enormous, blonde, herring-scented, nauseatingly fair-minded nymphomaniacs in clogs
part one: "respect the cheese form!"
if you're from topeka, you can go to kansas city. if you're from kansas city, you can go to chicago. if you're from chicago, you can go to new york. but if you're from manhattan, where can you go? by the time i was 40, i had to go to sweden just to calm down. i've spent nearly half my time there ever since. there's been some confusion. these are not the people who drill holes in cheese. they are not a fondue people, nor do they yodel. their trains are sometimes late, their mountains are unimpressive, and their chocolate is adequate at best. no. these are the people who brought you the nobel prize, the volvo, the smörgåsbord, free day care, suicide, and full frontal nudity. these are the blondes. enormous blonde herring-scented nauseatingly fair-minded nymphomaniacs in clogs.
when i lived in paris, nobody said, "paris? why paris?" but now they ask, "sweden? but why?" and i don't know how to answer. sometimes i say, "because nobody in sweden has anything better to do than chat with me!"
i'm an artist. there, i said it. for the arts, new york is just so...obvious. new york is for exposition, but gothenburg, sweden, where i hang out, is an "arbetarstad", a worker's city. it's a good place to produce. volvos, hasselblads, and, in my case, oil paintings. animations. illustrations. books. to work. in laughable obscurity.
how did i end up here? i'm a lifelong colony bum. earlier, i'd been to yaddo and an artists' residency in vermont. so, in the sweltering summer of 1999, i wrote a brazen e-mail to fifty different artists' residencies, all over the world. normally, they have mile-long waiting lists, but i dared ask them all for a residency starting "right now," adding that i did not expect to get a grant. "i am happy to pay," i informed them. the residency in sweden, in my opinion, was so shocked to see the words "happy" and "pay" in the same sentence that they insisted i drop everything and rush right over. they didn't even want to see my slides. the place was called something that, to my ear, sounded like "constipated." i've been returning every summer since then, but because the guest studio program is now kaput, this year will be my last residency.
looking back, i reminisce about my first. i don't keep a diary, but humor me.
it's june of 1999. dear diary: this summer there have been approximately three days of sunshine since i arrived on june 6th. this has, officially, been the coldest, rainiest summer on record in seventy-five years. i won't complain, however. i prefer to complain about the stinky, fetid, rat-infested hell, the human gridlock that is my neighborhood back home: broadway and canal street. i choose this, my northern nowhere land. in addition to my studio, i share the office where i do my illustration work with seven people, most of whom are called lena. most swedish women are named lena, and all swedish men are named stefan. the other day i was using the osthyvel (special slotted cheese slicer) on a hunk of "grevé" cheese, and lena, lina, helena, and lene started yelling at me. "we always know when you've been in the cheese! it looks like a ski-slope!" apparently it is of great importance that every slice be an attempt to even out the cheese level. all swedes are brought up with this habit. i call this enlightening episode: "respect the cheese form!"
"lagom" means "not too little, not too much. just right." the middle road. social democracy. fairness. even-ness. the classic metaphor for "lagom" is the stalk of wheat: if it grows taller than the others, it's mowed down. show-offs are not to be tolerated. but apparently "lagom" can also be expressed in cheese.
i have learned some swedish, although everyone over the age of six speaks english as well as i do. although swedish is a word-poor language, they have a few gems that we don't. they have a word for the crime of washing dishes in a sloppy, superficial way. "fuskdiska!" just what it sounds like, "hjärnsläpp", or "brain drop", describes the blank moment where we might complain of early alzheimer's. there's an onomatopoetic word for a person who is "dreamy, rootless, undecided" with a hippie quality: "flummig." you can call someone a dust bunny, or "torrboll." but only if they're really boring. and back in the day, there was an expression for a cell phone: "juppinalle", or "yuppie teddy bear," which has fallen out of use because not only yuppies but also every eight-year old is hugging and cuddling a cell phone. sweden is the most wireless nation on earth. i just made that up, but it's true.
swedish invective is adorably tame. you can tell someone off by saying, "dra dit pepparn växer -- i sydamerika!" this means, "go grow peppers in south america!"
to round out our swedish lesson, let me correct a misconception. contrary to a cruel international myth, the word "ikea" does not mean "wobbly" in swedish. wobbly is "ostadig." "ikea" is an acronym for ingvar kamprad elmtaryd agunnaryd. aren't you glad you asked? ingvar kamprad, ikea's billionaire founder, says in his 1999 book, leading by design: the ikea story, that his youthful affiliation with the nazi movement in sweden was "the greatest mistake of my life," but in my opinion that honor should go to the ineluctably hideous "byholma marieberg" armchair.
when the catalogue comes, if i am in the right mood, i am proud to say that i now have the language chops to translate your "bestå burs" desk, your "klaviatur" lamp, and your extremely wobbly "ekby järpen" shelving. unfortunately, i am never, ever in the mood, because i've decided it's better for you not to know.
incidentally, back in the '80's, i was briefly married to a swedish illustrator whom i'd met in new york, where we lived together. we divorced so amicably (in 1986) that we still travel together, and he corrects my swedish spelling and grammar for certain stories i write. also, he is handsome, brilliant, and perfect. one day, i came back from tokyo -- where i'd had an art exhibition -- and remarked how meaningful it was that "clean" and "beautiful' were the same word in japanese: kirae. "so what?" he said. "in swedish, we use the same word, "ren", for both "clean" and "reindeer."
i love sweden. it's boring, but in a good way.
-part two: even lisbeth salander shops at ikea
it's no coincidence that swedish authors have produced two of literature's most heretical characters. rebels! misfits! horse lifters! girls! lisbeth salander, according to her creator stieg larsson, was meant to be a modern apparition of pippi longstocking, picaresque protagonist of the children's books written by astrid lindgren in the 1940s.
the thing to remember with these radical gals who answer to nobody and follow no rules is that they are, and must be, entirely fictional. because whether you're a pierced and tattooed bisexual master hacker with a mohawk in söder or a freckle-faced, crimson-pigtailed orphan in villa villekula, living with a monkey in a green sailor suit and a polka-dotted horse and possessing "the strength of ten policemen," there's one rule that supersedes all others in sweden: jantelagen*.
what does it mean? fit in. you don't want to stick out! even drop-dead rebel lisbeth salander shops at ikea and eats billy's pan pizza.
jantelagen is a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticises individual achievement as inappropriate. -- wikipedia
because of equality and fairness, there's something called "the swedish standard" and it's pretty high. it means one can buy a château pétrus even in remotest lapland. liquor is sold only in state-run stores, popularly known as "systemet." the system. the system closes weekdays at 6, closes at 1 p.m. on saturday, and is closed sundays. the most swedish thing one can do is to go to systemet on saturday at noon. you will take a "nummerlapp" (a number from the turn-o-matic) and wait calmly and patiently for your turn to insure a desperately rowdy weekend. enterprising drunks outside the shop might sell you a low number for a few kronor. otherwise, bring literature. wait.
even after years of psychotherapy, my most burning issue is a complete lack of patience. seemingly, sweden has been designed especially to help me learn this virtue. there are not enough people in sweden, so even at better restaurants, salad, bread, and water are on the sideboard. help yourself. i'm thinking, "no. help me." the waitress, the cashier, the mechanic, the cleaning lady, and you are all equals. not only is the customer not always right, the customer is just plain lucky to receive service of any kind. tipping is nominal. there are no false smiles. you'll never hear, "hey! i'm pernilla! how're you folks doin'?" never.
beer is available in strong, medium, and light versions. the most oft-spoken words are "en stor stark." a big strong one.
my favorite swedish words are "undulaut" and "förnuftig." "undulaut" seems like it should be some punctuation but actually means "parakeet." "förnuftig" means "clever," and it has always seemed like something made-up the swedish chef would say.
in addition to a lot of baking, sewing, and indoor hockey, sweden has an extremely active yogurt culture. almost frantic. choose between "filmjölk", kefir, and forty-five kinds of the stuff, which is available in japanese style, russian style, "farmer" style, among others, each in a stupefying array of flavors, including cloudberry. you can buy no-fat, low-fat, medium-low-fat, medium-fat, medium-high, and "call your cardiologist" versions of all these things as well as "long" filmjölk, whatever that is.
swedes squeeze food out of tubes. liver paté, mushroom/cheese spread, crab paste, and the infamous "kalle's kaviar" (lumpfish roe) are very popular. my favorite is black pepper/cognac. there are special gizmos in refrigerators to hold the tubes. they squirt this stuff onto knäckebröd (crispbread), which they store in the special cupboard above the fridge. for fourteen years.
swedes also eat a lot of korv (hot dogs), usually with mos (mashed potatoes). when they speak english they invariably say "smashed potatoes," and i can't correct them; it's too charming. then there are the ketchup udders. at every korv kiosk (hot dog stand) there is a shocking lineup of assorted mustards and ketchups, each in a long, squeezable rubber udder. there's no other way to describe them. udders.
the most serious television news shows interview political figures with a charming and homey milieu, including flowered curtains, blond wood, colorful pillows, pastries, and coffee. nightline, take note: why not macaroons? and ask the daily show: wouldn't michael moore enjoy a freshly baked cinnamon bun? how about banana bread for fareed zakaria?
you can buy herring in any gas station. many of my friends, both men and women, use "snus" -- chewing tobacco, either loose or in small pouches. tucked into their lower lips, this habit results in a distinctive, puffy demeanor. loose candy is sold by the kilo, everywhere. try some body parts, salted herring, pirate money, squid, coke bottles, fried eggs, pacifiers, tongues, rats, and peppered skeletons.
whatever their sex lives may include, many swedish people sleep in single beds. together. peculiar. but cozy. and they all travel with sheets and towels. you can try saying, "you don't need to bring your sheets and towels; i have everything here," but they will bring them all the same. they cannot be stopped.
if you go on a vacation with a swede, watch out, because when exposed to direct sunlight, they tend to burst into flame.
on every street there are five or six hair "salonger." most have frightening english names, like "klipper krazy." there is even a "sweeney todd" salon in stockholm. with what seems like one salon for every twenty-five citizens, it's surprising that swedes have a hair left on their heads.
toilet paper is packaged in gigantic, 24 roll bales, wrapped in clear plastic with a handle on top. people run around in public with these, constantly and shamelessly.
swedes don't talk, except at the movies.
christmas means one thing. festive pigs!
eye drops are illegal. crazy glue is illegal. hair dryers never get really hot. sweden protects you.
i realized something. i gravitate toward this safety, cleanliness, and order with the rabid enthusiasm that most people look forward to an all-expenses-paid luxury vacation in the tropics and a big lotto win.
oscar wilde said that simplicity is the last refuge of the complex. i could have taught him a thing or two.
part three: flat-pack your ego, darling, you're nothing special!
by the way, what is love? the writer hjalmar söderberg called it "nothing but the lust of the flesh, and the incurable loneliness of the soul." this kind of gritty, unromantic realism endears the swedes to me. they don't expect happiness. in america, we consider happiness our birthright. the constitution instructs us to pursue it. we're brought up to think if we're not happy there's something wrong. to my way of thinking, this is asking for trouble.
here's a little poem that says it all:
ångest, ångest är min arvedel,
min strupes sår,
mitt hjärtas skri i världen.
-- pär lagerkvist (1916)
angst, angst is my heritage,
my throat's wound,
my heart's shriek in the night.
isn't that cute?
another verse, from a song, which is actually danish, sums up what is, to me, a typically scandinavian world view: "life is not the worst that we have, and pretty soon, coffee is ready!" this is my kind of philosophy.
in sweden, being ordinary rules. remember, you're nothing special! or, as swedes might express it, you are "inte mycket att hänga i julgranen!" (trans: nothing to hang on the christmas tree!)
on the "yta", or surface, sweden doesn't really seem that different. but the more often i return, the deeper that "yta" is scratched. for one thing, the following scenario would never have played out on the home front. i made a "våldgästade" (trans: "violent visit", or unexpected visit) to my friend lene's apartment one sunday afternoon. now, this is a vibrant and beautiful thirty-one-year-old woman. she was happily occupied with a task i couldn't fathom. "what are you doing?" i asked.
"i am making washcloths" she replied.
i just thought about that for a while. there is a scene in fellini's juliet of the spirits where a neurotic and glamorous neighbor visits the calm domestic scene of chez juliet, played by fellini's wife, giulietta masina. "what are you doing?" the neighbor inquires. "stringing peppers," replies masina. "ah!" cries the woman, "if i could string peppers, i would be saved!"
swedes don't need yoga. they find inner peace through home economics. how many men do you know who make their own pants? how many bachelors, of any sexual proclivity, who bake fresh bread twice a week?
i lost my virginity in central park. i danced every night at the mudd club and studio 54. i've lived in paris. i was on the sopranos. david bowie bought me a cheeseburger. now, there's little i want more than this, my remote scandinavian backwater. wait -- i take that back. i need new york too -- like the turkey needs the axe.
as an illustrator i can work, via e-mail, from anyplace there is internet access. new york and sweden. i want both. toward that end, i am now in the process of applying for a swedish green card. i was complaining of the difficulty and expense of this bureaucratic nightmare, when lene pointed out that i was blessed to have marvelous lives on either side of the pond and had no right to grouse. she said, "we have an expression in sweden: it's like you want to have your cake and eat it, too." i corrected her. "no. it's like i want to have my cake, eat it too, and then i want more cake!"
i had a frank conversation with immigration. it went something like this:
lr: i'm an american citizen, but i want to buy a house in sweden. what are the rules for residency here?
im: so you're married to a swede?
lr: no, i'm not married.
im: oh, so sorry. so you're living with a swedish man, then.
lr: no. but i once was married to a swedish man.
im: okay, then!
lr: but we divorced in 1985.
im: that's too bad.
lr: you're telling me!
im: so, you have children in sweden? swedish children?
lr: no. no children.
im: no children? oh, well. perhaps a swedish company employs you.
lr: no, not employed.
im: no job?
lr: i'm freelance.
lr: but i have a lot of friends here.
im: oh, friends don't count.
im: but what reason could you possibly have to want to live here?
lr: the way you're talking, you make me feel like i have no reason to want to live at all. no man, no job, no children…wait! i have an ex mother-in-law in helsingborg.
im: that doesn't mean anything.
lr: but she loves me very much!
im: look, we here in sweden are very liberal. you don't have to be married. but to live here permanently and get a green card, you have prove you are in a serious personal relationship. like for a couple of months or something.
lr: a couple of months? is that all you people care about? sex? i have to be having swedish sex?
im: well, yeah!
lr: i'll see what i can do.
the city of gothenburg was built on highly absorbent clay. legend has it that this clay makes one sink in and stay. there might be something to that because while you are reading this, i'm on my way.