Monday, December 31, 2001

Time to fast away the old year passes and hail the new, lads and lasses.

But before moving on to 2002, there's a lot of frantic preparation in store for tonight's feast. Lamb and chicken tagines to top off with honey and orange blossom water, coriander potato cakes to fry, merguëz sausages to wrap in pastry and bake, couscous salad with melon, black beans, rucola and chevre to prepare, chocolate truffles to roll. We're off to A.'s apartment to help get everything ready. Happy Moroccan New Year.

The Swedish phrase for the day is god fortsättning. It means happy new year, more or less.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 30, 2001

A conspiracy is afoot and I smell a rat. I mean, a cat. Two of them to be precise, brought over by A. the ex-model and her boyfriend the photographer who came to dinner last night.

You see, the husband has been hot to get a cat for well on a year now. Me, my parents were raised on farms where animals belonged outside. We had a dog once when I was a little boy, but I think my parents have passed on to me their general indifference when it comes to pets.

Not that I'm immune to the charms of a cat. When I lived in Barcelona, my flatmate had a scrawny little cat, Pepa, who seemed to think I was her knight in less-than-shining armor, come to save her from the dreariness of her life in a cold Spanish apartment with an undeniably crazy owner (well, crazy but lovable). From the first day I arrived, Pepa slept most of the night with me, getting up early in the morning to go sleep with her owner, E., but then returning after an hour or so. And when she slept, she had to be touching me, even if it was just the very tip of her paw.

As for the current conspiracy, I think the husband connived with A. in order to show me how awfully nice it would be to have cats running around our own apartment, curiouser and curiouser as they padded and sniffed their way through everything, or curling up next to us on the sofa as we drank red wine and smoked cigarettes and yammered on about the Moroccan food planned for the new year's party at A. and her boyfriend's apartment. (They went home at 1: 00 or so, cats and all.)

In fact, the idea of having cats at home did rather grow on me, although I'm not a big one for changing litter or vacuuming cat hair, and I definitely am not very tolerant when it comes to nasty little kitty claws ripping apart dining room chairs.

Still, I suppose I should be happy that a cat or two didn't appear under the Christmas tree this year.

The Swedish word for the day is lurad. It means tricked.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 29, 2001

I moved to Sweden three years ago this very day.

The time has raced by at rocket speed.

At I.'s dinner party last night, the English mathematician living in Germany - he's lived there for 14 years - said to me, "you don't miss home yet, do you."

He was right, I haven't every really missed the States. And I'd always figured that if I don't miss it by now, I'll never miss it.

But maybe I've been wrong.

"I wonder if part of my being happy has to do with not knowing the language, that when I really start to use Swedish relatively exclusively, I'll lose part of myself," I said to him.

"Oh, no," he replied. "It makes you hold on to the language even more."

Which didn't really answer the question I was asking, which was not about losing the language but about losing myself. But the subject changed when someone asked another question, and I never ended up probing deeper into it.

- by Francis S., faux philosopher
Last night we had dinner at the apartment of I., the sister of A.'s boyfriend, the photographer (how's that for a tortured line of possessives? Can you figure out who is related to who?).

I. has a new boyfriend, an Englishman living in Germany who works for a big German publishing company. He seemed curiously young - I suspect though he's 50 or so, he's never been married - and charmingly broke numerous Swedish rules of etiquette: not standing properly in line to get his food at the buffet table, not paying attention to the various toasts, talking over people and talking too much, not formally saying goodbye to everyone as they left in a slow trickle.

He is a mathemetician and believes that at some point it will be possible to reduce our selves to some kind of code or equation that could be looked at or stopped at any given millisecond, and that this code or equation is uniquely us and exists forever and is our soul.

I understood, I think, his reduction of our selves, but I wonder.

"Do you believe that our souls are something more than this?" I asked.

Being a mathemetician, he seemed to believe that such a code is wonder enough to fit his definition of a soul, because it is unique and because it exists forever.

I find it unsatisfying to be at heart an equation and very humanly wish my soul to be something much more.

The Swedish word for the day is Gud. It means God.

- by Francis S.

Friday, December 28, 2001

Any Stockholmer worth her or his salt loves Sweden best in summertime, when the sun never quite sets, when ferry rides through the rocky but green islands of the Stockholm archipelago are lit with gold.

Me, I love it best now, when the sky is dim and grey, and all the old yellow buildings of Stockholm are frosted with a layer of snow that just keeps getting thicker and thicker, and lights twinkle and bank and flame behind windows under the snow, candles and Christmas stars and kitchen lights.

It is the romantic perfect winter of my imagination, and it is glorious when the train stops mid-ride over the icy black water between Gamla Stan and Södermalm, and on one side are the old buildings of Kornhamnstorg, a huge Christmas tree with plain white lights in the middle of the square, and on the other side are the bluffs of Södermalm, capped with twinkling towers and church steeples and cupolas.

- by Francis S.
The two-sentence review of "Fellowship of the Ring":

Don't you just hate it when despite having great material to work with, i.e. actors and fabulous natural (if a bit too computer-enhanced) scenery, a director is still reduced to telling you what to feel by laying on the music thick and heavy, and worse, music by enya - enya for chrissakes!!!!! Although to be fair, maybe it has something to do with trying to take a sprawling and unwieldy book and forcing it into the shape of a movie - to paraphrase one of Ian Holm's lines in the movie, ''it feels like too little butter spread over too much bread.''

I know I sound like some kind of heretic criticizing the film, but I didn't like it much.

The Swedish word for the day is besviken. It means disappointed.

- by Francis S.
Christmas hasn't been a disappointment or a frustration this year. I coasted just enough on the residual thrill from my childhood that the season still imparts without expecting too much from it. There was a moment of longing to be with my parents and brothers and sister, an instinctual longing to relive those Christmases of my childhood that cannot possibly be relived, but it passed quickly.

And the Swedish Christmas celebration was more pleasing than I remember it. The present-giving, the watching of Kalle Anka - Donald Duck - on television (which the whole of Sweden watches at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas eve... a relatively new tradition carried on from the days when there was only one television channel, state-run of course, and the Disney movies weren't shown in Sweden for some reason, or so I am told) and the food. I suppose all that cold fish is beginning to grow on me.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 24, 2001

Christmas on the Plains

a very short story by Francis Strand

He had the generosity of the unfaithful, whispering over the phone, promising endlessly that he would be there.

"Yes," he said.

He leaned into the phone, his eyes hungry, his lips opening and closing, hanging onto the cigarette as if to a rosary.

"Yes, I promise," he sighed.

He was not listening, but instead hearing only the children singing as if down to dirty shepherds, singing from high above and behind a scrim. Children who were really just on the radio.

He had decided a week earlier that he most certainly would go, no matter the difficulties it posed for him. But as soon as he promised, he knew it was impossible.

* * *

When the family sat down to eat, they wished that he hadn't come home after all. It was awkward, and he was pointedly answering questions they hadn't even thought to ask. Questions they would never have imagined could have the answers he was giving them. He insisted on smoking even as they ate.

"Shall we open the presents now?" the mother managed to interject finally.

He nodded, and they all stood up. She pulled a clean cloth from the kitchen drawer and covered the meal they had barely touched in their astonishment and discomfort, covered it with a white cloth until they would come back to finish the sweet potatoes, the stuffing, the oily green olives, after the tumult of the presents.

"Shall we?"

And they all walked numbly into the front parlor, the tree suddenly pathetic, the tinsel and lights and glass balls an insult to its dying there in front of them.

* * *

"Hark," they sang, "the herald angels-"

And although they prided themselves on the simple fact that they were a musical family, it was all most of them could do to pull their own part, whether soprano, alto or bass. Except him, of course. He couldn't sing a note.

They didn't even bother to join hands around the tree.

"I'm so tired," the mother said, and they all agreed.

Carolyn, the oldest, sat up with him long after the rest of the family had gone to bed, and they drank first one scotch and water, and then another, and another, as he lied to her about this and that. He knew she didn't believe a word, would never believe a word he said, but he couldn't stop himself.

* * *

After they had all gone back, back to their own homes, it all seemed so bleak to the mother, who loved the holidays with such desperation, who worked so hard to make it a pleasure for everyone. As she broke down and wept, she thought her heart would break, and she could not console herself.

- copyright 2001 Francis Strand

p.s. The Swedish word phrase for the day is en riktig god jul. It means a very merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2001

How appropriate that Peter, proprieter of secret kings, one of the first blogs I started reading regularly, should be visitor number 3,000 at this site. And, believe it or not Aaron, Sacramento's famous 8-legged dj, is yet again almost the 3000th visitor for at least the second time in his life (you were 3001, Aaron).

The Swedish word for the day is pristagare. It means prize winner, of which there are none today, unfortunately, because I have no prizes to hand out. I'm rotten when it comes to prizes and presents (in fact, I should be out Christmas shopping this very minute).

- by Francis S.

Friday, December 21, 2001

"Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion" was on ZTV here in Sweden last night, and I'd forgotten the whole "I'm the Mary and you're the Rhoda" shtick, which I really relate to, and which probably really dates me.

I remember watching that show every Saturday night - or was it Friday? - from the time I was about 9 years old until I was 14. By that time, the old Saturday-night lineup - first "All in the Family," then "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," then "The Bob Newhart Show" and finally "The Carol Burnett Show" - had lost its shine and the original "Saturday Night Live" had become the thing to watch, which I did as I babysat for the same family every Saturday, their strange children asleep in their beds upstairs and me downstairs leafing through The Joy of Sex, worried that the parents would come home and catch me drooling over the bad seventies-style drawings of not very attractive men with beards and/or long hair having sex with women who looked like Jane Fonda (in her "Klute" shag-hairstyle days) in a wide range of positions, from the prosaic to the obscure. (They also had a rather peculiar book that I remember quite well - Transcendental Meditation for Tiny Tots - all about warm fuzzies and cold pricklies and just as oh-so-seventies as The Joy of Sex, but much more confusing. Worse, when I tried to find a link for it, there was only one source listed, a scary Christian site entitled "Combat Tactics against Satanism and the Occult: Guerilla Warfare for Young Adults." I couldn't be bothered to read the 25-page article to find out exactly where they mention this obscure book from my adolescence.)

Me, I wouldn't exactly say I'm the Rhoda, but the husband is definitely the Mary in our relationship.

The Swedish word for the day is 70-talet. It means the '70s

- by Francis S.

Thursday, December 20, 2001

The Swedes are not a skeptical people. They have an endearingly childlike willingness to participate. They believe in joining in on reindeer games.

Take an office party, just as an example. An office party could start off with everyone drinking vodka cocktails, followed by an office choir singing traditional Swedish and American Christmas carols. Then, everyone could sit down and a toastmaster would present the evening. Then two old guys from the office could get up and play electric guitars and sing songs about the company, but to the tune of "Alice's Restaurant." And everyone, but everyone happily joins in on the choruses, and starts to clap along.

If it were America, everyone would be looking around to see if anyone else was clapping. As for singing along, well, social singing is a lost art in America I fear.

But I digress. At this fictitious office party, everyone could then be asked to participate in a game wherein a table is brought out on which are set 60 presents, which is the same number of guests at the fictitious office party. They are then asked to play a game wherein they roll a die that is passed along the table (or in the case of this particular fictitious office party, there are six dice planted around the big u-shaped table at which everyone is sitting) and when they get a six, they may go up and pick a present, or if they have one already, they may exchange with someone who has a better-looking present.

I can't imagine the people at the public relations firm I worked at in the States playing this game.

The Swedes, however, love it. They are laughing and running and whooping and frantically grabbing presents all over the place. They dive into it with gusto.

Of course, at this fictitious party they do a lot of adult-type things as well, mainly, once the food and games are over, they push aside the tables and get drunk and dance under the twinkling Christmas lights strung up around the room, paper stars in the window, candles all around. This continues until 2 a.m., the winter's first storm raging outside and making everyone feel snug and safe and helping them forget they have to be at work early the next morning.

The only disappointing thing about the party is if they forget to sing "Hej, tomtegubbar," especially since it is about the only drinking song one knows.

The Swedish phrase for the day is att ha roligt. It means to have fun.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

One of my favorite drinks is fläderblom saft. It sounds very Shakespearian in translation - elder flower juice - although it's not really juice, it's actually a drink made from water mixed with a syrup made of elder blossoms, lemon, sugar and probably a few other sundry items I'm not aware of.

It tastes rather like white grape juice, but with undertones I don't know how to describe: It reminds me of the juices I've drunk in fever dreams when I was a little boy. A strange, marvelous taste, slightly off but in a pleasing way.

I suppose I like it in great part because it is so terribly poetic - to drink flowers.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 17, 2001

Laurel just asked why I find Swedish so difficult to learn, and how am I learning it.

I started responding then and there, but I realized the answer deserved more of a prominent spot in my little scheme of things here.

In typical Francis fashion, I start with the second question. So, Laurel, here is how I am learning Swedish:

First, I've taken three classes, of which the last one was an extra-intensive course over two weeks last summer. My last teacher was an excellent pedagogue - she normally teaches 10 year olds - and I not only learned a lot, I got over a major hurdle and became much more comfortable in conversation, although I have backslid over the last couple of months, to my great displeasure. But not enough displeasure to actually do something about it.

Of course I learn in other ways, too - watching the news and other television, reading the newspaper - Dagens Nyheter - I even read Det Osynliga Barnet (The Invisible Child), a book of children's stories by Tove Jansson, looking up every last damn word I didn't know.

But what makes it hard are three things: fear, pride and laziness.

Fear of sounding like a five-year-old child, of being misunderstood, of not being able to be myself with people - show my sense of humor, for instance. I fear losing myself somehow, and I fear misunderstanding other people. I fear that I am too old to be learning a second language.

The pride, well, I guess the fear and pride are more or less the same thing. I foolishly want my Swedish to be perfect, which it will never be. Oh, I am proud that I can pronounce the difficult sounds, the -sj- and -stj- and -sk- and -skj- properly, and my pure vowels and soft -r- don't give away that I am American. At least not most of the time. But it isn't nearly enough.

The laziness, well, it's easy to get along with English here, people always want to practice their English and in Stockholm, their English is overwhelmingly excellent (it's hard not to compare my Swedish to everyone's English, and the comparison is so unflattering on my part that it hurts). The language at my company is English, and I speak English at home with my husband, which isn't likely to change soon because it is our language, though we do have some embarrassing Swedish endearments that I'm not going to go into here. And, in fact, I think part of my charm to him is that I do speak English - it's part of what he loves about me.

It's not all pain and suffering and failure, though. I think what I need now is another conversation class, which I expect will get me past another hurdle and truly start to try and speak Swedish every chance I get. I've already begun the switch at work - half of my meetings are now in Swedish - and I expect that'll take another six months or so to feel truly comfortable with it at the office.

I just wish I weren't ashamed of it, that I didn't feel like it is a terrible shortcoming and a failure. And I wish I weren't so annoyingly full of self-pity.

So, there you have it. I'm sure I've forgotten something, and if I remember it, I'll be sure to let you know, don't you worry.

- by Francis S.

I went yesterday to finally see the Lucia program - children singing in a Lucia procession followed by a concert of songs appropriate to St. Lucia day and to Christmas - and I sat with my friend C., the photographer, on one side and a little old lady on the other side. I guess the little old lady heard me speaking in English with C., because at one point she turned to me and said in English, "You know we sang the same songs when I was a little girl, with the same little routines."

Which made me think that there must be at least 70 years' worth of schoolchildren who have had the same anticipation and excitement each year; 6 year olds who can't wait to dress up as gingerbread men (for the song about gingerbread land), 7 year olds who can't wait to graduate from being gingerbread men into being the mice for the "hejsan, hoppsan, falderejderal" song, 8 year olds who can't wait to be able to hold a live candle instead of a small battery-operated electric one.

I was disappointed that there wasn't a stjärngosse in sight - not even one little boy in a pointy hat singing with the girls. But my disappointment was quelled when, about a third of the way into the program, they brought out a whole choir of 7-year-old boys, all dressed in little red and white hats and outfits. Someone had wised up and realized that the best way to get the boys to sing was to create a choir especially for them - but oh, the poor woman who has to lead a rehearsal of a choir of some 20 little boys.

They were a bit squirmy, and took a lot more guidance than the girls to get them into a straight line, but they sang as best they could, then holding hands and forming four circles and dancing round the stage. All except one little boy who just squirmed, to the great irritation of the little boy next to him who kept trying to get him to stop, imploring the teacher with his eyes, a look of exasperation on his face.

Me, I would've been that little boy trying to quiet the other boy. I surely must've been a bit of a prig. I suppose I was an unsufferable child when it came to these kinds of things. It makes me squirm just to think about it now.

The Swedish phrase for the day is levande ljus. The literal translation would be living light, but the actual meaning is a candle.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 16, 2001

I am a little kid at heart. That is, when given the chance and in the right circumstances, I revert back to my childhood habits. For instance, last week on Wednesday, the team I am responsible for at work went out for an afternoon and evening of, uh, teambuilding. Which consisted of a session of chocolate tasting (lots of little bite-sized niblet-y things on a plate: chocolate- caramel tartlets, chocolate- passionfruit tartlets, mocha mousse, gingerbread ice cream, saffron creme brulée, you get the picture), then a session at the laser dome, wherein the boys teamed up against the girls (yeah, right, they kicked our sad little boy asses) in one of those weird black smoky maze things, each armed with a "laser gun" and garbed in a vest that marked off how often we were shot and where. Then we had a nice dinner afterwards at a nearby very mysigt, i.e. cozy, restaurant.

One of the things that fascinates me (and drives me crazy) about Sweden - or at least about my company - is the assumption employees make that the main role of an employer is to keep them happy at any cost. So, I spend an enormous amount of energy on this. Hence the night of fun. Still, it was fun.

But, back to the little kid bit. Which was that when I played this stupid but extraordinarily entertaining shoot-em up game at the laser dome (I'm a closet wannabe warrior, I guess), I was running all over the place like an ass, a real maniac, and while I shot more people than anyone else, I was also shot more than anyone else and ended up with the lowest score, which I had predicted to everyone before we began and which they all found very amusing. I had no strategy, I just ran and shot, ran and shot. I would be dead in about two seconds in a real war.

I was in fact acting just how I remember acting as a little kid whenever there was some big party in the neighborhood or with my relatives (a bit of trivia - I have nearly 80 first cousins) or at church: I just ran around and around and around, yelling and laughing and exhausting myself, hour after hour, pausing only for an occasional cookie or a glass of kool-aid, only to fall asleep within five seconds in the car on the way home.

Oh, it was fun.

The Swedish word for the day is barndom. It means childhood.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 15, 2001

It's a hell hole out there, trying to elbow your way through the crowds on Skånegatan and Götgatsbacken, not to mention inside Coctail and Granit.

And to think I used to like Christmas shopping.

The Swedish word for the day is julklapp. It means Christmas present.

- by Francis S.

Friday, December 14, 2001

This 5.818- degrees- of- separation thing is interesting. But I wonder what formula is used for figuring out the recommended reading?

- by Francis S.

Yesterday, I was quite negligent in marking the fact that it was Lucia - the feast day of Saint Lucy - which is the first important day in the Christmas season in Sweden. So, here is another Swedish lesson.

4. Lucia. For those who have children, the day usually starts with them getting up very early and celebrating the event at school with a lussetåg (which literally means a Lucia train), or procession led by a girl representing Lucia, wearing a long white gown with a red sash, and on her head a garland of green leaves as well as lighted candles. Behind her are additional girls dressed in white and with garlands in their hair, but with candles in their hands rather than on their heads, as well as boys - stjärngosse, or star boy - in white but without the sashes, and tall pointy dunce hats with stars on them, not unlike the hat Mickey Mouse wears in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The whole procession sings:

    Natten går tunga fjät
    rund gård och stuva;
    kring jord, som sol förlät,
    skuggorna ruva.
    Då i vårt mörka hus,
    stiger med tända ljus,
    Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

(which translates to:

    The night goes with weighty step
    round yard and (stove i.e. house, hearth?)
    round earth, the sun departs
    leave the woods brooding
    There in our dark house,
    appears with lighted candles
    Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.)

These processions are also held in churches and various other public places. The ritual is quite beautiful, and Swedes are great singers so the music is often superb: vibrato-free clear and pure and high children's voices singing in three- or four-part harmony. They also sing other songs, such as Staffansvisa - St. Stephen's song. And of course you need to eat Lussekatter, which are saffron pastries in the (very abstract) shape of a cat. It seems a little odd that this Lutheran country celebrates the feast day of an Italian saint who was martyred by having her eyes poked out, poor thing. I think it must surely have something to do with Lucia meaning, well, "light" - lux in Latin - and that the feast day is close to the winter solstice when the light finally starts to come back, slowly but surely, to this dark part of the world.

I will see a live lussetåg on Sunday (which is unusual, it's supposed to be on Dec. 13), when my friend the photographer's daughter will be singing at a whole long Lucia program - she could have been the Lucia, but she was busy taking a test or something when they were making the choice. Damn.

- by Francis S.
Extracts from a recent exchange of e-mails between me and my buddy K. on my own sad hopes and dreams about the bathroom being finished at last(I've rearranged the order for your reading pleasure):

----- Original Message -----
From: "Francis Strand"
To: "K."
Sent: Friday, December 14, 2001 11:42 AM
Subject: RE: it's friday

Tell her I said "hej" and have fun!

(The tiles and mirror are now in the WC, and the toilet and lights are
supposed to be in when I get home... it looks fanfuckingtastic!)

-----Original Message-----
From: K.
Sent: den 14 December 2001 17:50
To: Francis Strand
Subject: Re: it's friday

I just had to laugh. and laugh and laugh and laugh at your "the toilet and
lights are supposed to be in when I get home."

Poor Francis. So trusting. So innocent.

Well, you just go ahead and enjoy that toilet and those lights this weekend!

-----Original Message-----
From: Francis Strand
Sent: Friday, December 14, 2001 11:45 AM
To: K.
Subject: Re: it's friday

Oh, shite. I AM such a pathetic idiot, aren't I.

Addendum added at 11.26 p.m.: Sadly, K. was all too right to laugh. Lights, yes; toilet, no. The contractor wins this round, yet again.

- by Francis S.

    Me and God sing on Christmas evening.
    Holy christmas. Sacred choir. Honey!
    Joseph drives on Christmas noon.
    All you want for Christmas are my snowy carpets.
    Rudolf was a merry reindeer.

This Christmas Carol generator site features pure poetry.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, December 13, 2001

One of my favorite words in Swedish, kissnödig, doesn't readily translate into one nice, neat word. It requires a whole phrase: in need of a WC.

Isn't Swedish great?

- by Francis S.
Peter, my favorite secret king, was just writing about the Paris of his imagination, the movie "Amelie från Montmartre" (or whatever the name of it is if you don't live in Sweden), and whether U.S. citizens are as immediately recognizeable as the French, even before they open their mouths.

Let me start from the back and move my way forwards.

1) People from the U.S. We are loud and we like to talk, so you never really get a chance to see anyone before he or she has started to speak. This means it's very hard to say whether the language and accent give us away. But we do have distinctive traits. For instance, we seem to take up about 10 feet of personal space on either side of us which not only shoves all the oxygen out of small rooms but tends to smack unsuspecting people in the face if they get too near. Not that we mean to smack people in the face with our personal space, it just kind of happens. Oh, and we love hyperbole: ''I love your hair." or "I would die for a coke." My husband loves these expressions.

2) "Amelie från Montmartre." As I mentioned before, I haven't seen the movie, but the pictures of Audrey Tatou look just like the pictures of Melinda to me. Uh, if Audrey had purple hair.

3) Paris of the imagination. Peter, the real thing is, in fact, every bit as lovely as you imagine. Block after block, arrondisement after arrondisement of heart-stopping beauty. It is somehow like New York, I suppose because both cities don't understand why anyone would live anywhere else. And both cities have convinced the rest of the world that they are superior to every other city. And they're right, of course.

The Swedish word for the day is oehört. It means tremendously.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

I read a couple of days ago at realitysandwiches about The Mayfly Project. The idea behind this (likely) meme is to sum up your 2001 in a manner similar to the oft-cited description of the life of a mayfly: Born. Eat. Shag. Die.

The rule is only 20 words.

Naturally, I had to put my own hifalutin twist on it, which is not exactly in the spirit of the thing while yet sticking to the 20-word rule. (This could explain that there is some genetic reason behind my 8-year-old nephew's inclination to always add some unnecessary complication to things in an effort to be funny. He usually succeeds. Me, I wish I was as funny and creative as he is.)

Here is my take on the year:

    2001: A Shakespearian tragedy

    At home, it's double, double toilet trouble;
    At work, job satisfaction's just about burst its bubble.

- by Francis S.
On this dim and misty morning, the lights of the city obscured by the wet, I was just a couple of narrow old cobble-stoned streets from the office when a woman some 20 meters in front of me called out "Har du sett en hund?"

I didn't understand her. First I said, "Vad sade du?" (Which literally means what did you say and is the Swedish equivalent of excuse me when one hasn't caught what someone else has just said.)

But when she repeated it and I still didn't understand, I had to say "I'm sorry...?" (Which to my ears that seem to refuse to understand anything other than English, sounds remarkably like "Vad sade du" - which is pronounced something like vahsahroo. "Vahsahroo" - "I'm sorry," do you, uh, hear what I mean?)

And as she said, "Have you seen a dog?" I realized what she had asked me.

"No, sorry," I said.

Sometimes it seems like the road ahead is so long, that I am failing utterly at learning this language.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

The Nobel Prize dinner was yesterday. While the prizes are one of the few things Sweden does that is recognized worldwide, the dinner itself is pretty much a local event. And the whole dinner is broadcast on one of the state television channels. I missed the beginning, but I did see the glassparaden, which consists of a host of waiters done up all fancy-like marching down the steps holding platters of ice cream done up all fancy-like (this year it was vanilla ice cream with black current sorbet) to the accompaniment of a trumpet fanfare. The king always serves himself.

I also listened to V.S. Naipaul's speech (which was slight but amusing), and then the speech by Leland Hartwell, who won for medicine. But the next guy, chemistry prize-winner Barry Sharpless, started going on and on about carbon being the center of everything and nature being right-handed and he was trying so hard to say something profound yet graspable, but it was all coming out a jumble. I get so embarrassed for people when they stumble in front of a crowd like that, so I had to go smoke a cigarette and ended up missing the rest of the speeches.

Throughout the whole ceremony, I thought how odd it is that we are so drawn to televised pageantry related to prize-winning (uh, I am referring - in a barely graspable way - to Miss America, the Academy Awards, etc.) but this is surely the only pageant of prize-winners on television where the contestants actually do things that have a profound and long-lasting impact on life.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 10, 2001

    I was going along a straight wide road, keeping close to the kerb, not looking behind or bothering about the traffic at all.... I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness. The voice was asking questions. It seemed to be opening and closing like a concertina. The words were loud, as the swelling notes of an organ, then they melted to the tiniest wiry tinkle of water in a glass. I knew that I was lying on my back on the grass; I could feel the shiny blades on my neck. I was staring at the sky and I could not move.

From A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch, one of my favorite writers. He died in 1948 when he was only 33, more or less as a result of injuries sustained in a bicycle accident when he was 20 that is described in the above excerpt. His books - Maiden Voyage, In Youth is Pleasure as well as his short stories - are all extremely autobiographical, and although that quote sounds terribly bleak, in fact his writing is very egocentric but everything and everyone is observed with such a keen eye, the writing so clean and precise, it's a delightful read.

There is a self-portrait of Denton Welch in the National Portrait Gallery in London. I was shocked and moved when I saw it in an upper room somewhere with other writers. He looks like a school boy in the painting.

The Swedish word for the day is okänd. It means unknown.

- by Francis S.
Saturday night I made eggplant parmesan and we had the priest and her boyfriend the policeman over.

We ended up talking about guns, of course, which is no surprise considering the latest shoot-em up in America.

There are about 10 people killed by guns in Sweden every year, the policeman said, even though Sweden has one of the highest per capita gun ownership percentages in Europe (it's just very heavily controlled).

Ten. Ten.

"Only ten?" I asked.

Yes, only 10, he said. "There are about 120 murders every year. Knifings mostly. Knives are just about as bad as guns."

The husband and I disagreed, of course, noting that it'd be pretty hard to knife 20 people in a post office, say, but it takes only seconds to kill 20 with an AK47. Plus, children aren't likely to accidentally slash their throats or fatally stab themselves in the liver or heart with a knife they happen to find in the top drawer of their daddy's bureau.

"Is it true that the NRA was trying to get it so that you could buy one gun a month if you wanted to?" the priest asked. (It was most interesting that the priest even knows that there is such a thing as the NRA, which gets my vote for being perhaps the most all-out evil organization in the U.S. My ex used to call it "the criminal's lobby.")

She and the policeman were shocked when I told them that they were confused, it was actually anti-gun laws in Virginia that the NRA opposed that were trying to limit people to one semi-automatic weapon a month.

"Ha ha," they laughed weakly.

But, to be fair, every country has its difficulties with crime.

"The thing that's most scary about crime in Sweden is that alcohol is involved in roughly 95 percent of all killings," the policeman said.

The Swedish word for the day is mord. It means murder.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 08, 2001

What is the purpose of watching the video of a wedding one has actually attended in person? I can understand the bride and groom wanting to watch it again, or even the various parents involved. But for me, a second-hand guest, well, it wasn't the thrill of a lifetime to have dinner followed by wedding-video viewing last night in suburban Stockholm with The Parents of The Bride of the Wedding in Athens. Although watching the nearly endless video was almost redeemed by seeing my husband doing his "Y.M.C.A." routine again, complete with lots of pelvic thrusting and crotch grabbing, not to mention the arm movements spelling out the letters Y.M.C.A. - although he seemed to be spelling something in Greek instead, those definitely were not letters in the Roman alphabet. And he doesn't even know Greek, which is even more amazing!

The Swedish word for the day is komiker. It means comedian.

- by Francis S.

Friday, December 07, 2001

It must be embarrassing for a company when advertising gains something in translation, something unintended and, well, perhaps a little sordid, inappropriate at a minimum - especially advertising that is published in a country's No. 1 newspaper.

I wonder if heads are rolling in the marketing department at Locum - which I originally thought was a Swedish realtor but the husband informs me it is some kind of public hospital organization - ?

The Swedish word for the day is misstag. It means error.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, December 06, 2001

With my beloved little brother, I used to play a game that I'm sure many of you have played: if a classic and wretched television show - "The Andy Griffith Show," for example (that show ran in reruns throughout my childhood and I always hated it) - were made into a movie, who would play Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea, Opie, and so on. You could go for the outré - Fairuza Balk as Aunt Bea (Fairuza looks great in white hair) - or the realistic - John Turturro as Barney Fife. Or just go for plain old humor - Spike Lee as Opie.

This was all quite entertaining, until they started actually making these movies. (Uh, who's playing Shaggy in the upcoming Scooby-Doo movie, anyone know?)

But, it looks like Jonno's boyfriend, Richard, has a much funnier, vaguely related alternative: the perfect pitch.

- by Francis S.
We finally christened the shower last night. I hope that noise doesn't travel down the pipes to all our various neighbors below, but I have my suspicions that it does.

The Swedish word for the day is pinsamt. It means embarrassing.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

It was bound to happen. The meta-test. Please excuse the use of the prefix "meta." (A tip of the hat to David).

- by Francis S.
K. has gone back to the New World, with a brief layover in Iceland. She tells me that on the way here, she discovered that the airport, Keflavik, has been completely remodeled. It's no longer basically a hallway with a bunch of doors off of it that are the gates. Instead, it's now full of glass and Escher-like, as you take the up escalator you can see where you are supposed to be on the down escalator, but you can't figure out how to get there. Which I suppose is just as vaguely hallucinatory as the long hallway was, considering how whacked out one invariably is on a dark midwinter Iceland layover.

I was in the middle of a meeting outside the office when she left, natch, and I hadn't managed to say goodbye to her and when I realized it, I suddenly had to excuse myself and give her a ring from the men's room, although I didn't tell her that's where I was.

She'll be back in January.

While she was here, I introduced her to Queer as Folk (the original British version - I haven't seen the U.S. version) and she was instantly addicted, hating the character of Stuart at the beginning and then having a huge crush on him by the end, finding that the actor who played Vince looked like a certain type of Boston Irish frat boy that she finds, er, unattractive.

''They showed this on channel 1 on Swedish television?'' she asked.

Yes, the husband told her. But kind of late, like 10:30 or maybe 11 o'clock. They could never show that in America, the husband asked, could they?

''Not on the American version of channel 1,'' she said. And indeed, America allows rather extreme violence on network television, but not near-naked men simulating sex (and there weren't even any hard-ons. No real, uh, soft-ons either, if I recall correctly). Because we Americans are so weird about sex.

I wonder, is it still true that there are a significant number - maybe not the majority, but still - of undergraduates who actually believe that it is better not to have sex unless it's with that special someone, preferably someone they are about to marry or, in some cases, on their wedding night?

Because this is what these horrible "Take back your hymen" and "Scared sexless" and "Sex suspect" sex education programs preach: Sex is something to be afraid of. Which is an awful thing to teach someone.

So, the Swedish word for the day has got to be sex. It means both the number six, as well as sex, which can make for some interesting confusion on occasion.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, December 04, 2001

I've always said I don't really miss anything from the U.S.

I've been lying all this time and didn't realize it, until now.

I miss Lesbian Christmas musicales.

The Swedish word for the day is gullig. It means cute.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 02, 2001

We at long last have a shower. There are no lights in it yet, and there are still some pieces of hardware missing, but if we put some candles on the floor and keep the door open, we can take long hot showers to our hearts' content. The husband was ecstatic despite his nasty cold.

Of course the cold wasn't nasty enough to stop him from vacuuming and mopping the floors throughout the apartment even though I told him he should be lying on the sofa drinking tea. Which is okay, I suppose. It always makes him feel better to clean things.

Me, I like it neat, but I hate cleaning. That's what cleaning ladies are for.

The Swedish word for the day is tvål. It means soap.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 01, 2001

So, in response to World AIDS Day, and in keeping with my participating in Link and Think, today's writing is about, well, HIV and AIDS.

Make sure you're in a comfortable chair with something tasty to nibble on, because it's gonna be a long story.

I first remember reading about it - in the Washington Post I think - before it had a name. I was living with my ex in this teeny-tiny studio apartment at 7th and A Streets NE, in Washington, D.C. This would have been 1983 or so. Gay men, drug addicts and Haitians were all getting weird cancers, their immune systems pathetically feeble and failing them utterly.

It didn't register much at first.

But over time, the facts became less hazy and this phenomenon acquired a name, two names in fact: AIDS - acquired immune deficiency syndrome - and ARC - AIDS-related complex. AIDS killed you, but ARC was a sort of pre-AIDS, or maybe it never led to fullblown AIDS. They just didn't know. They hadn't yet discovered what exactly caused it, but they more or less knew that it could be transferred through sex or sharing needles. They thought maybe drugs - poppers, amyl nitrate - had something to do with it. Everything was shrouded in mystery, and a lot of people were scared that they could catch AIDS from drinking from the same glass of water a gay man had just drunk from.

By 1984-1985, the worry had set in for us. Sometime around then it was discovered that HIV causes AIDS. I decided it would be highly likely that I had contracted HIV sometime in the years before 1982, before I'd gotten together with my ex. And what made the worry terrible in some ways was that my ex refused to get tested, reasoning that since there was nothing they could do about it anyway, and since we were monogamous, it would only make his life worse to know.

Me, I went along with him, not because I agreed, but because that was what he wanted.

Looking back on it, this virus was lurking in the back of our minds all the time, every day. Any cold or flu bug, any feelings of fatigue, any bruise, all were examined closely but silently - I never spoke of any of it for fear of getting my ex upset. And I assumed the worst. It's so strange to look back on it now, I've really forgotten completely how much that damned virus haunted me.

In 1987, when I came back from two years at university in Manhattan with my degree in hand, and after I had gotten my first real job, at my instigation we contacted the Whitman Walker Clinic, which had started as a free VD clinic for gay men in the '70s, and early on in the epidemic had become the primary institution serving people with HIV in Washington DC. We became "buddies" with a man who was critically ill. We underwent several days of training, even attending a weekend-long workshop on death. Our buddy, G., lived in one of the six houses that the clinic maintained for people who had no other place to go.

We met him in December, and by February he had died. We visited him several times weekly, fixed meals for him, brought him to the doctor, took him shopping and out to a restaurant once; within a month of our meeting him, he was bedridden and couldn't go out.

His funeral was held in the Church of God of the Two Worlds, a strange vaguely Christian spiritualist church. He was buried somewhere outside Shepardstown, W. Virginia. We hardly knew him, not really.

We never became buddies with anyone else after G. died. Fear, I suppose. It brought it all too close, especially since we didn't know our own status. I did know, however, that several of my good friends were HIV positive. My high school sweetheart (the male one), another guy with whom I'd lived with briefly in Atlanta. My best friend in D.C. who'd moved to Chicago.

I guess it must have been in 1989 or 1990 that my ex finally decided that he wanted to know. I'm not sure, perhaps AZT had just shown up on the scene, although I seem to think this was before then. Whatever it was, he had decided that not knowing was worse than knowing could be.

We went to our doctor, who wasn't gay, but said that we should not have our insurance pay for the test because then they would discriminate against us. He would do it anonymously. He was a wonderful doctor.

Waiting that week - it took a week in those days - was utter hell. Mostly because my ex was crazed. Me, I'm pretty good at ignoring things, pushing them down into the back of my mind somewhere. And despite my knowing all these people and having witnessed someone, more or less, die from it, it wasn't real to me anyway.

The results came back negative.

I suppose that our lives changed at that moment. But to be honest, I don't remember it, not really.

- by Francis S.
I met my high school sweetheart - the one who was a boy, not the one who was a girl - in my freshman acting class. He was two years older than me, and he knew my sister.

He was a rather visible presence in our high school of 2,500 students, which was quite a feat. He was an artist, he was obsessed with history, he was wickedly funny and earnest, he did stupid things like running around with a red magic marker, ''slashing'' the throats of various teachers, which nearly got him expelled.

He was the leader of a large group of students who didn't quite fit in anywhere else - some of them were vaguely into acting or debate or orchestra, some were sort of jocks, but all of them were somehow outside the groups of students who were really into those things.

And, most important of all, my friend Mary said, "Robert Feiger told me that he fools around with boys." This, however, was not a generally known fact.

Five months later, on a school trip to London, I found out, as I'd hoped, that this was true. He fooled around with boys, and he really liked me. It was a huge release to have sex with him, to passionately kiss someone who was physically a man (I was small and a late-bloomer; he was hairy and muscular though he was only 17). It also made me terribly sad, I wandered around London with him, morose in most bittersweet way, feeling as if I'd lost something and that I was no longer a child.

So we became boyfriends. Secret boyfriends, but real boyfriends nonetheless. The relationship was full of drama and clandestine sex. Everything an adolescent love affair should be, despite the need to hide it all. I think he felt guilty about it, but I didn't, not really, mostly because early on I told my sister about it and she let me know that not only was there nothing wrong with this, but that it was in fact a good thing.

The relationship lasted on and off for a good six years, through both of us going off to college, through him getting his first - and only - job at the Washington Post and finally ended when I moved to D.C. to be with him. (After three weeks, we called it quits for good.)

But we stayed in touch. He left the Post and moved to Boston, working as a freelancer. I stayed in D.C. and, more or less, got married, bought a house and became firmly ensonced in the oddly dangerous safety of being part of a couple.

He lost some of his charm. His ideosyncracies became irritating, his earnestness became shrill, his convictions turned into pomposity. I found him hard to take. I suppose I'm still angry with him, somehow, for not living up to what I wanted him to always be.

He called me one day when I was at the office and told me that he had been raped. He had been raped and had contracted HIV. It had happened in Boston Common, a group of thugs, he said, had beaten him up and violated him.

It made me sad, and irritated that he only talked to me when he had bad news. And I suppose I pulled away from him. I suppose it scared me as well. I didn't know what to do or say, and I felt useless, helpless and outside his life.

We didn't see each other for quite awhile after this. Then, several years later, my beloved little brother was visiting and we went to the National Gallery. In the room with all those lovely Dutch paintings - Rembrandt and Hals portraits, a Vermeer - we ran into him. He was visiting Washington as well. And so, we got back into touch, briefly.

The next year, I went to Chicago one late spring week for a conference, and I decided to see him. He had moved back in with his parents.

He had turned frail, although I was very ungenerous with him. He looked well enough, but he required a cane to walk. I thought he was deliberately courting pity. He couldn't see very well, he said, but I thought he seemed to be able to see just fine. We sat and had coffee in a cafe that was in what had been the paint store on the main street of the town we had both grown up in, and it seemed to me he wanted people to look at him and see that he was dying, and this made me intensely irritated, and then ashamed of myself for being irritated.

He told me he was having portions of his journal and drawings published in the Post, the diary of a dying man. And he talked about how much he regretted having treated his parents badly, of having been unfair to his longtime Finnish boyfriend, of never having given love a chance. And I could only say to him that he had had a great life nonetheless, done things and been things that he should be most proud of. But even though you must say such things, that you know them to be true, they don't seem to give solace.

They did publish the diaries, a couple of months after he died, which was not quite a year after my visit to Chicago.

I couldn't read those diaries, mostly because he retold the story of being raped, but changed the details so significantly that I can only believe them to be a lie, which I suspected from the beginning. And it upset me so that he felt he had to lie about such a thing, that he must have felt such shame at thinking that he was somehow responsible for contracting HIV that he needed to concoct a story that removed any possible blame. As if one should possibly blame him, that blame is a word that should ever, ever be associated with HIV.

It makes me cry still, as I write this, and makes me furious with him. It's hard to have such feelings about someone you love. And I still, five years after the fact, don't really think that he is dead.

Finally, it is ironic and I sometimes catch myself wondering whether he has somehow manouvered my life so that I have ended up in Scandinavia, a place he always romanticized all out of proportion and where he wanted always to live but never did.

- by Francis S.