Thursday, October 31, 2002

There is a certain type of Stockholm restaurant that has 6- to 7-meter-high ceilings with lovely murals dimmed by decades of smoke, big windows of clear and lavender and pale green glass, and the original Jugend-style tables and chairs from circa 1910, the whole place disarmingly evocative of a bygone era. The food is invariably husmans kost - meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries, or veal hash with an egg on top and beets on the side - in other words, good old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs Swedish food that was assuredly as popular when the restaurant opened, nearly a century ago, as it is today.

Pelikan is my favorite of all these graceful old restaurants. Which is where the husband and I sat last night with A., the former model and aspiring producer and her fiancé, C., the photographer.

"They didn't give me exactly the salary I asked for, " A. told us, in between bites of potato. "But I'm going to take the job anyway."

A. is no longer an aspiring producer anymore. She has been promoted to assistant director.

Here's to you, A., the assistant director.

- by Francis S.
In case you were thinking of sending me an e-mail, I thought you should know that I have a new e-mail address.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

I am a time optimist. If it's really important, I'm there on time. But if no one will be insulted or think I'm unprofessional or there's no plane to miss, I have trouble getting there exactly when I think I will.

So the husband, who had the day off, arrived armed with a lasagne and a princess tårta at the apartment of the priest and the policeman 20 minutes before I did. He was only 40 minutes late.

We are quite the horrible pair of time optimists.

By the time I'd arrived, the lasagne was half gone because the baby was fussing and hungry and her mother the priest wanted to get in her own meal before serving up another one.

After everyone was fed, the baby lay squirming against her mother's cheek, as newborn babies squirm. "Aren't her ears just so, so - I wish I could keep them in my wallet!" the priest said.

The Swedish word for the day is babybjörn. Swedes claim it's a Swedish invention - a baby carrier that allows you to strap your infant comfortably to your chest. Of course baby means baby, and björn means bear, as in the animal.

- by Francis S.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Signe's mother is a priest, her father is a policeman. She's three days old today.

Happy birthday, Signe, three days late.

The Swedish word for the day is välsignelse, the word from which the name Signe is derived. It means blessing.

- by Francis S.

Friday, October 25, 2002

Some two and half hours north of Stockholm by train stands a manor house outside an ancient iron works. If you're lucky enough to be a guest of one of Sweden's large paper mills, you'll get to stay in the house, which is owned by the mill and has been restored to within an inch of its quaint 250-year-old life, all painted ceilings and reconstructed wallpaper and Gustavian chairs painted grey-green. But not so authentic that the bathroom floors aren't heated.

If you're even luckier, you'll be taken out into the woods some 70 kilometers north, where a guide who is Sweden's version of Crocodile Dundee - shall we call him Moose Svensson? - will usher you into a frigid nursery where hundreds of thousands of tiny fir trees sit under dim lights and dripping ceilings, and your guide Mr. Svensson can pour an entire forest's worth of seeds into your open palm.

Then, the charming Mr. Svensson can drive even further into the wilderness, past a line where everything goes from being silvery with frost to being covered under a foot of snow. Deep in the woods, Mr. Svensson will hit upon real old-fashioned lumberjacks. Except these lumberjacks drive monstrous machines that clutch and saw and strip a tree in seconds, so that you can't help but feel sorry for the tree while still remaining utterly fascinated by the diabolical cleverness of it.

Then your Mr. Svensson can haul out rolls with soft cheese and chrome thermoses full of hot soup with the gamey rich taste of moose meat. And he can build a fire in the snow and make coffee that tastes like mud over the fire, and there will be a hardy nordic mosquito or two that have, to everyone's horror, survived the snow.

Then, the girls who are with you can scream, not because they've seen a bear or a moose, but rather a mouse. And you can make a silly Swedish English joke about seeing a mus, which sounds pretty much like moose, and tell it to all the girls who laugh at you. And to Mr. Svensson of course, whose eyes twinkle in a most delightful way and laughs like the best of them, as he takes you back to the mill and the train that will bring you home to the city.

The Swedish word for the day is plantskola. It literally means plant school, which brings all sorts of funny pictures to mind of little trees learning how to become the proper shade of green and grow upwards instead of sideways. However, the proper translation of the word would be nursery.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

We sat holding our collective breath in the first balcony in the dark of the Stadsteatern, one of Stockholm's two great public theaters, waiting for the scene toward the end of the second act in A Doll's House where the poor maid gets slapped for no reason, no reason at all.

We'd been prepared by my friend the actress, who plays the maid.

Apparently, during one of the early performances, the actress who plays Nora, a renowned Swedish diva of sorts, had slapped my friend but good and hard. "That really hurt," my friend said to her afterwards. "Why did you do that?"

The diva of sorts went all apologetic. She was having a bad day, or someone was mean to her, or someone had slapped her, or something.

The next day, however, in anticipation of the slap, my friend flinched.

The diva of sorts hasn't done it again, although last night's slap looked pretty damned realistic to me.

We - M., the t.v. producer, A., the former model and aspiring producer, and a gaggle of A.'s friends who had all been schoolgirls together in gymnasium - were so happy when our friend the actress came out for her bows with the huge bouquet of flowers we'd sent to her dressing room, a bouquet far bigger and lovelier than the pathetic red stalk or two of gladiolus that the diva of sorts had.

It is, I have no doubt, the beginning of what will surely be a spectacular career.

My poor darling husband missed it all on account of he was working. And then he was too tired to join us at Café Beirut afterwards, where we stuffed ourselves on an embarrassing amount of little dishes of spicy sausages and eggplant salads and savory pastries and artichokes soaking in garlic and lemon. Then for dessert we smoked strange perfumey tobacco from a tremendous water pipe as we lolled about on silk cushions, stuffed to the tips of our ears down to the ends of our toes.

I guess I didn't last very long this round. I bought a pack of cigarettes at lunch this afternoon.

The Swedish phrase for the day is stor succé. It means great success.

- by Francis S.

Monday, October 21, 2002

The good thing about getting sick is that it always induces me to quit smoking. So it's been five days and I'm still not longing for a cigarette, not even with the unbelievable stress at work.

The Swedish word for the day is högmod. It means pride, and not in a nice way.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

The heavy arm of autumn dropped roughly on all the chestnut trees in Stockholm very early Saturday morning, before the leaves could even change color. So we walked briskly to the subway on Saturday evening through piles of chestnut leaves, still green but crisp and shining with frost. We ran into friends as we walked, making us late, later, latest. We were on our way to a birthday dinner at the apartment of the guy from the Goethe Institute and his husband the South African publicist.

When we arrived, who should be sitting in the living room but the American ballerina and her husband the sailor.

Which wasn't in fact a surprise: We knew they'd be there. (But it was a suprise when at lunch with the guy from the Goethe Institute several weeks ago, he and I somehow figured out that we had a mutual friend in the American ballerina. Stockholm is such a teeny-tiny place.)

We ate all sorts of lovely courses with white truffles and cheese and tomatoes and peppers and chicken with South African spices. And we talked about sailing beautiful wooden boats from the '30s across the Baltic, eating sheeps' eyeballs, and cutting one's hair.

"It was so strange when I cut my hair," the American ballerina said. She was remembering when she retired from the dance company and she had had her long hair cut short. A symbolic act, since ballerinas apparently are supposed to have lovely long hair pulled up into a tight bun.

"It was amazing how heavy the hair was when I held it in my hand," she said. "And it was strange not to be able to roll my neck and feel it brushing my back nicely."

I wondered if she had kept the hair that had been cut off, as a souvenir.

No, she said. She'd given it to one of the Stockholm theaters or theater schools to be made into a wig or glued onto some poor actor's chin as a false beard. "Asian hair is very good, strong and easy to dye," she told us, fifth-generation Chinese American that she is. But her hair had not always been strong.

"When I was 15, my hair was too thin to pull back like a proper ballerina, so my grandmother gave me her hair," she continued. Her grandmother had apparently not given away her hair when she had had it cut. So the American ballerina had pinned the thick braid to her own hair when she danced, wound into a thick bun.

How strange and how poetic, to dance at 15 with your grandmother's hair pinned to your own, giving your grandmother a chance somehow to dance with the legs of a 15-year-old again.

The Swedish word for the day is ett hårstrå. It means a hair.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, October 19, 2002

M., the t.v. producer, has decided he's moving to London. He sold his production company more than a year ago, and Stockholm is too small a pond for him to get anywhere further, so he's going to try to hit the bigger time in a bigger place.

So, to soften the blow for those of us who will remain here (uh, that would be the husband and I), he's spoiling us by spending the evening with us every couple of days.

Last night, I made a lasagne and we sat and watched movies and talked.

"Jesper and I decided that all men are gay," M. said, tucking into the lasagne. "I mean, every man spends an awful lot of time touching a penis, right? So shouldn't that mean that they're gay?"

I won't go into M. and Jesper's further revelation about men and their mothers.

The Swedish verb for the day is att tvivla. It means to doubt.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

As I was walking from lunch, my phone rang just as I was about to enter the building.

"Hey, what's up?"

It was my buddy, R., in town on a one-day business trip from Helsinki.

"I'm getting my haircut at 1:30," he said. "I've got to catch the train back to the airport at 4:30. How's about it?"

So he stopped by the office with a co-worker at about 3:00 and I said that we should get the hell out of there. We meandered on over toward Stureplan, popping in at the bar of the Lydmar Hotel but leaving because a band was doing a soundcheck. We eventually settled in at Sturehof, R. and his co-worker taking beers, me with a coca-cola on account of I've been sick for the past three days and my stomach is a bit tetchy.

R. wanted to pay for the coca-cola, but I gave him a 20-kronor note, telling him it was for the Hilda fund.

"I have to tell you guys," R. said. "Remember how I bought a guitar in February and then I had lessons in March? Well, my guitar broke and I brought it in and they gave me a new one. So then I spent the summer playing the one song that I know, "Proud Mary" and Jessica, the most patient girlfriend in the world, telling me maybe it would be a good idea to learn one more song, just one more. But then when we got back from two weeks in the States, we walked into the kitchen and the guitar was leaning against the wall and the part that holds the strings was completely broken off again. Well, I finally brought it back because I got it in Stockholm and I go into the store and this guy Stevie is standing there talking about how he was on tour and his guitar got all smashed up. 'Can I help you, man?' the guy behind the counter said to me. And I showed him the guitar. 'Aw - what should we do, Stevie?' the guy said. Stevie said to give me another new guitar, no questions asked, and I didn't even have a receipt."

R. was triumphant.

"I love those kind of places with a guy named Stevie and where they trust you enough that they don't even ask for a receipt!"

The Swedish word for the day is konto. It means account.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, October 13, 2002

When I lived in Barcelona, I had a tendency to set my life to music.

I would walk home empty-handed and a bit disappointed at 7 a.m. from a club to the heartachingly lonely sound of Mompou and his Cancion No. 5 playing mournfully (yet sweetly) in my head.

For some reason, these days I don't have the distance to accompany myself with a soundtrack. But if I did, I suppose it would be Prokofiev's "Arrival of the Guests" from Romeo and Juliet, all deep harsh strings hacking away at the air.

What's on your soundtrack these days?

The Swedish phrase for the day is fattiga riddare. It literally means poor knights, but an American would call it french toast.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, October 12, 2002

After a week of work which weighed more heavily on me than any other week of work I can remember, it was all I could do yesterday to drag myself through the cold streets of Stockholm and up the five flights of stairs to the apartment where the husband was preparing an impromptu dinner party.

I didn't want to have an impromptu dinner party. I wanted to moan and bitch and lay about. I wanted to sink on the couch and wallow in the laziness that is my due, considering the circumstances. I didn't feel like chatting with anyone or listening to an evening of Swedish.

"Hello," M., the t.v. producer said in his crazy cartoon voice when I unlocked the door of our apartment and poked my head into the hall.

Somehow, I made a mental about face, and after a couple sips of cheap but tasty shiraz from Australia and a cigarette, I realized that a night with all my favorite people was in fact the perfect antidote to the emotional hangover that I had just about given in to. I was so very happy when A., the former model and aspiring producer came in - it seemed like weeks and weeks since I'd last seen her.

I ate my salad of rocket and beets, and my stew of just about every root vegetable one could imagine, and I actually enjoyed every bite even though I've never been overly fond of beets or turnips or parsnips or those strange sticky black carrot-shaped root things that the husband so loves. Especially those strange sticky black carrot-shaped root things.

I savored the figs and ice cream.

People ever so politely asked me if they should speak English and I told them to continue in Swedish, and although the wine got the better of me somewhere during dessert and I lost my focus a wee bit, all the dreadful meetings in Swedish earlier in the day were forgotten and somehow it didn't weary me at all to continue in Swedish, not even the gargly southern Skånska accent of the football player - the boyfriend of A.'s little sister.

"How do you translate kuf?" A. asked. I don't remember how we got on the subject, I only remember that A. didn't agree with the very British-sounding dictionary definition - odd customer, rum fellow - or my own interpretation - oddball, weirdo, strange guy, eccentric. "No, it's not so negative; Albert Einstein was probably a kuf."

But, at A.'s request, kuf remains the Swedish word for the day, although apparently I don't have a proper definition. Perhaps someone else does?

- by Francis S.

Monday, October 07, 2002

The first snow of winter fell this morning, a few random flakes, and then a brief flurry. After such a glorious summer, I feel as if I could take on all the snow in the world.

The Swedish word for the day is omedelbart. It means immediately.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, October 06, 2002

They all do it. Or as Mozart preferred to put it, Così fan tutte.

At Folkoperan, what they all do is spend time in the WC. That would be in the staging of the opera I saw last night with the guys. And that would be M., the t.v. producer, the guy from the Goethe Institute and his husband the South African publicist. Following the overture, the opera began with three of the footlights rising from the stage to reveal clear tubes of bubbling yellow water and the three male leads unzipping to use the shell-covered lights as urinals as they sang the opening trio, complete with realistic crotch-adjustment and droplet-shaking gestures.

It was not as cheap as it sounds.

In fact, the plot of Così fan tutte is so awful - and sexist - that the best way to redeem it is to turn it into farce as they did at Folkoperan, which somehow contrasts wonderfully with the sublime duets and trios and quartets and quintets and sextets of the opera (there are a few arias, but not many - the opera is mostly a series of shimmering ensembles).

As the guy from the Goethe Institute said, "Mozart would have loved it." As did I.

All that onstage sexual romping set the tone for much of the discussion of the rest of the evening: broad innuendo, mostly from M., who is in his element eating dinner in a crowded brasserie surrounded by a bunch of amused homosexualists. Although I'm not altogether sure what the German friends of the guy from the Goethe Institute thought of M., or of any of us for that matter, all of us talking so loudly, laughing at the stupidest things, our mouths open and showing tiny packets of snuff jammed between our teeth and upper lips.

The Swedish verb for the day is att flörta. It means to flirt.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Madman Drawn Quickly

You can see the lack of balance in his eyes, a pale blue ring around the contracted irises, the eyes of a feral dog. Then there is the endless flitting about, an effort to escape the helplessness of standing still in one place. Action and distraction are what he supposes he needs. He cannot listen, but he can talk. What he says suddenly, over and over, is that he cares, but everyone knows he's lying. His is a loud desperation, willing to take everything and everyone down with it.

The Swedish word for the day is tokig. It means crazy.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

My mother and father spent the weekend at a conference for people who love and want to make things better for homosexualists like myself.

P-FLAG. Or Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, if you dislike using acronyms.

My parents received some helpful hints.

"I talked to a woman who told me that every time she gets a call from someone selling something, she asks them if their company has an anti-discrimination policy and if they give partner benefits to gay couples," my mother said. "She said that she doesn't give up either, she asks to speak for their supervisor. Isn't that great?"

She was jubilant, and I could feel her smile these thousands of miles away.

Yes, Mom. That is indeed great.

While the lovely Miss X made a request for a Swedish phrase of the day involving Ericsson and possible future layoffs, I regret that I am such a chickenshit that I don't want to incur the wrath of the company. So instead, Jacqueline, I give you jävlar, satan och helvete. The literal translation would be devils, satan and hell, but a better coloquial translation might be fuck, fuck and fuck were it not for American cultural imperialism and the fact that the Swedish word for fuck has become, well, fuck.

- by Francis S.