Friday, December 19, 2008

We agreed to meet at Moderna Museet, Emi and I. She brought her youngest, and then she tricked me, the minx. I was supposed to treat her for lunch, but she snuck ahead in line and paid before I could stop her.

“I’m a Swedish woman, I can’t let you pay,” she explained.

Once we’d actually settled down, and the baby was chewing on bread and I had gotten my salad, we got down to business. Which was just really jabbering away. It’s been way too long, I told her. She agreed.

It used to be so odd, to meet people in the flesh after reading what they write. But now it’s par for the course. Although few quite live up to their writing the way Emi does - she's just as sexy, funny and charming as you would imagine. But what else can you expect from a blogging celebrity? She’s the bee’s knees, Emi is.

The Swedish phrase for the day is Brev till Marc Jacobs. It means Letters to Marc Jacobs.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The goal was preserved lemons – the Moroccan kind, salty and sour and full of flavor – and the only place I know to get them is at the lamb stall at Hötorgshallen market. The young adult author is visiting from London, so tomorrow it will be turkey breast with capers and sultanas and pine nuts and preserved lemons.

When I reached Hötorget – the Haymarket – the Stockholm Concert Hall, which sits on one side of the square, was jammed with cars and men in tails and women in evening gowns and Japanese paparazzi, all higgledy piggledy in the rain.

Ah, the Nobel Prizes. How could I forget? The time of the year when physicists and chemists and economists are treated like rockstars. I didn’t even mind them getting in the way as I ran to catch the market before it closed.

But when I got down to the stall, they had no preserved lemons, dammit. Will it taste the same with regular lemons?

The Swedish word for the day is besvärlig. It means annoying.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

When the sun struggles to stay above the horizon, and it’s dark when you rise, and dark when you walk to work, and it never really gets much lighter than dusk, it takes all my energy to not spend all my non-working hours at home, curled up with a book and a fire burning in the fireplace. But I force myself to take a walk each lunchtime: through the downtown park Kungsträdgården, then up Skeppsholmen past Grand Hotel and the National Museum on one side, the ferries out to the archipelago on the other. At noon, a light shines in every window, and the hotel is garlanded in green, and strings of lights hang on the ferries.

As I rounded the boat slips at the back of Moderna Museet, and made my way up toward the tiny island of Kastellholmen, I looked across the water at Gröna Lund, Stockholm’s venerable little amusement park. Long closed for the winter, I was surprised to see a single car on the roller coaster, whizzing around, and then stopping as if to tie its shoe. It looked so lonely up there, under all those banks of clouds pressing down on the city.

I continued on my way, and then when I was on the hill of Kastellholmen, looking again at the roller coaster, I saw the car had been joined by a second one. They looked as if they were playing together. Somehow, it was suddenly comforting instead of dismaying, watching the empty cars in the empty park, in the grey of deep midwinter.

And then I went on my way.

The Swedish word for the day is tröst. It means solace.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

So, the good thing about Facebook is getting in touch with people you haven't been in touch with in years.

And the bad thing about Facebook, of course, is getting in touch with people you haven't been in touch with in years. As in people from junior high school.

I've been in a foul mood all weekend, and I just realized it's because I somehow ended up on Facebook discussing junior high - well, middle school to be perfectly accurate - with one of my former classmates. I guess I'd totally blocked out how loathsome fifth, sixth and seventh grade were for me, a skinny and short and painfully unathletic, slightly effeminate gay boy, not quite but almost at the bottom of the Elm Place Middle School food chain.

I remember in the seventh grade I got a headache every single day during seventh period. My mother even brought me to the doctor, who said it was nothing. I think it was actually fifth period band practice, where "Dr." Schoonover used to pitch a fit nearly every day, throwing his baton at us and making us play whatever part we'd just messed up, one by one, and anyone who made a mistake would have to stay after school and practice.

And low as I was, I still remember making fun of the poor girl who was stuck at the very bottom of the elaborate Elm Place hierarchy - not really to her face but by flirting with some other little girl, tagging each other with the "germs" from the girl stuck at the bottom. We were merciless, in that thoughtless way children can be. Until one day during social studies, in the sixth grade, she was sent to the office and the principal came in and gave us all a lecture about treating her so badly. Which shamed me. I stopped it with the stupid germ play.

It was such a revelation to get to high school, where you could actually choose your friends based on whether you liked them or not, and not based on any number of other bizarre criteria, such as whether their desk was near yours, or that they lived near you. And the high school was so big, with 2,500 students, that there was no social hierarchy, just different groups, and people were no longer teased or excluded.

I suppose I learned something from middle school about compassion, but I can't imagine that it was worth it. You couldn't make me go through it again, not for anything.

The Swedish word for the day is tortyr. It means, of course, torture.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

What a week. First Barack Obama wins the election, to everyone's great relief. "Congratulations," I was told by various coworkers and acquaintances. As if it were my doing. And yes, I did do my small part, although I'm registered in DC and DC always votes democratic, so I'm not sure how exactly my little vote made a difference. Still, I could do nothing but beam about it.

But then there came the sting.

All those nasty hateful anti-gay ballot measures that passed. What is it about gay marriage that scares a majority of the straight population into adding amendments to state constitutions? Is there any way to stop this from happening or do we just have to wait until the WWII generation kicks the bucket? While I'm not surprised really, it is nonetheless dismaying.

(Which is not to say that Sweden doesn't have its own problems with gay marriage: the current center-right coalition government has been trying to convince the hold-out party - the Christian Democrats of course - to sign on to a coalition-sponsored resolution to make marriage gender neutral. But they've finally given up and will instead let it go out as a general resolution for members to vote on. I'm not 100 percent sure I understand exactly the difference between these things - in Swedish one is proposition and one is a motion and I don't remember which is which. Anyway, it is certain to pass since of the seven parties in Parliament, the only party against it are the Christian Democrats, which also happened to be the smallest party and make up a tiny minority. It's expected to be up and running by May 2009. How's that for a bit of Swedish political arcana for you?)

Still, I keep the faith. My remarkable parents are fighting the good fight, doing far more than I have ever done to further the cause of equality for the whole GBLTQ sandwich segment of the population. And my dear friend L. is making his way on a book tour, plugging his history for teenagers - Gay America: The Struggle For Equality - which should be in every damn city and school library in the country. L. was in fact signing the book at Barbara's, which curiously enough just happens to be my parents' local bookstore in Oak Park. And my mom, as always, doing her part, buying copies for the library and the public schools, and for the PFLAG group that she founded, and for herself of course.

I salute you, L. And you, too, mom.

There, I'm done proselytizing.

The Swedish phrase of the day is andas ut. It literally means breathe out, but I think a better colloquial translation would be breathe a sigh of relief.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I may as well admit it. I have become my sixth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Wills.

I realize I've become Mrs. Wills because I keep finding the word "crater" used as a verb in the New York Times, and all I can do is cluck my tongue. Not out loud, I mentally cluck my tongue. But very vigorously and at length.

Crater the noun and cratered the adjective I am familiar with, but since when did crater become a verb meaning "collapsing"? I blame John McCain, who David Letterman reported - over and over - that McCain had cancelled his appearance on the show because "the economy is cratering."

So why is everyone at the New York Times suddenly obsessed with cratering? Here and here, for instance.

Isn't it amazing that with everything happening in the world, I find myself complaining about some stupid little grammar point, as if it weren't actually me witnessing the birth of a new verb.

Please save me from my curmudgeonly self.

The Swedish word for the day is krater. It is the noun crater in Swedish. As far as I can tell, there is no verb form.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

So the big news this week in Sweden - other than deep economic woe - are the Nobel prize awards. This year, after the Secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl made some snide remarks about Americans being too focused on American culture to be great writers, it came as no surprise that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio won the prize - well, no great surprise to the many who bet that he would win at Ladbrokes.

"I have a strong suspicion there has been a leak in the system this time," said Horace.


And I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Le Clézio until several days before the award was given out, when his name was bandied about in the Swedish papers, no doubt by book critics who were beneficiaries of the leak that Horace was talking about.

What I found most interesting was that Horace revealed to Sweden's No. 1 daily Dagens Nyheter that the Swedish Academy has in recent years used sort of "half-code" names for nominees: Chateaubriand for Le Clézio, Little Dorrit for Doris Lessing and Harry Potter for Harold Pinter.

Harry Potter?!?

Am I the only one that thinks that some of these names show a certain lack of imagination on the part of the committee? Surely, Horace, you could have come up with something better? Is such a group of lame namegivers really capable of choosing who should get such a fat prize so full of prestige?

I guess smart gamblers will be skulking about in Den Gyldene Freden - the restaurant where the Swedish Academy officially hangs out - in the future and listening in on conversations to see if anyone drops odd names in peculiar fashion.

Although to be fair, it isn't as easy at it seems to come up with clever code names. What would you use?

The Swedish word of the day, which is actually tangentially related to the topic if you look at it sideways while squinting your eyes, is illusionsmåleri, at the request of O., the daugher of C. the fashion photographer. Interestingly, English doesn't have a word for this, we borrow from the French: trompe l'oeil, we say.

- by Francis S.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Lying in bed, in the white, white room at the Hotel Opera in Valencia, the husband napping fitfully beside me, the shades low and the sun burning behind them, it was everything I never did when I lived in Spain ten years ago. For one thing, one night in this hotel cost as much as one-month's rent for my little room in Edu's apartment ten years ago. All my great insecurity, living in Spain ten years ago, gone and I felt as if I'd arrived. But it felt melancholy all the same. Spain has such a strange effect on me.

We were there to watch the popstar do her thing before an audience of 65,000 - she'd given us the tickets, since she was opening for Our Lady of the Perpetual Rebranding, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity, flying down and arriving a couple of hours before the concert. Wrestling our way backstage through the clueless security, we gossiped and watched the popstar have her makeup applied in her little trailer. Not meeting our Lady of the Perpetual Rebranding, who hasn't even bothered to say hello to the popstar, not even after ten concerts.

She put on quite a show.

The popstar, I mean.

As for Our Lady, I was rather disappointed. It was like Las Vegas for awhile, all glitter and kicking and posturing like 13-year-olds, but then Our Lady sang off key. I can't abide people singing off key. And someone should tell her that she needs to cut that shit with trying to play the guitar. She looked as if it was all she could to keep her head above water because the guitar was dragging her down, down, down. We left before she was finished. To avoid the traffic.

Back at the hotel, a couple of boys recognized the popstar, gushing and almost squealing outside the elevators. We paused to take a picture for them, boy then popstar then boy, before going up to our room.

We woke the next morning far too early and after wandering around the city - the husband lived there once when he was hardly more than a boy himself - seeing the old city gate and the cathedral and the mad monstrous and beautiful buildings of Calatrava, we went back to the hotel to rest. But with the husband napping fitfully next to me in that white, white hotel room, all I could think was how different it was ten years ago, and how very good that things have changed.

The Swedish word for the day is upplevelse. It means experience.

- by Francis S.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mrs. W. came to visit, arriving the day after we got back from New York. We'd just spent three days with her and Mr. W. in Boston, so it was a luxury to have her stay. And then she prolonged her visit, so she was with us nearly a month. The perfect guest, Mrs. W. is. And what makes the perfect guest?

First, the perfect guest gives massages to both hosts - and the perfect guest is a trained masseuse, so they aren't just any old massages, they are deep and long, and if you request feet only, you get feet only.

Second, the perfect guest can take care of herself. She makes herself at home, but she cleans up after herself and even cleans out the plastic bags under the sink.

The perfect guest leaves little friendly notes about her whereabouts, half for information and half just as a gesture of affection.

The perfect guest gives you a goodnight kiss on the cheek and a hug.

The perfect guest is impressed with your cooking and religiously writes down recipes on her laptop while you cook, in between helping you out by chopping vegetables if you let her, because to be honest, you aren't much of a team player and it isn't just anyone you let in your kitchen while you cook.

The perfect guest loves to knit on the sofa while you play the piano and then patiently listens to you explain how the Goldberg Variations work and why they're brilliant and finds them as amazing as you do.

The perfect guest cries at your favorite sentimental movies as you watch together, eating chocolates and little sour candies.

The perfect guest finds your friends fascinating and not only listens well, put comments thoughtfully and laughs at all the right places.

Sadly, eventually the perfect guest will have to go back to Boston, to her husband, who no doubt has missed her dreadfully.

The Swedish phrase for the day is vi ses igen snart. It means we'll see each other again soon.

- by Francis S.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The restaurant was full even though it was a Monday night. Or almost full. It being Chelsea, there was a Eurotrash section in the back, but the rest of the place was boys, boys, boys. And I guess the old confusion about the difference between Eurotrash and gayboys is true, because somehow they put us in the wrong section.

Are we that obvious?

Next to us, a British couple were mooning over their food, and on the other side a table of three kids of indeterminate orientation sat on the banquette side of the table, all facing the same way.

"They're high," the husband said to me in Swedish, smirking a bit and sucking on his mojito.

Swedish is handy that way, although you can get burned. You never know when that table next to you is actually undercover Swedish. Swedes are everywhere.

So we sat in the Eurotrash section, watched the boys in the rest of the place whooping it up, gossiping and laughing and having a gay old time.

It was in the middle of the main course - chicken in Pipian sauce for me, lamb for the husband - that the husband saw, out of the corner of his eye, a mouse run down the corner of the banquette on the other side of the Brits. The female member of the couple caught my husband's eye, astonished.

"It was a mouse," the husband said.

"Are you sure it wasn't a cockroach?" the woman asked.

"I thought it was a spider," her companion said.

"It was definitely a mouse," the husband said.

When they came to ask us how everything was - the service, as always, is astonishingly good compared to Stockholm service, which is blunt and perfunctory at best - we told the waitress we'd seen a mouse, but discreetly. Within 30 seconds, the hostess was sitting between our two tables, apologizing at length. She went back to her post, we went back to our meal and the mouse reappeared, this time at our end of the banquette. And this time I saw it. It was definitely a mouse.

The hostess came back, with a letter for each couple giving us 40 dollars off the meal or a later one if we wished.

The kids at the banquette, who had not seen the mouse, squirmed. "What is that, Is it because of us?" the cute boy with his arm in a cast asked. "Are we being too loud and obnoxious?"

"No," the husband said. "Are you high?"

They broke out laughing. "How could you tell?" the boy asked, sotto voce and almost flirting.

The husband just gave the boy a look.

The Brits next to us, non-plussed by the mouse, told us to order the Valrhona chocolate cake. "It's delicious," the woman said. "You know he proposed to me three years ago at this very table, this very day."

We congratulated them, and the kids at the banquette congratulated them, and then I suddenly realized that it had been nine years ago to the day that the husband had proposed to me, which I shared with everyone.

Our engagement anniversary and we hadn't even known it.

"Congratulations," the kids sang out again. "Congratulations."

Yes, yes. Congratulations to us.

As we walked out the door, drunk on wine and bloated with food, we stopped by the hostess and told her all was well.

Pshaw, I said. It's not like it was a rat...

The Swedish word for the day is förlovningsdag. It means engagement anniversary (well, and engagement day, too).

- by Francis S.

Monday, August 04, 2008

I can hardly believe it, but I started this blog seven years ago today. That's a very short time in people years, but in blog years it's an eternity - an awful lot of the people who were around when I started have long since disappeared or moved on to other stuff, including paying blogging gigs.

I was so good at keeping it up for so long, but I know I've been slacking off more and more over the years. I keep promising myself that I will do better, but then I never really do. I'm lucky to get in two posts a month.

But never fear. I'm not about to give up without a fight.

So, happy birthday little blog. May you live long.

The Swedish word for the day is sju år gammal. It means seven years old.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The first glimpse of Svalbard was a couple of mountaintops poking through the dense cloud cover. Snow-capped and not very sharp, they looked like little islands in a sea of foam. Then we cut through the clouds and there it was: the bay off of Isfjord, the little hardscrabble town of Longyearbyen, and finally the airport.

It looks like Wyoming on the ocean. Uh, but with glaciers and no trees.

The first day, we took an open boat up the fjord, packed into our survival suits and looking through our goggles, the sea not terribly rough, the sky grey and low and looming, the cliffs beside us jagged and with a colony of murres diving and fishing all around. Abandoned mines and villages line the fjord, melancholy, beautiful in their ugliness. Then at last we came out from under the clouds, and the sea was suddenly deep blue, the sun intense, and we could at last see the tops of the mountains. The guide took us all the way out to the end of the fjord, to the old radio station, which has been converted into a lonely hotel, at the tip of nowhere.

"The problem is that during the spring and summer, the only way to get there is by boat," the guide, Klas, told us. "One time, I had to take people back to the airport in the middle of the night and the sea was so choppy, they threw up the whole way and had to get right on the plane soaking wet and exhausted."

(For some reason, there's only one flight a day in the afternoon, and the rest of the flights are at 3 and 4 and 4:30 a.m., depending on the day of the week.)

The next day - although it all seemed like one long day of course, with the sun rolling around the sky instead of rising and setting - we climbed up a high ridge overlooking the town. The clouds rolled in and rolled out, all ghostly and magical, and we drank water racing down from somewhere far above us. When we reached the top, with Longyearbyen spread out below us, and beyond that the bay and more mountains, I could barely look down.

"The reason we have to have guns," said our hiking guide, Marthe, with her rifle casually slung over her shoulder, "is because in 1996, two girls were climbing up over there- " she gestured to a high ridge on the other side of the town, "and they ran into a polar bear. One of the girls jumped over the side."

We - the husband and I, and the sea captain and the children's book author - gave a collective gasp.

"But she was the one who survived," Marthe said. "Just a few scratches. And now we always have to have guns outside the town."

"So the lesson is that if you run into a polar bear, jump over the cliff," the children's book author said.

Unfortunately, I would be the girl who got eaten by the polar bear. Jumping over a cliff is not something I could do.

We walked down the other side of the ridge, onto a glacier, avoiding the really wet spots, hopping over streams of icy water, picking our way through occasional piles of rocks and looking for fossils of leaf marks, and eventually making our way back to the car and the town of Longyearbyen.

The Swedish word for the day is ishavet. It means the arctic ocean.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The husband has been gone for over a week, and I'm getting punchy. I've distracted myself by going out to the country house of the children's book author and the sea captain, dinner with A. the TV producer and C. the fashion photographer, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, bad TV, work, Wikipedia (have you ever heard of silent film star Sessue Hayakawa, who was a kind of pre-Rudolf Valentino, making $5,000 a week playing heartthrobs? It seems early Hollywood was both more and less conventional in its tastes and portrayals than I ever imagined) and Youtube (how come no one ever told me before about Helen Kane?).

But enough is enough.

The husband comes back late tonight, and none too soon.

The Swedish word for the day is älskling. It means sweetie.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

When we arrived at the bus stop with the cat doctor and his boyfriend in tow, a group of fellow party-goers were already there. We were on our way out to the countryside for a Fifth of July party given by the children’s book writer and the sea captain, and everyone was thankful that the bus strike had ended that morning, just in time.

But then the bus never arrived. So we ordered three cabs to take us to land’s end, over three bridges and as far out in the Stockholm archipelago as one can drive, with Stockholm’s public transportation system footing the bill (how great is that?).

Things were well underway once we arrived, the hosts pressing drinks in our hands, the guests a wild mix of folk from lands near and far, the food vaguely or not-so-vaguely American, hamburgers and hotdogs and chocolate cupcakes with coconut frosting, everyone wiping their mouths with the American flag napkins.

Sometime late in the evening, hundreds of beers later, as I sat talking to a woman who is an agent for a bunch of small clothing labels in Stockholm, another woman who is one of the designers of the clothing labels came in and sat down next to us.

“My boyfriend just peed on 49 trees,” she said. “In one pee. He won.”

The clothing agent looked at me and gulped. We looked at the boyfriend in his long grey sweater and bangs hanging in his eyes.

“Ew! Didn’t you get pee all over your shoes?” she asked the boyfriend.

“Only half over them!” he said, laughing. “No, no, just joking.” Then he looked down at his shoes. “Well, half joking.”

In the morning, it turned out that something like 23 people slept over, including three roommates – two men and one woman – who had slept, wearing matching flannel pajamas, under a canopy set up outside.

We took the ferry back into town, everyone silent and worn out, the cat doctor and his boyfriend jet-lagged still and the husband terribly hung over from an excess of single-malt scotch.

Did you like it, I asked the cat doctor.

“Fun was had by all,” he said.

The Swedish phrase for the day is femte juli. It means Fifth of July.

by Francis S.

Friday, June 13, 2008

It was a Sunday, but the theater was sold out. We were on the list though, so we hadn't had to worry about getting in.

And there we were, standing with a couple thousand screaming, singing, sweating fans, singing and sweating and even screaming a bit ourselves. The pop star was radiant, raw, possessed - by the music, by us, by the power she had over everyone in the room. Next to us, teenaged girls screamed and laughed at each other for screaming, and sang along with nearly every song; in front of us, boys with perfect bodies hugged each other, swayed with the music, their arms waving above their heads, and sang along with nearly every song. All of us dripping with sweat and a bit out of our minds. It was so very Bacchanalian, abandoning ourselves ecstatically to the moment en masse (and some were surely enhancing their ecstasy with, um, ecstasy, no doubt) like Maenads, although maybe not quite as bloodthirsty.

After the singing was done and we had invaded the filthy and dingy green room, we dragged her down with us to the stage door where she signed papers and posed for her fans while we waited, and then we all went to a restaurant in Soho that serves dinner and fancy-schmancy cocktails (in former days they would have been bedecked with paper umbrellas, but no one does that anymore) after midnight.

I drank my first cocktail in a few gulps, still floating on it all (which is quite something for a guy whose most-played song on his ipod is an obscure aria from Handel's Semele).

"You were just so amazing up there," I told the pop star. "I'm so proud to know you." And I gave her a kiss on the forehead.

She beamed back at me. "Thank you," she said. Really, what else could she say? And she gave me a squeeze.

Then we ate our late dinner - there were twelve of us in the end - and drank our cocktails and took stupid photos of each other and laughed loudly and long - the pop star laughing loudest and longest - until it was finally time to jump in cabs and go home to bed.

London is so much fun.

The Swedish word for the day is överlycklig. It means overjoyed.

- by Francis S.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The thing about this time of year, when it never quite gets fully dark, is that the light is like a drug running through your veins. I feel all hopped up on light, buzzing with it and unable to quite settle down fully at night as I go through the apartment turning out lights at midnight and see that the sky in the north isn't black, but blue and the apartment is in fact glowing with it once the electric lights are out.

It almost seems a pity to be taking the long weekend - today is Sweden's National Holiday, which became a bank holiday only recently - to fly to London, where it will undoubtedly be grey and raining.


The purpose is to go see our friend the pop star, who has become the biggest little thing out of Sweden, do her thing at a club in Soho. All with a big group of most of our best friends, Swedes and Brits alike.

What more could you ask for?

The Swedish word for the day is blå himmel. It means blue sky.

- by Francis S.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is the inside of the elbow a minor thing of beauty, in some cultures at least? Or am I getting fact confused with silly lyrics from Gilbert and Sullivan?

Whether or not it’s erogenous or beautiful, the crook of the arm apparently has its own culture. By culture, I mean bacteria. According to the New York Times, researchers have discovered that the skin on the inside of the human elbow contains six very distinctive bacterial cultures. Which somehow brings up the idea of the other definition of culture, and conjures images of the body as a world of its own. Think of all the rich and complex cultures living their rich and complex lives on top of us. And all the dirtiest places are undoubtedly the richest and most complex. Like the, uh, mouth for instance.

But the metaphor sort of breaks down if we imagine that each of us, world that we are, walks around with similar cultures in similar places. As if duplicate earths existed, billions of them, all with their own versions of Sweden and Botswana and Belize and Vanuatu, the same but different.

On the other hand, the article talks about the National Human Genome Research institute has realized that studying just the genomes that we contain is missing out on all those genomes of microbes that we depend on but aren’t technically a part of our bodies. Which conjures something completely different: maybe we are actually a little bit like our own first impressions of ourselves after we’ve made our way out of our mothers’ wombs, when we can’t differentiate between what is us and what is the rest of the world.

And now I’m sounding like a college student in the aftermath of a particularly fat and juicy spliff.

The Swedish phrase for the day is utan gränser. It means without boundaries or without borders.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

As we passed under the Aqueduct of Valens, the guide explained that it was Atatürk who had changed the name of the city from Constantinople to Istanbul when he formed the republic. "Istanbul means 'I go to the city' and it is what many people called the city already," the guide said.

Well, I went to the city all right, with all its mosques and the magnificent Hagia Sofia, and the ancient Grand Bazaar which is still impressive, the spice market, the eerie Basilica Cistern, the Topkapi Palace with its tranquil gardens of Gülhane, and the other elegant buildings lining the Bosporus. This is one of the many great things about working for a Swedish company in Sweden: company trips to take the baths at Budapest, or ski the slopes in the Swiss Alps, or wander around one of the fabled cities of the world, Istanbul, which was Constantinople, and before that, Byzantium.

I even managed an evening with an old friend who lives there, who showed me around Beyoglu and Tunel where you must walk in between cafe tables to make your way through the narrow winding streets. And on to Tarlabasi, where he lives, amid prostitutes and thieves, a district that apparently horrifies all Turks he meets.

"The wierdest are what I first thought to be ugly little old village ladies working as prostitutes. Then I realized they were actually men dressed as little old village ladies," he said. "There's something for everyone." And then he chortled.

Now I just need to convince the husband that we must visit in the autumn.

The Swedish word for the day is förtjust. It means smitten.

- by Francis S.

Monday, April 28, 2008

It was inevitable.

I had to look up the word awning.

Not because I have forgotten what it means, but because I suddenly thought that it also maybe meant idea or notion, as in the phrase "I have no idea" or "I haven't the faintest notion."

The reason is simple: The Swedish translation of those phrases would be ingen aning, which to my American mouth comes out sounding very much like the word awning. Well, the last part comes out sounding like awning.

And now I'm certain that I've been using the nonsensical English phrase I have no awning from time to time.

O, the shame.

It makes me worry that I'm losing my English while not really getting any better with the Swedish. Sure, after nine years I'm fluent and even comfortable with the Swedish language, but I still make mistakes, mistakes that I myself can hear almost every time I open my mouth.

I guess my brain has just reached its language capacity, it can't hold anymore. I can't insert anything more without taking something else away.

Dammit. It's such a little brain, all things considered.

Now, just because I'm feeling generous today, and intent on proving that my brain is still functioning full force, I'm giving you a separate Swedish phrase for the day, above and beyond what I've already given: på köpet. It means in the bargain.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The distance was no more than about 200 meters between the chapel and the chateau. It was called a chateau, but it was more a glorified rambling farmhouse than a castle, with wings and rooms and sets of apartments and offices and the biggest kitchen I've ever seen built onto it over the years, formal parterres in the front, a tennis court hidden behind hedges in the midst of an ancient grove of almonds, and a wine cellar with nearly 500,000 bottles of wine. And it had my three qualifications for a perfect house: back stairs, a dumbwaiter and a secret room accessible through a set of sliding bookcases in the library (a room which turned out to be our bedroom for the stay). The weather was glorious - sunny during the day, but just short of hot, a blue sky clear but for a single cloud, as round and small and endearing as a bumblebee.

The Danish priest, who had been imported from Denmark down to Provence for the occasion, complete with that old-fashioned white ruff that only Danish priests still seem to wear, led the way to the chapel. The baby in his arms, the rest of us followed him down the front walk under the bare plane trees, out through the gate, down the road and up to the chapel, which was tucked away up a road going through the vineyards, in a clump of trees.

Stuffy and dim as a crypt, all 120 of us packed into the single room, with its low vault and crumbling stone walls, candles burning in every available nook and cranny. God only knows how old it was.

I understood barely a word of the service - Danes swallow the ends of words, so it just sounds to me like a slew of vowels with a few consonants tucked in for good measure - and the psalms were even hard to sing, the melody going unexpectedly this and that way. It went on almost too long for me, a feeling of claustrophobia was setting in when at last the service was over, and the baby was christened, and everyone streamed back out into the sunshine, congratulating the parents and his older sister, cooing over him and walking back down the dusty road, through the gate and up the walkway past the gardens, where wine and cheese and pate and all kinds of good French comestibles awaited us, and we celebrated until long past midnight, the baby sleeping fitfully on account of the crowd and not because he at last had gotten his true name: Sirius.

Me, after the onion soup at 1:30 a.m. or so, I slept like a prince in the secret room, the husband next to me, snoring lightly.

The Swedish word for the day is dop. It means baptism.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

And so, the annual changing of the number in my biography at left. Fifty approaches, I can see it on the horizon.

The Swedish word for the day is fyrtiosju. It means forty-seven. Although to be honest, I don't know whether it's correct to insert a hyphen or not in either language, and I'm too lazy to look it up.

- by Francis S.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

It was another dinner, in honor of the visiting mother of the children's book author, and about when the lamb tagine and couscous had almost disappeared from our plates, we got onto the subject of teeth and braces and dentists. We went around and around about who had had braces, who had the best teeth and whether it was smart to have your wisdom teeth removed or not.

"When I was in fourth grade," the sea captain said suddenly, "I stopped brushing my teeth for a year."

We all paused, forks poised mid-air.

"What?" the husband said.

"Well, I decided that dogs never brushed their teeth and it never hurt them, so why should I brush my teeth?" the sea captain answered.

"But how did you keep it from your parents?" the children's book author asked, incredulous.

"It wasn't easy," the sea captain said. "Plus, I liked to eat sugar cubes. When I finally went to the dentist, I had eight cavities. And that was that."

We roared with laughter.

The Swedish word for the day is tandborste. It means toothbrush.

- by Francis S.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain. It hits the mountains and the coast, too. At least it does in Marbella, Spain's answer to the posher parts of Miami Beach. Of course, there was sunshine there as well, and the husband and I each managed to turn our own particular shades of pink.

I hadn't been back to Spain for eight years or so. But it's the same - the arguing, the promenading, the little coffees cut with milk, the cured hams, the tile floors, the tiny bird-like old ladies in sweater sets and knee-length wool skirts and sensible shoes with low heels (who have replaced their mothers, long-dead, who wore heavy black widows' weeds), the strange love of creepy public ceremonies, from the painfully slow Holy Week parading of saints by men disguised in peaked black hats to homo-eroto-quasi-fascisto-pseudo-military displays of other men shouting weird orders at each other as they march 20 meters, back and forth, on a small stretch of street with hundreds watching.

Spain has such a peculiar pulse, fluttering and sluggish at the same time. Odd, that. If Spain were a person, she would be one of those types who rushes around the apartment madly cleaning, only to fall exhausted on the couch before jumping up to clean some more.

It was only four days - we were celebrating the 60th birthday of the mother of A. the TV producer. But it seemed much longer and so far away. Especially when we got back to the coldest weather of the year in Stockholm, and snow.

The Swedish phrase for the day is röda dagar. It literally means red days, which are how holidays are marked on Swedish calendars, and has become the commonly used expression for public holidays. Of which there are two for Easter: Good Friday and the Monday following Easter - and in many cases, an extra half a day before as well, since offices tend to let people out early on days before a holiday.

- by Francis S.

Friday, March 14, 2008

What makes this year's Eurovision Song Contest different from all other years?

This year, the husband and I are going to the dress rehearsal of the finale of the Swedish competition, Melodifestivalen.

I expect it will be as trashy as ever. And it's going to be hell, because I can't bring a blanket into the arena to pull over my head when the singing is just too awful to bear.

Check this space for updates.

The Swedish word for the day is paljetter. It means sequins.

- by Francis S.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Last week I went to the opera on Wednesday - by myself as I'd gotten a last-minute ticket someone had returned to a sold-out performance - and on Thursday to a hockey game - it was Djurgården versus Linköping, and I went with my favorite Finn.

As I watched the game, I racked my brain to figure what opera and hockey have in common. I watched the guys racing around the ice - it's far harder to keep up with than soccer, since everyone moves at twice the speed at least, and the puck is probably 20 times smaller than a soccer ball. I tried to remember the last hockey game I'd gone to, which was nearly 40 years ago. The Chicago Blackhawks. I don't even remember if they won.

"This isn't the most exciting game," the Finn said, despite the score going from 3-0 to 3-4. "I think it's because both teams already know they're going to the playoffs and where they stand."

To be honest, I have little idea what makes for an exciting game. It seemed exciting enough to me, all those 20-year-olds racing around on the ice, slamming each other into the boards, breaking their sticks or having to be escorted off the ice because they've seriously hurt a leg.

But as the minutes ran down, the question remained: What do opera and hockey have in common?

All I could see were the differences. Opera isn't a team sport, it's formal and hifalutin, the coaches are nowhere to be seen, there are no winners or losers - well, maybe when the mezzo can barely maneuver a long set of intricately curving sixteenth notes, the audience loses, although if she can compensate with the cadenza, which is nearly as long as the aria, then maybe she's redeemed herself and the audience didn't lose after all.

Then again, I suppose both opera and hockey require a certain amount of choreography, and they both have their divas. Everyone is wearing a costume that disguises them well, and both sets of players exude charisma and power and grace. And when played well, they give a sense of exhilaration.

I still vote for opera, big old homo that I am. It was a glorious staging of Orphée, highly stylized in the best way, and the painfully separated couple are ancient and grey and tired, which makes the story more about age and experience and regret, and less about youth and passion and loss.

Which is what hockey is about: youth and passion and loss. And winning of course. I guess youth and passion just don't hold my interest as well as age and experience and regret.

The Swedish words for the day is skillnad and likhet. They mean difference and similarity.

- by Francis S.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The ancient Romans didn’t just have a leap day – which incidentally is also known as bissextus, a name that conjures interesting visions of a holiday in which teachers earnestly direct second graders to draw pictures of men and women randomly kissing men and women regardless of sex, bright crayon drawings that will be brought home proudly and put up with magnets on countless refrigerators across the land. Of course the origins of the name are more prosaic.

But I digress. The ancient Romans didn’t just have a leap day, they had a whole leap month – Mercedonius.

Interestingly, Mercedonius was inserted into random years at the end of the year after what the Romans considered the last month of the year, February.

Mercedonius wasn’t supposed to be added randomly, though. The head of state was the one who declared the Mercedonius, which instead of leaving it as a standard part of appropriate years, used it to his advantage to extend days in office for favored politicians. Which was a mess for the Roman population who had no idea when the year would end and the next year actually start. It was great for the head of state, though, several of whom later managed to get other months named after themselves: July for Julius Caesar and August for Augustus.

Does this remind anyone else of a certain American political party with grandiose ideas of power?

Maybe the U.S. will soon have a month called Bushius instead of July.

The Swedish word for the day is skottdagen, which was the Swedish word of the day four years ago. It means, of course, leap day. Or bissextus if that’s your orientation.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The woman who sits in the desk next to mine arrived this morning with a suitcase. She’s off to Tallinn on an overnight cruise that includes all of seven hours in the Estonian capital, which is rumored to be quaint with a well-preserved, if rather small, old quarter surrounded by medieval walls.

I’ve never been to Tallinn, which I am ashamed of, since it’s so close. It used to sound so exotic to me. But how do you define exotic? If you make Scandinavia the center of your map, Krakow, St. Petersburg or Tallinn are hardly exotic destinations, none of which I’ve been to and all of which I feel I should visit, and soon before they change any more than they have already changed since the unravelling of the Iron Curtain.

But exotic or not isn’t even just a matter of geography. Thailand or the Canary Islands don’t fall under the exotic by Swedish standards either, since you can go to either place on the cheap. In fact, places ranging from the Gambia to Reykjavik to Petra no longer seem remote, living in a land where people think one of the basic human rights is the right to travel to far-flung places. Or at least far-flung places with lots of sun.

So what is exotic anymore? Antarctica? The moon?

The Swedish word for the day is omöjligt. It means impossible.

- by Francis S.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Last night, as we ate dinner with A., the TV producer, C., the fashion photographer, the former punk star and the carpenter, I thought about how I had never noticed much, until I moved to Sweden, how people hold a knife and fork.

In America, we all seem to use the same awkward method of cutting with a knife in the right hand, and then switching places, putting the fork in the right hand, scooping up the piece or spearing it so it can be safely transferred into our greedy mouths. Back and forth and back forth we go with the knife and fork, regardless of class or upbringing as far as I've ever noticed.

Of course, I grew up also cutting softer things with the side of the fork, which I think is rather a no-no in polite society, and my mother never said a word about letting the spoon click noisily against my teeth when eating soup either. After all, I am the grandson of Iowa farmers. On both sides of the family, in fact. We eat quickly and efficiently in my family, as if it were in our genes to be worried about getting our fair share if we aren't fast enough.

Of course, when I moved to Sweden I saw that, as in every place outside the U.S., at least as far as I know, people eat with their fork in the left hand and knife in the right. The knife is held rather delicately like a pencil - which I'm not sure is a Scandinavian thing - and if necessary, is used to push and press food onto the back of the fork, if it is food that can't be speared. For the most part, unless eating a course that requires only a fork, the fork will stay in the left hand and the knife in the right, with people quite adept at using their left hand. When the course is finished, the knife and fork are returned, side-by-side, to the five o'clock position on the plate. Something that many are taught to do in the U.S., apparently, but not something I ever learned.

So, like a southerner deliberately dropping their accent upon moving north, or vice versa, I've learned to eat with my fork in my left hand, although I still switch hands mid-meal if the food really doesn't stay on the back of my fork long enough to make it into my poor mouth.

We finished the meal with a positively wicked chocolate bread pudding made with banana bread, which presented little problem for the vaguely utensil-challenged such as myself, since it is best eaten with a spoon. I did, however, make sure not to let the spoon click against my teeth.

The Swedish word for the day is artig. It means polite.

- by Francis S.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The sun is the ruling deity of Sweden. Which isn't strange, this is a light-challenged country after all, big in space, small in population, and starved for daylight in winter. So, when everyone woke up to an ice-blue sky this morning, and the sun loping along sideways but visible, there was general rejoicing. It's as if everyone is walking two inches off the ground, as they promenade around. And everyone is promenading around on a day like today. I guess it's been particularly bad this year on account of we haven't had the ameliorating phenomenon of snow, which makes everything lighter.

So, bring it on, sun, give us all you got. You've got what, 5-6 billion years yet before you become a nasty red giant and burn us all to a crisp?

The Swedish word for the day is solsken. It means sunshine.

- by Francis S.

Monday, February 11, 2008

It's out.

The latest book containing the words of Francis Strand, that is.

It's called Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wide Web, and it's a collection of writing from 27 blogs, chosen by Sarah Boxer, who has, among other things, served as web critic for the New York Times. I'm among illustrious company, including Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, and the wonderful Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker. The only blogs that I've really read before are the illustrious Language Log and Angry Black Bitch, whose writing is just the perfect balance of wit, fury and hilarity.

The book is getting mixed reviews - the London Review of Books was tepidly snarky (is that an oxymoron?), at best, while the L.A. Times gave it quite a nice write-up, by literature blogger Carolyn Kellogg. I haven't gotten my copies yet, so I can't judge for myself.

Sarah Boxer was interviewed on NPR for a piece broadcast on the Morning Edition on Christmas day. And she wrote quite a nice piece on blogging in the New York Review of Books, although there's a thread on her book and article on MeFi, with the usual pissing and moaning about old vs. new journalism and no one understanding what a real blog is. Blah blah blah. Blogs are an interesting phenomenon, no doubt, and they play their good citizen/bad citizen (that's like good cop/bad cop) role in the Republic of Information. But enough already. Who cares, really? They're basically just another something to read, and with luck, get a little knowledge or at least a few minutes of entertainment out of.

Sorry about the metablogging. I hate metablogging, I really do. There's nothing more tedious than to read about blogging in a blog.

So, to change the subject: On another self-congratulatory note, I've managed to shed six kilos since New Year's - and I hope to shed another four before we go to Spain in mid-March, putting me at 72 (that's just under 160 pounds for you Americans.)

The Swedish word for the day is snack. It means chat.

- by Francis S.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A random passerby, looking up into a random window at Odengatan on Wednesday, might have been surprised to see a man playing a piano with a parrot on his shoulder.

That man would've been me.

The parrot would've been one Oliver, whose personal human slaves are the children's book author and his boyfriend the sea captain, who are on holiday in the Canary Islands. (Are there any Parrot Islands anywhere? That would've been a more appropriate place to vacation, I think. Although since they left the parrot behind, perhaps not.)

Things started out so well with Oliver.

But not an hour after the piano playing - he sang happily along to my Mompou Cançó i Dansa V with a sound like air escaping from a balloon - the situation had deteriorated. He was running along the back of the sofa in the TV room, free as a, um, bird, when for no reason I could discern, he jumped at me and bit my fingers.

Two days and three more nasty, bloody bites later (not to mention the chunk he took out of the husband), we have achieved a truce: Oliver stays in the cage, and we give him fresh water and food. We'll see how much things progress before his slaves arrive back to take him home.

The Swedish words for the day are papagoja and kris. They mean parrot and crisis. If you put them together into one word, you get papagojkrisen, which means the parrot crisis.

- by Francis S.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Obvious Lesson No. 1: Do not go to see an, er, experimental theater piece called "Exquisite Pain."

Obvious Lesson No. 2: Especially if the name of the theater company doing the production is called "Forced Entertainment."

Picture this: two people sitting at two different desks next to each other on a small stage. The woman reads from a script, telling a story about having been jilted by a lover. The man reads from a script, telling a story about a man whose youngest and beloved brother has killed himself. The woman tells the same story about being jilted by her lover. The man tells a different story of sorrow. The woman repeats her story. And again, and again, and again. Fifty or so times. Pain is accurate to describe the experience - four of the hundred or so people in the theater walked out, and I watched them with terrible envy - and it was certainly forced. Self-indulgent and boring would also be an accurate description. Exquisite and entertainment, however, are words that should not be used within a thousand miles of this piece.

God help us, we stayed to the bitter end.

I guess I'm just a philistine.

The Swedish word for the day is och vi betalade. It means and we paid.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What happens when you stay up late making merry with the sea captain and his boyfriend, the children's book author, of a Friday night, with good food and perhaps a little too much good drink (not me, I'm on a diet)?

You book a holiday weekend to Svalbard.

Svalbard, the northerly most point you can fly commercially, north of Siberia, north of Alaska and Canada, on the same latitude as the northern coast of Greenland.

The Swedish phrase for the day is är du tokig. It means are you crazy?

- by Francis S.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Twelfth Day of Christmas - no partridges or pear trees, though. Just the dim grey turning quickly into dark. And tomorrow is a school day.

I know I'll sleep badly tonight, tossing and turning and sweating my way to morning. It's a grim day, the first school day after a long holiday.

I wish I could put it off for a week.

The Swedish word for the day is trettondagen, which is what the Swedes call the Sixth of January, also known as Epiphany.

- by Francis S.

Friday, January 04, 2008

All the preparations: the ordering of the plates and glasses, the buying of the food, the straightening of the apartment, the skewering of tomatoes and mozzarella and basil, the pulling apart of prosciutto, the cutting of figs and pears, the arraying of cheese, laying out of trays, the arranging of branches of red berries and pussy willows, then the doffing of crazy disco clothes complete with wigs and masks and a cheesy mustache grown for the occasion, which the husband insisted would have to be shaved off before going to sleep.

Then the people came, dressed up in their own crazy disco clothes and with masks we provided, and they drank champagne, and they ate, and they toasted in the New Year, and they danced and they laughed and they got drunk and they broke numerous glasses (I still found a stray shard of glass today in the dining room). And I felt like I hardly talked to anyone as I wafted through the apartment, pouring as much champagne as I drank, nibbling on a piece of cheese or dancing wildly for a minute or two, laughing at everyone and everything until before I knew it, it was 5:30 a.m. and it was all I could do to drag myself to bed with my cheesy mustache intact, leaving the husband to deal with the last remaining guests: one couple madly kissing on one of the sofas, another couple madly kissing on the dance floor, the rest of the crew dancing drunkenly, who apparently all left somewhere around 6 a.m.

It was the perfect way to see in 2008 and celebrate the light coming back into our little Swedish lives.

Sadly, I was undone by it all and unable to really get out of bed on Jan. 1 until early evening, leaving the husband to clean up the god-awful mess.

About the only thing I could manage was to shave off the mustache.

I still haven't fully recovered. I guess I'm getting old for such abandon.

The Swedish phrase of the day is fast det var värt det. Which means but it was worth it.

- by Francis S.