Thursday, February 26, 2015

50 Shades of the Arctic

There are colors north of the Arctic Circle that I did not know existed. Colors that I still do not have names for even after logging nearly 1000km across snow-covered landscapes.

There’s a shade of blue that looks as if we melted silver onto a late night summer sky. It laps the shores of the Norwegian fjords as the sun reflects off the mountains rising up out of nothingness.

There’s an orange that is pink. Or a pink that is orange. As if cherry blossoms were painted with the orange from a Colorado aspen in September and then strewn across the peaks of mountains so steep that only trolls would dare traverse the landscape.

There’s a white so bright that it burns, fading from white to blue to pink to orange. A fickle color palette that plays with our senses depending on where we’re standing. Where we’re looking. What we’re thinking.

There’s a different shade of blue. A blue so soft it’s as if we dipped our favorite gray sweatpants into a clear sunlit winter sky. It sneaks up on us, slowly, quietly, conquering the daylight just as the sun has disappeared, bathing the world in a melancholic color that reminds us that it’s still winter.

And there are at least 46 other shades of the Arctic that will inspire someone else to try to put words to experiences that are best left to memory. Left to those fleeting moments of recognition years later, of inward smiles, of sights and sounds and colors that take us back to a time when we were younger. When we were artists. Poets. Writers. Philosophers. Talking about what is and what could be.

Lofoten Islands, Norway - Photo Credit: Marcus Cederström
That's a real picture. Of a real place. 
Welcome to Sweden. And Norway. And the Arctic Circle.

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience."

Legs burning. Churning. Up. Down. Head up. Head down. Breathing. Through my nose. Through my mouth. Sweat beading. Legs burning. Churning. Every morning.

This has been my life this week. I’m not training for a marathon or anything. Because as we all know, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that running was a good thing. No, I’m jut trying to get to the library. The escalators at Östermalmstorg have been shut down since February 14, Alla hjärtans dag. That day, a day of love, roses, and chocolate, a woman was on the escalator when a step collapsed and her leg got stuck. She spent more than an hour trapped in the step of an escalator. So that’s a thing that can happen, apparently.

In response, SL has shut down 39 escalators in 11 different Stockholm stations for safety reasons. That’s a whole lot of broken-down escalators. This is where the late, great Mitch Hedberg would pop in and remind everyone that an escalator can never break down. It can only become stairs. Of course, at Östermalmstorg, it becomes over 150 stairs. And there’s a reason that gyms have machine that simulate stairs. Those things are hard work.

So much hard work that SL, in its infinite kindness, has taken to setting up rest stations. Halfway up the now-stairs, there are several chairs and benches. Because, despite their slim and trim physique, it turns out the Stockholmers maybe aren’t in as good of shape as their tight tummies would suggest. SL seems to be suggesting, gently, that maybe, just maybe, you should set up camp here. Try for the summit in the morning. You’re close, but you need to acclimate to the change in elevation.

Notice the absence of people resting.
The stubborn Swede refuses to show weakness.
Once you’ve arrived at the top, there is a water station. It’s as if you’ve decided to enter a fun run. Minus the fun. And the run, for that matter. The first time I noticed the water station, it was just standing there, available to people who might need a bit of water after their trek. The next time, they had stationed the water just in front of the now-stairs. They were handing a cup of water to every single person coming up the stairs. I was half expecting someone to dump the water on their head, raise their hands in victory, and then fall to their knees as they crossed the finish line. Instead, it was just a lot of heavy breathing, awkward smiles, light sheens of sweat, and fumbly attempts at removing clothing. Kind of like a high school date.

Running out of water during rush hour.
There's no telling how much time we have left.
Please send help and a better photographer.
There’s no date yet as to when the escalators will be up and running. Until then, Stockholmers will be working up a sweat on their daily commute. In fact, this could just be an elaborate ruse to force people to use the stairs so that they get an extra bit of exercise every day. Very sneaky, Stockholm, very sneaky.

Welcome to Sweden. And out-of-shape Swedes.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Swedish Holidays: Alla Hjärtans Dag (Valentine's Day)

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow. It’s my favorite day of the year because I am a hopeless romantic and a strident capitalist. Or something like that. What better way than to smush two worldviews together and enjoy a pink and red day of chocolate and flowers?

You may be surprised to know, that Valentine’s Day is not high on my personal rankings of holidays. It falls somewhere between Buy Nothing Day on November 29 and International Kissing Day on July 6. These are real things by the way. But what I’m trying to say here, in a forced attempt at being creative or funny, is that I don’t put much stock in Valentine’s Day. I’m ok with that.

A lot of Swedes don’t put much stock in it either. Although, that has been changing a bit over the years. Valentine’s Day makes its first appearance in Sweden in 1956. That means that my dad is older than Swedish Valentine’s Day. If you’ve ever wondered about the commercialization of Valentine’s Day in the US, you’ll be happy to know that in Sweden that’s where it all started. 1956. NK. Nordiska Kompaniet. They put up some signage advertising the holiday. Suddenly, Valentine’s Day in Sweden was born.

Look at all that text! 
Reading must have been easier back then.
"Nu på torsdag alla hjärtans dag"
NK-advertisement from Dagens Nyheter.
February 11, 1957. 
From Nordiska museet's clippings collection.
"Borrowed" from this site: Alla hjärtans dag.
In 1957, a year later, they published an ad in Dagens Nyheter explaining why they did it. And doubling down on the holiday by offering several heart-shaped items for purchase. Don’t forget to pick up your heart-shaped soaps and box calf cigarette cases. Nothing says I love you like soap and dead calves.

It’s kind of a fascinating advertisement for a variety of reasons. NK explains they thought it would be a good idea to introduce the holiday in 1956 because 1956 was a leap year. That’s all it took. They also note that the holiday is a lustig American holiday. Lustig is a tricky word. It can mean funny. Amusing. It can also mean strange or peculiar. I’ll let you decide what they’re going for here. All I know is, they clearly thought it was worth their while to advertise the holiday again.

It actually took a few years for the holiday to catch on and it wasn’t until the 1960s that Swedes began celebrating alla hjärtans dag. According to Svensk Handel, in 2012, about 56% of Swedes celebrate. Last year, again according to Svensk Handel, chocolate sales saw a 90% increase on Valentine’s Day compared to a normal day. I’d like to point out that tomorrow is Saturday, which means everyone will buying candy anyway. It’s like the perfect storm. But we all know that it’s not just chocolate. There are the flowers!

Giving flowers as gifts confuses me a bit. They wilt so quickly. I think I like full-on plants better. They last longer. Like my love for you. But maybe I just think that because I can only remember receiving flowers once in my entire life. It was actually on a Valentine’s Day. In Sweden. It was nice. This year, Blomsterbranschen is expecting about 4.5 million roses to be sold this year. That’s one rose for every other person in the entire country. Don’t worry though, for those of you who don’t receive a rose, tulips and carnations are gaining in popularity as well.

Today, the holiday is especially popular in school with cards and flowers. This seems dangerous to me. This seems like a recipe for hurt feelings and awkward confessions. This is where the popular kids get physical manifestations of their popularity and the not-popular kids get to see their lack of popularity in flower form. Maybe that’s what a primary education is for—hurt feelings, awkward confessions, and the occasional standardized test. Ladies and gentlemen… your public school system!

Anyway, if you’re feeling 56% Swedish this Valentine’s Day, buy some roses, some chocolate, maybe some red gummy hearts and take your love out to dinner. Then, when the credit card statement comes, curse NK. It’s totally their fault.

Welcome to Sweden. Happy Valentine’s Day.

If you want more stats, check out Svensk Handel 2012; Svensk Handel 2015; and if you just want more information, check out Alla hjärtans dag from Nordiska museet.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Many Degrees Does it Take to Get to the University? The World May Never Know...

In 2012, when I finished my MA, my parents gave me a coffee mug. White stoneware, the interior is a lovely sky blue color. The exterior of this lovely mug is adorned with a blue donkey overlaid with the word “Smart” in big, white, block letters. Smart. Donkey. Smart. Ass. Very cute. I don’t drink coffee.

The assumption being that at some point, education turns into an overwrought sense of self, of entitlement, of privilege, of pretentiousness. For example, I just analyzed a gag-gift that my parents gave me. I think I’ve proved my point.

Anyway, despite the mug, I kept going with my studies. It’s been a slog at times, but yesterday, I wrote the first words of my dissertation. In fact, I wrote almost three pages of words. It felt good. I realize, of course, that there is a good chance that those words will never make it into the actual dissertation. Or if they do, they will be changed so many times that these three pages will hardly be recognizable. That’s fine. It felt good to get started.

I was feeling good when I went home, wondering why balloons hadn’t fallen from the sky when I wrote those first words, but feeling good. I celebrated with some ice cream and homemade kolasås. (Fun fact, Word tried to correct that to koalas. That would be gross. I don’t eat koalas. Yet.)

This morning, when I rolled out of bed at 8am, sun shining into my bright, well-windowed apartment, I was still basking in the glory of having accomplished something tangible. Insofar as words on a digital document are tangible.

I headed to the subway, sat down, listened to my podcast, and planned my day. I have to switch trains when I head to the University. It’s the same line, but there are two branches. I have to switch to a second branch to get to the University. It’s a simple task. Something I’ve done countless times without incident. I pride myself on my ability to navigate public transportation with relative ease.

I climbed off my train and headed across the platform. I checked the time of the next two trains. I sat down. I waited. I watched as one train came. Not mine, I thought. But that’s fine. Only three minutes until the next one. Three minutes later, with Germanic efficiency, the train arrived. I climbed on, found a seat, found a newspaper, and began reading. Fascinating stuff. It’s the life of a commuter.

Finally, as the train slowed, I looked up. Only to realize that I had ridden the subway all the way back to where I started. There’s probably some sort of symbolism to be had here. My five- (six-? seven-?) year long journey leading me back to where I started. That it all ends where it begins. Something profound or deep that you would expect from a hipster-indie film as a voice-over at the end. I’ll leave that to someone else to analyze. All I know is that, what should have been a simple commute had just doubled in time and any residual pride, hope, excitement about having written anything for my dissertation slowly seethed out of me as I made my way, again, to the University.

Welcome to Sweden. And too much education. And not enough common sense.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Stockholm Semla Season

“The last time I saw him, we had semlas. So, well, it must have been about a year ago," said the taller-than me, bespectacled Swede as he tried to place the event on the timeline of his life.

In Sweden, time is measured by food. Not officially. It’s not like calendars were banned after the last Swedish witch craze in Mockfjärd in 1858, because witches. But you may find yourself walking around town thinking to yourself: I wonder if today is Thursday? Don’t worry, just stop by your local restaurant and ask them for dagens lunch. If it’s pea soup and pancakes, congratulations, it’s Thursday. Or maybe everyone has left town and you’re wondering: huh, is it July or August? If you’ve recently been invited to wear silly hats and eat crayfish, it’s August. Of course, the winter is confusing. It gets dark and difficult to read a calendar. Is it November? December? January? Who knows? 7-Eleven knows, because if they’re advertising lussebullar all over town, it’s December.

Luckily, you can employ the same strategy even after Christmas. Just use semlas. Semlas are sweet cardamom buns filled with cream and almond paste. It’s really all you could ever ask for in a baked good. (There's even a recipe in this cookbook.)

A new-age semla. Still delicious.
Semlas are also a good way to tell time. They are really only available between New Years and Easter. Which, come to think of it, is quite a while. They reach their peak though on semladagen, fettisdagen, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday. The day is known by many names, but you can just call it the-best-day-ever-because-you-can-eat-as-much-dessert-as-you-want-and-no-one-will-judge-you day. It has quite the ring, doesn’t it?

You see, once people have finally received their first January paycheck, paid off Christmas and New Years and bought something other than spaghetti and ketchup for dinner, there’s usually a crown or two left over. Having survived most of the winter, it’s important to treat yourself.

Like many other folks living in Stockholm, February means two things in my Swedish world: semlas and sunsets after four in the afternoon. They’re delicious and exhausting and make me want to vomit and then eat another. The semla, not the sunset.

Welcome to Sweden. And February. I think. Yes. That picture says February.