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.