Sunday, September 29, 2002

Whenever I'm back in the States, the most dismaying experience is that everyone speaks English and I can understand every single word everyone is saying and I can't help thinking most people should keep their voices down and think more before they say all those awful things they're saying because, well, everyone can understand and aren't they embarrassed?

The second most dismaying experience is going to a grocery store. The husband goes into an orgiastic ecstacy at the staggering choice of items, but I become a tower of doubt. How do I possibly choose from among 30 different kinds of strawberry jam? I go into a trancelike state and have to be dragged from the aisles to the checkout by one of my siblings or my father, the husband happily trailing behind.

However, Sweden beats American grocery stores when it comes to one item: bread.

Yeast breads and flat breads, rye breads and whole wheat breads, Danish breads and Finnish breads, sweet breads and heavy breads, dark breads and that awful white bread for toasting. And then there are the crisp breads: breakfast and whole grain and sport and bagatelle and thin, Wasa and Leksand and at least four or five other common brands.

How can I ever choose?

The Swedish phrase for the day is för sig. It means individually.

- by Francis S.

Friday, September 27, 2002

I have a very low tolerance for anything that gives off even the slightest hint of a new age stink. I am skeptical, and I don't plan on changing any time soon. So, I worry that the husband drinks a shot glass of foul-tasting aloe vera juice every morning. This kind of homeopathic remedy for nothing in particular makes me worry that in fact it's probably damaging the husband's liver or something. A little research eventually assuaged my fears that it could be somehow harmful, but did nothing for my native skepticism.

So it is with some surprise that I found myself this evening lying on a rubber mat with the husband at my feet and our neighbor, L., the chef, to my right, listening to a yoga instructor melodiously instruct us in various yoga exercises, the Sanskrit names of which I can't remember for the life of me.

It's harder to be skeptical in Swedish, I've found. Plus, who am I to argue with thousands of years of Indian culture?

It felt great, but I still have my doubts about clean versus dirty sweat, kidneys heating up and poisons being leached from the body, and the existence of two spiral thingamajigs that circle the backbone.

It's the breathing and concentration that do it for me.

The Swedish word for the day is rimligt. It means reasonable.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, September 26, 2002

I've only ever read one short story of hers - "A Dream of Winter" - and I've looked and looked for her book Dusty Answer but have never succeeded in finding it. Rosamund Lehmann, how could they let you languish like this?

But wait, I've spoken too soon. It seems Virago Press has kept her in print...

The Swedish phrase for the day is för mycket jobb. It means too much work. I'm so tired.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Or so my mother has trained me. Which means that when I come home and smell that the husband has just mopped the floors with some kind of Swedish soap that smells just like the Murphy's oil soap my mother used to use, my sense of well-being is instantly lifted.

The smell of Murphy's oil soap doesn't have quite the impact on me that Proust's famous madeleine dipped in lime twig tisane had on him. But then my life isn't quite as lapidary as Proust's was.

The Swedish phrase for the day is påminnelse. It means reminder.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, September 22, 2002

I write to discover what I think. I write fiction to discover what happens next.

The Swedish word for the day is framtiden. It means the future.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, September 21, 2002

The rasta record shop on Farmer Street below our apartment is open later than any other shop on the street. Sometimes there's a decided, uh, ganja smell, and occasionally the music is loud, but the fact is, the owner is best of all the shopowners on the street at keeping the sidewalk clean. And whenever I see him I say "hej" or "tja" and he always says "bless."

I like being blessed. A little prayer for me from the owner of the rasta record shop.

The Swedish word for the day is gräs. It means grass, in both senses of the English word.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

"...the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells..."

The first wristwatch I owned was given to me on my 8th birthday. I lost it within three weeks.

It wasn't until I was 26 and working at my first real job that I bought one myself - my second wristwatch. Since then, I feel as if I couldn't possibly live without one. As I suppose the majority of the people I know feel.

And so it is curious that I love the tolling of the bells in the neighborhood, instinctively counting each knell to see what time it is. The bells I can hear from my window here are rather hollow and unmelodious, although not nearly as hollow and ancient-sounding as the bells I used to hear from my apartment in Barcelona. In Washington, the bells I could hear from my house pealed with quite pure tones - they were no doubt much younger than the bells here in Stockholm or the bells in Barcelona, and rang as if they were much too proud of themselves.

Isn't it marvelous that we continue to mark the hours of the day with an angelus, though we hardly need to anymore?

The Swedish word for the day is klocka. Interestingly enough, it means both bell and clock.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Interviewing someone you know for a feature profile is so much easier than interviewing a stranger. You know all the right questions to ask to make for an interesting story:

"Is it true that when you interviewed for your second job and you were asked if you would sleep with the cooks, you said 'only at Christmas parties...' And you still didn't get the job?"

My neighbor L., the chef, would have to answer "yes" to the above question.

Of course I've already figured out how to work her new pink refrigerator into the lead of the story.

The Swedish verb for the day is att svara. It means to answer.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Swedes, in characteristic modest fashion, are too quick to say that Stockholm isn't really a big city. In my book, if it has a subway, it's a big city. And like Tinka, I belong in the city. I am a city boy. Which is not surprising, given my status as a homosexual. It's more comfortable for us homo types in a city, in general terms.

But though I grew up in the suburbs, I've nearly aways wanted to live in a city, even if when I was eight, that meant thinking that it would be fun to have an apartment uptown in the business district of the Chicago suburb I grew up in.

Now the husband, he has always lived in Stockholm, in the very apartment we live in now. He is suddenly making noises about buying a great big house in the country somewhere. I don't know how serious he is, but he says that he doesn't know what it's like to live outside the city and he thinks he might like it.

I have my doubts.

"I guess you never talked about this before you got married," said A., the former model and aspiring producer.

Why do I love the city so much and what is it that makes someone a city person anyway?

The Swedish word for the day is, of course, storstad. It means metropolis.

- by Francis S.

Monday, September 16, 2002

I voted yesterday for the social democrats.

It's funny how powerful one feels voting. Powerful and responsible. Powerful and responsible and in my case, worried that I could be voting for some idiot, considering that I was not familiar with a single name on the ballots that I cast. My only excuse for not knowing is that Swedes are kind of peculiar about politics. It's not considered a terribly polite topic of conversation, I'm told, and supposedly there are many a husband and wife who have never revealed to one another how each voted. This political closed-mouthedness is not characteristic of my friends, who have freely told me who they've voted for. Which doesn't mean that I really understand the politics here. All I know is that the social democrats have been in power - aside from the public's one-term flirtation with the Moderaterna - since the Great Depression, and that isn't a good thing. And it feels a bit like following the herd to vote for the social democrats, and that isn't a good thing. And the whole political spectrum is yards to the left of U.S. politics, which makes it hard to figure out what exactly everyone stands for, and that isn't a good thing either, for me.

It's just plain hard for us poor Americans, with only two parties to choose from, to understand parliamentary politics and coalition governments and a system with seven different political parties.

Yet, as far as I can figure, the social democrats - not the Left Party (former communists) and not the Green Party, and definitely not the Christian Democrats, or the Center Party or the People's Party or, of course, the Moderates - most closely represent the things I believe in, and the way I think things should be run. I don't believe in privitization, I believe in a social welfare state, and most of all I think the social democrats, for all their faults, have built up quite a society with the backing of the Swedish population.

And that's as much politics as I'm able to manage, after voting for the first time in this country that I have adopted. Or more rightly, has adopted me.

The Swedish word for the day is rött. It means red.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Autumn has arrived at last, nearly a month behind schedule, bringing rain and chill and a general mustiness. Time to break out the candles and the soup.

Much more than Spring, Autumn represents starting over for me: unsharpened pencils, notebooks filled with hundreds of blank sheets of paper and lots of promise, crayons smelling like wax.

It's time to buy new clothes - courderoy trousers and striped shirts and wool sweaters, and a pair of brown shoes.

The Swedish word for the day is årstiderna. It means the seasons.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Dinner last night was below what I consider acceptable standards from a cook: The lamb chops were overcooked, the risotto was flavorless with too little parmesan cheese in it, the focaccia was pale and the figs were a bit mealy. I guess I need to brush up on my culinary skills. Of course no one complained, but I was a bit disappointed, especially considering the guests.

It was a dinner for the parents of A., the former model and aspiring producer.

"I've only been in New York once," said A.'s mother toward the end of the evening. "We were there for two hours, so we got in a cab and we just thought of a street and then said 'take us to Fifth Avenue.' But the cabdriver said 'where on Fifth Avenue?' and so we thought some and then said 'Bloomingdales!' But the cabdriver said 'which one on Fifth Avenue?' and we said 'any one!'" and she laughed.

"So he drove us to Bloomingdales and we got out and went in the big set of doors. There we had to go up a wide set of steps and at the top we stopped in our tracks and just stood there with dropped jaws in front of the ladies selling cosmetics. 'Can I help you?' someone asked. We just stood and pointed at the Dior perfume counter and the huge photo that was the first thing you saw when you came into the store. 'That's my daughter!' I said."

That is indeed your daughter, I thought. As beautiful as she is clever and kind, but no matter how big the photo, she is never bigger than life.

The Swedish word the day is syfte. It means purpose.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

We rode to the wedding in Dalarna with the heiress. Her Norwegian boyfriend drove the car. The heiress, who happened to be the sister of the groom and a person we had never met before, has that dark-blonde vulnerability frequently mistaken for brittleness in heiresses. There is nothing light about her, save for her lithe frame and pure skin: She is a person to be taken seriously and very much of her class. But she was very attentive, and I found her tremendously engaging and took a great liking to her.

"You're doing fine," she told me, laughing as I danced with her cheek to cheek, me all bumbling and stiff and square and not remembering a single second of the dancing classes I had to take when I was thirteen.

I never managed to dance with the bride's sister, who was just as lithe and blonde and vulnerable, but melancholy and impatient and tender, her English spoken with a pleasing vague Irish burr learned from the estranged father of her 7-year-old son. The night before the wedding, she had been so petulant and worried whether her tightly wound and pinned hair would be sufficiently curly the next day, demanding attention as if she were a bit jealous of the bride, even if it weren't the case. But at the reception itself, as we drank rum and galliano with lime, I saw that she was in a kind of heaven, a respite from whatever she didn't like about the rest of her life, and she just about purred as if she were a cat.

As for the bride herself, her hair bedecked with tiny roses and cascading down her bare back, she was in her element, all charm and coyness and ravishing beauty, pulling at her train as if she wore one every day of her life.

Me, I felt a bit out of place among all the football players and financiers, seated several chairs away from the husband, who was flirting madly with the heiress as only a homosexualist can. The whole thing wasn't terribly ostentatious by American standards, aside from the setting (Dalhalla) and the details (a fleet of fabulous old cars hauling us from hotel to church to reception, elegantly printed invitations and programs and menus that all resembled top-notch advertising, a 2:30 a.m. fireworks display that would rival the fourth of July displays of my childhood.)

But for Sweden, it was about as far as one can go without breaking the boundaries of good taste. A great success by all accounts.

I'm still recovering.

The Swedish word of the day is seg. It means weary.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Tomorrow we're off to another wedding, this one in the heart of the country, the veritable Ur-Sweden known as Dalarna. The dales of Sweden, all little wooden houses painted red with white trim, miniature farms with only one cow, one pig and a chicken or two. And on Saturday afternoon, a bunch of guys in tuxedos - smoking they call them here in Sweden - and girls in designer gowns.

Me, I hate tuxedos. I used to have to wear one when I was a waiter on Capitol Hill. It brings back memories of smarmy brown-nosing congressional aides who took pleasure in pushing waiters around to curry favor with their bosses: "Make sure the congressman's bread is hot enough to melt the butter." There was a particular congressman from Tennessee, Rep. Boner (his actual name)...

The Swedish word for the day is val. It means election.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Francis found a certain charm in Edu's half-belief in something most Americans would call magic, superstition, the powers of a curandera. Americans were fond of believing in things, but they were at heart a nation of rationalists who discounted the non-scientific. They pursued any number of fads, but such fads were invariably backed up by what they thought of as science, albeit all too often a spurious science. Americans felt they understood certain inexplicables, and ignored the rest. UFOs with an aura of science they believed in, ghosts they didn't. And so Francis was enchanted when Edu told him, after the floor in the dining room had been cleaned with ammonia, "I shouldn't have cleaned the floor, I felt a bad spirit there, in the corner. Something bad happened there, I know," and then he washed it with vinegar, which his grandmother had taught him would exorcise ghosts. Francis didn't not believe such things, it was just outside of his experience, and contributed to his feeling that Spaniards - or more accurately Argentinians - were curiously sophisticated and childlike at the same time. He wanted desperately to believe in ghosts, but he had been too mired in America for it to really work. Ghosts only lived outside the United States, he knew they would disappear once he got back home.

from a Barcelona diary, 1998

The Swedish word for the day is trolleri. It means magic.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Swedes are great world travelers. It is in fact dangerous to say nasty things in Swedish to your husband about the American tourists sitting at the table next to you in a sleazy bar in Krabi, Thailand, because the chances are all too high that the table on your other side, the table you haven't been paying any attention to, is occupied by Swedes.

(The above is not a true story. But it could be, it could be!)

Which means that if I compare myself to Swedes, I am unduly proud of my own world travelling.

That would be 22 countries (excluding airport layovers) - Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Panama, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Thailand and of course, the U.S.

Plus I can't forget, for all of us Americans, 38 of the 50 states of the U.S. - Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The Swedish phrase for the day is var har ni rest? Which would mean where have you travelled?

- by Francis S.

Monday, September 02, 2002

If I were someone who likes to jump on the, uh, meme bandwagon, I could write 100 things about myself. Or I could write four truths and one lie.

Instead, just because I think he's a superb diarist, I am going to be a Peter copycat and write nine things that aren't true about me, along with one that is. Meaning you have to guess which one is the truth. So here you go:

1. Although I've tried, I've never managed to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I seem to about the only person who thought the movie was considerably less than wonderful.

2. I don't like calf's liver with bacon and onions, and I don't like liver paté, but strangely enough I don't mind chicken livers. Fried in enough butter, that is.

3. I saw the Ramones play at the University of Illinois in 1980. It hurt my ears.

4. I don't own a television. It corrupts your mind and makes you fat.

5. Despite being terribly scared of heights, I like carnival rides that go fiercely around and around, making me dizzy.

6. If I could change one thing about my physical self, it would be to not have grey hair. But wait - what am I saying. I could dye it, couldn't I? The idea of dyeing it sounds just too fussy to me.

7. Although I had both my ears pierced, I let the holes close up when I moved to Sweden. I don't look good in earrings.

8. My first car was a white 1975 Chevy Nova hatchback that had been my mother's car. I gave it to my younger brother a year later because it was a piece of shit.

9. Although I lived in Washington, D.C. for 15 years, I never once went into the Capitol building. Shame, shame, shame.

10. When I was five, we moved to New Jersey and although it was the end of June, the first thing I did was run and look up the chimney of our new house and ask my mother "Do you think Santa Claus can fit down there?"

So, which will it be? Don't be shy.

The Swedish word for the day is val. It means choice. And whale. Your, uh, choice.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

It hasn't rained in Stockholm for weeks and weeks. Lovely, if freakish weather. Me, I don't mind snow or sub-zero nights or humid days or merciless sun; but rain, no matter how necessary it is, I have never liked.

But Swedes are used to rain; they don't mind it a bit. And obviously they miss it when it fails to appear.

So, when the skies over the Birds' Island clouded over yesterday afternoon, and drops were unleashed followed quickly by a torrent, A. the former model and aspiring producer and her step-daughter O. ran out in the rain, holding hands and dancing on the rocks round about their summer house, soaked to the skin.

When the husband and I got back to the city, however, it was obvious that no rain had fallen to wash away the uncharacteristic stickiness of the streets of Stockholm. One can hardly believe that by rights it should be autumn in Sweden by now.

The Swedish word for the day is vädret. It means the weather.

- by Francis S.