Friday, August 31, 2001

When I read that this guy, Jonno, was doing a survey on whether guys dress left or right (I'm a left-dresser myself), I was extremely entertained and naturally responded immediately. I don't know him, but I should give him credit for inspiring me to start this whole thing up a few weeks ago.

Anyway, all I want now is to see the results of the survey, and see if some scientist could come up with an explanation. I highly recommend my one or two readers to respond to ensure a broad sampling. >- by Francis S.
I realize I've been derelict in the whole Swedish bit and decided to mend my ways with a handy cultural lesson for all the millions of people who are surely interested in how exactly one lives in Sweden.

    1. Lines, queues, knowing your place. Don't be disturbed if, as you trot merrily up the sidewalk smiling stupidly and minding your own business, you actually are butted in the shoulder by a person. Or maybe 10 people. And then not a one of them says a word, or even turns around, leaving you wondering why everyone is picking on you, and since when did you become such a pariah, and finally, how can you get back at them?

    Two things are going on here.

    First, for some strange reason, there's a lot of confusion about personal space. That's why Swedes always, always use the take-a-number system (Swedish word for the day: nummerlapp. It means the piece of paper with a number on it that you take at every ticket booth, meat counter, bank, tax office... you get the picture.) because then you don't have to actually stand in a line where you might accidentally touch someone because you have no sense of personal space. Or maybe they have no sense of personal space because they never have to stand in line. Who knows.

    Alternatively, it's been explained to me that the switch from British-style left-side-of-the-road driving to American right-side-of-the-road driving in the late '60s (it was literally done in a day, apparently with no major mishaps) combined with a subway system with trains that don't consistently stick to one side or the other of a station from one subway station to the next, produce chaos when any single person is trying to decide where to walk on the sidewalk.

    What is ironic is that it is very important in Swedish culture to, er, know your place, and that place is exactly the same as everyone else, in other words, don't think too highly of yourself - there's nothing worse than thinking you're better, or being better for that matter. Jämnt is the concept. Which I mostly like, Swedes are wonderfully egalitarian, maddeningly egalitarian and consensus-driven - everyone needs to come to a consensus on what they want/should/need to do as a people/company/family, for example. Swedes themselves seem to bemoan the fact that they are like this, and yet they're proud of it.

    The second thing, the fact that no one apologizes, is something else altogether, I've decided. It's actually not rudeness, but a certain shyness and concern not to cause trouble. At least that's my generous take on it. By saying ''excuse me,'' you are causing even more of an imposition because the person you have accidentally butted on the shoulder then has to pause and respond. At least that's why I think people do it. Some Swedes have explained to me it's because Swedish culture is crude and boorish, but I like to think I'm right (who doesn't?).

- by Francis S. (who actually loves Sweden dearly.)

Thursday, August 30, 2001

I bought a copy of Myra Breckinridge to take back with me, and I read it on the airplane, or at least most of it. I bought it because I saw it on as a forgotten classic on some list or other. I haven't read all that much Gore Vidal, but I did like Lincoln and his memoir, Palimpsest was sufficiently full of homosexualist gossip, as the man himself would say. I can't say I'd ever want to meet him - after all, what person in their right mind would divide their time between homes in those oddly parallel cities, Los Angeles and Rome (Kenneth Anger should have called his book Hollywood Roma, a much better metaphor than Babylon if we're talking ancient decadence).

I didn't much care for the perfumey prose, it's a little too precious for me, regardless of how much it mirrors the narrator's character. But I was constantly struck by the modern themes and obsessions of the book - copyright 1968 - what with the eponymous transsexual Miss Breckinridge, the worship of forties-era movies (which would be the equivalent of worshipping movies today such as, well, ''Kramer vs. Kramer''), the pansexuality of Miss Breckinridge's students at the Academy of Drama and Modeling (where she teaches Empathy and Posture), the appearance of the Chateau Marmont Hotel. I suppose it all fits into Susan Sontag's definition of ''low camp'' (or is that high camp? I can't remember whether self-aware camp is high or low...) which was itself published in the mid-60s.

The Swedish word for the day is busunge. It means naughty little boy. - by Francis S.
Going back to the fatherland is always a jolt.

The first thing I notice back in the old U.S. of A. is that everyone can understand what everyone else is saying. Which, of course, is true here in Sweden for just about everybody but me. Still, I can't help thinking to myself as I sit in a restaurant serving Sri Lankan food in Minneapolis with the husband, my sister and her family: ''Do these people at the next table realize that I can understand every single word they are saying?!?'' And, ''Aren't they, shouldn't they be deeply ashamed to be talking about their emergency gastro-intestinal surgery like that?'' - by Francis S.

Wednesday, August 29, 2001

My favorite part of the trip was going to the Minnesota State Fair. I thought the husband would be fascinated by the American hyperbole of it. You know, the fattest sow, the biggest pumpkin, the tastiest milkshake. Unfortunately it was too much for him. He was in shock, the poor guy. It could have been the 175,000 Minnesotans crammed into the fairgrounds. Or the corndogs, the scotch-eggs-on-a-stick, or the deep-fried candy bars (it's true!). Or maybe it was the fashion show sheep competition (4H teens in the sweltering heat, dressed in wool jumpers, blazers, top hats - you name it - leading newly shorn and bleating sheep wearing ribbons and collars and bowties to match the jumpers, blazers and top hats, parading stolidly or with embarrassment around the straw-filled and manure-strewn catwalk to the eager and earnest sound of the announcer saying, ''...the 100-percent merino wool skirt Shawna is wearing is made from the Gustafsson family's favorite ram, Stiffy, and has been hand-dyed to copy an authentic Navaho pattern from a vase Shawna's Aunt Lena got at South of the Border on her way down to Daytona for a well-earned vacation after she divorced her second husband, Ollie.''

My husband did perk up when we got to the dairy pavilion and saw the butter sculptures of Princess Kay of the Milky Way and the 11 runners up in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest. You can actually watch the sculptor in her revolving refrigerated glass cylinder as she attacks a 90-pound slab of butter, over the 10 days of the fair carving life-sized busts of Princess Kay and the runners up. The Princess and runners up each get to keep their sculptures when the fair is over!

The Swedish phrase for the day is: hem ljuva hem. It means home, sweet home. - by Francis S.
Gee, but it's great to be back home. Home is where I wanna be-eeeeeee.

Everything is fresh and clean and new again, coming back. Checking out the windows in Bo!, the Swedish modern antique store on Östgötagatan (was that black stroller in the window really supposed to be there? And is it really true that furniture younger than I am could be considered, er, antique?) and the tree that must have fallen or been pulled down in Mosebacketorg, outside the Södrateatern and the beer garden: Things actually change. Even in just 10 days. - by Francis S.

Thursday, August 16, 2001

Off to the new world in no time flat. But first, there is the laundry, the clean-up, dinner, dishes, the packing.

The Swedish word for the day is semester. It means vacation. - by Francis S.

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Whew. The husband just called to say that dinner is cancelled. But now I don't get to go off on a delectable memoirish food reverie, á la Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher or Alice B. Toklas - her cookbook, famous for her recipe for hashish fudge, is actually a great read - as if I could match either of them in prose. I was on a Moroccan-Spanish kick and going to fix those merguëz sausages wrapped in pastry, couscous salad (which is recreated by taste from salad our downstairs neighbor gave us when she moved in - she's half-Moroccan and a great cook to judge by her salad, and she did win some big Swedish cooking award a couple years ago) and gazpacho as close as possible to the gazpacho the husband was served by his mother when he was a boy.

I love to cook and to eat. And I have the extra five kilos to show it.

The Swedish phrase of the day: för mycket. It means too much. - by Francis S.
Why does it take so much work to go away from work for a week? Suddenly photographers fail to deliver, an editorial has to be replaced at the last minute, and someone else has to check out the last pageproofs because of course they're arriving when I'm gone. All of which pales in comparison to the husband's 15-hour day yesterday. But I guess he decided that that wasn't enough, so he invited our priest and her boyfriend the policeman over for dinner tomorrow night. Of course the husband has to work late, so I'll have to do laundry and fix dinner, but we'll squeeze it all in because we love them. But still, I can't help asking why I do this to myself because I know I'll be frantic tomorrow, rushing around like mad in the kitchen and swearing in Swedish, ''fan också'' which means something like dammit, too! - by Francis S.

Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Surprise, surprise. The friends from London are in town.

We went to their wedding two years ago in Malaysia, a wedding which requires an essay unto itself to properly capture the peculiar post-colonial palm-treed and sky-scrapered not-quite-Singapore essence of it all. The aunties, real-life versions of 30s actresses, madcap and impossibly elegant. The Royal Selangor Golf Club. St. Mary's Anglican Cathedral (which is, in fact, smaller than, say, the First Christian Reformed Church in Sully, Iowa, pop. 322) with its uneven stone floors paved over the tropical earth, its Indian priest and its ancient organist playing ''Jerusalem'' in rather ragged fashion, not to mention the irony of a group of Scots-Chinese Malaysians and Swedes singing about founding a new Jerusalem on God's green England.

But that's another story.

Anyway, the friends from London are in town, as well as the stylist who lives in Greece and who is getting married in a couple of weeks in Athens. So we had dinner with about 10 people down at the Nordic Light Hotel, drinking way too much red wine and smoking way too many cigarettes on a school night.

Both M., the T.V. producer, and the husband had veal, which was tasteless according to four different palates (not mine, I didn't try it). The waitress apologized, saying the chef had forgotten the marinade. Er, I ask, how can the chef forget the marinade - isn't the idea of a marinade that the, uh, meat sits for hours and hours in some kind of spiced bath? But, the husband let it pass, except after the waitress went back to her spot by the bar, he and M. and this other girl were making some strange joke about tastebuds and onions and tits, which had to be explained to me because they all involve the same word, lök, which means onion... it must be related somehow to the English word leek. And I learned that the word for tastebud is smaklök, which literally translated is taste onion. Kind of a strange concept, if you ask me, but then tastebud is kind of strange itself if you think about it.

So there you have it, two Swedish words for the price of one. - Francis S.

Monday, August 13, 2001

It's such a pain in the ass to have to explain to people here all about us wacky Americans. They always ask the same question: What is this thing Americans have with guns?

I always try to explain that there is an amendment to the constitution, that it says the citizenry has the right to arm itself so a lot of people think this means they should be allowed to have guns, lots of them, one for every day of the week, guns in all colors, flavors and sexual preferences. I tell them that it isn't entirely clear that the amendment means all guns, all the time, 24-hours a day. And then I'm at a loss. I can't explain why Americans seem to have this need for guns, and why once a year some kid(s) go into a school and shoot up a bunch of people before committing suicide and Americans never seem to be able to connect the fact that these things happen, well, because the guns are out there for the taking. I try to say that not everyone thinks that guns are such an, uh, essential fashion accessory, but somehow despite this they can't seem to manage to pass very many gun-control laws. I try to come up with an explanation, but I just always end up red-faced and stupid.

Especially last night at dinner with the girl (a friend of A., the model) who was visiting from Africa, where she works for the tribunal that is dealing with the judgment against those who committed the massacre in Rwanda. They mostly didn't use guns in Rwanda, apparently they used machetes.

The Swedish word for the day is otrolig. It means unbelievable. - by Francis.S.
What is there about Wally Shawn that makes him so funny? His voice, maybe, that vague watery lisp. Or it could be his goofy smile. I guess I just like him. He makes me laugh. - by Francis S.

Sunday, August 12, 2001

Jesus, it's cold. Winter is on its way. My poor neanderthal bones are freezing. I finally understand the Swedish obsession with the weather. Last ''summer,'' with its week after week of 15-degree rainy days, was a blow and when November hit, everyone was demoralized and depressed. They were actually angry - depression is anger turned inwards, yes? - and bitter. Me, I thought it was a bit early to be so hostile, but I later realized it was anticipatory. If you are cheated out of summer, by February you will about be done in. And I enjoy winter, particularly snowy and cold winters - I grew up in Chicago after all. Still, I'm as weak as the next guy, and so when we had a glorious summer this year, I was ecstatic and I gloried in the sound of drunken girls on the street below at Bonden and La Cucaracha, laughing and falling and singing early in the morning when we were trying to sleep during the darkest hours of the night, those two hours of twilight that Stockholm is allotted each day at the height of the summer.

But, it's over now. Although we'll cheat it by going to the States next week, grabbing for ourselves an extra week of heat. And I hear it is hot in North America.

* * * * *

The husband and I are soon off to dinner with the model, A., and her boyfriend the photographer and his two children. There's sure to be good food - probably something Italian, or maybe Thai. I'm ravenous.

The Swedish word for today is deprimerad. It means depressed. - by Francis S.

Wednesday, August 08, 2001

There's another Tilda Swinton movie out. I used to think she was too, er, removed from herself - a figure posing in a tableaux or something, not wanting to soil herself with the emotions of everyone around her.

But then I saw her as Eve and she was such a bundle of angry hopped-up sex, ripping the role apart with her bare teeth and hurtling over the top without looking down to see that she's ten miles above the surface of the earth and if she fell, it would no doubt be a nasty, smelly mess to clean up.

But she didn't fall, oh no.

The scene where she smears lipstick on her blouse in a fit of anger, or the one where she's trying on some piece of haute couture lingerie, strutting and tugging at the utterly sheer fabric that's giving her a wedgie both front and back- it's a size too small for her - parading her stuff in front of a baffled man waiting for his wife to come out of the changing room. Holy shit.

The movie itself is pretty flawed, some parts are awful. But her performance turns the thing into a spectacular film. It's weird how so many of the greatest movies just seem to crash and burn at the end, like Apocalypse Now, or sometimes on and off throughout the whole movie, crashing and then picking themselves up from the wreckage only to crash again - My Own Private Idaho or Satyricon, for instance.

I wonder if it's true that Tilda Swinton is a countess or a baroness or some other member of the English peerage. As if that would mean anything. I don't like to admit I still have that sad American fascination with noble blueblood types. - Francis S.
The thing about moving to Europe is that you lose your fashion sense. Although it is possible I lost it due to age more than for any particular geographic reason. Still, it's long gone and I'm completely dependent on the husband - an actual arbiter of fashion here in Sweden - as to what looks good together on this continent.

For instance, I'm wearing these miu miu grey- and- pink- and- silver- glam- sneaker- shoe things this morning, walking to work and I start thinking to myself, uh, do these look okay with these white trousers and this white plasticky dentist-type shirt I'm wearing, and, are they appropriate for work? Are these trousers hip enough or do they scream pathetic old man? Or worse, am I a pathetic old man for real and these shoes in fact could only possibly look good on someone half my age? Either scenario is frightening to contemplate.

But I used to know what I liked. What to wear. What was appropriate.

Perhaps the trouble is that I've gone post-gay. Or is that post-straight? The repercussions are mind-boggling.

And the Swedish word for the day is skådespelare. It means actor. - Francis S.

Tuesday, August 07, 2001

It poured rain this morning, came down like bolts of cloth unfurling from the heavens and making it utter hell to wend one's way through Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm. Some of the streets are paved in brick, some in stone and worst of all, some are cobbled with those round stones that are impossible to walk on - what in god's name were 16th century engineers thinking when they paved a road with those round lumpy stones? It's like walking up a set of bad teeth. And when it rains, the water flows in torrents down Kåksbrinken from Stortorget, carrying 80-year-old German ladies in its wake, little old ladies clutching at their maps and shrieking, you have to be careful that they don't grab you as you dodge past, be careful that they don't take you down with them.

This - the little old German ladies and the rest of their fellow tourists - is probably the only thing I don't like about working here. Otherwise, it's quite wonderful to walk down the steps at Mosebacke each day and see Gamla Stan laid out like a perfect toy city below with the spires of the German Church and Storkyrkan, the rows of houses along Kornhamnstorget, the square top of the Royal Palace. Of course I then have to walk through dirty, ugly, serviceable Slussen - the sluice - before I actually get into Gamla Stan, walking past Järntorget 84 (which I just realized you can see on the 500 Kronor note) and up the narrowest street imagineable, Mårtin Trotzigsgränd, it's only wide enough for one person to pass through at the top. Then past the school and the old German quarter, then finally over to Köpmansgatan, and on to the little square with the statue of St. George and the Dragon in the center, the princess on a pillar by herself in the corner.

Today's Swedish phrase is: att skynda på. It means to hurry along. - Francis S.

Monday, August 06, 2001

Last week, the workmen who are renovating this apartment building appeared outside the window at 7:15 a.m. Actually, they didn't just appear, they clamored noisily up the scaffolding all in a rush and peered in through the transom windows at me and the husband lying in bed. Squinting through one eye (rather useless without its contact lens), I could just see the top of a bald head and hear an Irish voice trying to sing some song about ordering beer for breakfast.

I could sense their disappointment because I'm sure they were planning on getting a glimpse of the bare flesh - a leg, or maybe with a little luck, half a nipple or an ass cheek - of the editor's wife. She is luxe, calme and volupté rolled into one, and ripe as a ripe peach. Instead, all they got was a glimpse of a couple of unshaven and rumpled-looking fellows faking sleep. Or at least I was faking sleep. Not the husband, he sleeps like a baby (except if he hears something untoward going on outside. He can read any sound, can tell if it's good or bad, in his sleep. Like he can tell the difference if it's one of the Finnish ladies bringing their laundry down into the garden at 4 a.m. , or someone trying to make off with one of the bikes parked there. He can tell just by the sound which of the three neighbors on our floor has just opened their door and is depositing their garbage in the hall, which will then sit there for a week.)

Anyway, I guess the workmen are all confused about who the hell exactly lives in this apartment, and how exactly they live here. Maybe they figured out the editor and his wife are gone. Maybe not. The Irish guy with the shaved head sure wasn't too friendly this morning, though. Still smarting from last week's disappointment, I guess. But not so much that he didn't manage to yank all the toilets out today and dump them in the garden. It looks like there's been a toilet massacre out there. And that includes our toilet. O, the horror. We're going to be without our own personal toilet for weeks.

The Swedish word of the day is skitsnygg. It means fucking gorgeous. - Francis S.

Sunday, August 05, 2001

M., the t.v. producer, came over last night. So M. and the husband and I ended up drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes and watching bad movies until all hours. Or half-watching them. A costume drama about the Sun King, with Gerard Depardieu of course. I think it's in the code of the screen actors' guild that all movies about France must include Gerard Depardieu. In this particular movie, the poor guy is doomed because he won't wear a wig like everyone else. Uma Thurman, in a reprise of her role in Dangerous Liaisons, plays a wicked countess who sleeps with Gerard and then betrays him because he won't wear a wig. Of course, she's a quivering, quaking snotty mess when she finds out that Gerard kills himself over some bad fish. Kills himself rather spectacularly, I might add. I don't want to give away the plot, but just suffice it to say that the scene involves a horse, some firecrackers, and a castrato singing Lully arias suspended over a pool in a papier maché whale. Oh, and Tim Roth plays the villain, sneering and snorting in an unfortunate wig. I think that's some part of the code of the screen actors' guild as well. Tim Roth must play the villain and there has to be some weird hairy thing going on.

The husband fell asleep after five minutes.

And I think I missed some important parts because throughout the movie, M. kept telling me about his grandmother who lives in a town outside of Bratislava. He said she's resting on her laurels. Or rather her late husband's laurels. He was a famous Czech artist. Apparently, she hasn't clued into the fact that she's no longer living a standard of living significantly above that of the hoi-polloi now that the communists are no longer in power. According to M., this means she spends an hour and a half putting on her makeup before she goes out in her leopard-skin furs, stepping heedlessly into the traffic. I'm not sure I get the connection here, but maybe I'm confusing her story with the movie.

Swedish word of the day: genomsnitt. It means average. - Francis S.

Saturday, August 04, 2001

They're gone. The magazine editor and his wife left this morning at 5 a.m. with god knows how many kilos worth of baggage. No plastic garbage bags full of winter coats, or cardboard boxes held together with packing tape and optimism - everything was in proper suitcases, all very First World. With the first rainfall in weeks punctuating the melancholy at seeing them leave, they jumped in the car on the first leg of their journey to America. And I went back up to the apartment, unable to sleep, reduced to reading about Al Gore growing a beard in Dagens Nyheter, boning up on America as if I were the one leaving and not them. - Francis S.