Sunday, May 30, 2010

Eurovision 2010

I plugged into Eurovision last night to see what it was all about. The concept is similar to American Idol. The European countries plus Israel competing in a singing competition. It is a little more theatric than American Idol relying more on dancers and back up vocals whereas American Idol is more about individual talent. I am not a big American Idol watcher and like many people I usually only tune in when they do the initial shows that show the highly entertaining "try outs". Though I have gotten roped in a season or two I, hesitatingly, admit.

However, I found the concept pretty cool. Between acts they would show families from the countries in their apartment living rooms so it showed a little of how they lived. Sometimes they were dressed in traditional clothing (Ukraine) and sometimes they would show the different foods they were snacking on while watching Eurovision and rooting for their country. They would show the different flags and for a non-European all that is sort of fascinating.

The way it worked was that no country was allowed to vote for themselves and they had a sliding scale of points to give out. The largest block being 12 votes. It was funny to watch most of the former Yugoslavian countries vote for each other and the former Soviet satellites pretty much did the same. Old animosities seemed to live through the votes also. Israel gave the Germans exactly zero votes and the German singer was never very popular with the Russian voters despite the fact that she was the clear favorite.

Europe has become so much more Americanized since my last visit here. There was still a lot of that hokey Euro-ness but there was some good stuff. I was leaning heavily towards the acoustic John Mayerish sounding guy from Belgium when the German contestant came on and she was incredible. Light years above the the others, she easily blew the rest away. And she was so, so un-German, just watching her made you happy. Congratulations to 19 year old Lena, 2010 Eurovision winner.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just Fondue...Nothing Else

Many of the foreign to Sweden people I know complain about the Swedes. They complain about their reservation, their lack of service in stores and other various society wide traits. They complain they are too insular and that it takes an impossibly long time to forge friendships, real solid relationships, with them. As I have said, I find the Swedish people pleasant and open. So, I typically laugh and tell them, "You have done it all wrong, you must FIRST live among the Germans, then your perspective will change."

Though there are some aspects of Germany I liked better, I have found Sweden much more livable. But, often times I do find myself wondering, "maybe they weren't that bad, maybe it was you" or "maybe you just got a bad batch of them" or "maybe it was just that period in your life". Such was the case, this past week when on vacation with, mostly, Germans. By the end of the week, let me tell ya, it was all fresh in my mind and no, it wasn't me, wasn't a bad batch and not that period in my life. I don't wish to knock them all, I have met plenty of, OK, a few, really splendid Germans.

First off, the cutting in line. What the *$%# is that all about anyway? It wasn't even crowded on this island. There was no wait for anything. Yet, there they were, ungroomed hairy teeth mustaches, cutting, pushing and prodding to get first. I watched as a young girl struggled to get her suitcase up the ramp to the ferry and a 60 year old German guy nearly bowled her over to get past her on the ramp. The girl stopped and stamped her feet in dismay. We just watched, laughing and saying "classic!".

The cigarettes and putting cigarette butts out on beautiful places. Really? Here you are on this beautiful, unspoiled beach, so privileged to be there, and not only are you disgustingly puffing away but you are putting cigarette butt after cigarette butt out on the beach. Why the chain smoking anyway? What's a pack of those things cost in Germany? 27 euro?

The black socks and sandals. This MUST end. It must. My radar goes off when I see it and I immediately know rudeness of untold proportions is in the vicinity. Ditto with the lavender suit jackets with the mustard colored ties.

The bad, bad, grooming. Please get to the friseur and cut that Brillo pad on the top of your head.

The meanness and gruffness and the weird ability to be laughing and yoking it up among friends one minutes and to turn into Burger Mesiter Meister Burger with the public. My son was born in Germany and my delivery doctor did this transformation on me. During the labor he was this soothing and nurturing, perfect, man to have at the helm. The minute my son was born, it was like someone pushed a button and he turned into this automaton of bare bones efficiency.

I have a friend who has lived in Germany and he says "the Germans fear their neighbors more than they fear their government." I do not particularly want to fear either. I would greatly prefer if they both just left me alone. But that does explain why nearly everything we did while there was met with the phrase, "that is excessive by German standards". We had a TV that was excessive, our freezer was excessive, supposedly a dryer was unnecessary and just ruined clothes, don't operate power tools or any noise making device of Sundays, we had too much recycling. Unfortunately though, to them, the taxes weren't excessive because I could get behind that notion.

You are probably wondering what the title to this means. This was an invitation we received one time. This was exactly how it was presented to us. "We would like you to come over for fondue on Saturday night. There will just be fondue. Nothing else." Seriously? How could you refuse such a gesture? How do you even respond to that. "Yes. We will be there. One hour. No more."

Monday, May 24, 2010

American Girl...Whatcha Ya Wantin' in the Olive Man's World?

I am hopelessly in love. With a place. And a people. And a culture.

I have spent the better part of ten days in an undisclosed location on the Adriatic Sea. Undisclosed because, though well known to European travelers, it is still so unspoiled and wondrous that I am hesitant to inform more of the world about it. So, like Dick Cheney's secret bunker in the days following September 11th, it will, for now, remain my undisclosed location. I am selfish like that.

We rented a small apartment in a family villa just a stone's throw from the sea. The owner, a family man and former radiologist, had his roots on this island for centuries. He had left briefly, for a few years, to chase the dream in a large Canadian city. For a few years he worked three jobs, saving every dime, to bring back to his home. At present, he has not even left the island to go into the mainland city for over a year. "Why would I?' he says as he communicates this to us in his broken English.

The financial crisis, dying Euro and political upheaval may as well be happening in Mars. The guests may stop coming but this lifestyle will continue much as it always has. It will survive the socialists, communists, globalists, fascists and their various puppets-as it always has. It is a region that is no stranger to strife. He points out a building on an island in the distance that once served as a prison to house his people by a bordering country.

One morning he took us on his boat to a tour of some of the neighboring islands. We stopped at a family restaurant. It was the summer home of a German immigrant family who had come to the area some decades ago. We were treated to the meal of a life time. Carafe after carafe of homemade wine, fresh vegetables from the property, fresh fish caught that morning and lots and lots of olive oil. All made on premises. From beginning to end, I think it lasted four hours.

The owner, Tonchi, came to our table to say hello to his good friend. I was later amazed to find out he was seventy years old. He could have easily passed for 45, even with his light German complexion and the constant sun of the region. Crystal clear blue eyes, matching the azure blue waters surrounding us, showed the peace of a man who had made all the correct moves.

After a day or two the abject freedom we were experiencing became apparent to me. We were riding in boats with, not only, no life preservers on -- there wasn't a life preserver to be had. No seat belts, no laundry lists of things I could not do on the beach. I was buying homemade wines and hand pressed olive oils. No FDA labels telling me the fat content and federally mandated this or that. Crosses adorned the beaches and no whiny and self loathing useful idiots to complain how offended they were by their presence.

I know all too well, many paradises have another side that is more akin to hell. I never once felt that omnipresent cloak of vulnerability you feel in so many of our vacation paradises. I never felt that if I strayed off the beaten path some perilous fate could await. (Ironically as I type this the news streams from the USA of a state of emergency has been declared in Jamaica). Children played innocent games of yesteryear in the city square. Grandmothers swept stoops and property owners tinkered diligently on their properties. Cash was king, deals were made with handshakes and bartering seemed to be a common method of trade.

Yes, this is the world where I belong.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


First off, I am not a pastry person. I can normally take or leave a pastry or a donut of any kind. Unnecessary calories I would rather use for things I enjoy more. Save the calories for lunch, I figure.

However, here in Sweden I have developed an affinity for the kanelbulle or cinnamon bun. The cinnamon roll is said to have been introduced by the Swedes and October 4th is the Official Kanelbulle Day in Sweden. The kanelbulle is to Sweden what a berliner is to Germany or the croissant is to France. A must try food for visitors.

Different variations are available. Cardemom and some delightfully sticky green stuff that I believe to be almond or mazarin are typically available. Small bakeries are dotted through out the city and a fresh kanelbulle is never hard to find.

I eat them daily, either fresh form the bakery or the frozen, in the red bag, Findus brand. So much better than those yucky, big, messy American cinnamon buns on the right. Yuck. Who eats those anyway?

Monday, May 3, 2010

An Uneven Trade

A letter came home from the school the other day to warn of a man in a car trying to lure young kids into his car. It was in the more affluent suburb of Lidingö, an inner archipelago island northeast of Stockholm city. Such letters are not to uncommon in the United States. However, here in Sweden, we live in a sort of denial based illusion that it is still incredibly safe. That it is still this 1970's society of unlocked doors, Abba and unfledged blonde innocence.

Children are routinely out and about in the city alone. They ride public transportation, sometimes long distances, either alone or with their mates. They shop alone. They get off to school alone. Originally, I was a little jarred by the sight of a pack of smelly eight year olds making their way through the T-bana, lollipops in mouth and skateboards under their arms. But eventually, as they say, when in Rome do as the Romans. I found myself doing the same.

The Lidingö letter was a bit of an intrusion into my bubble of self delusion. I knew there was an underbelly. I can read enough Swedish to make out many of the articles in my local freebie paper that told the tale of a sex crime ring involving immigrant children in the Odenplan area. I had never witnessed anything unusual in that area and I quickly brushed it out of my mind.

It makes you question how a country loses it's innocence and the sadness that it does. Many Swedes look back to the 1970s as the golden days. It was a small homogeneous culture, newly wealthy and teeming with idealism of a still undemonstrated welfare state. They never locked doors, I am told. Crime was nearly non-existent and many of the social ills Sweden sees today were less prevalent. I do not know if all that is true but I have bought into it simply from desire to believe it was.

My own country lost it's innocence in the 1960s, following what many perceive as the blissful decade of the 1950's. Regardless whether you share that view, it was indeed a more innocent time. Values were more universal. I've also come to realize the level of siege we have grown to accept in the United States, even in the antiseptic suburban settings. Our kids don't know what it is to roam their neighborhoods, we clutch our wallets pumping gas, club our cars and, many of us don't carry lightly, if you catch my drift. Other, more urban, areas are straight out Mad Max. Once bustling and opportunity laden cities, like Detroit, have become habitats for feral humans.

Cynically, it is probably more the natural state of the human condition and that our two societies were anomalies in a brief span of time. I am more inclined to think the larger the government, the smaller the individual. Smaller individuals make smaller citizens and they build smaller and less desirable places to live. The only rightful role of government is to protect a man's rights, to protect him from violence. In this context, sane people should be looking around and seeing the state is an abysmal failure and asking themselves, "just what are we hanging on to here?"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lada De, Lada Da

I have found my next car. I noticed the coolest looking car while walking down Tulegatan yesterday. I have a penchant for old SUV type vehicles, Broncos and Landcruisers from the 70s and 80s or old Range Rovers especially. This instantly caught my eye. Hmmm, what make is this I wondered, as I had never seen anything like it. It's ruggedly simplicity was candy for my eyes.

As I was surveying it, I walked around back and read the letters. Lada. Being a Russian history buff, I instantly knew I was looking at the "People's Car". A staple in former Soviet bloc countries and Cuba and a known piece of shit the world over. Though countless men named Sasha are rumored to have kept them running for decades with not much other than a wrench and duct tape.

Lada is the trademark of AvtoVAZ, a Russian car manufacturer based in Togliatti, Samara Oblast. Although touted as the people's car only members of the nomenclature actually had the privilege of driving and owning luxuries such as autos of any sort. The Soviet Union was an elitist society, with cars and roads reserved for the elite. Though high ranking party members wouldn't have been caught dead in the Lada, they preferred the luxury vehicle Chaika. Not surprising as elitism is what Marxism breeds and is prevalent in Sweden, in my opinion. Though, the people here seem to submit to it willingly.

Never the less, I am on the hunt for a Lada when I get home. It's the least I can do to repay the climategate email leakers at Tomsk State University.