Saturday, December 31, 2005

Somewhere in the far north of Sweden, between Kalix and Boden, lies a lake ringed with hills, an abandoned sanatorium on one side, train tracks on the other, in a deep forest of pine trees heavy with snow.

If you are going to ice fish here, you come down a long road and park next to the sanatorium, which supposedly was sold to some Norwegians for 200,000 kronor a couple of years ago for them to turn into a spa, although there is some debate as to whether this is true; regardless, it remains empty.

From there, you walk past the sanitorium and beside the huge yellow villa - all verandas and fretwork and bay windows - and on down to the frozen water, where someone has made a path on the ice.

After a good half a kilometer's walk, you end up at a little shelter with a roaring fire burning beside it, and three guys drilling holes out on the ice, waiting for you to come and fish.

They give you a fishing reel and a couple of nasty pink maggots for you to spear on a hook and then plunge into the hole they've drilled for you. And you stand and fish, and it's minus 20 degrees celsius, though it doesn't feel it, and one of them talks to you with the thickest northern accent you've ever encountered (the worst is that somehow L becomes an R, which no one seems to believe me when I tell them, it took me a good 15 minutes to convince A., the TV producer, that this might possibly be true).

Then, suddenly, the former football star pukes violently, and the husband is complaining that his feet have frozen dangerously, and half of the group leaves in a hurry.

But you remain on the ice, failing to catch a fish but watching the northern winter sky, a curious pale eggshell blue that is at that moment the most beautiful color you've ever seen, but delicate, and the train goes past in the distance, and the trees are black green under all that white, and you think that winter could hardly be more romantic and how much you like the cold and ice and snow.

On the way back, you stop in and have coffee and cake and cookies and cloudberries at the house of a friend of the family who set the whole fishing thing up, and someone calls and asks about the football player, and when you get back in the car to go to Kalix, A. tells you that all of Kalix and Boden and Töre will be talking for decades about the time when the football star and the Spaniard - the husband, that would be - and the rest of the Stockholmers went fishing on the lake.

The Swedish word for the day is årsskiftet. It means the turning of the year.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Ghost of Christmas Present is on my ass, and I don't know what I've done to deserve the persecution. After the frantic buying of presents, the days of frantic packing at work because we're moving offices, on top of trying to get all my work done to get ready for the long holiday, I'm actually enjoying myself at the office Christmas party strategically planned the day before we get up at the crack of ass to take a jet plane up to the far northern reaches of Sweden. I'm on my, oh, fifth beer or so, thinking about whether to dance a little before I leave, when the husband calls.

"The Christmas tree has fallen, and all the ornaments are smashed and the water has ruined the dining room floor," he tells me. "I just got home." It's 10:30 p.m., how could he have just gotten home? He was supposed to have been finished hours ago.

I'm leaving now, I told him. And so I left, thinking to myself on the No. 4 bus that he was just joking.

But no, when I get home, it's all shards of colored glass and pine needles, it's after 11:00, we haven't even wrapped the presents, done the laundry or packed.

A sadness settled deep into my chest, but I didn't say anything.

Now, it's 6:45 a.m., I've got a headache and in about 15 minutes we leave for a place even darker than here to celebrate, and I'm silently begging the Ghost to be gentle, because I'm feeling about as fragile as one of those ancient ornaments lying in the trash bin under the kitchen sink right now.

So, well, Merry Christmas, eh?

The Swedish word for the day, which usually pops up this time of year, is Jul. It means Christmas.

- by Francis S.

Monday, December 12, 2005

While it is not true, contrary to popular opinion, that polar bears prowl the streets of Stockholm, it is true that Swedes eat reindeer. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolf, cooked in a delicious stew with chantarelle mushrooms and cream, served with lingonberries and potatoes. Quite tasty, and oh, so seasonal. Which is what A., the TV producer fixed last night for me and the husband, preparing us for our upcoming Christmas trip to the far north of Sweden. Except the husband didn't come, he was in a foul mood and chose to stay home. So the three of us, A., me and C., the fashion photographer sat and yakked it up about Christianity, soccer and Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize speech, which was quite a hit over here.

Then, after we'd cleared away the dishes, A. cried, "I've got to show you something!"

It was a comic book. Rocky. Not Rocket J. Squirrel, but a daily strip that runs in the No. 1 Swedish newspaper, a thinly veiled autobiographical strip starring a slacker dog and his slacker rat, crocodile and other strange animal friends and enemies. It is, without a doubt, damn funny.

"Read this!" she said.

It was a strip in which Rocky was on an airplane going to Malaysia to meet his girlfriend (slackers who become popular comic strip artists may still be slackers, but they have plenty of money to fly first class) and behind him a TV personality appears, exclaiming about the champagne and signing autographs, to which Rocky says she can sign his ass. Then an even more annoying TV personality shows up.

It was, well, sort of funny to see the TV personality as a silicon-enhanced bimbo dog, but...

"No, no, you don't understand, that really happened, I was on that plane on the way to Malaysia! I was there! That was when we were doing the show in Kuala Lumpur!"

When she read it, A. was at first horrified that she would appear in the next frame, but then when she didn't appear, she was terribly disappointed.

"I could have been immortalized as a Rocky comic character! Damn, how come he didn't put me in, too?"

The Swedish word for the day is tecknad serie. It means comic strip.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Librarians are apparently the latest threat to American security. At least that's the current thinking going around the FBI these days:

"While radical militant librarians kick us around, true terrorists benefit from [the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review's] failure to let us use the tools given to us." This comes from an anonymous FBI e-mail that the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued to get, and then handed over to the New York Times.

I guess patriotic Americans everywhere now need to be on the lookout for radical militant librarians. I wonder if old Mrs. Conten qualifies, the librarian at the tiny library in Franklin, Michigan who gave my brothers and sister and I each a present when we moved away when I was in the second grade.

I'm sure the Department of Homeland Security has a form for reporting on suspicious radical militant librarian behavior. If it doesn't, perhaps someone should suggest creating one.

The Swedish word for the day is bibliotekarie, which is a bear of a word to pronounce for some reason (it sounds something like bib-lee-oh-teck-CAR-ee-eh, that last syllable a schwa that almost disappears). It means librarian, of course.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Poor Condoleezza Rice. It looks like the White House has left her out to dry. No one on this side of the Atlantic seems to be very convinced by all her awkwardly presented but very carefully crafted statements about the U.S. being against torture. Of course she's awkward! Because while she blathers on, Dick Cheney is lobbying Congress to exempt the CIA from the ban on torture that John McCain is sponsoring in the Senate.

Exactly how stupid does the White House think we are?

As usual, I can't possibly express the depth of my disgust.

The Swedish word for the day is bekymmer. It means worry.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Living in this land of extremes brings out the biology in me. Meaning that when the sun goes down at 14:51, I want to go down with it, just curl up in my nice cozy bed and sleep until it rises again at 8:30.

Winter must've been hell here before electric lights. I guess everyone spent most of their time sleeping.

The Swedish phrase for the day is sparka honom på smalbenen! It means kick him in the shins!

- by Francis S.