Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I walked 13,327 steps yesterday, according to my step calculator - I don't even remember what these things are called properly in English, so I just translated it directly from the Swedish: stegräknare. Some of those steps, oh, maybe 750 of them or so, were running from the Grand Hotel (where I had a tasty minimalist dinner of nettle croquettes that cost a small fortune) to the Opera, where we arrived a few seconds before they dimmed the lights.

Taking my seat at the Royal Swedish Opera, which is all gilding, marble, murals and red velvet, always makes me catch my breath, which is exactly what the room was designed to do. It's a kind of cocktail, whetting the appetite for the evening to come.

The entertainment certainly lived up to the venue. Peter Mattei, singing the part of Guglielmo in Mozart's absurd and misogynistic Così Fan Tutte, which I love because it's basically just heartrending ensemble singing, was all that I'd hoped: sublime singing, naturalistic acting, without a doubt the best acting I've ever seen in an opera singer - he was funny and earnest and all gangly arms and legs, in his ridiculous hippie garb and long hair that he repeatedly tossed back in perfect hippie fashion, sitting cross-legged and lighting a joint. He was singing superbly and acting like an actual living, breathing human being.

Beside me, the husband could barely make it through the whole thing: He is just not queer for opera.

After they'd finished the final sextet (complete with huge title cards, a trick stolen from Bergman's movie of The Magic Flute), and the audience had clapped along, which the singers loved, especially the little Ukrainian soprano who played Fiordiligi, and then the audience had given them a standing ovation, which is meaningless these days since every ovation is a standing ovation - whatever happened to audiences who boo and start riots? - after we made our way down the stairs and out into the fresh air of the evening, we walked the approximately 3,688 steps back home up Drottninggatan, breathing in the scent of the lilacs, which have taken over the city for a week or so.

You already got your Swedish word for the day in the first sentence, in case you've forgotten.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

It's Satin Pajama Award time again, courtesy of David Weman & Co. at Fistful of Euros. I think I'm nominated in three categories, including lifetime achievement(!). Yikes. I guess six years of blogging is definitely a lifetime in blog years.

The Swedish word for the day is pyjamas, spelled exactly as the British spell it, pronounced more like pu-YAW-mus, however, with the u being like the German ü, a sound we don't use in English.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nomina si pereunt, perit et cognitio rerum.

So said Carolus Linnaeus, a.k.a. Carl von Linné, undoubtedly Sweden's greatest contributor to the Age of Enlightenment with his remarkable scientific classification of nature still in use. Today's birthday boy, Linnaeus celebrates the ripe old age of 300. He apparently had quite the sense of humor, and found sex in everything: one of his classes of flowers are called, ahem, clitoria.

(Oh, and the Latin above means "Without names, our knowledge of things would perish." Interesting thought, that.)

The Swedish word for the day is djurriket. It means animal kingdom.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

I am anti-meme. But, I am even more susceptible to guilt than I am anti-meme. So when I get knocked on the head with a meme, I react. In this case, Joel has asked me to name five thinking people with blogs. I guess it is a chance to direct people to a few of the links from my unwieldy list at the left.

1. Mig. I laughed, I cried, I gasped in wonder. When I grow up, I wanna write like Mig.

2. Lisa. Okay, so Lisa mostly thinks about how twisted life is for a straight woman in New York who needs to get a new job, can't dance to save her life (but loves it nonetheless) and has a most complicated relationship with her mother.And she's moving kind of slowly just now. But we almost met when she was in Sweden last year, but the great Norse god Odin was working against us. The next time I go to New York, I'm gonna meet Lisa.

3. Eric. Okay, so Eric mostly thinks about how twisted life is for a gay man in New York who goes to a self-esteem-destroying gym (as if he weren't a nice hunk of man himself), who hates when people use foreign names instead of the perfectly good English ones for places (such as "Firenze" instead of "Florence"), who perseverates on the theme of famous beautiful people who are his age, and who obfuscates everything with layers of irony of an astonishing multitude of weights and thicknesses. But he thinks about these things a lot! I am addicted to Eric.

4. Mr. H. O, the most wondrous of art. Where does Mr. H., proprieter of Giornale Nuovo, find it all? I'd love to have access to Mr. H's library.

5. Lynne. Dissecting the English language, from both sides of the Atlantic. Amazingly, in real life there is a mere two-degrees of separation between us, since she is the friend of an acquaintance of mine, whose mother was a Branch Davidian in Waco, Texas. Addenda: I neglected to mention that the acquaintance is one of the best friends of an old boyfriend, the erudite Jessi Guilford. There, have I done right by you, Jessi?

And you know, you should really check out my friend Billy, and Loxias and Karie (the first blog I linked to that still exists...) as long as you're at it.

The Swedish word of the day is tänkande. It means, of course, thinking.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A cruise, apparently, is a convenient place to off yourself or your spouse: just push yourself or your wife overboard and no one will notice, said the sea captain last night at dinner.

I was astonished. Does this really happen?

"Oh, yes," said the sea captain. "It's easy, there's plenty of time when there's no one else on deck. It doesn't happen that often but it does happen. Think of the boat as a small town, people die in small towns, right?"

Well, yes. But I'm not sure how often people get murdered in small towns.

"It happens," the sea captain said. "But interestingly, on the ferries that go between Stockholm and Helsinki they almost always catch the suicides, like nine out of 10 times. It's because there are so many people around the whole time on such a short cruise. They just immediately drop down the rescue boats. Then when the boat comes into port in Helsinki, the person who was fished out is met by the police and a bill for the rescue services."

Not only have you failed at killing yourself, but you have to pay a whopping bill for having failed.

O, the ignominy.

The Swedish word for the day is självmord. It means suicide.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Monday, on the way to Västerås for a meeting, I sat in the train with a co-worker. We inevitably got around to the subject of the Eurovision Song Contest.

"So what do you think?" she asked me. "As an American."

She had watched the show with friends, including someone's American boyfriend who had recently moved to Sweden.

"He was rolling on the floor laughing" she told me.

Yes, I said. The Eurovision Song Contest is beyond the comprehension of an American. It defies description. And even when I think I have it figured out, I am suddenly mystified all over again. For instance, while we were watching it this year, I was assured by I. the former backup singer for David Byrne that the bizarre act from Ukraine- drag queen Verka Serdyushka with a big glitter star on her head singing in German and then what sounded like "I want to see Russia goodbye" - would probably win. And sure enough, it came damn close.

No one could adequately explain to me why this would be so popular, why millions of Europeans would think "I think this is a winner!"

And I wasn't rolling on the floor laughing. I was cowering under a blanket, painfully embarrassed for a wide range of singers from every corner of Europe.

But then to make up for the ridiculous vocal experience of Saturday, on Sunday I sang Vivaldi's Gloria at Kungsholm's Church, complete with strings and oboes and a little boy soprano singing the "Domine Deus" so that I nearly wept. And these were not tears of horror or embarrassment. The singing was sublime. It is embarrassing, though, that in my dotage the strangest things can make me nearly weep. I am such a sentimental idiot.

But I have to ask myself: which makes me stupider - those cringing tears of horror of my fragile American sensibility or the foolish sentimental tears of an old fart?

The Swedish word for the day is tävling. It means contest.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

After 11 hours on a plane from Stockholm to Kuala Lumpur, a couple of hours in the airport there and then two and a half hours on another plane to Hanoi, we arrived in Vietnam, a bit tired, a bit tense from anticipation and the uncertainty of how to navigate a new culture. But then C. the fashion photographer got held up at passport control: It turns out that while Swedes don't need a visa if they stay less than 15 days, Italians are a whole different ball of wax.

So they deported him back to Kuala Lumpur. And we all decided we may as well go with him. So we raced through the airport, upstairs to the departures hall, getting our boarding passes and luggage rechecked, running back through the outgoing passport control and onto the same plane that we had come in on, all faces turned to us, everyone a bit suspicious.

Two days later, after haggling with airlines and the Vietnamese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, we got on another plane and finally all made it through passport control, making our way out into the charming and noisy city that is Hanoi, its streets lined with trees and tall skinny houses that seemed to be one single narrow room stacked on top of another, and another, and another.

It took about five tries to learn the art of crossing the street, since the thousands upon thousands of honking scooters (bearing everything from whole families to double beds to four live grown pigs tightly bound in a little cage) stop for nothing, not even traffic lights. You simply have to take a breath and then a step out and slowly but surely and without stopping, walk across the street, scooters flowing all around you. It's like stepping into a river, only far scarier. But eventually you get the hang of it.

In the old town, it seems, there is a street for everything: shoes, spices, mirrors, paint and brushes, live fish (ugly spiny black sea cucumbers, a monstrous slimy mollusc in its shell, sea horses and most disturbing, a cage of little grey lizards) even tin boxes which are fashioned right on the sidewalk, hammered and bent and soldered into shape, a street with a racket to rival Vulcan.

Then there is the French quarter, much more orderly, with Louis Vuitton and expensive restaurants (well, expensive for Vietnam).

All in all, It seemed the Vietnamese were quite keen on selling things. Rather odd for a place called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

About the only thing to remind one that this is actually the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are the speakers on trees, light poles, the sides of buildings, through which morning announcements are made - from my hotel, I listened as the whole city was announced to and I watched as an old woman on a terrace high up in a building several blocks away did her morning exercises. There is something vaguely Orwellian about public announcements, Orwellian and also something grade schoolish, reminding me of how the principal would make the morning announcements, and we would all pledge allegiance to the flag (have you ever tried to explain the whole pledge-allegiance-to-the-flag thing to a non-American? It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth somehow and sounds, well, kind of Orwellian. Do schoolchildren still pledge allegiance to the flag? I certainly hope not.)

There's more to this tale: three days in a junk, a week in a fancy-schmancy hotel, and a total of eight plane rides. But I'll get around to that later.

The Swedish word for the day is visum. It means visa.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

You can't imagine the cacaphony of the street where they make tin boxes in the old town of Hanoi, or the incessant honking of scooter horns, or the insistence of all the people selling things everywhere.

Despite C., the fashion photographer being deported back to Malaysia when we arrived in Vietnam, we eventually made it here to learn exactly how noisy Hanoi is, but mostly in the craziest and best of ways.

The Swedish word for the day is Asien. It means Asia.

by Francis S.