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Which famous American do everyday Americans find most inspirational?

Inside the secret society of Swedish grocery store owners

Every Monday morning in my Swedish language class, the teacher asks everyone what they did over the weekend. Since all the students have a variety of native languages – German, Spanish, English – this discussion of the weekend’s events, like most of the class, is all in Swedish. It makes for a nice way to get everyone to exercise their basic Swedish language skills before we dive into things like past participles and vocabulary.

This week, I may have had the most unexpected tale of what I had done over the weekend. Saturday night I went to the Stockholms Livsmedelshandlareförening Årsmöte. Yes, that 26-character string of letters is a real word, and it’s not the longest one I saw during the event.

The Livsmedelshandlareförening is the food retailers’ association. These are people who own grocery stores in Stockholm and this was their annual meeting, conference, and dinner. Sure, I love food, but this trait alone is not enough to be invited to party with the grocery store owners. Nor is a love of food sufficient to gain access to the world premiere of their spellbinding annual budget PowerPoint show.

No, I was a substitute date for my friend Iida whose boyfriend Erik is on tour with his band Tiger Lou and could not attend. Your loss, dude!

Iida, who has worked in an ICA grocery store for several years, was one of about thirty grocery employees from all around Stockholm who was being honored with a stipendium, a sort of scholarship to study the business. The award is worth thousands of dollars and is no small honor.

Working in a grocery store in Sweden, I should mention, is not exactly the same experience one would have doing so in the United States. Even after taxes are taken out, she is earning more per year than I was before taxes as a designer at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville or as a photo editor at Hasbro Toys in Providence.

Not only that, but she gets free health care, five weeks of annual paid vacation, and money for college. Does she get all this because ICA is an awesome company? No, she gets it because every Swedish worker gets it.

If she got married and had a kid, she and her husband or partner are entitled to a combined total of 480 days off of work, the vast majority of which are paid days at 80% of your regular daily wage. Each partner gets 60 dedicated days, but if the man wants to work while the woman stays home (or vice versa) he can give the mother his 180 remaining days.

It’s embarrassing to compare these universal rights with the idea of trying to raise a child while working at a Kroger or Wal-Mart. I know that there plenty of Americans who are doing that and making it work, but it cannot be pleasant, easy, or beneficial for the child or parents. Life does not have to be such a struggle.

Call it socialism if you want to, but I think there’s a lot to be said for pooling resources in order to ease everyone’s burden. It takes so much of the worry out of people’s lives. Even though the United States has some of the lowest taxes in the industrialized world, Americans always want them lower. Well, you get what you pay for. But back to Saturday’s grocery owners’ meeting…

The occasion was a very fancy, dress-up affair at Operakällaren, an opulent expanse of dining and dance halls that dates back to the 1700’s. One part of the complex includes the legendary Café Opera where every imaginable rock star, fashion designer, model, actor, or millionaire has partied over the years. We weren’t in that part of the building, but where we were was no less ornate. The height and decoration of the walls and ceilings is rivaled by gigantic windows, offering striking views of the harbor, the Royal Palace, and Swedish Parliament.

Operakällaren is located on Kungsträdgården, the quarter-mile-long public plaza with rows of cherry blossom trees that we saw in Sunday’s story.

Before going inside, we met Iida’s boss and his wife outside the building. Iida’s boss owns the ICA store she works in, so he is really her boss’ boss. He’s the Big Man and the one who suggested she should apply for the award. I had to be on my best behavior. This, combined with my first shirt-and-tie experience in the country and my limited knowledge of the evening’s language, I felt, well, let’s say apprehensive. I’m here for new experiences, though, and the Stockholm grocery store owners’ association’s annual meeting certainly promised to be such a thing.

The function lasted more than six hours and was a succession of several events.

Act One was a seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation of the association’s budget. This was held in a long, drop-ceiling side room with a podium, projector, and many rows of attractive (yet borderline-uncomfortable) seats. Upon entering the room, we discovered that the evening’s honorees were seated in a special section near the front of the room. That put me and my pre-kindergarten mastery of the Swedish language next to the boss and his wife. I’m an adult. I can do this.

This presentation lasted forever. Each PowerPoint slide consisted of lists of numbers and super-long words in black Helvetica on a white background. No graphs, no pie charts, not even any generic clip art that came with the computer. I quickly determined that this was the organization’s annual budget. They were detailing where all the money comes from and how they are spending it.

As each slide came up on the screen, the guy would read what it said. These fantastically long Swedish words are essentially compound words on steroids. If you know the smaller parts you can figure out the whole word. The English equivalent of the name of the association, for example, Livsmedelshandlareförening, would be Grocerymerchantassociation. Decoding long words is how I spent most of my time during the presentation. A few times I wanted to yell, “Wait! Go back!” as I was putting a word together when the slide changed.

During this part of the meeting, they were also adopting new plans and the appointment of board members with oral votes. The presenter would ask a question and most everyone in the room would just say “ja” all at once. Naturally, I abstained from voting because, as you know, I do not own a grocery store in Stockholm.

After a short break, the awards were given out. This was your typical hold-your-applause-until-the-end presentation with some older fellows shaking hands with the recipients and giving them framed certificates. The applause rule was broken when one of the young ladies who received a scholarship gave the presenter a big, warm hug instead of shaking his hand. Nice.

It seemed that probably all 200 or so people in the room were exhausted from the two-hour marathon of numbers and awards. This caused a few people to get visually uneasy when a stereotypically nerdy-looking man from the IT department took the stage for yet another PowerPoint lecture. Dressed in a plaid jacket with a wide necktie, thick glasses, pocket protector, and an ID badge, this guy had awkward written all over him.

My first impression was that someone would only be dressed this way in Sweden if it was a joke or a costume. I was right. His talk was supposed to be about the organization’s marketing plans for the future, but he was actually a hired comedian with a fake presentation. I think it took some of the people in the room a little longer to catch on that it wasn’t for real. The things he was saying got progressively more outlandish and people slowly began laughing. By the time it was over the entire room was in hysterics.

His tempo was pretty insane. Charts and graphs flew by quickly and he hardly took a breath. Some of his PowerPoint slides were absolutely hilarious. Words and logos would appear on screen and burst into flames. A graph would appear, another part would be added to it, and another, and another, et cetera, until the screen was an indecipherable mess or text and arrows. One of the new strategies he unveiled involved getting grocery store employees to move into the homes of customers to have children with them, thereby creating more customers. A chart illustrated the different steps in the process.

Having this comic relief at the end of the serious meeting was a nice way of making the transition to the more social aspect of the evening.

Act Two of the evening involved a standing meet-and-greet for all the attendees. This took place in one of the large, glass-enclosed rooms. There was plenty of free wine and formal attendants in white coats making sure your glass was never half-empty. Whenever people are speaking Swedish, I try to listen and keep up with the conversation topics as much as possible, even if I can’t really participate yet. But while Iida was chatting with her boss and his wife, I kind of drifted out of it while looking out the windows. I had one of those moments where I started looking around and wondering how I got here. It occurred to me that most of the magnificent buildings I was looking at were older than Louisville.

This daydream didn’t last long as I was hurled headlong into a Swedish conversation about exactly that. I was asked about why I came to Sweden and about my progress in learning the language. My language skills were put to the test and although everything I said probably had all the finesse of the dubbing on a karate movie, I suffered only a couple stalls when I felt everyone was waiting for me to come up with the next word.

A couple nights later, Iida told me her boss mentioned that I didn’t sound American when I was speaking Swedish and he was impressed with my sväng – the rhythm or swing of the language. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a really tall mountain in Swedish, so hearing that comment made me feel like I’m actually making some progress. It also occurred to me later that none of what I said or heard from the couple was in English. They are the first people I’ve met who know me only in Swedish.

The third and final act of the evening was a multi-course dinner in yet another glass-walled ballroom. Large, round, 12-person tables were adorned with white table cloths, candlelight, and punctuated with place settings that included collections of special utensils and glasses.

I became aware that my American-style treatment of table utensils was laughable and stereotypical within a couple weeks of arriving in Sweden. By “American-style” I mean using the side of the fork as a knife and using the spoon as a shovel. Even in casual situations, Swedes respect the proper use of their utensils. The meal we were treated to made appropriate use of every tool on the table.

Needless to say, if you’re hosting a banquet for people who sell food for a living, the dinner should be fantastic. It was nothing short of that. Even the vegetarian option we were offered was painfully delicious. The same aforementioned army of white-jacketed severs kept the wine and successive courses of food coming throughout the night. By the time the warm chocolate souffle with raspberries was delivered for dessert, I was feeling positively guilty if not humbled for being treated to all of it.

What we weren’t quite expecting with our dinner was the live band. Before the appetizer was served, everyone in this elaborate dining hall was instantly made embarrassed by being thrust into an eighties tribute act called Flashback. I have never seen so many ill-at-ease people trying to be polite in my life. Flashback took the stage, introduced themselves, and played one song – “You’re the Inspiration.” The band consisted of bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, and four lead singers/dancers. Periodically, between the courses of the dinner, they returned in new, matching stage costumes, to play 10-minute medleys of the eighties songs we’d all like to forget ever happened. This photo is Iida watching them. Yes, our table was right up front, perhaps the most discomforting location in the room.

One of the evening’s highlights came late in the dinner. An elderly gentleman took the stage to make a short speech. More than a century years ago, sort of by accident, his great-grandfather had started the fund that had allowed the scholarships to be awarded. In his last will and testament he left a small amount of money behind with the instructions that it be used for this purpose. The fund had grown over the years and now millions of kronors are given away for training every year. Not a bad legacy.

There was allegedly going to be some dancing involved after dinner, but we successfully ducked out of the place in time to avoid finding out if that was true. Having met up for the event around 4:00 that afternoon, it was now nearly 11:30. We were quite full – Swedish full and English full and… that would be sufficiently wined and dined.

Those grocery store owners really know how to run a meeting. I think the version I told here is probably a little more detailes than the one my Swedish class got. That class is only two and a half hours long.

Cherry blossoms at Kungsträdgården

Here are a few scenes of cherry blossoms in bloom at Kungsträdgården (the King’s Tree Garden), a long open plaza lined with trees in central Stockholm.

The garden dates back to the 1400’s and although it has been modified for private purposes over the centuries, it is now a public space about a quarter-mile in length. It hosts ice skating in the winter, concerts in the summer, and is dotted with fountains, restaurants, and outdoor cafés.

Here’s a satellite view of it so you can get an idea of how far the rows of trees stretch through the city.

This reeeeal old timey image is how it looked in 1716. Seems like just yesterday. There is now a TGIFriday’s at the north end, where all those people are standing in the front of the picture. That’s just America’s way of giving the place a little class. You’re welcome, Sweden.

More Stairs and Coffee

Public stairs in Sweden almost always have accompanying ramps or elevators. The ramps are used for wheelchairs, bicycles, rolling suitcases, baby carriages, you name it. Here is a small sampling of some around Stockholm.

Rådmansgatan Tunnelbana Station

Pendeltåg (commuter train) platform at Handen.

Also in Handen near the Pendeltåg station.

Adjacent to Medborgarplatsen (Citizens Plaza).

The coffee shop you can see in the last image is in the base of Söder Torn, the tall, octagonal building I described in an earlier discussion of stairs and architecture.

A lot of the coffee shops in Stockholm are named in English with monikers that seem designed to sound American. The Swedish word for “coffee” is kaffe, but around town you’ll see places named Coffee By George, Wayne’s Coffee, Espresso House, Robert’s Coffee, The Coffee Spot, just to name a few.

Although Starbucks has about 14,000 stores in 40 countries, there’s not a single one in Sweden. The closest one to Stockholm is in the Copenhagen airport, about six hours away in Denmark.

I always enjoy going to different places to get coffee to see how they do things differently. Really, if you open your own coffee shop, there are any number of ways to make it look. Especially in a design-conscious place like Sweden, there are a variety of gorgeous and creative examples of what can be done. It doesn’t have to have the uniformed, corporate look, and the same assortment of beverages.

But it’s no secret that some of the coffee chains here – like Wayne’s Coffee and Espresso House – are filling in the Starbucks void with derivative designs and products. That’s fine. I’m not a coffee snob and I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just reporting the news here, people. I’ve been to a Wayne’s and an Espresso House within the past week.

För Svankvinna i tiden

As I mentioned before, most of Sweden’s coins carry a picture of King Carl XVI Gustaf, a man who is still alive and just 62 years old.

Every time he buys something, he pays with money that has his own picture on it. I’m sure he’s used to it now, but when he became king at age 27, it must have been weird at some point, like the first time he saw the coin. Perhaps it’s not strange at all since the previous coins had a picture of his dad (correction: his grandfather). Then again, he’s the king, so it’s possible that he never actually buys anything for himself, rather, he has people doing all that kind of stuff for him.

His profile image is updated periodically, so if you get an older coin he looks much younger. In every photograph I’ve ever seen of the King, he is wearing glasses, yet on the coins he is mysteriously unbespectacled. Yes, I think I just made up that word. It means “not wearing glasses.” Does he have contacts in or is it just not respectable to be bespectacled?

In America, there has been a debate going on for years about whether or not to stop making pennies. For quite some time it has cost more than one cent to produce the one-cent coins. Sweden is going to cease minting of its smallest coin next year. Interestingly, the 50 öre piece is worth about six cents in US currency.

If I was the king – which I had high hopes of becoming until that rascal Daniel Westling got engaged to Crown Princess Victoria about two weeks after I moved here – I’d probably carry around a little loose change. Jingle it in my pockets. Show people my picture. No big deal.

Daniel and Victoria aren’t getting married until next year, so anything can happen. I’d hate to split up the happy couple, as they are the darlings of the Swedish media, besides, I’ve really always had my eye on the younger sister, Princess Madeleine.

That’s Madeleine smiling there on the right. Victoria is behind her, not as happy because she has the weight of the throne on her shoulders for the rest of her life. Princess Victoria can look forward to being the first female to have her picture on a Swedish coin since 1720. Daniel Westling will be able to say, “Wanna see a picture of my wife?” each time he pulls a coin out.

Each time Sweden gets a new monarch, that person selects a new slogan or motto. Some of the previous ones have been “Sveriges väl” (Sweden’s welfare), “Folkets kärlek min belöning” (The people’s love is my reward), and “Plikten framför allt” (Duty above all). Currently, the obverse side of Sweden’s coins are christened with “För Sverige i tiden” (For Sweden, with the times). King Carl XVI Gustaf picked that out when he took the reins in 1973.

In addition to choosing a more modest and contemporary royal motto, he also made addressing the king less ostentatious. Since the 16th Century, the king of Sweden has been referred to with an elegant title that roughly translates to “By the Grace of God the King of Sweden.” Carl XVI Gustaf ended that tradition by humbling it simply to “Sveriges Konung” (Sweden’s King). So maybe he isn’t so crazy about having his picture on the money. From what I’ve gathered, he seems like a very private and quiet guy. I hope that will make it easier for me to talk to him at family events when he’s my father-in-law.

I’m kidding, of course. I’m sure that if I end up with a Swedish girlfriend she’ll probably be someone like the Svankvinna. This lady is Sweden’s answer to the woman who had 130 cats. The Svankvinna (“swan woman”) is a 68-year-old lady who got busted with eleven swans living in her tiny, 85-square-foot apartment in central Stockholm. Her neighbors and the police thought there was a corpse in the building until they looked through her mail slot and saw a bunch of little swan feet walking around. What I wouldn’t give to see that view! “Chief, you better take a look for yourself.”

Iida told me about the Svankvinna last night when we overheard some guys in town using her name when saying that someone was crazy. Apparently if someone thinks you’re nuts, they can call you Svankvinna. This guy called her the Svantant (“swan old lady”), so I guess he has his own nickname for her. He’s an independent thinker and not about to follow the rules by using the media’s common name for her.

Anyway, the Svankvinna was “rescuing” all these giant birds and keeping them in her apartment to “help” them. She gave them baths in the tub every two or three days and carried them around in big, plastic Ikea bags! Awesome. She “fixed” one of their broken legs with a popsicle stick and tape. I love her!

This article about her is in svenska, but there are some priceless photos of the cops cleaning out her apartment. Even though the police in Sweden seem downright friendly compared to their American counterparts, it must be so hard to look authoritative when loading a trailer full of swans.

She told the newspaper that she usually doesn’t keep so many swans there and the apartment is usually cleaner, but they came on a bad day. Oh, I’m sure they did. As many as 150 swans had gone through her place over a period of seven years. Nice.

Unfortunately, my sweet Svankvinna was convicted of animal abuse and of being bat-ass crazy, and a few of the swans died.

Well, it’s Friday night, so I’m off to see if I can get a date with the Svankvinna. If she’s half as pretty as her blurred-out face in the newspaper… Well, I’ll let you know how it goes.

It’s beginning!

Long days where the sun never goes down are the type of thing that you just don’t believe until you see them. It’s something that people from Kentucky read about in books or see in movies. This summer will be my first experience with such extended sunlight and it is already beginning.

Wednesday night, I was up pretty late working on some stuff. When I was shutting everything down to go to sleep at about 3:40 AM, something outside caught my eye. The photo here is the sunrise over Haninge at about quarter ’til four in the morning.

Today is the warmest day since I arrived in February, a sunny, gorgeous 15° (59°F). Read it and weep, cold darkness!

Daily Show visits Sweden

Life in this socialist hellhole is just awful. Finally, the American news media has sent an investigative journalist to uncover the real story of what the radical leftist Obama regime is trying to do to our beloved United States.

“Wyatt Cenac travels to Sweden to wake them up from their socialist nightmare.” The videos are full of familiar scenes and locations in Stockholm.

If the embedded videos below don’t work, try these links to Part One and Part Two.

Part One:

Part Two:

What the…

Language, temperature, currency, distances, weight, geography. I thought my list of things I have to re-learn was complete. Then it came time to do the laundry. This control panel greeted me:

Needless to say, I had to look up some words, Google some symbols, and convert some temperatures. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on based on the symbols and colors, but you can never be too safe when it comes to laundry. After all, clothes are the bulk of all my worldly possessions at the moment. I wouldn’t want to end up with an entire load of pink clothes, like I did in Germany once upon a time.

While I was looking up that stuff, out of curiosity, I did an image search to find a photo of the controls on the washing machine I was accustomed to using in Louisville. Here it is below: two knobs!

Some things are so American that I think they are comical and endearing at the same time. This control panel is certainly one of those things. When I saw it again, I laughed heartily, but I also had a warm feeling similar to when you see a little kid with chocolate all over their face. Awww, there, there, little buddy…

I especially love that one of the load sizes is “Super!” …and whoever took this picture had the knob in that position. Yes, in America you can even super-size your housework. Laundry sucks. Put that fucker on Super. I’m washin’ everything at once!

It’s true, though, American appliances are monsters in comparison. Monstrous perhaps even compared to some of the cars here. For example, this tiny delivery truck I saw today.

On the topic of knobs, controls, appliances, and consumer products, there is a new documentary about industrial design out now in America called Objectified. It is directed by Gary Hustwit who made one of my favorite movies, Helvetica, a documentary about the typeface of the same name.

Based on the trailer, I expect Objectified to go into some psychological detail about our reactions to devices and products. Though it will probably be a long while until I can see it, I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to hearing the ideas the designers and experts interviewed in the film have on human emotional responses to everyday products. My friend John recenty sent me a link to this gigantic page of cassette tapes. It brought back so many memories, I couldn’t finish looking at it.

Helvetica is now on DVD. Nothing short of fascinating. Below is Helvetica itself in use at Älvsjö, one of Stockholm’s Pendeltåg stations. Älvsjö was formerly the word I was having the most trouble pronouncing. I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to type it out phonetically. Maybe “el-fuh-whehh” is my best shot at that. Swedish is almost as much about inflection as pronunciation. The entire language is like a song. I think I’ve got this one word down. Now I’m stuck on dygn.

Sweden: not so far away after all

A great deal of the writing I’ve done here has been observing the subtle differences between the people and cultures of Sweden and the United States.

This morning, I saw this article on the CNN site. It’s about Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s address to the National Press Club in Washington this week. He discussed his belief that life from elsewhere has been to Earth. “There really is no doubt we are being visited,” he said.

Mitchell isn’t the only astronaut or NASA insider to have said things like this publicly, but hearing it from him is perhaps more unique because of his personal history.

Edgar Mitchell was born in Roswell, New Mexico, where an unidentified craft was said to have crashed in 1947. He was 17 at the time and was undoubtedly intrigued by the newspaper stories and rumors that the US military had recovered an alien ship with bodies inside.

Twenty-four years later, on the Apollo mission to the Moon, Mitchell became one of the twelve men to have ever left the Earth and landed somewhere else.

It’s remarkable but true. As I wrote about James Irwin a few years ago in K Composite Magazine, only twelve people have ever walked the Moon – or anywhere else that isn’t Earth. They were all white American men. Just like Jesus.

I kind of think of Edgar Mitchell as Earth’s exchange student. Foreigners came to his small town when he was in high school, then years later, he traveled farther away from his hometown than anyone else ever had.

When you look at it from that perspective, Stockholm isn’t really that far away from Louisville. In the perspective of other “people” visiting Earth from farther out in the universe, things like language, public transit, architecture, stairs, currency, measurements, weather, sunlight, et al; they’re really not so different. I mean, it’s not like I’m living in Japan or China. I’m pretty sure those places really are on another planet.

As you can see in the detailed, scientifically-accurate map of the solar system I posted here, Louisville and Stockholm are practically in the same neighborhood. Man, but, after you get past Mars, it’s a long way to the next toilet. (Special note to our friends from Jupiter: I’m just kidding. We don’t really think your planet is a toilet.)

In the 1971 photo above, you can see Edgar Mitchell on the left, Alan Shepard in the middle, and Stuart Roosa on the right. Stuart Roosa? Who the hell is that? I ain’t never heard of him! Me neither. That’s because he was the command module pilot.

On every Apollo mission there was one guy who went on the trip but didn’t get to walk on the Moon. He just had to stay in the module that was orbiting the Moon and pick up the other dudes when they were finished making history. Sucks, man. That was Roosa’s job on 14. And he has red hair, too? Shit. Some people just can’t catch any breaks.

Somebody needs to write a book about post-mission command module pilot depression, or PMCMPD. Maybe I just made this up, but even if there are only six or seven dudes who have the condition, it’s gotta suck to go all the way to Moon and have to wait in the car. Nobody wants to hear that story… especially if Alan Shepard is at the party. Fuck, what’s Roosa doing here? Who invited him?

Shown here is a 3D image of Edgar Mitchell walking on the Moon. How many people do you know who have vacation photos like that? You need red-blue anaglyph glasses to see it in 3D, but if you happen to have my Nashville Geographic album, the glasses that came with that CD will work. Looks like you can get it used on Amazonfor 63 cents.

See, even though this was all about our place in the universe, I brought it back around and found a way to make it about me and one of my old CDs. Still got it!

Here is another photo Alan Shepard took of Mitchell on the Moon. This one is in regular, boring 2D. It seems like Shepard is sneaking up behind Mitchell. I think that would pretty much scare the shit out of anybody, if you’re on the Moon and somebody grabs you unexpectedly. Ultimate vacation prank! Not funny, dude, I just used up half my oxygen.

While all this hootenanny is going on, I imagine poor Stuart Roosa orbiting in the command module taking pictures of himself and updating his MySpace page. Mood: lonely.

Windows and stairs

Since my first visit to Stockholm in the 1990s, this tall, octagonal building on Södermalm has always caught my attention. Perhaps because it seems so imposing and monolithic, I had always assumed it was from the 1940s or ’50s. In fact, it was essentially brand new the first time I saw it.

Söder Torn (“South Tower”) was completed in 1997. It has twenty-four floors of apartments, a swimming pool in the basement, retail and a coffee shop on the ground level, and an extended-height, glass-enclosed party room on top, with 360° views of the city.

There never seems to be any shortage of windows in Swedish buildings. Swedes have a bit of a love affair with the sun. I guess all people do, really, but when you don’t get to see much sunlight for a few months a year, I suppose any opportunity must be exploited. The downside of wanting to have so many windows is that for half of each year it is insanely cold outside. Drafty windows can get costly. The compromise between having lots of windows and keeping warm is making the windows thick.

This is a typical triple-pane window that I was able to get a picture of in some degree of disassembly as the roommate is still in the process of cleaning and painting everything.

Sometimes important details are so obvious that they go unnoticed. One of the most unpleasant parts of living in an apartment building is being able to hear your neighbors through the walls, floors, and ceilings. Swedes are generally much quieter people than Americans. There isn’t constantly music playing everywhere, people yelling “whooohoooo” all the time, and it’s unusual to hear a loud vehicle outside.

You would think some types of noise are parts of the natural world and would be outside of much control, like the sound of people walking up and down the stairs in a building. Amazingly, there seems to be a solution for that as well. I’ve noticed in a lot of buildings – even older ones – that the stairs are fixed to a center column and not attached to the walls. This keeps the vibration and booming sounds of heavy feet isolated away from the apartment walls.

This is such a great idea that it blows my mind. It is so widespread here and yet I have never noticed it in any American buildings. As you can see in the images here, the stairs are narrower here, so my guess is that US fire codes and gigantic people are part of the reason that American stairs all seem to have a similar wide, rectangular, back-and-forth, bookshelf quality.

I wouldn’t have any clue as to how to begin researching something as obscure as the origin or reasons for the popularity of certain architectural features in different cultures. (Maybe here?)

I do know that these types of stairs are not new. I’ve seen them in many older buildings, even in half-century-old apartment houses from the Marshall Plan era, which are relatively prevalent. The building I’m living in in Hagsätra seems to be at least forty or fifty years old and has the round stairs you see here with orange walls.

I guess there could be a few inconveniences about stairs like these. For instance, if you drop your keys near the rail, you may need to walk down eight floors to find them. Also, if two of the aforementioned gigantic people were walking in opposite directions on the stairs, one would probably need to wait on the landing for the other to pass. Moving furniture on tiny stairs is also a real treat. At least it’s only a pain in the ass for you and not disruptive for your neighbors.


Swedish language trivia, Part 1

Because only about 10 million people speak Swedish, the language has considerably fewer words than English, a language that there are easily over a billion people using.

English is a primary language in Great Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and has tens of millions of speakers in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, and all over Europe. The British Council estimates about 750 million people speak English as a foreign language. That provides a lot of opportunity for new terms, expressions, and words to be born.


Despite the less widespread prevalence of the Swedish language, it does have quite a few unique and efficient words that have no English equivalents, perhaps a reflection of the creativity of the Swedish people.

We’ve discussed lagom, the prevailing Swedish concept of “just enough” that is seen in everything from work ethics to furniture design. And we’ve touched on fika, the relaxing afternoon coffee and snack break. I have discovered a few more!

For example, when talking about family relationships, there are quite a few useful words. If you’re talking about your grandmother on your father’s side of the family, there’s a special word for that: farmor (literally “father’s mother”). If you’re talking about your niece who is your brother’s kid, that person is your brorsdotter (“brother’s daughter”). These words are quite economical as there is no ambiguity requiring further explanation, like English-speaking people have with the words grandmother, grandfather, nephew, or niece.

Boyfriend-girlfriend couples who live together for an extended period of time, I suppose what we might refer to as “common law marriage” or “living in sin,” are called sambos. Hon är min sambo (“She is my girlfriend who I’m living with”).

There is a nice word, dygn, which means “all-day-all-night” or “24-hours-a-day.” There are lots of ways to say this in English, but dygn pretty much covers it. All the time.

In Swedish, there’s no difference between “there is” and “there are.” Both are det finns.


While those efficient words make things easy, the flipside is also true. Some of the simplicity or lack of words makes understanding a bit more difficult. A few words that I have trouble with are ones that have multiple meanings. I’ve illustrated one of my favorites, tjänst, in a chart below.

Like many languages, in Swedish every noun has a gender. English makes this easy because people and animals are obviously masculine or feminine while all objects are neuter. A few exceptions are countries and vehicles which are referred to as “she.” It’s not so easy in Swedish where everything is masculine, feminine, or “common.” There are no solid rules and genders are applied arbitrarily. When you learn the word for something, you should pretty much learn the gender at the same time.

Swedish microbrew and other oxymorons

More than one of my friends has asked about the availability of unique beers and the world of microbrewing in Sweden. I’m sorry to report that the laws here make it pretty difficult to open a brewery. There are fewer than forty micros operating in the entire country. In fact, the Wikipedia page for Mikrobryggeri (micro breweries) lists only twelve. In a list of great oxymorons, perhaps “Swedish brewery” could join the all-time greats like “jumbo shrimp,” “peacekeeping force,” and “Microsoft Works.”

If we think the prevalence of Miller and Anheuser-Busch are overwhelming in America, they really don’t hold a candle to the market share that a select few mega-brews enjoy in Sweden. There are several ubiquitous and less-than-awesome beers here like Falcon and Pripps Blå that are among a tiny handful of brands – almost exclusively lagers – that most places have on tap. Those two are both part of the Carlsberg Group from Denmark, the number-one producer of beer in Sweden, who enjoys nearly 40% of the market.

In an earlier story, I described how all alcohol and beer over 3.5% ABV is sold by a single retailer, the state-owned Systembolaget. They have limited hours and a hit-or-miss selection. You can special-order considerably more varieties from their hefty catalog if you are dedicated enough to purchase an entire case. Because “Systemet” is buying in such huge volumes – warehousing for an entire country of nine million people – some of their prices are reasonable. However, since the taxes are based on the alcohol content, some of the prices are, ehhh, not so good. It really depends on what you’re buying. That said, I’m searching for good beers as much as I can.

I’m a big fan of super dark porters and stouts. My favorites to enjoy in America were Founders Breakfast Stout and Kentucky Breakfast, Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter, BBC Heine Brothers Stout and Knob Creek Russian Imperial Porter (from Louisville!), Dogfish Palo Santo Marron, and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. You know, stuff like that. Beers that look like tar, pour like molasses, and should be consumed sitting down when you’re not planning on going anywhere for a while.

I also quite enjoyed McEwan’s Scotch Ale and Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, but after making a list of favorites that includes things like Kentucky Breakfast and Palo Santo, I think of McEwan’s and Old Engine Oil as gateway drugs.

Naturally, I don’t want to poo-poo any of the fantastic Belgian beers, pilseners, Kölsches, or anything else I also enjoy, but the dark and heavy shit is where it’s really at for me.

There is an awesome bar in Stockholm called Akkurat which is world famous for their extensive selection. They have over 600 different beers from around the world. The place ain’t cheap, so I’ve only gone once, but it’s a haven and heaven for beer enthusiasts who find themselves trapped in Sweden. All other things considered, it’s one of the best places in the world to be trapped. It’s nice to know Akkurat is there if I need it or if I have visitors from America. Amazingly, a place like Akkurat would have been impossible just 15 years ago because, believe it or not, beer over 5.6% has only been legal in Sweden since 1995.

Akkurat where I discovered the Smuttynose Robust Porter from New Hampshire. The bottle was 75 kronors (about 9 bucks), but damn it was good! I’m not sure how it escaped me, but it’s always fun to discover something new, even if it means traveling to the other side of the world to find new things from America. I have to mention, though, the packaging on this beer looks so stupid it could have been a deal-breaker if it wasn’t such a mouthful of taste. “Robust” is absolutely right.

Despite the limited variety of local brews, I have actually found a few good Swedish beers I like. I enjoyed the Carnegie Porter before I moved here, so it’s a treat now that I can get it for less than half the price I was paying in Louisville. Carnegie is also now part of Carlsberg. A few weeks ago I discovered Oppigårds Starkporter, which is now my favorite Swedish beer. I may have to visit my local Systembolaget today for a Friday indulgence. The dollar has been going up the past few days so I can also use that as an excuse.

Although this article from The Local is a few years old, I think it paints a good, general picture of the beer scene in Sweden. I recently learned of the Stockholm Beer Festival that is coming up in September. That’s something to look forward to.

Ah, festivals… something Kentucky does well. I certainly haven’t forgotten that tomorrow is my favorite day of the year in Louisville. I’m missing it. When I lived in Rhode Island and Los Angeles, I was able to make the trip back for Thunder Over Louisville. This time, I’m a little farther away. I hope someone, somewhere – on a rooftop, back yard, or in a crowd of 600,000 people whose cellphones don’t work – will have a little drink for me as they watch a million dollars explode in the sky over the city.

Just in time for Earth Day, Thunder is the largest annual fireworks display in North America and usually lasts more than a half hour. Here’s the last few minutes from a previous year, complete with cheesy soundtrack…

Grocery carts, food, pants sizes

I noticed while on tours with the band over the years that a lot of Europeans go to the grocery store every day. The same seems to be the case here. It’s a lot different than the several-hour expedition Americans make to stock up for the month. Naturally, most grocery stores here are not super-sized markets that cover several acres and dwarf concert halls. They are mostly somewhere between that and a corner convenience store.

This photo is of one of the carts at the ICA in Hagsätra, which is sized appropriately for the amount of food most of the customers seem to be buying each time I visit. On top are a loaf of bread, veggie burgers, curry sauce. Mmmmmm.

Speaking of volumes of food, my weight seems to have leveled off around 76 kg (167 lbs). That’s nice and I’m happy with that. Early last year when I was on a business trip at the headquarters building in Atlanta, they had a scale next to the vending machines. I weighed myself and when 209 pounds (95 kg) was displayed, I was totally shocked that it had gotten so out of hand. I love food, but I had to draw the line.

I simply stopped eating so much. I started drinking more water, fewer sodas, and tried not to eat late at night. I didn’t keep a lot of food in the house, and I began walking as much as possible to anywhere nearby I needed to go instead of driving. I think the walking and elimination of carbonated beverages probably had the biggest effect. I still like to try different unusual sodas now and then, but it is incredibly rare that I buy or drink an entire soda. My head-start in America combined with the extensive daily walking I’m doing here have paid off.

The weird part about losing weight here is that I feel like I’m eating a lot. Perhaps more walking requires more fuel or maybe I’m lucky enough to have gotten a tapeworm. The bad news is that all of my pants are falling off of me now. When I bought these 36’s I had to suck it in a little. Now if I push my belly out, it doesn’t fill them. The good news is that in central Stockholm there is an H&M on every corner.

When I’m not eating paint, during the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting a bit in the kitchen. This is something new for me. In the past, I have been accused of eating “little kid food.” This is an accusation I flatly deny! Most kids don’t like spicy foods or anything remotely exotic, such as Indian cuisine.

Curry is one of my weaknesses. If I go to a restaurant and see something with curry, my mind basically shuts down and I can’t really read anything else on the menu. I have to get the curry. Needless to say, when cooking for myself, curry is one of my favorite ingredients.

This photo is of a curry dish I threw together recently. We’ve got broccoli, cauliflower, and potatoes in a thick yellow curry sauce. While it was cooking, I mixed some peanut butter in with the curry and let a whole egg sit in the middle of the pan. When it was all almost ready to eat, I broke open the half-cooked egg. There were bits of hard-boiled egg, but the center was still liquid, and I let that run all through the mix. Oh boy was this goooood. The mix of curry and peanut butter are something really unique: two great tastes that go great together, as they say.

360° view from Sofia Kyrka

On Tuesday, I made this 360° View of Stockholm from Sofia Kyrka, which is an old timey church on top of a big hill in Södermalm. They have a nice park around the church where people like to hang out. The file is kind of big so it may take a minute to load. After it does, scroll to the right to take a look around. Enjoy the sunshine!

Back to School with Old Timey Tower

This morning I attended the first of ten 2.5-hour Swedish language classes at Stockholm’s Medborgarskolan. I’m not a fan of school, but I have dedicated myself to becoming proficient in using and understanding the Swedish language, so taking classes is obviously the most efficient way to speed up that process.

Prior to registering for the class, I took a placement test to evaluate which level I should start in. I know a lot of Swedish words and I can put basic sentences together, but more often than not, I’m using the wrong case, verb form, or gender, or just pronouncing everything so poorly that what I’m saying is indecipherable. If I’m just listening to people talk, I think I’m truly taking in maybe 10% of what’s being said.

I knew I shouldn’t be in a class with people who haven’t started learning Swedish yet, but my test score placed me farther along in the courses than I expect to be. I’m at the point where I can follow conversation topics and answer simple questions, but I know I am a long way from being able to confidently say, “I speak Swedish.”

The first few minutes of the class I felt like I was in way over my head. The group of students – all adults – has apparently been studying together before this particular course began. They all know each other and the teacher. He is a cool, older guy who is typically Swedish: white hair, glasses, sweater, super friendly. After a half hour or so, I was more comfortable with being in this level. I noticed that although the other students knew things I didn’t, I also knew things they didn’t.

The class is small with only six students. Four are from Germany and one is from Malta. It was awesome to hear them speaking German before the class started and when explaining things to each other. Maybe I can say that I speak very basic German. I’m not able to have a discussion about economics in German, but I certainly can have a friendly conversation about everyday things. More than a few times, I have had to use German in situations in other countries when it was the only option and I’ve been impressed with myself.

Since I started learning Swedish, I’ve felt the ease of thinking and composing sentences in German slipping away. I’ve been afraid of that. When I try to start writing something in German, as I did with an email to my friend Cornelia yesterday, it quickly slips into Swedish. Regrettably, I ended up keeping the message short and typing it in English.

This morning when I heard my fellow students speaking German, I realized that I’m probably not really losing my ability in German. I understood a lot of what they were saying. The German language is still in my head somewhere and it can come back when it needs to. Hearing it again was like seeing an old friend. I would say that it’s similar the feeling I get if I hear someone speaking English on the sidewalk or in a restaurant, but that happens so much it’s not particularly unusual.

My German is still much better than my Swedish. It comes to me more naturally once it gets going. Of course, that’s because first real class in German was over twenty years ago and I’ve had lots of informal training and practice during those decades, whereas all of my training in Swedish has been informal and self-administered before this morning.

While I may not be losing my German, something I most definitely have lost is knowing anything about substantive case, objects, adverbs, and all that stuff. Jesus, I don’t even know that stuff in English, which I suppose I have to relearn if I expect to understand it in Swedish. Ouch, my poor head.

The class meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, for five weeks. I think it’s going to be incredibly beneficial. There are more advanced classes that follow, if I can afford them when that time comes. If I eventually get a proper job with a Swedish company, language classes are free and provided by the government. That could be nice, though I’ve heard those classes are sometimes not as focused as Medborgarskolan. Those classes are populated with the general immigrant public and I can see where that might not allow for the small class size and direct attention it seems like I’ll be enjoying. My first impression is that Old Timey Tower’s return to school will be a really good investment.

What do Americans love most…

Fake QB

Apple’s newest version of iPhoto has a facial recognition feature. After you identify a few photos of your friends, it begins guessing on other photos. It picks out the faces in a photo and will ask, “Is this Chris Reinstatler?” This allows you to fine-tune the recognition. After it knows who the people in your photos are, it can assemble on-the-fly photo albums of your friends from multiple locations, sessions, film rolls, et cetera.

You may recognize the photo above from when we ran into a guy who looks like a budget version of my brother. iPhoto was not fooled! It picked out the tiny photo of my brother on the iPhone Iida is holding on the left, but it did not recognize the imposter on the right.

Eat my dust

If I fall gravely ill soon, here’s why:

As we have discussed, my chainsmoking Dutch roommate is selling the apartment and so i have to move at the end of April. In preparation for selling the place, he has essentially torn the apartment into pieces to fix it up. He is sanding everything down and repainting it. This has turned the otherwise clean, quiet, and sparsely-decorated space into a noisy, dusty, smelly construction zone. The smell comes from the oil-based paint and turpentine he’s using.

When he first decided he was selling the place and moving back to Holland, I had really only been living there about two weeks. At that time, the plan was for me to move out at the end of March. I had given him two month’s rent upon moving in, so this would mean I’d get half of that back, having only lived there for one month.

That all changed at the end of March when I mentioned that I would begin moving out that coming weekend. I think it dawned on him that he would have to cough up some kronors, so suddenly “the end of April” was the plan. Okay, whatever. We then agreed that I would stay until the money I gave him ran out: end of April.

Yesterday, I got home from a long weekend in Haninge. I was hungry, so I fixed some potatoes to eat. As you know, potatoes are one of the spiciest foods available in Sweden, so my mouth was watering with anticipation.

It’s always a good idea to wash potatoes before you cook them, but never more so than when they are covered in construction dust. Seriously. I washed them thoroughly before boiling them in a big pot. Unfortunately, there was something else I neglected to wash.

Halfway through my meal of potatoes on the balcony, I noticed that there was paint dust all over the inside of the bowl I was eating from. Jesus Christ. I foolishly presumed that if I took a bowl from the cabinet it would be clean. I hadn’t seen the dust because he keeps the blinds closed in the kitchen and the lights aren’t that bright.

Oddly, the discovery that he had sanded down and painted the cabinets with all the food still inside was not surprising. A few days earlier I was washing a bowl with the dish scrubber in the sink when he shouted, “Oh, no! Not this one! This is the one I am using for the paint!” Great. I’m pretty sure I had used that scrubber before, as it is identical to the one for dishes. He then tried to determine which sponge was for the dishes. He didn’t know. Again, great. I’ve been eating food from dishes washed in turpentine.

The icing on the cake came this morning when I saw him washing dishes in the same tub he uses for all his painting supplies. “Really? I said. “You’re doing the dishes in that thing you use to clean your paintbrushes?” He explained to me that the paint on the tub was dry so it wouldn’t come off on the dishes. “I’m not an idiot.” Okay. Whatever you say.

I should have known something was wrong when I first looked at the apartment. I saw something that could have tipped me off, but I ignored it, thinking it must have been a fluke or accident. I’m speaking, of course, about the fact that he puts the toilet paper roll on the dispenser under instead of over.

Now, I know some other people who do this and they get a pass either because they are bat-shit crazy, left-handed, or women. (I’m kidding, of course, being left-handed has nothing to do with it). A lot of people don’t take the time to think about how the roll goes on there and maybe they put it on in under fashion now and then accidentally. This guy does it like that every single time which is worsened by the fact that the spring-loaded dispenser has teeth which prevent the tube from rolling when it is inserted backwards.

Seeing the roll installed like this during my walk-through in February should have been a red flag. Instead, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Serves me right. Now I’m eating paint.

Påsk Afton and Nynäshamn

This weekend, Iida, Erik, and I spent some quality time with Erik’s parents. We visited their house on Saturday for a delicious Easter feast which I would compare to Thanksgiving in America. There was more amazing food than you could eat, plenty of candy, drinks, and football (er, soccer) on television.

Also on hand was a plentiful supply of Påskmust, a traditional Easter cola. This stuff has been around for a hundred years or more. There is also a Christmas version, Julmust, which I tasted back in 1999 when Metroschifter played in Stockholm at Kafe 44. These drinks are so popular that there are several brands and they cause Coca-Cola’s sales to drop when they come out each year. Coke has tried to make their own Påskmust in the past, but they received a lukewarm reaction. I’m not sure how to describe the taste of Påskmust. It’s cola-esque, but maybe with a hint of mint or something. They’re tasty, but I can’t say for sure what they’re like.

I had hoped to see some little kids dressed as Päskkärring (Easter witches) over the weekend, but we didn’t happen upon any. Two little girls from the neighborhood did knock on the door, deliver some homemade cards, and sing a song for us. They collected some candy and applause in exchange for their performance.

Erik’s parents are great. His dad drives a Volvo wagon, much nicer than the one I used to have. Sunday he drove us all down to the ocean at Nynäshamn. His mother is a huge fan of Elvis, which almost excuses her preference of Floyd Patterson over Louisville’s hometown hero Muhammad Ali.

His dad was kind enough to print out a 17-page Swedish test for me since I don’t have a printer yet. It was a placement test to evaluate which class I should start in. The Swedish language is coming to me more and more every day, but I really need to intensify my learning and usage. While most Swedes seem to really enjoy speaking English, I feel like it’s rude for me to not speak the language here.

I took the test this morning in the construction zone where I’m living and scored about 37%. That should probably place me in the second level, but I’m waiting to hear back from the school to find out for sure. As expected, the main things I don’t know are verbs, forms of verbs, and forms of adjectives. It was a written test, so it doesn’t take into account how much my pronunciation sucks.

Sunday morning, we also walked to a nearby lake in Haninge. The last of the winter ice can be seen floating in this photo of me traversing the dock. A couple weeks ago people were walking on the frozen water, now they’re fishing in the sunshine. The hours of daylight in the mornings and evenings are getting noticeably longer each day.

Påsk ägg party

Here are some scenes from Friday night’s Påsk ägg (Easter egg) party in Haninge. What would the chickens think if they saw us painting their eggs?

Camilla and Cookie.

A nice collection of Påsk äggen (Easter eggs) art.

Cookie’s egg is hatching a demon squirrel.

Iida’s shark egg.

Axel (whose name means “shoulder”) and myself.

Iida and Erik.

Sunset in Haninge

A visit from the TV tax man

In Sweden, there is a television and radio tax which supplies funding for the state-run SVT television networks and SR radio networks. In order to pay for the regulation of the airwaves and the operation of the networks, everyone who owns a television must pay a tax which is about $250 a year (roughly 2000 kr).

These networks are like PBS and NPR on steroids: five different television networks and more than forty streams of radio programming. They include services like PBS and NPR – news, documentaries, and children’s programming – but they also have comedies, movies, reality shows, dramatic series, et cetera. Of course, Sweden has a multitude of commercially-operated television and radio stations as well.

Both SVT and SR have services that I use regularly that other stations don’t offer. Sveriges Radio runs a daily 10-minute program called “Klartext” which is the day’s news in simple, clear Swedish. This is available as free podcast through iTunes and I used to listen to it every night in Louisville when going to sleep. On television, most SVT programs have the option of onscreen text, like Closed Captioning in America. Both of these services are helpful for anyone learning the Swedish language because pronunciation and dialects are difficult to get used to. When you hear the language spoken, it is sometimes not how you would expect it to sound from the way it is written. On paper, my Swedish comprehension is way farther along than where it is with the spoken language. My pronunciation is evidently still quite hilarious. Fy fan!

Anyway, I had heard tale of this mysterious TV tax, and sure enough, Wednesday evening the TV and radio tax man came to the door in Hägsatra. My roommate Sander wasn’t home, so I just took the paperwork and acted like I didn’t know anything about it. By law, the man collecting the tax is not permitted to enter your home or apartment. You can just tell him you don’t have a television and he is not allowed to look around to see if that’s true or not. I get the impression that most people aren’t so dishonest, again surprising, since Americans are always busy perfecting the art of the scam. However, I also heard that the TV man only comes to your house if you don’t pay the bill they send in the mail. If that’s the case, nobody in our building is sending it in voluntarily.

There are a few catches about the tax that Swedes get temperamental about. If you own a television but only use it to watch DVD movies and never watch any broadcasts, you still have to pay the tax. Also, if your television doesn’t work, you still have to pay the tax.

When I was at the Kristofer Åström show, my phone started ringing. As soon as I saw Sander’s name on the phone, I knew it was about the TV tax. I knew he was probably freaking out because he thought we were going to have to pay the tax. Sure enough, when I arrived home later, he was bouncing off the walls. He had unplugged the television and hidden in the closet.

I told him that the TV tax man was very persistent (which he wasn’t) and that I said we had three televisions (which we don’t). Anyway, the tax is per viewing residence, not per television set. Eventually, after I could see that Sander’s head was going to explode, I told him the truth.

Kristofer Åström

I went to see Kristofer Åström again Wednesday night. This show was in the bar at Södrateatern, which is a beautiful old building that is kind of like a mall of performance venues. I believe there are four different concert spaces in the complex as well as several bars and a huge outdoor patio that overlooks the city.

Although our spell of gorgeous weather has taken a break to make way for some April showers, the views are still quite nice.

Here is the view looking toward Gamla Stan from one of the rooms at Södra Bar. This room has floor-to-ceiling windows all around but most of the rest of the bar could double for a classical ballroom, with arched windows, chandeliers, and gold leafing.

You can kind of see some of that in the photos of the performance, which was superb, but this link to the Södra Bar website shows the room much better.

This was a record-release party for his new album and the admission was free of charge. It was loud but not oppressive; a really perfect mix that you could feel. I ran into Matthias and Anna, who I had met at the A Camp show on Monday, and had the opportunity to chat with them for a while. We were treated to a long set that started off with a lot of new songs, presumably from the new record, then some of the older, familiar material. Again, fantastic.

More new English words!

Here is a screenshot from the English/Svenska dictionary application on my iPhone. It allows you to search for a word in English or Svenska, or to scroll through the alphabetical list.

As I mentioned a few days ago, sometimes when I look up a Swedish word, the English translation is a word I have never seen before in my life. I took this screenshot when I happened upon an entire screen of English words I had never seen before. Yes, these are English words!

Just now, I was going to say that “bacciferous” seems vaguely familiar, but as I was typing it, my Mac underlined it – meaning that “bacciferous” is not in the spell-checker dictionary on my computer. I also ran it through the proper dictionary on the Mac, which is based on the Oxford American Dictionary, and it also wasn’t in there. Where is SlovoEd getting these words?

As an experiment, I looked up all the “English” words from this screenshot:

bacchanalia: drunken revelry, from the Roman festival of Bacchus
bacchanalian: characterized by drunken revelry, riotously drunken
bacchante: a female priestess or follower of Bacchus
bacchic: another name for the Greek mythological character Dionysus
bacciferous: (no entry)
bacciform: (no entry)
baccivorous: (no entry)
baccy: British informal term for tobacco (Really? That sounds made-up.)

So it looks like I happened upon the section of the dictionary that would be super useful if you run into a Swede who is really into talking about Roman festivals and Greek mythology. That’s reassuring that I’m not completely crazy or forgetting my English vocabulary. The Oxford American Dictionary hasn’t heard of three of these words either.

FYI: If you have an iPhone and want to take a screenshot, just press both buttons at once. Your screen will flash and it will save the image in your photo album.

The great outdoors

When the weather changes, the weather changes everything. I love being outside on a pretty day and so do so many other people here in Sweden.

I recently had a personal picnic in Östermalm (the east island) in a park called Humlegården (um, I think that means “the hopping farm” but I haven’t verified that). This photo is my view of the park. It’s remarkable that at about 2:00 in the afternoon on a Monday you can see almost twenty groups of people hanging out in this direction. This is actually two side-by-side photos that I stitched together.

The sun here is really intense. I’m always faced with a problem every summer. I love the sun, but my skin burns easily, and I just can’t stand the feeling of anything on my skin. Chapstick, sunscreen, lotion – all that stuff makes me crazy. It’s only early April and just a handful of days of sunshine have noticeably had an effect. I can already tell this will quickly become a problem. I’ll have to take some steps if I don’t want to be burned and red every day this summer.

After my picnic, I went in search of some sunscreen. I recently noticed there is a Kiehl’s store in Stockholm. I thought that might be a good place to find something that could give me sun protection without being oily or greasy.

Noticing Kiehl’s and choosing it for a visit goes back to what I was saying last week about how I would never listen to a band whose album cover looks stupid. The design aesthetic at Kiehl’s is very old-timey and has an antique apothecary or pharmacy feel. Old timey is one of my general interests.

My visit to Kiehl’s was what you would hope a visit to every store should be like. I was made comfortable even though the idea of using any of the stuff makes me feel uncomfortable. The friendly woman helping me, Helena, listened to what I needed, talked about a few different options, and wasn’t actively trying to sell me something. She was just talking about the various products with me. Kiehl’s stuff isn’t particularly cheap – especially for someone like myself who tries to never buy anything of the sort – so this kind of assistance was beneficial. She was also a fine example of why it is so hard to learn and speak Swedish. Her English was shamelessly perfect – not even a trace of an accent.

When I left the store, I hadn’t bought anything, but rather, was sent off with three samples of different sunscreens to try out and a business card if I had any questions.

Finally today, it has occurred to me that from reading this blog it may sound like my life here consists only going to concerts and stores, listening to music, discovering new beverages, sitting on balconies, having picnics, and drinking coffee outside. Behind the scenes, though, there is some actual work paying for all this. I’m keeping busy with a lot of design during the mornings and late nights, mostly for half a dozen clients in America. It’s not all strawberries and sunshine here. I do enjoy the work I’m doing and the people I’m working for are mostly friends, so it’s maybe it’s about 85% jordgubbar och solen. I guess I don’t have too many complaints.

A Camp

Monday night I went to see the A Camp concert in Stockholm. It was good, but I think that’s about as far as I can go for superlatives. Honestly, it was fairly anti-climactic. That statement in itself is disappointing to me, but it’s probably due to my expectations.

Anyone who knows me well also knows that I am not a huge music fan. I really don’t like a lot of music. People think I’m joking when I say that I don’t really like music that much, since I have played music for years, run my own labels, and worked with several labels. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t really like about 90% of the music I hear. Maybe the number is higher than that.

That said, there are a few artists that I am just crazy about and I have everything they’ve ever done. Nina Persson is one of those select few artists. The Cardigans are one of my favorite bands and I really loved A Camp’s first album. Their new album, “Colonia,” hasn’t quite struck me as immediately the same way yet, but that’s not to say that it won’t. I do like it a lot.

Growing up in Kentucky made it virtually impossible to see a Swedish band like the Cardigans. They just aren’t one of those bands that plays 50-date tours in the United States, so Louisville was never on the short list of American cities they visited. To the best of my knowledge, Chicago is the closest they ever came to my hometown, which is about five hours away. I remember back in 1999, after touring in Europe, I spent some time in Sweden and stayed with my friend Julia in Stockholm. At that time, the Cardigans were in America when I was in Sweden and they were going to be playing in Sweden shortly after I returned to America. A near miss, sadly, because that was around the time of their amazing “Gran Turismo” album.

In February of this year, just after I arrived in Sweden, I was in Malmö and saw a poster for the A Camp tour. I almost shit my pants. What an astonishing Welcome-to-Sweden present this seemed to be. After more than a decade of devouring everything I could get my hands on that Nina Persson had set her mind to, I would finally be able to see her sing live. On top of that, I would actually be seeing her in Stockholm. It had all the makings for a dream come true and, you know, I guess it really was such an event.

My favorite artists always seem to end up being ones that I think I will never be able to see performing live. That makes it all the more remarkable when I am in the same room with them, hearing their real voice right in front of me. For legendary artists like Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis, those moments were unforgettable.

When A Camp took the stage tonight, opening with “The Crowning,” the lights were dim so we could really only see the band’s silhouettes. Nina’s voice filled the room. This was something special for me. I was genuinely surprised that it was happening. At that moment I thought to myself, “Look at you. Look at where you are and what you are doing. How did all this happen?” Truly surreal.

The concert was at Cirkus, the same venue where we saw Franz Ferdinand a couple weeks ago. The space holds less than two thousand people and there’s not a bad seat in the house. I should say, the only way there could be a poor view is if they don’t turn the fucking lights on. For the first song, I thought the dim lights and silhouette effect were for dramatic purposes. After two songs, three songs, four songs, it became clear that this was as bright as the lights were going to get.

The same situation was going on with the sound. Nina’s voice was loud and clear, but most everything else was flat, and the overall volume level was just not there. There was no punch to any of it, the kick drum was hardly audible, and it simply wasn’t engaging the way it should have been. I know that all the necessary elements were on stage, I could gather that much, but for some reason the lighting and mix were put together in a way that drained out most of the magic.

I think there was a direct correlation between the dim lights, underwhelming sound, and the audience reaction, which I could best describe as “seated and polite.” I felt like, “This is Nina Persson in Stockholm – this place should be on its feet.” Instead, it seemed like everyone was watching a stage play. I wondered if I was the only one there who knew their records. Usually when you hear the beginning of a song you like, you cheer, right? That wasn’t happening at all. I would have felt like I was interrupting something had I clapped during the beginning of a song.

The closer photos you see here of Nina are from one of the encore songs during which the lights were almost at a normal concert brightness. During the encore, I moved to the floor where some seats had opened up. Most of the other photos I took are worse than what I could see with my eyes, or I would have posted more of them.

Well, I don’t want to belabor these points, because the concert was good. It just wasn’t extraordinary or breathtaking, which is what I had hoped for. I love their songs and I love most everything Nina has done. Perhaps you should expect to be disappointed if you expect something to be phenomenal.

All that notwithstanding, the ticket wasn’t cheap – 380 kronors (about $48) – but I would have paid double that if I had to. I would have gone alone, too, but I didn’t have to do that either. Although, I kind of had a hard time finding someone to go with. Most of my friends in Stockholm weren’t into going, which I suppose I also find a bit surprising. If I had to tell you what kind of music my friends here are into, I’m not sure I could. I hear so much crazy, random stuff, and none of it is much like anything else that gets played. I know Iida really likes Smashing Pumpkins and Lilly Allen, but I’ve also heard her listening to Genesis and, well, I don’t recognize most of what I hear. I can’t even begin to tell you what it is or what it sounds like. Erik is in three different bands and none of them sound like each other.

There is an annual televised music competition here called Melodifestivalen that is like American Idol, except they are all original songs. So it’s a songwriting, production, performance, and singing tournament, not just singing. There are tons of these Melodifestivalen songs from past years that people listen to, and everyone knows the words to all of them, but I can’t say if everyone genuinely likes the songs, or if it’s a novelty thing.

In any event, I put the word out that I was looking for someone to go to the concert with, and my friend Johanna came through. She wasn’t going, but she put me in touch with her friend Marja who was. I met up with Marja, her sister Kajsa, and their friends Matthias and Anna, before the show. We enjoyed some beers, then took the bus to Cirkus. Meeting and talking with all these great people was one of the best parts of the evening. Swedes must be the nicest people on earth.

While talking with them beforehand, I learned that one of the opening acts was Kristofer Åström. This also turned out to be a wonderful twist of fate, as he is another great Swedish artist I like. Being able to see him live was also totally unexpected. This photo is of his band. They made better use of the lights and sound system.

Kristofer Åström’s music is intensely personal and honest. He has a unique voice and I always think he sounds a bit like he doesn’t want to sing what his lyrics say. Even when his band is rocking out, there is still a very reserved, sleepy quality to it. He was already on stage when we arrived – imagine that, the shows here start on time – so I missed the beginning of his set. I did see six or seven songs, though. I think maybe the surprise of seeing him, and how good his set was, also contributed to my excitement and expectations for A Camp.

One nice touch that A Camp added to their set was that they had members of the opening acts join them onstage for some of their songs. Kristofer Åström played acoustic guitar on a few songs with A Camp, and the second band, The Sweptaways, which consists of a 30-piece female choir, joined them for a reworking of their latest single “Stronger Than Jesus.”

The last word on A Camp is about bassist Nathan Larson, who is an American and the husband of Nina Persson. In 1992, I went on a five-week US tour with my friends in the band Jawbox from Washington, DC. I was working the merchandise table on the tour which was with Shudder To Think. Both bands eventually signed to major labels, but at the time of this tour everyone was still on Dischord Records. This was so long ago, it seems like it was a different lifetime.

Nathan was the “new” guitarist in Shudder To Think on this tour in 1992, having replaced the original guitarist Chris Matthews. I was not a huge fan of Shudder before the tour, but I gathered enough while talking to kids at the table that Nathan had some pretty big shoes to fill. I was, however, a huge fan of Nathan’s previous band, Swiz. I still listen to their stuff. Some kids at these shows were shocked that the band would continue without Chris Matthews. I wasn’t familiar enough to know the difference, but the band grew on me quite a bit during the tour. One of their best songs is their cover of “So Into You” by Atlanta Rhythm Section. I was a fly on the wall when they put this song together before a show in a muggy VFW hall in Louisiana. Fantastic.

I remember Nathan and the other guys being very theatrical when we were on the road. I mean “theatrical” in the way that theatre students are always putting on a show. They liked to have a good time and it often seemed like it was at the cost of making bystanders uncomfortable. If you’re in a Subway restaurant in Pensacola, maybe it’s not necessary to put on a show.

I don’t know how the transition was made from there to being married to the singer of the Cardigans and playing in A Camp, but he is still putting on a big show. Now his personal show is coming at the cost of the band’s overall effectiveness. I don’t like saying this because maybe he is truly into the music so much that it produces the type of onstage behavior he exhibits, but too often he is totally going off and rocking out when it just isn’t appropriate to the material.

It was no more exemplified than in the sweet, subdued number “Golden Teeth and Silver Medals.” This song is an introspective, conversational duet with Nicolai Dunger, a Swedish singer who made an appearance when they played the song. You can see Nathan Larson in the photo here, on the right, almost comically going for it, as if to remind everyone “even though Nina is singing with that other guy, I’m still on the stage and we’re still married.” It was just a bit much, and it was distracting through a lot of the show. I’m sure this is not the first time someone has accused Nathan Larson of being aloof, immodest, or a ham. The truth is that his music for films (like Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes”) is pretty great. I just think he could tone it down a bit on stage and it would benefit the band.

Jesus, Scott, I thought A Camp was one of your favorite bands. How many complaints do you have about bands you hate?

Do I wish I had skipped the show? No, certainly not. I would have regretted coming all this way and not going. I had to go. Do I wish it had been a little different? Of course, but it’s not my band. I have to trust that they did things the way they wanted to do them. I’m glad I went to the show. I met some fun people and, all in all, I enjoyed it. I lucked into seeing Kristofer Åström and finally got to hear Nina Persson singing live, if not actually getting to really see her.

This was a long one. A lot going on upstairs tonight.

King Carl

I know that by now every designer in America has done a take-off of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster. At this point it’s almost like coming up with my own version of the “Got Milk” slogan or an “I heart _____” shirt.

Nonetheless, I’d like to contribute to the iconic, ironic overkill with my version featuring the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustav.

Urban Outfitters

Here are a few photos of the Urban Outfitters store in Stockholm. They have beautifully restored and adapted an old theatre into a quite large, unique retail store.

Here, you can see that they even have a fake set of a house on the stage, inside which are the fitting rooms.

Unfortunately, most of the merchandise is campy, goofy ’80s stuff that kids wear because they think it’s funny or ironic to dress stupid. Okay, I’m being old. I actually did see some plaid shirts and jeans I liked. I can’t afford them, but I liked them. There, I said it.

I just thought it was really nice that they went to all the trouble to build such a distinct store. I mean, they could have just stuck it all in a white box and put a sign on the front. That still would have looked just fine, but they did all this instead. That’s nice.

Tiger Lou at 45 degrees

Sunday night, Erik’s band Tiger Lou returned to Stockholm from a Scandinavian tour. I’ve seen them a couple times, listened to some of their recordings, and seen some videos, but I’m really not sure what kind of music they play. The singer/guitarist, Rasmuss, apparently writes and records all the music, then what we see here has been assembled for the live shows. It’s dynamic, catchy, and many of the songs tell a story. I like that a lot. It’s one of the things I love most about Johnny Cash, almost all of his songs are stories. Tiger Lou is definitely on top of things, they deliver the goods, and people love them. Oh yeah, and like everyone in Sweden, they are the nicest people you’ve ever met in your life.

In the same way that great operas are in Italian, and great love poems are in French, all great rock music is in English. Tiger Lou is no exception, though this discussion uncovered a question that has become a bit of a conundrum. If your songs are in English, and your lyrics reference something that can be measured, shouldn’t you use English measurements? Or to be more clear, pop songs are in English because of the American entertainment industry, right? So shouldn’t all measurements be described in a way that is commonly understood in the United States?

Here’s what’s going on: In the Tiger Lou song “Oh Horatio” (video) one of the lyrics is “It was 45 degrees and he could hardly breathe.” Okay, obviously, we know he’s from Sweden, so we know he means 45 degrees Celcius. That is incredibly hot, so it makes sense that the character can hardly breathe. However, if someone who doesn’t know that Tiger Lou is from Sweden hears the song, they will think he means 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s kind of cold, but not at all a temperature that is difficult to breathe in. These are the kinds of important questions I’m thinking about so you don’t have to.

Horatio Temperature Conversion Chart
45 C = 113 F
45 F = 7 C