlstrom line would journey with me to this special occasion. Who could know what magic it might bring!

A couple dozen friendly Norwegians gathered in the gallery space near a long spare table made elegant by the place settings and glassware. Soon the chafing dishes were in place and a toast was made to open the buffet line. Sis and I lingered near the end and oogled the offerings that smelled of Grandma Sig’s kitchen: meatballs, sausage, potatoes, gravy, baby carrots, red cabbage, sauerkraut with caraway and apples, lingonberry jam. Throughout the meal, bottles of Aquavit, a prized Scandinavian liquor, floated hand to hand up the table end to end and back again. “Skål, my friend!” repeated in echoes all evening.

During the dinner, our heads bobbed with the conviviality of a shared heritage. I observed the evidence that indicated our tribe.The clan was mostly tall and lithe. Their eyes, watchful, expectant sparklers. Their hands contained like valued tools. Across the table to our left was a dashing gentleman whom I guessed had a vibrant past. He talked in familiar detail about renowned Norwegian skiers. He shared secrets about the distilling method used for the liquor we had been sipping from stemmed shot glasses.

“Have you seen Allt for Norge?” he asked us out of the blue.

“It rings a bell,” I answered, unsure what bell it rang. “Tell us more!”

“It’s a popular Norwegian television program that invites Americans to Norway to discover their heritage. There’s a friendly competition involving the cast, and the grand prize is a reunion with family who still live in Norway.” He emptied his shot glass and pounded it on the table like he was making a deal. “You should check it out!”

I laughed and made a mental note to do just that.

The night ended with a celebration of handshakes and back pats and a big hug between us sisters. What an amazing night, we both agreed. Great-grandma Hazel, from our father’s paternal side, was born in Levanger, Norway, and must have lead the heavenly hosts in rejoicing that her great-granddaughters had found a way to reconnect to their roots.

Back at Mom’s, I couldn’t wait to investigate the genealogy show. I discovered that Allt for Norge had filmed ten seasons with no plans posted for an eleventh. However, I spotted a link to a similar Swedish version called Allt for Sverige. Its website reported that the show was in the process of casting for its tenth season to be filmed in 2020. The casting call deadline was around the corner.

A blue banner glared at me: APPLY FOR SEASON 10 HERE, it read. Why not? I thought. I was eighty percent Swedish, with six of my great-grandparents having emigrated from Sweden, and no one in my living family had ever traveled there. I held my left hand, on which I still wore Annie’s ring, over the space bar and shivered at the certainty of my click.

The next morning, I had a few precious minutes with my grand nieces and nephew and Sis, their Nana, a stronghold in their lives. We met at Whataburger which is as Texan as you can get. Surrounded by its orange and white decor, we sat munching on our crispy fries and dipping them into the spicy ketchup that defines Whataburger. As we dipped and crunched, I dropped the bomb.

“I’m applying for a Swedish reality show and I need your help!” I had to submit a two-minute video, and I needed a deep bench to make it happen. “Let’s make a video right now. You can help me figure out what to say, and you can even be in it!” To my left, I felt my youngest niece squirm with excitement. To my right, my oldest niece straightened up her posture and tilted her head in a fashionable pose. My nephew sat across from us with his Nana, his eyebrows raised as he chuckled. I’d let the kids duke it out to come up with a plan.

“We have to say y’all’,” the youngest insisted. Great idea, I thought. But I kept my opinion to myself.

“And what about “Adios!” Nana suggested. Now, that’s thinking! I silently agreed.

“Showtime!” I announced as I set my phone camera to video mode once we found a neutral spot. The kids stood against the outside wall and made their proclamation:“Bring our Aunt Shari to Sweden! Adios, y’all!” Sis and I added another five seconds of smiles and a loud “Tack!” In a few windy takes, we had our footage.

The next day, I was back at home in California and had written a script of my own. Once I narrowed my narrative to under the required two minutes and practiced a dozen times with an online teleprompter, I threw on a favorite sweater, tended my face and hair, and made the video in the bright light of morning. Again, I pressed send with a prayer on my lips, thinking of Annie and Carl and the homeland they had left behind.

Within days and to my utter surprise, I received a call from Allt for Sverige’s genealogist requesting detailed family tree information. Sis had been doing family history research for years and had constructed a healthy tree of our American family. Again, she was providing me a stepping stone to who knows what. I thought back to her gift of Annie’s ring, slipped it onto a silver chain, and clasped the link to my past around my neck for luck.

the final frame from my application video, 12/2019

“My Incredible Swedish Journey” posts will appear in a limited series on Medium and IG and will parallel the showing of Allt for Sverige, Season 10, which premieres in Sweden on January 16, 2022.