Thursday, December 10, 2009

Are 21st century Americans the New Victorians?

A culture inordinately influenced by a wacked view of Christianity that values censure over love, exclusion over generosity and generally is mostly concerned about extending its power to control people’s lives? Check.

A squeamish prudery when it comes to the realities of sex? Check.

A belief that the country is not only blest by, um, “God” – but the country has the God-given right and duty to exert control over the rest of the world? Check.

A blind faith in the progress of business and industry – what’s good for business is good for the individual – yet science (read: evolution) is suspect? Check.

“Victorian” has always been a pejorative adjective in my books. I learned that from my mother and father, I suppose: my grandparents, three of whom were born when Queen Victoria was still alive (only my father’s father was born after her death), all suffered one way or another due to the Victorian values that they carried with them until they died. To me, Victorian means self-righteous, smugly pious, inhibited and stifling.

What brings this whole, well, facile comparison to mind is a recent reading of A.S. Byatt’s curious The Children’s Book, which puts a different spin on the original Victorians, (including a faddish adult love of children’s literature with one of the main characters a sort of less-successful 19th century J.K. Rowling I’d say). The book is all about Fabians and syndicalists, medievalists and suffragists, social reformers all. Victorian England wasn’t just a time of moral hypocrisy, it was a time of great upheaval. Which I suppose is true of our time as well. Although at this very moment, what’s happening in America regarding that issue closest to my heart, gay rights, makes me inclined to think that the moral hypocrites are winning.


Will people look back a hundred years from now and think of us Americans the way I think of the 19th century English?

The Swedish word for the day is förträngning. It means repression.

Monday, November 16, 2009

If I lived close by, I would be a doting uncle. Or if I had lived close by when my nieces and nephews were little kids. Which most of them are not anymore. Take my oldest niece, of whom I am inordinately proud (well, I'm proud of all of my nieces and nephews - the cleverest, funniest, handsomest, prettiest, kindest and strongest kids in the world). My oldest niece has always had a will of her own, even from the time I first met her when she was only six weeks old and without even crying, she exerted an iron control over both her parents.

Anyway, instead of going to college when she turned 18, my niece decided to go to Bhopal, India for seven months, volunteering (inspired no doubt by my parents, who are the biggest do-gooders I know) with the community there that is still suffering the after-effects of a terrible disaster when a Union Carbide factory blew up. She's written about going inside the long-abandoned factory - a disturbing tale - and about the difficulty in getting proper compensation from Dow Chemical (which owns Union Carbide) for those in Bhopal still affected by the explosion.

And now, my niece wants me to get the word out that this week in Stockholm you can learn more about how to help at the Bhopal Bus (times and places at the link), a traveling informational exhibition manned by volunteers trying to raise awareness of the tragedy, which happened 25 years ago.

So, this one's for you, my dear niece. May you succeed in making the world a better place.

The Swedish word for the day is katastrof. It means catastrophe.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I'm on youtube.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

While sitting on the train with the husband, a family got on and sat next to us, parents, teenaged stepson, and a toddler and a baby together in one of those unwieldy double strollers. I looked at the sleeping toddler's mittens: tiny, brightly colored, with a repeated design of skulls. How odd, I thought, that this memento mori has become such a popular pattern for the clothes of small children.

Was it started with irony - dress your two-year-old in goth death metal biker style with a big old wink - or is it a distant reflection of our warlike times? Or did it just filter down, with little kids demanding to have the same things that the big kids have?

More, I wonder if it gives parents pause to pull a wailing baby into a little green onesie patterned with skulls? I want to know if it feels odd to show off this squirming bundle of your genes and proof that life just goes on and on, with a nasty reminder that death gets us all in the end. I guess a hundred years ago and more, when the chances of making it to your third birthday were far slimmer than today, no one bothered with skull patterns since children were a reminder in and of themselves that death gets us all in the end.

As for today, well, we're so removed from death these days that the image of a skull is really nothing more than a fashion statement. I would be surprised if any parents gave any of this a second thought.

But it never fails to startle me.

The Swedish word for the day is ben. It means bone or bones as well as leg or legs.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

We went to see Julie & Julia last night with the girl from LA and her boyfriend. The movie opened yesterday here up in the far north. As every person I've spoken to, every review I've read, says: Julia good; Julie, um, not so good. But the husband came back from the gym this morning and I caught him in the kitchen, making an omelet, Julia-style, shaking, shaking, shaking it in the pan.

"It didn't really work" he said. "I did it wrong at the beginning so it stuck."

Plus he put tabasco sauce on it, decidedly un-Julia.

"It's good anyway," he said.

The Swedish word for the day is omelett, which surprisingly means omelet. An interesting fact, however is that when Swedes want a smile for the camera, they say "omelet," which gives a decidedly more subtle and less radiator-grill-like result.

Friday, October 02, 2009

How old is too old to be out dancing until 4 a.m.?

I am proof in the flesh that 48 is not too old. And we are not talking wimpy dancing, either. I got all sweaty and soaked, in my t-shirt and green suspenders, shaking every part of my body hard and fast.

We were just coming off of a dinner of saffron curry chicken and fried bread and homemade coconut ice cream with cardamom caramel sauce for dessert. Not so heavy going, despite the sound of it. The girl from L.A. had at last moved to Stockholm (well, not at last – she’d been here for a month but we were all absorbed in marrying off the children’s book author and the sea captain) so we were celebrating.

“Welcome,” the husband toasted to her and her boyfriend, and all 11 of us raised our glasses. "Here's to the first of many dinners."

Absolutely, I thought to myself.

So we talked and ate, each group having its own conversations, discussing everything from Maira Kalman - the girl from L.A. went to a knitted hat party at her house! - to getting lost in the Ikea at Kungens Kurva, and the insanity that is shopping at Ikea on a Saturday, to the stripey goodness of her boyfriend's socks (I forced him to come and look at all our stripey socks in the newly refurbished dressing room at the back of the apartment.)

Then, at about 12:30, we all put on our coats and trooped out to go to some club where the pop star was playing, except when we got there push had come to shove, shove, shove as we stood around listening to the tunes being spun, being so manhandled and elbowed by the crowd that our little group nearly imploded.

"Someone pinched my ass," the boyfriend of the girl from L.A. said.

"Was that you, Francis?" the children's book author said.

I denied it.

"Well, I wouldn't have minded if it was Francis, at least I know him," the boyfriend of the girl from L.A. said.

Then some girl tried to pick him up. That is totally un-Swedish I said. I told him it must be his naturally curly hair that was attracting all the attention. Then we left for some new gay club that's opened up, near Norrlandsgatan. Push had not come to shove there, thank goodness. Push hadn't even come to push yet, although at least one of the dance floors was pleasantly packed. It was there that we ended the night.

The Swedish phrase for the day is klockan fyra på morgonen. It means four in the morning.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When we rushed into the liquor store down the street - Sweden's alcohol monopoly Systembolaget, of course - I scoffed at the husband for buying six bottles of South African shiraz. Then when La Francaise, who is visiting from Oslo with her husband, the Belgian, insisted on paying for the bottles, I told her that's not fair to her since we'd never end up drinking all the bottles at the upcoming dinner. We're only seven, I reminded her.

Silly me.

We're all borderline alcoholics in this country, and I guess we needed all six bottles, plus one purchased the previous day, to wash down the turkey molé I made (the easy version, which only took three hours. I hate to imagine how much time and effort it takes to make the Mexican classic chili pepper and chocolate sauce that is authentic molé), rice and beans and fried plantains and avocado-with-fresh-corn salad.

Somehow, towards the end of the meal, after the coffee and the homemade dulce de leche ice cream, the children's book author and La Francaise and I got onto the subject of song lyrics. The question was: What exactly are good song lyrics?

"You know," said La Francaise, "It sounds really weird but sometimes I like Eminem. You know that song about his mother and cleaning out his closet? The lyrics are really good."

The children's book author nodded. "I think "If I were a Boy." It's actually pretty deep when you think about it. Beyoncé. She's hot."

I was smart enough not to actually do it, but I came dangerously close to saying that in the old days, lyrics were better.

What about "Both Sides Now," I asked. Can you recite any of the lyrics to Beyoncé or Eminem? I think you should be able to recite good lyrics word for word, I said. And I proceeded: Flows and flows of angel's hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere...

I think I botched the lyrics about then, but neither La Francaise nor the children's book author noticed.

"Sure, but that's folk music," the children's book author said. "It's all about the words and they're so sing-songy."

Folk music? Joni Mitchell, a folk musician? I was aghast. But really, I couldn't accurately describe her music, other than to say that it was pop music when it came out at least, in the early 1970s.

The children's book author wasn't buying it.

"Folk," he said. "She's folk. You can't convince me."

And really, I couldn't.

Was it the bottle of wine I'd consumed?

But I found myself wondering, what exactly is wrong with folk music anyway? Why do I bristle at someone describing Joni Mitchell that way? When did folk musician become such a horrible way to describe someone? When did folk become a dirty word?

And the big question remained unanswered: How do you define good song lyrics?

The Swedish phrase for the day is en flaska per person. It means one bottle per person.

p.s. for Swedish readers and those wanting to test just how much Swedish they've actually learned here the hard way, I've been interviewed briefly by Micke for the gay blog aggregator site

Monday, July 20, 2009

I always consider myself to be in fair health, psychologically speaking. Just enough angst to not be terribly lazy. High in empathy, yet not altogether unselfish. A bit stodgy around the edges but basically fairly unrepressed. I credit it to having had a pretty easy life with little in the way of trauma, all things considered.

And then I go on a binge and I realize: OCD is me.

To whit my current, um, frozen dessert obsession. I contemplated buying an ice cream freezer for weeks before I finally stopped in at the nearby hardware store at lunch late last month. For dinner with C. the fashion photographer, I was determined to make rhubarb ice cream from a few stray stalks sitting in the refrigerator that needed to be used up before we went to New York.

What I didn't reckon for was that the metal canister of the machine needed to sit in the freezer for 24 hours, rather than the six hours I had until dinner time. It ought to work anyway, I told myself. But when the manufacturer says 24 hours, it turns out they really do mean 24 hours. And so we had cold rhubarb soup for dessert - creamy and delicious, with a hint of cinnamon and a little tang of sour cream, but soup nonetheless.

An inauspicious beginning, I thought, but it turned out not to be so. When we arrived in New York several days later, not only did my brother have an ice cream freezer, properly frozen, but I was able to find sour cherries in Manhattan to make sour cherry sorbet.

Then there was the night I fixed the gingery chicken and scallion pancakes for everyone - all of us adults and kids alike sitting in my brother and sister-in-law's living room - and I made pink grapefruit sorbet for dessert, which seemed vaguely Thai-ish. (Is grapefruit and crab salad Thai, or Vietnamese?)

Now I was on a scallion pancake and frozen dessert craze. Scallion pancakes with spicy cold melon soup and soba noodles, with fresh ginger ice cream for dessert, then scallion pancakes with soba noodles, with green tea ice cream for dessert, both rather delicate but, I have to admit, delicious. Oh, and at some point in there, for our friends visiting from Norway, I managed to make white nectarine sorbet, which comes out pale pink it turns out, and is best served right away to get the maximum flavor, rather than freezing it longer to make it harder.

But the upshot, really, is that sometimes being OCD is a good thing, to be honest. No one is complaining yet, that's for sure.

So, what should the next flavor be?

The Swedish word for the day is glass, which means ice cream and shouldn't be confused with glas, which means glass, as in both the material and something you drink from.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

O great mystery that crowded, dirty and expensive Manhattan can feel at W. 89th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue at 7:30 a.m. on a weekday summer morning so new and full of promise. All those endless leafy blocks of brownstones leading to Central Park. The park itself a green rectangle battened down and secured in place at its edges by high rises with terraces and roofs copied from French chateaus or Greek temples or Egyptian monuments or Spanish cathedrals or Roman forums. Or roofs of simple solid geometry.

I know I'm shamelessly romanticizing the place in my elitist way (easy to do as we never make it to any poorer neighborhoods), idly purchasing suspenders on the snootier end of Bleecker Street or strange white Japanese robot monkey things in Soho, or drinking tequila cocktails and talking a mile a minute with the divine Lisa Lucas in the East Village, or snarfing down delicious Chinese steamed buns filled with fatty caramelized pork at a jammed Momofuku (not to mention the short-cake-flavored ice cream) on a Tuesday night or wandering breezily around the Cloisters with my dear sister and sister-in-law and niece and nephew while the husband with his Spanish blood notes: "Every other thing was stolen from Spain it looks like!"

But really, living in New York is tight both in space and money, and in truth, full of the same drudgery as living anywhere else.

So why does it seem so exciting, so much better than anywhere else?

O great mystery that returning back from New York I somehow love Stockholm even more than when I left. Our apartment! So airy and grand and white and full of light as I sit reading on a sofa at 3:30 a.m. on account of the jetlag, the sun fully up and flooding the apartment. The streets! So rooted and charming on a human scale, never far from a glimpse of the water. The ethos! Circumspect rather than brazen with everything hanging out and in your face, elbows and tongues well-sharpened.

Still. What I wouldn't give to have both New York and Stockholm.

The Swedish phrase for the day is välkommen åter. It means, more or less, come back soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The second pin of the two pins on which the Swedish year is wrapped - Christmas is the first - has arrived: Midsummer. Pagan holiday made half-Christian, it used to be tied to St. John's Day, which is June 24. Which would put it precisely six months after Christmas Eve, when Christmas is celebrated in Sweden. Very symmetrical, very orderly. Very Swedish.

Tomorrow we're off for the weekend, going out to the archipelago to the country house of the children's book author and the sea captain. Bearing salmon and caviar torte, strawberry rhubarb pie and 20 tiny bottles of Norwegian schnappes.

We almost always go to Birds Island for midsummer, to the country home of C. the fashion photographer and A. the TV producer. But after 14 years together, they are going their separate ways.

Strange how someone else's separation can tear one apart.

The holiday will be bittersweet, despite the strawberry rhubarb pie, even with whipped cream on the side.

The Swedish word for the day is skilsmässa. It means divorce.

Monday, June 08, 2009

We were late for lunch yesterday as the husband and I left the Matteus school where we had just cast our votes for seats in the EU parliament. On our way out, a tiny old woman - in her late 80s I would say - walked up on her way in to vote, leaning heavily on a cane. Three political workers stood in front of her, one each from the Green party, the People's party and the Moderates (I would describe the People's party as, um, maybe, populist and it is part of the center-right alliance currently ruling Sweden, which is headed by the Moderates).

The old woman looked up, and barked out: "Pirate party?"

The husband and I looked at each other. The Pirate party is a brand new entity. They are interested in one thing: free file sharing on the internet.

"I guess she downloads a lot," the husband said, and we laughed.

And so the Pirate party ended up winning one of the 17 seats that Sweden has in the EU Parliament.

Oh, the power of the internets.

The Swedish word for the day is val, which has been the word of the day before. It means election. (And as Vatine has pointed out, also means choice as well as whale.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

My last meal would be a crabcake. Who knew? Not me, at least not until I was confronted with Ganda's question.

The Swedish word for the day is sista måltid. It means last supper.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

We arrived late because it took us forever to iron our shirts - mine lavender, the husband's powder blue - and to pull on our trousers - mine khakis, the husband's black jeans - and our black suit jackets. Then we had to shove our feet into our shoes - mine marine corps black lace-up boots circa 1968, the husband's Paul Smith black trainers with those little multi-colored stripes on the sides. Then we scrambled into a taxi, which took us out to one of the la-di-da suburbs of Stockholm, where we had dinner at the only local watering hole, which was filled with people who were dressed, well, like me. Except for the shoes of course.

"It's the uniform out here," our hostess told us, as we sat drinking sancerre and eating fish.

She should know, she lives just up the road.

Everyone in the place was, like us, about to go to the same birthday party. Captains of industry they were, the movers and shakers of Stockholm: a bunch of 60-year-old white men. And their wives of course, who unlike the men were decked out in their finest dancing clothes, their heels staggering, their hair freshly colored and cut, their nails newly manicured.

Once we'd finished the wine and the fish, we made our way over to the house, where the party was going full-swing. With one of the daughters of the man of the house leaning on my arm and the husband in front of me, we squeezed our way into the crowd, air-kissing the birthday girl. After which I was promptly way-laid by a strange woman babbling in English.

"It's your fault we never see her," she crowed. "You keeping her pregnant all the time!"

I smiled a rigid smile, all lips and teeth and no eyes at all, and nodded at her without saying a word before grabbing the husband and pushing my way further into the din, grabbing a glass of champagne and downing it.

And so the party went.

"Wouldn't you like to have a house like this?" the husband asked all wistful-like late in the evening after we'd been dancing, as he always does in this kind of situation.

No, I told him. He would hate it, make no mistake. The homogeneity, the rigidity, the disapproval, the conservatism.

It's my 16-year-old suburb-loathing self that rose up out of the 48-year-old me to say this. But really, the 16-year-old and the 48-year-old me's are in total agreement in this case. And having grown up there, both the me's know whereof I speak.

It would be dreadful to live out there, I said. But it's fun to be a tourist every once in awhile.

The Swedish word for the day is förort. It means suburb, of course.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I lived in Barcelona once. I left behind a job and apartment in Washington, and with the money I'd gotten from my ex for the house we'd owned together in Dupont Circle, I took an eight-month vacation, travelling here and there for nearly two months - Amsterdam and Paris, London and Berlin, Vienna and Budapest and Lucca, a week or so in each place. I ended up in Barcelona, staying for six months.

This was in the day of the peseta, and Barcelona was cheap. You could buy two kilos of tomatoes, two kilos of oranges, a couple onions, a dozen eggs and a wedge of cheese for about $2.50. I rented a room in the Eixample Dret not far from the Sagrada Familia, paying about $100 a month to Edu, a crazy Argentinian, who became my closest friend.

It was the strangest time of my adult life, those six months in Barcelona.

I loved it and loathed it, it was a trial to be so outside the culture and so alone and so purposeless. But Barcelona has endless charms that I couldn't help but be taken by. There is no place I feel stronger about. It is tied to the great crux of my life - meeting the husband and leaving behind the States.

When the husband and I returned last week for the first time in ten years, it all came rushing back: the smells, the light, the special tiles of the sidewalks, the cutoff corners at every intersection, the plane trees, the peculiar reticence of Barcelonans, the late dinners and later dancing, the alternately sluggish and hectic pulse of the place.

I missed terribly my friend Edu, who died nearly seven years ago. I couldn't even admit to myself that I was sad and a bit prickly and feeling very vulnerable and raw, as if I had suddenly reverted to the self I was when I lived there, on my long vacation.

Funny how a place can turn a crank in one's heart, ratcheting everything up, notch by notch by notch.

Stranger still, none of this was apparent until I sat here to write it all down.

The Swedish verb for the day is att återkomma. It means to return.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

We're off to Perpignan for a wedding and then a week in Barcelona, which better damn well be sunny and warm. I haven't been back to Barcelona in 10 years, the city I love and hate most in the world.

Annoyingly, a week ago one of my best friends when I was just a little kid, whom I haven't seen in probably 25 years and who works as a film editor, cameraman and sometime director in L.A., contacted me to say he would be coming to Stockholm this week.

There was general gnashing of teeth. By me at least.

I told him that at least he and his boyfriend can stay in our apartment while we carouse in Spain.

It pleases me somehow to know that he'll be staying here, as if he's getting to know me all over again just by looking at the books on the shelves (not to mention piled high on a table in the library and in various other rooms), the perfume in the bathroom (which isn't mine), the elaborate collection of teas in the kitchen (which we don't drink), the lack of a full-length mirror (there are a couple of half-length mirrors though), the music on the grand piano (which needs tuning) and the freshly cleaned windows (all 17 of them, each divided into two or four casements, one of which was concealing a bee in the handle, a bee which stung me on my middle finger halfway through the whole ordeal).

What makes it okay, though, is that he'll be back again in December. Then I can check out if he really did learn anything about me from staying here, or if it was one big false impression.

The Swedish word for the day is missuppfattat. It means misunderstood.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

As my friend the policeman says, Stockholm's Old Town seems to be reverting back to the 18th century: Count Carl Piper and his pregnant girlfriend were shot in the schoolyard of the Great Church School during the late afternoon on Tuesday. It turns out that the prime suspect is the former Countess, Carl Piper's ex-wife.

It's downright operatic.

The Swedish word for the day is melodram. I bet you would never guess that it means melodrama.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I remember when chocolate bars cost a dime. And three musketeers were the biggest - best value for money - except for the fact that the center was a bit too fluffy and curiously unsatisfying. Charleston chew lasted the longest, but it tasted more like marshmallow than chocolate. Chunky was pleasing in concept - a fat square of chocolate - except it had raisins in it, which was totally unacceptable. Butterfingers were too peanutbuttery and papery, bit O' honeys weren't even chocolate, and hershey bars were just too plain-Jane. Almond joy and mounds were too small and cocanutty, so in the end, with whatever was left over from my 25-cent-a-week allowance, it was always a toss-up between milky way or snickers.

I remember sitting on the stone stoop outside the kitchen door, a week after school was out when I was eight or nine, wearing shorts and nothing else, eating toast with butter and brown sugar sprinkled on top.

I remember the arduous task of taking off wet snow clothes in the basement - layer by layer, first jacket and then snow pants, and then jeans, all the way down to my long underwear - and hanging them up on the line in the furnace room, and the smell, like wool and rags and little-kid sweat and snow all mixed together.

What do you remember?

(This is all spurred on by my reading artist Joe Brainard's odd little masterpiece, I remember. Rustle up a copy for yourself, you won't be disappointed. And I was shocked at how many things I remembered that hadn't changed in the 20 years between our two childhoods.)

The Swedish verb for the day is att komma ihåg, which means to remember.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

To help cure the terrible melancholy - we would call it depression - of King Philip V of Spain, the queen and her physician believed that music would do the trick.

So the great castrato soprano Farinelli was brought to court. Though he had received great acclaim in Italy, England and France, and he was only 32 years old, Farinelli never performed in public again although he lived to be 77. Apparently, he sang the same two arias every night to the king. Whether it really cured his melancholia is open to debate. But Farinelli became a great favorite at the Spanish court. He amassed a small fortune including paintings by Velásquez and Murillo, and violins by Stradivarius and Amati, and was even knighted by the king's successor, Ferdinand VI (whose wife, Maria Barbara was the apt pupil of Domenico Scarlatti, who wrote hundreds of sonatas for her to play, many of them ground-breaking and of great charm and idiosyncrasy).

Wouldn't it be wonderful if all it took were the right music to dispel our darkest fears and worries and terrible unhappiness? If music was the tonic for the worst mental illness? It makes so much sense to me.

The Swedish word for the day is sorg. It means sorrow.

Friday, April 03, 2009

It's official.

Well, it will be soon. As of May 1, the husband and I will just need to fill out a little piece of paper and our partnership becomes a real marriage, just like the heterosexualists!

Separate but equal will be a thing of the past.

And don't let anyone fool you about it just being a matter of semantics, either. Words make all the difference in the world.

The Swedish words for the day are partnerskap and äktenskap, which I suspect have both been the word of the day at some point before. They mean, respectively, partnership and marriage.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Friday, we went out dancing at 1 a.m. - well, really, it was Saturday by the time we made it to the club - because the pop star was going to be a dj at the club, and because Grace Jones was going to be there.

Sure enough, Miss Jones showed up about 1:30, but I didn't see her because these drag queens were in the way, and she swept herself off, elaborate hat and all, to a back room somewhere.

We left about 3:00, and the next day the pop star told us that after she'd finished at the turntables, she went back to meet Miss Jones.

"I like your earrings," Miss Jones told the pop star. "You're coming to see me tomorrow?"

A whole conversation reduced to two sentences. "She went from A to Z in three seconds," the pop star said, laughing.

So, the next day, we duly went to see her, with the pop star.

The concert itself was, without a doubt, astounding. The crowd eclectic - lots of fashionistas so the husband was all kiss-kiss with shiny people I'd never met before - and Miss Jones really shook her thing. And sang. And hoola-hooped while walking around in shoes with six-inch spikes as thin as nails. And changed hats and coats for every single song - she was on stage for over 90 minutes. She looked just as she has always looked (the pop star said she looks great close to as well). I can't believe she is 60. Although if I think about it, I was dancing to "Pull up to the bumper, baby" in 1981. Was it really that long ago?

I only hope my ass looks that good when I'm 60.

Which won't be long, considering how fast the birthdays keep rushing at me.


I hope it's going to be a good year.

The Swedish word for the day is födelsedag, which has surely been the word of the day before. It means birthday.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Swedes have a love of design.

They are minimalists – beauty is to be found in simple forms: unvarnished oiled wood, primary colors, thin lines. And as far as I can tell, Swedish tastes haven’t changed much in the past 50 years. Including the packaging for milk – simple rectangular boxes the size of a brick with red, green, blue and yellow stripes of varying thickness; the red stripes are the fattest and the yellow stripes the thinnest, designating the fat content of the milk. People actually refer to milk by the color of the stripe – the husband never tells me to buy whole milk, he tells me: “Get red milk.”

But the other day, I was taken aback to find a black box in our refrigerator.

What the hell is this, I wondered.

“Read the back,” the husband said, smiling at me.

I pulled it out. It was milk, but the package was black as a reminder to turn the lights out for Earth Hour, in which the world is being encouraged to turn out the lights at 8:30 p.m. (local time) on March 28.

An admirable idea. But not terribly appealing for a milk carton. Sort of an antidote to Life cereal (do they still make that?): Death Milk.

Milk for existentialists, perhaps?

Or a way to get emo boys and girls to consume their recommended daily allowance of calcium and vitamin D?

The Swedish word for the day is mejeri. It means dairy.

Monday, March 23, 2009

K., who sits next to me at work, came in this morning as usual asking how my weekend was.

Good, I told her.

"Well," she said. "Remember I was talking about that dinner we were going to have with friends? It turned out they served us venison. Which they had shot themselves. In their yard. In Uppsala."

A deer had wandered into their yard and they shot it? In Uppsala, where the university is and which is not the countryside, not at all?

Yes, she said.

Ha, ha, I laughed.

I told her that if my parents had owned a gun when they lived in Boulder years ago, I think my mother would have made my father shoot the deer that would come and eat all her flowers, roses and tulips and irises, anything she planted. My mother is not really an animal person. Her sympathies extend to birds, and that's about it.

Ha, ha, K. laughed.

So, I asked K., was the food good?

"Delicious," K. said.

The Swedish word for the day is rådjur. It means deer.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I was trying to explain to A. the TV producer about the proper hierarchy of fruit flavors - strawberry and peach at the top, blueberry near the bottom before plum and gojiberry.

"But you're mixing things up," A. said. "Berries aren't fruit, they're berries!"

I was flabbergasted. I was having enough trouble convincing her of the proper fruit-flavor rankings and all of a sudden I'm hit with a bizarre Swedish idiosyncrasy: Swedes don't consider berries fruit.

But, I asked, if they aren't fruit, what are they?

All the Swedes at the table jumped on me at once: "Berries, of course!"

And they would not be convinced by me that for us English speakers, berries are a category within the whole fruit family, somewhat like melons.

"I don't believe you," A. said. "And what about root fruits, huh?"

The Swedish words for the day are frukt, bär, rotfrukt. They mean fruit, berries, root vegetables.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Somehow, we got the directions mixed up and ended up at the wrong apartment. But half a glass of wine and 20 minutes later, the children's book author and I figured it out, jumped into a cab and righted ourselves, landing at the dinner we were supposed to be at.

The husband, who had helped prepare the meal with the sea captain, thrust a bowl of pale orange creamy liquid at me.

I dipped a corn chip into it, looking at him skeptically.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

Yes, I told him.

"Do you really like it?" he asked again, hovering.

Yes, yes, I really like it I told him.

"Ha! It's cheese from a can, melted," he exclaimed.

As if I couldn't tell.

"He would never let me buy this!" he told the sea captain and the children's book author.

Of course I wouldn't. But it doesn't mean that I don't like it. Nor does it mean that it's good. Or good for you. It's junk food, that's what I told him. And junk food usually does taste good. But food that tastes good isn't the same thing as food that actually is good. I'm a terrible snob that way, but really, it's just about standards.

The Swedish word for the day is ost. It means cheese.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

We sat in the Korean restaurant across from the movie theater on Birger Jarlsgatan, me with my chop chae, A. the TV producer and O. her stepdaughter having some kind of salmon thing with lots of vegetable-y stuff, bowls of kimchee and sauces in front of us, surrounded mostly by what must surely be the entire Korean population of Stockholm.

"You know it's good Korean food if the restaurant is filled with Koreans," O. said.

"They have a sign on the bathroom that's only in Korean," A. said. "I can't believe it's not in Swedish, too. And then there's another sign inside that's also only in Korean! What do you think it means?"

We ate our food and ran over to the movie theater across the street, to watch the nine o'clock showing of the much-touted Milk, which opened in Sweden yesterday.

As we sat in the audience, I looked around me, noting that unlike the Korean restaurant, the crowd for this very gay movie was decidedly non-gay. Did this mean the movie wouldn't be as good as if it were a gay audience?

"How do you know there are no gay people?" A. asked. "People probably think we're a couple seeing this movie with our daughter. All these people could be just friends you know."

Well, I thought. Maybe not those people next to us kissing, nor the people next to them kissing. All this kissing - I guess they were making sure that we didn't mistake them for being just friends? 

Um, probably not.

Despite the crowd being overwhelmingly not gay for this very gay movie, it almost lived up to the hype. Almost.

The Swedish word for the day is likartad. It means of a similar kind.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sweden is all abuzz.

After years of lobbying, the crown princess at last has convinced her parents to let her marry the man she loves. Who was her personal trainer. But, don't get the wrong idea. This guy isn't a hunk. He's kind of a schlub as far as I can tell. Keeps his nose clean though - the tabloids haven't managed to catch him doing anything unsavory. He's curiously bland. Which is perhaps in part why the king and queen finally caved in.

Prince Daniel.

It's kind of sweet. And of course it's spurring the usual debates about why the hell Sweden continues with the curious institution of monarchy at all.

If you ask me, there's something to be said for having a queen to hang your patriotism on. Maybe if America had a queen, people would vote for the wisest guy instead of the folksiest guy who can sing "God Bless America" most convincingly. And we never would have gotten stuck with Bush the Second or Ronald Reagan (whose reputation has been amazingly rehabilitated: Has everyone forgotten about the people he surrounded himself with, great moral leaders like Ed Meese, Cap Weinberger and Ollie North?)

Of course some people claim America does have a queen, they just can't agree on who she might be: Lady Bunny? Rufus Wainright? Dana Elaine Owens?

The Swedish word for the day is skvaller. It means gossip.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I always like to tell the husband, as we walk down the street past a smug baby being wheeled in its stroller (and Stockholm has more smug babies in strollers than you could shake a very, very big stick at): Wouldn't it be fun to have an adult-sized stroller, with a huge nursemaid to push you around wherever you directed her to push you?

As if being a baby were all about being the boss of the world, as opposed to a life reduced to wailing to let the world know that one of your basic needs isn't being met and there is nothing you can do about it.

Take the poor baby in the apartment below ours. Well, really, his poor parents and siblings (four of them!) I mean. Because he's taken to crying late into the night, the kind of cry that escalates into an inconsolable rage that just goes on and on and on until he runs out of air, and then he begins again.

Do parents ever commit suicide from a baby screaming like that? Or are they more likely eventually to try shaking the baby into submission?

I would've thought that human beings had naturally selected out those angry raging-type babies by now.

And I've got to let go of that bizarre adult-sized stroller fantasy joke thing. It's just stupid and, well, kind of creepy, really.

The Swedish word for the day is barnvagn. It means stroller.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Can you believe it, I've gone graphic?!?

It wasn't an easy decision, in my tiny blogging world.

But what, you non-Swedes may ask, does that strange-looking tube of toothpaste have to do with learning Swedish the hard way?

That is no toothpaste. It is a tube of fish roe, mixed with sugar, salt, tomato paste and potato flakes. And for me, more emblematic of Sweden than just about anything else, including the flag, Crown Princess Victoria, H&M or a Volvo 740. Probably even more of a true symbol of Sweden than Abba is. The only thing equal to Kalles Kaviar would be Ikea. But who wants a picture of Ikea on the top of their blog when a tube of Kalles Kaviar is so much more graphically pleasing?

And somehow, more appropriate, since it is perhaps as difficult a taste to acquire as the Swedish language. (Although to be honest, I've always rather liked it squeezed onto a boiled egg instead of salt.)

The Swedish word for the day is ikoniskt. It means, of course, iconic.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Walking down Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, I noticed suddenly that everyone seemed to be walking a dachshund. There were dachshunds on leashes, dachshunds in people's arms, dachshunds at people's feet, and way too many dachshunds actually sitting in their owner's laps, eating off of plates on café tables. Ick.

Had I missed a trend? Is the new American thing to own a dachshund? Were people going to look down on me because I was dachshundless? I was baffled.

Then I saw that there was a dog show of some sort going on in the park between the road and the beach. Well, a dachshund show, to be specific. What a relief.

Miami was far more enjoyable than I expected, even though I kept on trying to speak Swedish with the waiters, on account of I was there with 50 Swedes and my brain kept getting stuck in a Swedish rut, convinced by language that I was in Sweden despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The sun.

The beach.

The Biltmore Hotel.

The dachshunds.

It almost makes me jealous of Floridians. Almost.

The Swedish word of the day is tax. It means dachshund, natch.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The dinner started with the usual Stockholm formalities: a couple of drinks and a discussion of real estate. The host and hostess - my husband used to work with her - had just managed to sell their apartment, which is in an old industrial part of town that is now expensive new apartments and stores, complete with a streetcar line, all sprung up in the last five years.

A discussion of the price of rent, mortgages or an apartment just bought or sold is essential for the typical Stockholm dinner party.

But then when we sat down to eat the smoked duck breast and greens they'd brought back with them from Paris, all we talked about was food. What to get in Paris and what you can get here in the markets, how to make pesto better by mixing the nuts, the simplest way to cook salmon, how nowadays you can get such good wine that isn't French. Food, drink and food and recipes and more food, for more than three hours.

Since when did talking about food become as important as the food itself?

Funny how food is so much more of a class marker than it was in my parents' day. Well, maybe not more, but just in a different way, I suppose.

We did manage to change the subject a bit toward the end, but unlike our usual dinner parties, there were no heated discussions.

I think the husband's favorite part of the evening was when he got a goody bag full of bottles and jars from the hostess, who works for a huge French company that makes beauty products.

"Yes," she said, "I think the blue is for you. I use the green myself."

The Swedish word for the day is matkultur. It means cuisine.

p.s. I am slowly adding all my links at left, so don't feel left out if I haven't gotten to you yet. I will eventually...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Twenty days of Christmas? Who knew! More importantly, why would anyone extend the holidays all the way to tjugondag Knut, January 13, Saint Knut's day, when Swedes traditionally take down the tree and children plunder it for the candy canes and chocolates that hang there?

Maybe it's just that if you're like me, it takes that long to be assed to take down the tree after all the extensive holiday entertaining.

To be honest, I'm a sucker for a Christmas tree. I have been ever since I was a little boy.

I blame my parents. Oddly, they grew up in strict Calvinist households with no trees and not much Christmas celebrating aside from church, exchanging a few presents and a bit of holiday noshing. But like many Americans who grew up during and immediately after the Second World War, they were determined to give their children luxuries they never had. So Christmas in our house was a major production, something that as a boy I used to plan for starting in September. And in the most extreme years - my last two grades of high school - the mountainous pile of loot under the tree was so obscene that my parents eventually racheted the consumption down more than just a few notches.

But I still have a nostalgic love of Christmas trees. So to be honest, it takes me 20 days to get to the point where I am so sick of the tree I have to get it out of my apartment.

To be fair to myself, it took only 19 days this year.

"Isn't it nice to have everything all clean and put away?" asked the husband, once everything was disposed of and tidied. He has no nostalgia for trees, and no great fondness for the holidays in general.

Yes, well, of course, I answered.

The Swedish word for the day is julgran. It means Christmas tree.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

O, the horror. 

My old commenting function is defunct. And I thought I'd just switch to blogger comments, but my jury-rigged ancient template (I'm warning you, do not under any circumstances look under the hood of this blog) won't let me. 

So bear with me. I'll probably switch to a generic template if I can figure out how to import my blog links altogether instead of one at a time, which will take an eternity.

Anyway, if you want to comment, just send me a mail using the contact-me link at left.

In the meantime, I'm recovering from a marathon of guests and dinners formal and informal, a flooded basement in Chicago, prolonged jetlag and post-Christmas distress syndrome. 

The Swedish word for the day is shit. It means shit in a more emphatic, colorful and cussy way than plain old skit, which also means shit.

- by Francis S.