Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Wolcum be thou hevené king,
Wolcum Yole!
Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom wesall sing!

Wolcum be ye Stevene and Jon,
Wolcum innocentes every one,
Wolcum Thomas marter one.

Wolcum be ye good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe Day both in fere,
Wolcum, seintes lefe and dere,

Wolcum Yole!

Candelmesse, Quene of bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.

Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum, wolcum, make good cheer.
Wolcum alle another yere.

anonymous; 14th century

The Swedish phrase for the day is god jul. It means Merry Christmas.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 23, 2002

M., the t.v. producer, is back from London. It felt, as we lolled about on the sofas in the living room, he with his usual whiskey glass of white tequila, neat, as if he'd never left. But he's only back for the holidays, but back full of stories and snickering.

He's sharing a flat in Notting Hill with the brother of E., the friend in London. It apparently took some doing to get the flat.

"They won't rent to two straight guys," he told us. "You have to be a couple." Apparently, it took several, uh, incidents wherein real estate agents were happily showing the two of them flats until the agents realized that they were a couple of grubby hets who didn't give a flying fuck about order and cleanliness, at which point the agents clucked their tongues and told them "sorry, homosexualists only need apply."

M. then tried to convince E.'s brother that they had to start lying to the agents, saying they were big-time homos and ever-so-much in love. But E.'s brother didn't want to say that he was gay. At this point, M. noted that the story would be better if it were true that E.'s brother had internal conflicts and couldn't bring himself to say that he was a big-time homo to anyone; the truth is that E.'s brother thought it ridiculous that real estate agents would rent out only to homosexualists and he was unwilling to lie. M. persisted and coaxed and cajoled, however, and finally E.'s brother gave in and promised he would lie.

The day came when they saw an appealing flat advertised in the window of a real estate agent, and they went in and were told they would have to go look at the flat immediately. They jumped in the car with the agent, but the timing wasn't great because M. was supposed to be in a phone conference with all these various executive types in Sweden and the U.K. and the States. The agent didn't mind, and M. sat in the back seat doing business while E.'s brother sat in the front seat with the agent, who had just started out in her job.

"So," she said to E.'s brother. "How long have you two been together?"

M., who was supposed to be paying attention to his phone conference, was suddenly all ears, watching E.'s brother struggling in the front seat.

"We're. Not. A. Couple," E.'s brother finally said, barely able to get the words out, knowing he'd failed to do as he said he would.

The real estate agent stopped the car and M., desperate, called out from the back seat "I'll be gay any day!"

Which caused quite a stir at the phone conference he was participating in.

M. and E.'s brother did eventually get the apartment, after promising the real estate agent, who was worried that she was muffing her first job, that they would avow their alleged homosexuality to anyone who asked.

Do you think we are entering the golden age of homosexuality?

The Swedish word for the day is diskriminering. It means discrimination.

- by Francis S.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Remember when you were a little kid and you woke up in the middle of the night, frightened, and called out to your mother or father and they came and got into bed with you until you fell asleep?

One of my co-workers told me that it works the other way around. Whenever she can't sleep, she crawls into bed with one of her sleeping sons, and the smell of little boy's hair and sweet breath soothes her insomnia and she forgets what she's been worrying about and falls asleep.

It sometimes works for me to put my arm around my sleeping husband, but I don't think he's quite as effective as a soporific.

The Swedish word for the day is natti-natti. It means night-night.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

The American editor and his wife have gone down to Helsingborg for Christmas. They'll be back on December 28. Tomorrow, M., the t.v. producer, arrives from London.

The house feels empty. But it's only for a day.

The Swedish word for the day is gäster. It means guests.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

When I was a child, and well into adulthood in fact, 364 days a year were merely a build-up to Christmas. When school started in September, I began planning, although it wasn't until after Thanksgiving that my mother allowed me to actually bother anyone else with my planning.

When at last everyone else recognized that it was time to begin preparing, there were the batches and batches of almond and chocolate spritz and gingerbread cookies to be made and decorated, russian teacakes and bourbon balls to be rolled, fudge to be cooked and tested with the candy thermometer to make sure it was at the right stage to be poured.

There were presents to be made as art projects in school, and Christmas assemblies to attend - although my elementary school was 90 percent Jewish, we sang half Christmas songs and half Hannukah songs, although I do remember dancing the horah in a huge circle one year - and school would be let out for the holidays, children running outside with their winter coats open and positively feverish with excitement.

There was the shopping to do, hours and hours spent choosing presents bought with my 25-cent-a-week allowance saved up over the year.

There was the tree to buy, and then decorating it with the ornaments pulled from boxes that were kept in the basement during the year, a collection that grew so much over time that they no longer all fit on my parents' Christmas tree.

At last, all my anticipation would come to a head when my mother would pack us all up and off to church. The children's choir I sang in had already been rehearsing for months by then, learning complicated and sublime Britten and Kodaly and Buxtehude and Haydn carols and anthems and anonymous spirituals for the Christmas Eve service at church, and we would sit in the choir stalls in our red robes, standing for the six or seven times we were allowed to let loose our pure vibrato-less voices. It was the absolute crowning of the year. In retrospect, bigger even than Christmas day itself with all its presents and turkey with stuffing.

And so it feels nice to be singing Christmas carols in a choir again at last, after four years of sabbatical. Of course, I've only had two rehearsals and the concert is on Saturday, but it brings it all back to me.

The Swedish word for the day is kör. Pronounced with a hard k, it means choir; pronounced with a soft k, which sounds like an sh, it means drive as in to drive a car.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

When I was a child, I used to love to pore through my grandmother's old photo album - my grandparents were poor farmers and there were no more than a hundred photos in the album, black and white pictures of women in thin cotton dresses squinting grimly into the camera, men sporting five o'clock shadows dressed in their Sunday best, little girls with dirty hands holding on to curious speckled balloons, a few hand-colored high school graduation pictures.

I still like looking at photos, but I don't care to take pictures. I'm wary of the photo replacing the actual memory of what happened at that moment in time. I'm sure that some of my memories aren't memories, they're simply picture recall.

It's foolish, really. What will my grandchildren have to look at when I'm old if I never take photographs?

The Swedish word for the day is fotograf. It means photographer.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 16, 2002

On Sunday, we walked with the American editor and his wife past Nordiska Kompaniet - NK, Stockholm's grand old department store on Hamngatan - and I don't know whether I ever noticed before that, just like the Marshall Field's in the downtown Chicago of my childhood, the store windows are all decked out for Christmas with animated displays and parents seem to bring their children to look at them.

As a child, I would have been scared out of my wits by the Santas in the windows at NK, however. Each window featured a larger-than-life animatronic Santa with huge veiny hands, and a face that seemed to bear the marks of a lot of hard drinking. Very creepy.

The Swedish word for the day is risgrynsgröt. It means rice pudding, something Swedes eat for breakfast on Christmas.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

We met up with the priest and the policeman and their baby to see an exhibit of photographs and have coffee.

They spent two days in the hospital last week. The whole family. They thought something was wrong with Signe, the baby, but it turned out she just had an innocuous virus. The truth was, the priest and the policeman were exhausted, the policeman had the stomach flu and it was just too much for all of them. Well, maybe not Signe, she was fine. But the rest of the family was seriously sleep-deprived.

"How come no one talks about this before you have a baby?" the priest wanted to know.

I think they should have special clinics where parents can go and sleep and relax while someone takes care of the baby for a few days.

The Swedish verb for the day is att fika. It means to have a coffee.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 14, 2002

The American editor and his wife arrived from the States yesterday in the midst of the Swedish Christmas hullabaloo that is Lucia, Sweden's own festival of lights. I'd started the day on the subway, hungover after a night of Czech food (sausages, sausages, sausages, schnitzel, more sausages) and bohemian beer with colleagues, rudely awakened to the harsh reality that is life as I sat waiting for my train in the subway and I could hear caterwauling somewhere behind me, which once I'd boarded the train, turned out to be Lucia hooligans - grown men and women got up in white gowns and Santa Claus suits and candles on their heads or those pointy duncecaps. They were all hopped up on early morning glögg and singing loudly yet somehow tentatively, "Gläns över sjö och strand."

Once at the office, the celebration continued and for once, I was happy to be served wine for breakfast. It turns out that there is nothing like a little morning hair of the dog that bit you to ease the pangs of too much Bohemian beer the night before.

Later in the day, I ran off to go meet the American editor and his wife, who hadn't been back to Sweden in nearly a year and half. They had been picked up at the airport by R. and J. who had also come to Stockholm, so I also got to meet Hannes for the first time, his face round like his father's, his nose like his mother's, but in general very much his own little pink squirming self (although he rested quietly in my arms for, oh, at least three minutes - he didn't even really complain when his mother and I put him into his little snow suit).

Then it was running back to the office, then off for more glögg at a party in Kungsholmen, then back home again to pick up the American editor and his wife and go down to the apartment of L., the chef, and a party with more glögg.

I am glögged out. But oh, it's wonderful to have the American editor and his wife back. It's going to be like a great big sleepover from now until the 12th day of Christmas, as our apartment fills up with friends and family.

The Swedish phrase for the day is hos oss. It means, more or less, at our place, hos being an equivalent to the French word chez, more or less.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 09, 2002

I haven't had my hearing checked in years, but I suspect I am, like my father, slowly going deaf. Although he's quite a bit further along the way than I am. It is, I have little doubt, a genetic thing.

What's strange is that it's not like I don't hear things, it's more that the background noise moves forward and I can't pull out the foreground noise from it. It feels not like I'm going deaf, but rather that I just can't quite pay attention hard enough. It drives the husband mad. He thinks that I don't listen.

My question is whether this is deafness, or late onset Atttention Deficit Disorder?

The Swedish phrase for the day is Vad sade du? It means, more or less, Excuse me, what's that you said? Except the Swedes leave out the excuse me part.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Saffron means Christmas in Sweden. It's found in pastries and snaps and any number of other savory or sweet things this time of year, imparting a strong yellow color and singular spicy taste.

At the grocery store, one has to ask the cashier for saffron, which is kept in little paper packets and held in the cash register with the money, being worth more than its weight in gold on account of it being picked by hand from crocuses, each of which has only three strands, small but powerful.

We bought some at the Christmas market in Gamla Stan yesterday. It was only a dollar or so per gram, an incredible bargain. Saffron is in fact poisonous, and if we'd wanted to spend twenty dollars, we could have purchased a lethal dose.

I think dying by saffron could be a strange and spectacular death.

The Swedish word for the day is läcker. It means tasty.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, December 07, 2002

Last night, A., the assistant director, regaled us with tales of her former life as a model in Paris.

"Once, I worked on this job where they filmed us on a roller coaster in Barcelona," she said. "The camera, which probably weighed about 300 kilos, was bolted onto the first seat, and the other model and I were in the second seat with a bunch of extras behind us. After the first couple of times we went around, they told me that I actually didn't need to scream so much and that no one wanted to see my tonsils.

"The other model was getting married in two weeks and he'd never had sex with his fiancée before. 'Please God, don't let me die,' he kept saying and he so regretted that he hadn't had sex with her before. 'Why?' he kept saying and well, I was wondering why I'd taken the job, too. I mean, think about it, the camera was just held in place by a few bolts!

"At least they let us stop when we started to feel sick. They didn't care about the extras though, and they were throwing up. I think we went around 67 times or something."

A. survived it all, and was now having dinner with us.

A. and C., her fiancé the photographer, went home at about 2:30, leaving the cats with us (the cats had spent the day at C.'s studio). So, the husband and I crawled into bed at about 3 a.m. and tried to sleep with all kinds of strange and noisy cat games going around us in the dark, games that involved the sound of claws skittering wildly along the wooden floors and unknown objects crashing to the ground.

The Swedish phrase for the day is berg- och dalbana. It means rollercoaster.

- by Francis S.

Friday, December 06, 2002

As a boy, I was always small for my age, smaller than my brother who was a year and a half younger for as long as I can remember. And I grew slowly - my voice changed when I was 15. Until I was 30 or so, I always looked younger than I was.

Then the grey hair started to appear.

Then, even worse, it started to disappear, or at least recede a bit.

Now, I would say I look at least as old as my 41 years. Definitely middle aged. My brothers and sister seem to look quite a bit like they have looked since their early twenties, definitely older and perhaps not as skinny, but more or less like they always looked. Me, well, I look much less like I did 10 years ago.

They disagree with me, of course. "You don't look more different than we do!" they insisted over Thanksgiving, and I even think they believed it. But it simply isn't true.

I am mostly resigned to looking middle aged, but it's hard to ignore the cultural equation that youth equals beauty, or more important, its corollary that the older one is, the more unattractive one is. I sort of deny it, and sort of get annoyed with myself for being bothered by it. And, I sort of don't care although, to be honest, that's actually a very small and insignificant part of me. Mostly, I do really care.

The Swedish word for the day is vårdhem. It means nursing home.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

My niece, the beautiful Princess I., is seven years old. She is in the first grade and learning how to read and write. She's great at phonetic spelling: "ornjs for sal" she wrote on a little piece of paper and put it next to the bowl of clementines sitting in my mother's kitchen.

Her mother (my sainted sister) told me that the other day the Princess I. brought her a piece of a paper and handed it to her with a wicked smile.

"These are your points," she told my sister. The paper had three columns. The heading for the columns were "Princess I." "Daddy" and "Mommy." Under each column was a number - 1,000 under the Princess I., 100 under Daddy and one measly point under Mommy.

Raising children is a thankless job.

The Swedish word for the day is systersdotter. It means niece.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Arriving back home in Stockholm from Chicago, all bleary-eyed and faintly nauseous despite having upgraded to business class, amazingly it is the darkness that is so comforting. I suppose it is because it was deep midwinter when I first arrived here to live.

The thing about the weather in Stockholm is that if the summer is glorious with lots of sun and heat, the winter can be magical, with the sideways sun glancing over the city covered in snow, and inside the smell of saffron and cinnamon and wax from a candle extinguished, a dream of Christmas.

On the other hand, if the summer is cold and dark and wet, no amount of charm can make up for months of muffled darkness. It took awhile, but I have an inkling how weather can drive one to suicide.

Now, to slough off the jet-lag before I start work again tomorrow.

The Swedish word for the day is kanel. It means cinnamon.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

What Francis almost couldn't bear was Edu's flat aspect. The weariness in the eyes and voice, the depletion of effort to be his usual emotional, almost theatrical self. Of course he understood, and he also felt he understood, at least in part, Edu's insistence that he wanted to tell only a few of his closest friends, he didn't want people to know because he didn't want to be treated with kid gloves, he didn't want to become The Victim.

Francis wasn't sure how he himself would act in the same situation, perhaps he would revel in the attention, acting as people expected him to act, be brave and charming and self-effacing about it and accept what pity he could, take the leaway granted him. He suspected that would be the route he took if he himself were sick.

But Edu had balked at the sudden kindness of the nurse, of the secretary who let him use the phone to call the main hospital to make an appointment to have more bloodwork done. It was funny, in a way, to hear Edu complaining about such kindness when his complaint about Barcelona was that people were pigheaded, stupidly stubborn and mostly, they were blindly unkind, unkind as if being kind cost them money, and oh, how Catalans loved money, Edu said.

(from a Barcelona journal, 1998)

It is World AIDS Remembrance day. Think, and link.

The Swedish word for the day is ibland. It means sometimes.

- by Francis S.