Maiden Voyage
01 December 2003

We sailed on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated Estonia, which sank in a storm in 1994 taking more than 800 souls with her, a tragedy that united Estonia and Sweden in grief.

Sailing between the rocky pine-clad islands of Stockholm's archipelago on my way to Tallinn, Estonia's capital, I was reminded strongly of my first trip in 1990, as the Iron Curtain began to crumble. We sailed on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated Estonia, which sank in a storm in 1994 taking more than 800 souls with her, a tragedy that united Estonia and Sweden in grief.

The first voyage was a joyful one, carrying many Estonians on their first trip home for many years. I well remember one old man as he greeted a sister, whom he had not seen for 46 years, on the quay in Tallinn.

The Baltic Sea is small - the distance from Stockholm to Tallinn is shorter than to Gothenburg on Sweden's west coast. The different countries' histories have been interwoven from earliest times and the fall of communism has led to a dramatic process of re-orientation.

baltic necklace
This time, I went to Tallinn for a conference on cooperation and reconciliation in the region. Knud Simon Christensen, a Danish journalist, talked of the necklace of nine countries around the Baltic, and the role of small countries, whom no-one suspects of power politics, in building trust. Dr Markus …sterlund of Helsinki University spoke of the need to look back and understand history in order to be able to move forward. Professor Erik Terk, head of the Future Studies Institute of Estonia, commented on the upcoming referendum in Estonia on joining the European Union and stressed the need to concentrate on the EU's content, quality and values.

bottled time
During World War II Sweden received many refugees from the Baltic region. Recently a Swiss tourist found a bottle containing a letter which had been thrown into the sea by an Estonian refugee in Sweden 60 years ago. 'Is the war over?' asked the letter-writer, Maja Westerman, writing of her longing for her family in Estonia. Apparently she was living on the Swedish island of Gotland. Efforts are underway to check the authenticity of the letter but, whatever the outcome, it's a reminder of one role neutral Sweden was able to play at a dark time in Baltic history.

the best of us all
With these words, Margot Wallström, Sweden's EU Commissioner, described Anna Lindh, our foreign minister, shortly after her murder in a Stockholm department store.

A possible future Prime Minister, Lindh represented the best of SwedenÕs political tradition of openness and closeness to the people. A newspaper editorial wrote of her 'honesty, straight-forwardness and care' and added, 'for her, people were important'. The mosque in Stockholm dedicated its Friday prayers to her, the first time this has been done for a Swede.

saintly celebrations
Earlier this year I was one of 5,000 people-including the Swedish royal family and politicians-who attended an ecumenical service at the castle of Vadstena to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the birth of another great Swedish woman, St Birgitta.

The Pope recently made her one of three woman patron saints of Europe. A mother of eight, it was only after her husband's death that she was free to take up fully the calling she had first felt as a child. This led her to Rome, where she lived the rest of her life and founded the Brigittine Order. She spoke out fearlessly on the politics of the day, challenging the Pope to return from Avignon to Rome. Her message, 'Lord show me the way and make me willing to walk it' is a challenge to our secular times.

nature names
Swedes love nature and are very knowledgeable about it. They will not only tell you a bird's name, but how it sounds in the morning, its nesting habits and from where it has migrated. Their worship of nature is illustrated by some family names. Wouldn't you like to be surnamed 'Aspen Grove' (Asplund), 'Lily Leaf' (Liljeblad), 'Flower Beach' (Blomstrand), 'Mountain Stream' (Bergström), or how about simply 'Twig' (Kvist)?

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