By Gunilla Theander Kester
Buffalo is a place of gratitude and stories. A splendid example took place at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Sept. 16 as we welcomed German virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter at the gala opening.
Her performance was lush, fun and ever so enjoyable. She closed it with a somber J.S. Bach Sarabande from the Second Partita, dedicating it to the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
She had hardly ended the last exquisite note when a woman called out: “Thank you for coming to Buffalo!” It was a moment full of comedy yet also full of truth; she spoke for all of us feeling grateful to be alive, to share the music and to have this city as our home.
I’m a stranger here for all my 20 years in Buffalo. I may look and dress more or less like everybody else, but I only need to open my mouth to get the questions: “What is your name?” “Where are you from?”
Some days, when I’m feeling funny, I just smile and say my name is Mary. Other days, I smile and answer truthfully: “My name is Gunilla,” and stand back to watch my new American friend struggle with the first vowel in my Swedish name, which no American can utter correctly. It is a sound lacking in English phonetics.
I recall my 35 years of teaching in the United States and the many, mostly humorous and sweet, versions of my name I have known and heard: gorilla, Godzilla, manila, vanilla. I often introduce myself as a mixture of Godzilla and vanilla. “It’s up to you, which one you will see,”
I warn, looking sternly at my new class of incoming college freshmen.
I say I come from Sweden, a small country with about as many citizens as you will find in Manhattan. My land of the midnight sun. I listen patiently when the checkout guy at Wegmans enthusiastically begins to talk about mountains, cuckoo clocks and terrific chocolate such as Toblerone.
Years ago, I used to answer: “ABBA, Björn Borg,” but nobody knows about them too well anymore, so I say Stockholm. “Sweden, Stockholm, not Switzerland.” He looks at me puzzled and asks: “Still cold out there?”
I shake my head. No matter the weather, Buffalo is not cold. It is a city built on generations of immigrants where everybody has a story.
“My grandfather came from Russia to work at the electric plant in Niagara Falls. He never learned English.”
“My mother came from Sicily after World War II and opened a little bakery shop. She was an excellent seamstress and raised us three daughters.”
“Our mother fled from Burma and we stayed over 10 years in a refugee camp on the border between Burma and Thailand. Now I get to learn how to play the guitar!”
The voices and stories surrounding me in Buffalo have sweetened my own journey into the city and made me the writer I am today.
No matter how foreign or clumsy my “Swenglish” (Swedish English) – my “Immigrantish” as I call it – may be, I never feel isolated or alone. Mainly, I feel grateful to share the stories of my adopted city and to humbly, at times like this, share my own.
Thank you, Buffalo! You have taught me to listen, and the more I listened the more daring I became. I began to write in this difficult adopted language of yours, feeling like one of your many storytellers, not isolated and alone, but feeling at home and feeling grateful.