adventures in old neighbourhoods (or: some gnomes of my childhood)

In the vicinity of the school, there was this shop. In it, you could stock up not only on biodynamic food products but on the usual anthroposophic and waldorf paraphernalia as well. Crystals, bees-wax, Weleda soap and Stockmar crayons and water colours. Books, though probably not a very extensive selection. But they certainly carried anything that would be sought after by the enthusiastic waldorf parent. They still do. The shop windows are decorated with waldorf dolls, but since my childhood there has been some small change, although the aesthetic as well as ideological profile remains the same: the flag outside the door advertises ice-cream.

We went there frequently, because my mother used to do much of her shopping there. (She continued with this habit until recently, actually; but less frequently than during our waldorf years.) I’m old enough to remember a time when you could not find organic products in ordinary supermarkets. It started slowly, with… potatoes, I think. Instead, you had to visit special stores, like this one, or order your food from obscure companies (and without the option to decide which products you wanted). Usually, mother shopped on the way home after picking me up at kindergarten and school, and later after picking my brother up, but sometimes, on Saturdays, we went in the old Volvo, though overall we rarely used the car. It’s a nightmare getting shopping done in the suburbs. There’s walking, taking the train (we were two train stations away), walking again, carrying bags of groceries, walking, train, walking… But it was a matter of principle, and the principle was adhered to. Most of the time. So we dragged and carried. It was not much fun. When I was a bit older, perhaps approaching nine, I took the train home on my own after school, and saw the insides of this shop more rarely. But it still happened, occasionally.

These 1940s or 1950s buildings surround the school. When in first grade, I had a horrible anthropsophical nanny who used to work in the waldorf kindergarten on and off and who lived just behind that shop, in  a similar building; she lived very anthroposophically. If there was a TV, I’m sure it was concealed under a pastel-coloured silk cloth. (I have always assumed there wasn’t one, though. She was a waldorf orthodox.) One day, I refused to go there anymore, as with all such non-mandatory activities that had any connection with the school.

Opposite this shop, on the other side of the street (close to where I was standing last autumn when I took the picture), there’s a pizzeria. I’m not sure children in the lower grades, that is, lower than 7th grade, were allowed to leave the school premises. Since we were starving, we did this anyway. Or I did and some others. I’m sure the righteous didn’t. Whoever they were. In the pizzeria, you could purchase bread. The bread could be eaten. You could avoid going hungry. I could never eat porridge without feeling nauseous. The school served porridge once a week. The pizzeria is still there — or was there, on this gloomy day, in November last year — and I bet they’re still selling pizza to hungry waldorf children who can’t stomach the food served in the school’s canteen!

In the background, on the other side of the pizza place building and its neighbours, the school hovers menacingly on its hill. I don’t know what it is with anthroposophical architecture, but I always have the impression it will jump down and try to devour the other houses. And perhaps consume a number of unsuspecting humans, too. (Now, wait… that’s not entirely untrue!)

It looked more monumental when I was a child. But it is true that this school building dominates the area; it looks down upon the ordinary world from its elevated position, and I have a feeling all the people and all the mundane things of the world are being judged — and found inferior. (This shows it from the train window; bad photo though.) It’s a steep walk from the station to the school. Grades one to six reside at the very top of the hill in smaller buildings — behind the large building whose front is seen on the photo. Its main entrance is on the school yard — also at the hilltop. It’s situated much higher than what seems to be the ground level from this perspective.

The human neighbours in these buildings close to the school were less than happy about it. They often complained. Children were informally prohibited from walking through the residential area on their way to and from the underground station (the underground, curiously, is over ground in these parts of Stockholm — by the way). Children didn’t care, of course. And there was nothing stopping anybody — the spaces between the buildings didn’t belong to the residents, they were city property much like any streets and walking paths. It’s not difficult to understand why they protested so much, though. The behaviour of these waldorf children was atrocious. Yelling, screaming, fighting, and so on. Occasionally damaging property, I guess.

This was the nearest way from the station to the school, however, thus the attraction of it. There was another way, but it was significantly longer. On the other hand, this shorter path had its drawbacks. I was always a bit uneasy about going through a small forest — or a sad excuse of a forest, more likely, it was a collection of unhappy trees and some neglected shrubbery — which started behind the shop and went almost all the way to the station in these days (since then, new residential blocks have eaten away at the already tiny and sorry forest area). The area around the station, and the area behind it, with its path to the school, was a place occasionally occupied by local drunks, drug addicts and hobos, when they didn’t prefer the benches outside the liquor shop, which they often did. They used to dump refuse, like disused syringes, behind the train station.

The school took some social responsibility in telling us not to pick up syringes to play with, no matter how tempting they may appear to be. Or maybe it was my mother who said that. Maybe both. I remember they also informed us that it is a bad idea to hook up with sinister people who were out to molest children, though they probably didn’t put it quite like that; there were those kinds of folks around too. Or, at least, there was the occasional ugly old man who liked to expose his genitals to children and women and who had found excellent hunting grounds near the school. The path leading through the small wooded area, and then via the residential block and on to the school might have been pretty perfectly suited to such purposes.

The other way you could choose to take had its own oddities, of course. It was the road you used if you arrived in a car; it also had proper pavements. On one side of the road there was a huge rock — the size of a house — or maybe it was one large rock and many smaller ones. In any case, it was one of many ice-age remains in the area and it had a cavity inside. I’m sure the waldorf teachers would have preferred us to believe this rock with its cavity was inhabited by gnomes. It might have been, once upon a time, but if so, the gnomes had encountered pretty ruthless competition for their rightful space. I don’t know much about the habits of 21st century thieves, but back then, some thieves used a certain rock, indeed, this particular rock, as a storage place for their goods. This was pretty different from the gnome stories told by waldorf teachers in the kindergarten (practically next door to the rock!) — yet not entirely different. The thieves also liked metals. But physically, they looked suspiciously like humans. Like gnomes, they probably cared little about setting a good example for hundreds of children. Unlike gnomes, they didn’t fear waldorf teachers. To the frustration of many waldorf teachers, neither gnomes nor thieves know eurythmy. (There are exceptions, of course. Some thieves do know eurythmy.)

So, anyway, you could say we had real thieves instead of fairytale gnomes. If this wrecked the imagination of anyone, it was probably the teachers’ and not the children’s imaginations. The gnomes either didn’t exist or had emigrated long ago — and everybody knew it. Except the teachers who needed to pretend the children believed in order to preserve their own illusions. Reality was always much closer, somehow.

15 thoughts on “adventures in old neighbourhoods (or: some gnomes of my childhood)

  1. I wonder if the thieves are still around:

    thieves

    Maybe with all the bees around, the thieves, like the gnomes, have been scared away… And, if I were a thief, I wouldn’t hang around anywhere close to people wearing robes and waving copper wands. I’d steal the copper rods and take off. To a better rock somewhere else.

  2. Now the twist: the Volvo might possibly know the answer. He’s the only one still in the area. I think he might be seeing that hill more often than he’d like. It’s not up to me to protect him anymore. And I never had a driver’s license anyway.

    Mr Volvo had an interesting career. A couple of years as a 4-wheeled employee of the American embassy. Then 30 years of serving people who first thought they appreciated waldorf, then realized they didn’t… and then, well, to be sufficiently non-specific, he ended up in an interesting position again not long ago, returning to a long lost past. Sort of. He might be going mental by the conflicting viewpoints and philosophies. I only hope he doesn’t end his days at the North Korean embassy. That would be confusing for his brain… or his engine… which is old and tired, albeit fully functional. On the other hand — if it is his car-mic destiny, so be it!

  3. By the way, I shouldn’t speak of cars ending their days; what an awful thing for a car to read. Of course cars rein-car-nate, like the rest of us!

  4. Scientific evidence shows that my comment nonsense occurs predominantly at times when I’m preparing dinner. Or am supposed to be preparing dinner. This is such a time.

    Slicing a tomato is the route to ahrimanic nonsense, which, interestingly, is indistinguishable from the Higher Worlds. Is this the real reason Steiner frowned upon tomatoes?

    Edit: everything I told you about thieves, volvos, gnomes, waldorf teachers, and so forth, is — spectacularly — true. So, where’s the nonsense, you ask. Well, maybe, it just sounds like nonsense. What sounds like nonsense may reveal truths, even higher truths (as Steiner could tell you), occasionally, although this may not be the case in this instance.

    Edit ii: I have a gift for nonsense, not for cooking. Sadly.

  5. Hook, that’s an exciting new culinary technique that could make my kitchen an even unsafer place. I envision running around with pointed hooks trying to catch fleeing pasta.

    Sorry ;-)

    (I’m not really good with banal, everyday household chores. I could really do with a more adventurous approach to cooking!)

  6. WOW! Alicia it seems as though as a child you experienced the sometimes harsh REALITY of the world ~ before entering the kingdom of fantasy.

  7. They can’t really keep reality out, no matter how much they’d like to.

    And as far as the drunks, drug users, syringes, hobos and thieves (and the stolen goods!) go, there was nothing a privileged kid should not be able to see. The only thing that was harsh, and that really took away the innocence (mind you, I don’t believe in innocence of children, so I’m using the expression loosely) was the reality on the inside of the waldorf school. Those other things never scared me the least. They were part of everyday life and had always been, like furniture. I know that’s crass, but it’s sort of true.

  8. Tomatoes are very nice! I wonder if Steiner said that potatoes and tomatoes risk making you materialistic because he didn’t like them himself… (I wonder if he did. I don’t know!)

    I would never return to school voluntarily. (As a pupil that is. But the buildings make me feel awkward and uncomfortable too.) And being a child is not as blissful as adults like to imagine.

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