Early December of last year, I dined in the bright breakfast buffet room at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel for five straight mornings. A narrow pathway wound through white tables and chairs, and gave way to a semi-circular smorgasbord of hotel-buffet standard—your scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes—plus more high-minded selections like smoked salmon and roe, as well as some classically regional additions. (Have you ever tried reindeer meat? It tastes like reindeer meat.)
I was in Sweden under unusual and auspicious circumstances: my father, Oliver Hart, had won 2016’s Nobel Prize in economics, along with his friend Bengt Holmstrom. (Officially, as communiques and announcements persistently reminded me, the honor is known as the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2016.) Thanks to the lucky break of being directly related to an intellectual superstar, I was invited to tag along with my family and a coterie of my dad’s most important teachers and collaborators from various epochs of his working life.
The word I often used to describe the week, after the fact, was “surreal.” I couldn’t come up with a better label than that trite freshman-dorm staple, because it was difficult to convey the delightful, overarching strangeness of the thing. Each day, as a debonair attaché whisked my parents around to be interviewed and regaled in new settings (my dad had lost his voice by the end of the week), the rest of us plebes were free to wander around Stockholm, with its handsome old buildings and 6.5 hours of daylight. When there was an official event on the docket—usually one or two per day—family and friends boarded a humble chartered school bus. The vehicle full of chattering, buzzed adults brought to mind a Birthright Israel trip, but with less sexual tension and more PhDs.
Soon, the clubby events began to blur together. A party at the American embassy here, a stirring concert at the Stockholm Philharmonic there. The sequence of dreamlike events was capped off Saturday night with the official Nobel ceremony, during which a rapt crowd—including the Swedish royal family—was treated to Patti Smith, subbing in for the conspicuously absent Literature laureate Bob Dylan, delivering a shattering performance of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” That was followed by a sinfully opulent banquet, the cost of which appeared to dwarf Sweden’s annual defense budget. (These events, the attaché told me, are followed by millions on television every year, and count as major sources of national pride.)
Back at the hotel, a special “Nobel desk” catered to the whims of our elite cohort, while just outside the building’s icy entrance, Japanese paparazzi jostled for a shot of the elusive Medicine winner Yoshinori Ohsumi. At one point, irreverent photographers propped up a cardboard cutout of Dylan, the closest they’d get to the genuine article. Like I said, surreal.
The breakfast room, with a sweeping view of the Lilla Värtan strait, was a suitably serene perch from which to digest all the madness before it started up again. It was also a place to chat with the week’s luminaries (Patti Smith gave my dad helpful advice on how to overcome his hoarseness), and to guess at the identities of fellow diners. Soon enough, the sight of the 2016 Laureates became old hat. Who were these other distinguished-looking people in snazzy suits and dresses?
One morning, someone pointed out that Stephen Chu, Secretary of Energy during four years of the Obama administration and a former Physics Laureate himself, was eating breakfast behind me. In less fraught geopolitical times, I’d simply think “cool!” and get back to my reindeer. But as my mind, as it does so often does these days, drifted to America’s malignant Cheeto, then six weeks away from occupying the White House, and how his proposed proposed Secretary of Energy is most famous for wanting to abolish that same very department, then forgetting the name of it. “No!” my mind ordered me. “You’re here to celebrate, not ruminate about the dismal future!”
A lot of the week felt like that—a willful, often successful attempt at cognitive dissonance. Amid the revelry, my phone kept flashing with Trump’s latest catastrophic cabinet appointments. Remarks at the Nobel ceremony and elsewhere included not-so-subtle nods to immigration and integration. My father, who would disparage the president-elect to whomever would listen, was pointed in his acceptance speech, citing our own family’s peripatetic history as a reminder of “how important it can be for a country to open its doors to those suffering from persecution.”
Sitting in that breakfast room, I reflected that, grand as the parties and galas were, the pomp was at least aimed in the right direction. The pinnacle of human thought was something worth celebrating, now more than ever. The Grand Hotel in December 2016 was a most enjoyable place to be, but more than that, it felt like a redoubt against the anti-thinking, anti-expert, anti-truth forces sweeping the globe. For the moment, being smart was humankind’s highest calling. I was happy to be eating there.