Sunday, February 27, 2005

A typical Saturday night: We went to see Closer, a sort of diet version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf where the profound cynicism has been reduced to egocentric guilt and the expressions of despair are about as deep as a summer puddle after a five-minute thundershower. But it was entertaining nonetheless, if only to see Julia Roberts' eyes gone dead as black pools of ink.

Afterwards, over takeout sushi and beers in our dining room, N. regaled us with tales of how she has to keep her mobile phone on at all times as a sort of hotline from the Vatican, on account of she does the website for the Catholic Church here in Sweden. She gets constant updates on the health of the current pontiff and in fact, has to be ready at any time to rush in to work to put up a special webpage in case the longest-reigning pope in recent memory at last finds out if in the afterlife God has some special horrific and painful punishment for those who go out of their way to promote homophobia and hatred.

Then N.'s boyfriend, the distant royal, told us how he was bitten once by a rat that crawled up his trousers as he stood outside a club at four in the morning, having just come from a costume party.

The low point of the evening was, no doubt, when I insisted that, in Star Wars Episode CDXXVII: The Attacking Clones Return to Strike Back Menacingly, the character played by Natalie Portman is called "Princess Amidala." A., the TV producer, hotly disputed this, saying the character was "Queen Amidala." Not surprisingly, I now owe her a bottle of Louis Roederer.

After everyone had left and the husband had gone to bed, I sat in the library in the dark in front of the bow window and watched the moon appear and disappear behind thin wedges of cloud while the snow came down dancing - it's snowed almost every day for the past week and a half. And I thought to myself how sitting inside a warm apartment and watching the snow is the only thing in my adult life that gives me that same feeling of safety I used to get as a child when sitting in the back seat of the car during a long drive through the black night on a lonely Iowa country highway, my father driving steadily, silently, my mother sleeping next to him or just watching the road without saying a word.

The Swedish word for the day, at the request of A., the TV producer, is oj. It has been the Swedish word of the day before. It's a simple exclamation of surprise.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

At dinner last night with the pilot and his wife, we somehow got on the topic of Swedish. Or rather the lack of it, in that the husband and I still speak only English when we're together.

Somehow, we didn't manage to explain that neither of us has the patience to use Swedish with one another. Except, curiously enough, when we're mad at each other. Then the Swedish comes thick and fast.

Instead, the husband revealed an entirely new reason that he has never mentioned before. "I don't like the way he sounds when he speaks Swedish, he sounds so soft," he said, a little shamefully and not addressing me directly.

Meaning that I sound like a great big Swedish homo, I suppose.

"You sound so much more tough when you speak English," he said, looking at me, hopeful.

Ha ha, I mused to myself, little does he know. All Americans must sound tough to him if he thinks I sound tough, because I am about as tough-sounding as cream cheese. Low-fat cream cheese.

The Swedish phrase for the day is och vilket språk använder ni i sängkammaren?, which means and what language do you use in bed?

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

I wrote a brief for a story today, asking the writer to include an either/or sidebar about the person being interviewed - you know the kind, where people reveal deep and profound things about themselves by responding to whether they prefer vanilla or chocolate, Monopoly or Candyland, Jerri Blank or Condoleezza Rice, echinoderms or crustaceans, Diana or Camilla.

Don't make it too American, either, I wrote, because most of the readers are in Europe.

What I meant was that I didn't want any choices like, say, "Waco, Texas or Fayetteville, North Carolina?" (The answer: Is hell a third option in this particular case?)

Then I got to thinking, what kind of choices wouldn't fly in the old U.S. of A.: Humanism or atheism? Flag or mother? "Gitmo" or countries that will do your torturing for you and avoid messy scandals?

Am I missing anything here?

And what about Sweden, what wouldn't fly here?

The Swedish word for the day is eller. It means or.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

I haven't worked as a waiter in 20 years. But, I still have waiter dreams. Like last night, when I dreamt I was serving three tables full of people - girls ordering vodka and frangelico, and a guy ordering some strange drink with caraway seeds and eggs - and I couldn't get the drinks out fast enough, and then the bowls for the soup were strangely shaped like fish with knobs sticking out in peculiar places, and they were dirty and I had to clean them before I could pour the soup in them, and then the soup itself was all lumpy and full of bones and I knew everyone was going to be mad at me.

It exhausts me just to write this.

Where do these dreams come from?

The Swedish phrase for the day, taken from a show at Kulturhuset that I read about in today's Dagens Nyheter, is lilla fittan på prärien. It means the little cunt on the prairie.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Christian right has it all wrong. The biggest threat to the heterosexual lifestyle is not the widespread practice of numberless girly-men like myself marrying each other, it's the widespread practice of numberless girly-men convincing their straight counterparts that depilation is a good thing.

"Doesn't everyone shave their balls? Hairy balls are disgusting!" said our badboy boarder, sitting next to his very pregnant girlfriend.

Inwardly, I sighed. Who would ever have imagined that gay porn and its rank after rank of hairless bodies, copied duly and dully by gay men everywhere, would end up being de rigeur not just for your average metrosexual, but for your average urban joe. Then again, the whole idea behind shaved balls is to make your dick look bigger, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

I long for the days when hair was fetishized by all self-respecting great big homo types. It seems, well, so much more adult.

The Swedish word for the day is vax. I've no doubt you have already guessed that it means wax.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Swedes have an interesting attitude about fame: It's not a good thing, more or less. (Not unlike being a boss, which is also nothing to aspire to in Sweden. It all has to do with that damn jante-law thing wherein no one is better than anyone else, supposedly.)

As an American, it comes as a shock to see popular rockstars, TV actresses, duchesses, best-selling novelists or beloved comedians walking on the streets of Stockholm, rather pointedly being left alone by passers-by, not a single papparazzi in sight. Me, I can barely stop myself from jumping up and down and pointing and yelling "Look, look, it's whatsizname! Hey, I loved your latest movie/song/book/scandal! Look everybody, it's whatsername!"

But I just pass on by silently.

To be honest, the whole anti-fame thing is one of the things I love about Sweden. Of course, there are downsides. Like today when I came out of the office and the ex-football player was standing there.

"Hey," he said, as shocked to see me as I was to see him, smiling at me as we hugged a hello.

He's just someone I've met in my life here, and in part because of the whole Swedish attitude about public figures, I don't really think of him as someone famous. Mostly, at least. There is a horrible small American part of me that was secretly wondering if my little boss could see me just then, because he is the sole person in my office who might think somehow that it was worth it to treat me with a little bit more respect on account of my knowing someone like the ex-football player.

Then again, maybe not.

What is more, I've become Swedish enough that I had a little inner battle with myself before writing this - too many people I know read this, and I hate to admit that I ever even contemplate such things.

The Swedish word for the day is verkligen. It means for real.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I'm nothing if not inconsistent as I sigh to myself that at last, Stockholm has a good thick coating of snow, nearly a foot. Despite my whining about spring being far away, I'm quite childish in that I still like my winters to be snowy. So much so that I'll even go out of my way as I walk home at 6 p.m. just to meander through Humlegården, the park that surrounds the royal library, to be cast under the spell of lamps shining in the dark under the various allees of linden trees that criss-cross the way, and the white fields.

The Swedish word for the day is lämplig. It means appropriate.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

If you let it, preparing food can be a kind of rite, a connection to all the people who ever prepared and ate food before you.

You should start by taking the corn husks from the bag - cutting the knotted piece of cornhusk that was used to tie the back shut - then pick through them and choose 12 that seem large enough or maybe just please you for no particular reason. It seems a bit cruel to have to weigh them down with a heavy pot on top when you soak them in hot water, as if you were drowning them. But they are corn husks after all, and quite dead ones at that.

While the husks soak, you prepare the mole, first melting a spoonful of pork lard - you think of your grandmother when you unwrap the block of lard - then slowly adding spices to the frying pan: four ancho chile peppers, leaving the seeds to give the sauce a little bite, a generous spoonful of cumin, a less generous spoonful of dried coriander powder, caraway seeds. Let the smell go to your head, but not so that you forget to add a good squeeze of tomato paste from the tube, stirring, stirring, stirring with your wooden spoon, before you had a nice handful of chopped cherry tomatoes. Then, as it turns to a lovely paste, you add a clove of minced garlic before you drop in two or three chicken breasts that have been cut into small bite-sized pieces, coating them with the paste until they are cooked through. And at last, you add the final touch, a small square of rich bittersweet chocolate, resisting the urge to eat it by itself, instead letting it melt around the chicken until it's turned the sauce a non-descript reddish-brown color. The color is nothing spectacular, but the aroma is sublime.

On the other counter, once you've beaten 4-5 tablespoons more of pork lard - thinking again of your grandmother - for five minutes by itself in a mixer, you slowly add 2 cups or so of masa harina from Quaker Oats (this is cheating because real tamales are made with hand-made corn flour) as the lard mixes in the mixer, until the two form a coarsebut even meal, then just as slowly you add a cup of chicken broth or so until, beating and beating and beating it in the mixer, adding more and more air, the dough is finished. Marvel at the soft consistency, but be gentle with it.

Now all you have to do is spread the dough on the cornhusks that you've removed from the hot water and dried off. One at a time, spread the dough on a corn husk, then press a small handful of the chicken mole into the dough and add a bit of fresh cheese on top, then fold the cornhusk shut and steam the packets in a steamer lined with more corn husks, reading a book - perhaps Under the Volcano - at the kitchen table with one eye so that you can with the other eye carefully watch that the water doesn't boil away. Let the tamales steam until they are cooked through and tender, at least 45 minutes.

When you've set in front of your husband a plate of black beans cooked in chorizo, rice, and a salad of lettuce, avocado, red pepper and tomatoes, and a tamale or two, you have earned the right to sit and open up your own tamale, peeling away the corn husk and smiling at the impression it has left on the perfectly cooked dough.

As you take that first bite, remember all the cooks who have cooked tamales before you - perhaps even in Aztec kitchens - and it will taste all that much better.

The Swedish word for the day is vana. It means habit.

- by Francis S.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The third Mr. Marilyn Monroe has died. I never cared much for the few plays of his that I've seen. But, he was one the guys who stood up to Joe McCarthy, and that counts for a lot. Even more, he was married to Norma Jean Baker, and that's really something.

The Swedish phrase for the day is Men pappa, du vet att jag vet att det finns ingen jultomte!. Which is what a little boy walking behind me with his father said this morning: but Dad, you know that I know that there is no such thing as Santa Claus!

-by Francis S.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

On the train back from Västerås today, the woman sitting in front of me - probably 70 - carefully set herself down and delicately patted her hair, as if every strand weren't already carefully shellacked into place, instantly bringing back memories of my mother when I was boy, when she would go and get her hair set.

Does anyone other than 70-year-old women in purple overcoats get their hair set anymore? What does it mean, anyway, to get your hair set?

The Swedish word for the day is hänsyn. It means consideration.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Damn the policeman! He was over here yesterday with the priest and their daughter, Signe, and he played this Jimmy Durante song for me and now I can't get it out of my head.

"I'll never forget the day I read a book.
It was contagious. Seventy pages.
There were pictures here and there, so it wasn't hard to bear,
the day I read a book.
It's a shame I don't recall the name of the book.
It wasn't a history, I know because it had no plot.
It wasn't a mystery, because nobody there got shot..."

I wonder if there's a modern-day equivalent of Jimmy Durante, with his peculiar endearing and innocent charm? I suppose he wouldn't be photogenic enough for today's tastes.

The Swedish word for the day is näsan. It means the nose.

- by Francis S.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Seen from the No. 42 bus at 6:38 p.m.: two women tanking up their car at the gas station on the corner of Kungstensgatan and Birger Jarlsgatan (I think I read somewhere that it's the oldest gas station in Stockholm); one is dressed in a bathrobe and slippers and appears to be wearing nothing underneath as she stands chatting with the other, who is dressed in typical parka, jeans and boots.

The weather is unseasonably warm, but it is only about 4 degrees celsius, tops. And it's not like there was a sauna nearby, either.

Swedes. Sometimes, they're just unfathomable.

The Swedish word for the day is bensinmack. It means filling station.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Worst Swedish translation of a movie title: Måndag Hela Veckan - which means Monday the Whole Week - for the movie Groundhog Day.

To be fair, I guess it was hard to come up with something that would make sense to the average Swede because oddly enough, groundhog day is not mentioned on any Swedish calendars.

Now, off to watch my favorite holiday movie ever.

(Isn't Bill Murray great? Even Andie McDowell is only slightly annoying and wooden... plus Chris Elliott plays a straight role, ooo-ee!)

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

When travelling to far-flung places, Paul Bowles is perhaps not your best choice for reading material. It's easy to become suspicious of even the generous and trustworthy Thai people or the horrendously poor Cambodians if you're spending your evenings reading short stories that feature hapless westerners faced with strange cultures that they invariably fail to understand or worse, misread so direly that it is their undoing. A father willingly seduced by his son or a French professor tricked into letting himself be captured by Bedouins who cut out his tongue and turn him into a pathetic clownlike figure, for example.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell it is not.

And yet, it can add a, um, frisson of peculiar pleasure to your beach reading.

- by Francis S.
I feel like Sally Field: "You like me!" It's all on account of a Satin Pajama Award for best writing, my second blog award since I started this whole writing project. Thanks, David Weman and the rest of the folks at Fistful of Euros. And kudoses to Mike M., who won two awards, and to Torill, who won one, and to those - Mig and Zoe and Des and Mr. H, Stefan, for instance - who should've won as well. Plus new interesting reads direct from Paris.

And now, a shameless plug for myself. You should know that the Bloggies - the oldest blog awards - are still open for voting in case you wanted to vote for me as Best Great Big Homo Type. Or for anyone else for that matter.

The Swedish phrase for the day is svag is. It means thin ice.

- by Francis S.