Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Peer pressure combined with the Calvinist version of guilt - "God frowns on a man who shirks his duty" - have an unfortunate effect on me. Just tag me for a meme, and I can't sleep at night if I fail to respond.

So, the somewhat mysteriously named "xoom" has pushed my buttons, asking me to write five things you don't know about me. I'm not sure I can really take this to the limit, since by this point everyone from my parents to random unknown people at my office read this, which means it's pretty hard to come up with things that no person who reads this doesn't know about me. So I'll stick to things that, as far as I can remember, I've never mentioned in the five plus years I've been rambling on in this particular corner of the digital world.

1. I don't like beets. I try to like them, I even eat them pretty much whenever they're put on the table. But the consistency is like biting into layers of boiled crayons. And the color should be pleasing, but it's not.

2. I am the biggest baby about someone sticking me to get blood. Whenever I have to have a blood test, I need to lie down because if I don't, I am in serious danger of fainting. I've fainted three times when I was sitting up and actually almost fainted once when I was lying down. The nurse had to peel the paper off my back when I finally sat up from the examining table, because I'd sweat so much.

3. I haven't voted in the last two U.S. presidential elections. I have a good excuse, though. I'm registered in the District of Columbia, so it doesn't make a bit of difference, since Washington is like 90 percent Democratic, so the electoral college votes always go to the Democrats. And I don't even have a representative in either houses of Congress, so why should I bother? On top of that, Congress is always being nasty and manipulative, using the poor District of Columbia as an ideological punching bag, forcing the city to spend money to change subway maps to reflect that National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan National Airport (don't get me going on that one), or messing with D.C.'s handgun ban, for example. Still, this is all just an excuse and even if my vote makes no difference, I feel guilty about this (see note above). But not so guilty that I've bothered to get an absentee ballot.

4. If I had been born a girl, my parents would have named me Mary Ann. And they're not even Catholic. Go figure.

5. My husband keeps bugging me to renew my Swedish ID, which is expired but I use anyway. For some reason I keep putting this off. I don't even know why. It makes him so crazy he won't even talk about it.

I've never been very into passing on chain letters, so the buck is going to stop here on this one. Sorry, xoom.

The Swedish word for the day is fem. It means five.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hallå? I said into the phone. I was calling A., the TV producer, but every time I called, I kept getting connected to some place with lots of French people talking in the background. Just what I needed as I was trying desperately to keep up with Christmas, which seems to be leaving me breathless this year with all the venison dinners, madrigal concerts, rock concerts, glöggs, Lucia processions, and shopping that have taken over my life in the past two weeks.

Five minutes later, A. called.

"Did you just try to call me and get connected to a French bakery?" she asked me.

Well, yeah, I guess that's what it was, I told her.

She laughed an evil little laugh. "I have my phone set up to forward to a bakery in Paris when it's someone I don't know," she said.

But you know me, I said, indignant.

"I just couldn't get to my phone fast enough," she said. "Isn't it funny?"

It's kind of mean, I told her.

"I know," she said, ignoring the fact that I was speaking in my sourest voice. "I have this side to me that sometimes I can't believe I have," she said. And she laughed that evil laugh again, forcing me to laugh with her. Because, well, it is kind of funny.

The Swedish phrase for the day is jag skulle vilja prata med.... It is a most formal way to begin a phone call if you don't know who you are talking to, and means I would like to speak with.... The appropriate way to answer the phone - unlike in the U.S., where one simply says "hello" - is to simply state your fullname, or even just your surname. I think my favorite way of answering the phone is the way the Italians do it, with a "pronto."

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 04, 2006

We stood outside Kungsholm's church in the dark in our overcoats - although the weather was unseasonably warm, it wasn't so warm that we didn't need overcoats. Then a man with a grey beard handed out torches to us, even to the little boys - although not to the littlest - and we lit them, and the priest began the procession through the streets to Saint Erik's chapel. We straggled along singing, and a few people stopped to look at us, but mostly we walked the eight blocks with little notice. It's amazing how Swedes will pay little attention to a curiously medieval-looking band of children and adults carrying torches and singing as they walk along the street at 5:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of Advent. (The whole Swedish Christmas-time obsession with burning lights is actually suspiciously pagan, if you ask me.)

When we got to the chapel, it was full to overflowing. Which was no surprise, considering there were 11 little boys singing in the choir, each little boy with parents and grandparents and brothers or sisters or cousins or what have you who had come to see the service. And they sang sweetly, although according to the husband they didn't all pay strict attention, and of course at least one little boy was singing about a fifth below the other little boys, and there was only one mishap when one of the little boys knocked his head against the altar and after several minutes the priest noticed that he was bleeding and his mother took him out. But we kept on valiantly - the priest referred to us men as "aspiring choir boys" - and eventually the little boy with the banged head reappeared, seemingly none the worse for the wear (little boys are pretty tough creatures).

The whole thing was quite informal, the sermon simple, the readings familiar, the candle-lighting brief and we the choir sang and sang and sang, all the favorite Swedish advent songs, with a single scoop of Vivaldi and a double scoop of Bach on top.

For someone like me, steeped in religion from childhood, it was altogether quite an appropriate First Sunday of Advent, which it seems, is second only to Lucia in terms of favorite Swedish Christmas rituals, Christmas services themselves being held way too early on Christmas morning for most people to bother with in this secular country.

The Swedish word for the day is ankomst. It means arrival.

- by Francis S.