Where the hell is my towel?

In a shameless emulation of another far less bewildered traveller, I give you the highly accurate account of my year in Uppsala, Sweden. Like the great man says, persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; those attempting to find a plot in it will be banished; those attempting to find a moral in it will be shot.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Things I Have Learned In Europe

This will be the last post on this blog. I hope, as with all the other posts, you will find it both educational and amusing. Following this, you may return to the burned-out ends of your days and ways.

  1. Nobody likes the French. Not even the Swedes.
  2. All Europeans know this joke: How is American beer like having sex in a canoe? They’re both fucking close to water.
  3. It is very rare for a European to personally know any Jews.
  4. The UK is not in Europe.
  5. Germans love Sweden, because it’s just like Germany, but with fewer Germans.
  6. Germans also love to steal road signs with pictures of moose on them.
  7. Portuguese wine is much better than you’d expect.
  8. Everyone wants to go to Prague.
  9. The entire population of Australia is currently in Europe, complaining about how no matter where they go, it’s full of Australians.
  10. Döner kebabs are the greatest drunk-food in the world.
  11. There is no such thing as wall-to-wall carpeting.
  12. “Shaun of the Dead” is about nine times funnier if you’ve seen “Spaced” and “Black Books.”
  13. There is no vodka but Polish vodka, and zubrovka is its prophet.
  14. Rugby is the finest sport ever invented.
  15. Finnish is a crazy moon-language. It has nothing to do with any other Scandinavian language, and is sort of related to Hungarian.
  16. Everyone everywhere knows Swedish women are hot.
  17. No one in Europe under the age of 40 is overweight.
  18. When Swedish guys get drunk, they just stand around shouting the bass line to “Seven Nation Army.”
  19. Swedes have no concept of the awkward pause, and only in Sweden can you be on a bus or in a pub packed full of people and hear a pin drop.
  20. Spain and Italy are bastions of unrepentant chauvinism, and German women think feminism and all gender-equality concerns are silly nonsense.
  21. Polish women are much prettier than you expect and drink beer flavored with fruit through straws.
  22. There is no such thing as a pepperoni pizza. You can (I swear) sometimes find it under the name “devil’s pizza” because Europeans believe it to be unspeakably spicy. I am not making this up.
  23. If you happen to say, sing, or mumble “For twenty-four years, I’ve been livin next door to Alice” anywhere in Europe, you will immediately be met with the booming, rhythmic response of “ALICE?! WHO THE FUCK IS ALICE?!”
  24. Alcohol is the leading cause of death in Finland. Really.
  25. The “throwing up the horns” gesture is illegal in Italy, where it means “other guys are screwing your wife.” Really.
  26. If you live in Belgium for three years, you can apply for citizenship.
  27. While we Westerners nod up-down for “Yes” and side-to-side for “no,” Indians have one inscrutable circular head-wag for both and Iranians nod just up for one and just down for the other, and it’s impossible to recall which is which.
  28. Swedes love drinking songs (especially if it requires standing your chair), and absolutely must eat a small salad made from vinegary sliced cabbage before eating any pizza.
  29. Iranian-born Swedes are the most reliably disagreeable people in the world.
  30. Swedes only travel to Portugal, Greece, and Thailand, where they congregate in giant herds with other Swedes. You can also always find them at Ikeas.
  31. Swedes get annoyed when they travel and discover people who don’t speak English.
  32. With the exception of Indian in the UK and Turkish almost everywhere, most ethnic food sucks in most of Europe.
  33. Swedes only have one word for “black people” and it’s “nigger.” They tend to politely translate it as “Negro.”
  34. The Dutch will gladly tell you that Holland has the tallest people, highest population density, and lowest altitude of any country in the world.
  35. Swedes think Norwegians are dumb, Dutch think Belgians are dumb, Germans think Austrians are dumb, Spanish think Portuguese are dumb and lazy, and Czechs think Slovaks are dumb and backwards. However, that’s where all of those people go for vacations.
  36. Germans only eat “sweet popcorn” and think the regular salty kind is disgusting, Swedes love salted black licorice despite the fact that it is the most repugnant thing on Earth, and Spaniards drink red wine in Coke.
  37. Swedes put ketchup on their tomato sauce when they have spaghetti, then proceed to eat it with a knife and fork.
  38. If you are in Scandinavia, the farther south you go, the worse the English gets, the more disorganized and chaotic everything becomes, and the better the food gets. Also, the breakfasts, the towels, and the people become smaller.
  39. There is no such thing as root beer, and it’s silly and extravagant to have grocery stores with more than one brand of any given kind of product.
  40. Doesn’t matter where you go in Europe, there will be at least one guy playing the accordion.
  41. Mayonnaise on fries, ketchup on macaroni, chocolate sauce on pancakes and toast, feta cheese on burgers, and canned corn on pizzas.
  42. In many countries, you can write “No advertisements, please” on your mailbox (it’s “Ingen Reklam, tack!” in Swedish) and you will never get junkmail.
  43. You will make a lot of friends if you travel with a corkscrew/bottle opener in your back pocket.
  44. Giant mobs of Chinese tourists are the new giant mobs of Japanese tourists.
  45. If you can’t place an accent, it’s probably from South Africa.
  46. The craziest accent in the world is from the Dutch Antilles.
  47. The American accent in French is the sexiness equivalent of the French accent in English.
  48. In northern Spain, you can buy wine in little juice-box size cartons like you used to take in your lunch when you were eight.
  49. Spain is flooded with Moroccan hash.
  50. Catalonia is not in Spain.
  51. You pay for ketchup at McDonald’s in Italy.
  52. You can buy magic mushrooms in the grocery store in Amsterdam. They’re sorted by whether you want to hallucinate or just sit there and giggle for six hours.
  53. Hookers in Amsterdam file tax returns.
  54. There are large groups of really alarming black dudes all over Italy, selling piles of handbags, sunglasses, and paintings. These are the only black dudes you will see in Italy.
  55. In South Africa, they call traffic lights “robots.”
  56. When Europeans count on their fingers, they start with the thumb as “one.”
  57. Never order schnitzel outside of Vienna.
  58. Berlin is the 4th largest Turkish city in the world.
  59. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national anthem has no words because the different ethnic communities couldn’t agree on what language to have it in.
  60. All German hookers wear the exact same boots.
  61. If you go to the hot baths in Budapest, do not go on Tuesday. Tuesday is Gay Day.
  62. In Belgium, voting is mandatory and you get fined if you don’t.
  63. Estonia is in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic and Poland and Austria are in Central (not Eastern) Europe, and Slovenia is not in the Balkans.
  64. There are a surprising number of alarming 21-year old Israeli ex-soldiers in Europe, traveling on their saved military pay, drinking a whole lot, and making elliptical references to the people they’ve killed and friends they’ve lost.
  65. There is a part of Copenhagen called “Christiania” which is an abandoned military base that was taken over by hippies and squatters forty years ago and still exists as a government-free zone centered around a place called “Pusher Street.”


There is just too much to write.

Too many things happened in too many places with too many people under too many elaborate circumstances for me to attempt a narrative. I cannot; I will not. Think of this instead as a pile of what hit the editing-room floor of my memory: a madcap collage of the last six weeks of my life.

I met a couple guys in the tiny hilltop town of Biassa, which is somewhere near the Cinque Terra. The Cinque Terra is a place you really should look up.
These two guys were named “P.J. and Clyde” and were documentary filmmakers from the Bronx. They’d been wandering southern Europe for about a month, surreptitiously taking pictures of the awe-inspiring moustaches they encountered there. They had about three digital cameras apiece, straining with the digital weight of hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of moustaches.
“Look at this one,” they said to me. “It looks like a fucking topiary.”
“Christ,” the other guy said. “Where’s the one that looked like an exhaust manifold? You have to see this shit, it will change your life.”

I was stranded in Venice during a transit strike and met a revoltingly well-groomed little Canadian guy who volunteered to let me stay with his sister in Vienna. I gladly accepted, since by then my plans were (as expected, admittedly) in a smoking ruin and I had no idea where I was headed.
Unfortunately, he didn’t stay when we finally hit Vienna some eighteen hours later: he just introduced us in the middle of the Westbahnhof train station and hopped the next ride to Munich. I thanked his sister and her scruffy boyfriend profusely and offered to take them out for a drink.
“We’re vegetarians and we hate beer,” she said.
I stared at her.
She stared at me.
I stared at her boyfriend. He stared back.
Silence descended. Crickets chirped. Somewhere very far away, a monkey gibbered and threw a handful of its own shit at another monkey.

They turned out to have a small studio apartment just on the Ring, near the big Soviet monument. And that meant they slept in the bed and I slept on the floor next to the bed, which made for some rather awkward nights. On the last night, I came back rather late (it’s a long story) and found some badly-bearded backpacker sleeping in my place on the floor. I stood there for a few minutes, gaping and thinking, “Did…did they think he was me?

They were asleep and were still sleeping when I got up the next morning and went to Bratislava. I will never know.

In both Florence and Venice I stayed in these sort of campground things—pretty much the only imaginable intermediate step between a shitty hostel and actually sleeping on the ground with the rowdy hobos. These places consist of a lot of semi-permanent tents with two tiny cots in them, all packed together in places that are quite distant from the parts of the city you (and everyone else) actually want to see.
In those rude and vulgar places, I overheard these astonishing things, while lying on those murderous cots, trying to sleep and ignore the bugs:

Female voice (in German-accented English): Say something dirty to me.
Male voice: Kitchen.

Australian female voice: Have you slimed yet?
Male voice: Mmmffpphhff.
Female voice: Wank it in me shitter!

Male voice: Baby, my dick is vast and crooked, like the Soviet sickle.

Low-budget hobo travel is an interesting study in the extremes of the human experience. In Vienna I attended some sort of outdoor festival (I was told by several people that it was the largest in Europe, with fourteen stages and two and a half million people—at first I doubted, but the evening convinced me). I have no idea what they were celebrating, except that it seemed to involve a great deal of Eastern European gypsy ska music and wanton, aggressive debauchery on a scale I had never before imagined. It took place on a long island in the middle of the Danube: the metro stop, of course, was at the far southern end, whereas the stage where I was supposed to meet people was at the far northern end, some five-plus kilometers away. The afternoon walk up the island was pleasant: the 2 AM walk back, wading ankle-deep in the unspeakable bodily fluid cocktail of two and a half million people was hellish. I will not speak of the things I saw there, lest you never sleep again.
The next night in Vienna, I saw Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the Opera House and met the best girl in Europe.

My first night in Paris started at a fancy-dress dinner party at the house of the father of my friend M. M will never read this, but out of respect, he will remain nameless, because after the pleasant chit-chat, the dinner-party conversation, the excellent food and better wine and so forth (in fact, about ten hours after, so that we’re clear) M leaned unsteadily over to me and slurred something about how I’d drank all the scotch.
I squinted up from the New York Times crossword puzzle I was doing to where M and his two friends were sprawled on red velvet couches with no less than five hookers on their arms, took in the large Slavic pimps and bartenders leering at us from the dark recesses of the basement hellhole, considered the small forest of empty bottles of €300 champagne and wreckage of overflowing ashtrays and the other assorted detritus of young men trying to slowly kill themselves, and realized Aw, Christ, I’m the soberest one here. It’s up to me to drag these fools out of here before they either get shanked or crabs.
“Trevor,” M slurred, “this is the craziest night.”
“Man,” I told him, “this is a pretty regular Wednesday for me.”

Those were rough nights in Paris. We never got home before ten in the morning, where we would pass M’s mother and sister on the stairs or in the kitchen, stinking like a distillery, coated in grime and secondhand nicotine and Christ probably doesn’t even know what else, because I don’t recall that guy partying too much. After four mind-withering nights and shellshocked days, it all culminated with four of us running pell-mell up the through the Right Bank on the morning of Bastille Day. There were camera people everywhere: apparently the Romanian coverage of the celebration prominently features me kissing a French girl in the middle of the Champs d’Elysee, one of her feet in the air, neat lines of tanks flanking us on either side, and the Arc d’Triomph directly behind us.

There were other things in Paris. Clubs we got thrown out of, smoky bars we drank in and talked about the sorts of things you talk about in smoky bars in Paris. There was a fancy garden party at which I got to use the entirety of my French on a gorgeous Estonian girl: Mon francais et un catastroph mais votre décolletage et tres bien. Through a thicket of incorrect pronouns, molested vowels, and missing conjugations, that means something along the lines of “My French is a catastrophe but your cleavage is very good.” I tell you, they were swooning in the aisles. I went to Versailles, where they have a room called “The Drawing-Room of Plenty,” and that left me hoping greatly for a “Closet of Conspicuous Opulence” and perhaps “Toilet of Being Absurdly Goddamn Rich.”

I met L at the Opera in Vienna. We were sitting on the stairs inside, waiting to be shown to our places and she asked me the time. We exchanged pleasantries and jokes and life stories and she agreed to a drink afterwards at a pub on the beach of the Danube canal.
My heart tumbled like the stock exchange when a Republican gets elected.
L is younger than me. She is the mayor of her village in Flanders. She speaks Dutch, French, English, German, Latin, and Greek. She is about to write her thesis (on an obscure Austrian author whom she knows personally) and will then have a Masters in both German and English, after which she will go for her doctorate in International Relations in Antwerp. She plays a tiny accordion.

“Have you seen the film Before Sunrise?” she asked me.
“I haven’t.”
She smiled. “You’re in it right now.”

We went to Bratislava together the next day. On the train she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Are you happy?”

We had known each other nineteen hours.

Later: “I’m not,” she answered. “But not because of you. I have a boyfriend.” Of course you do, I thought loudly. I have never met a single woman in my life.

She lives in a large, rambling student house in Leuven, a lovely university city east of Brussels, which was pillaged and burned by the Germans in 1914. She smuggled me into one of her friends rooms, since the girl was home for the summer and that’s where I stayed while I explored what may one day be my adopted country. L showed me around Brussels, around Leuven, and around the particulars of finding the best fries (since the Belgians invented them, after all) in the world. She told me her right eye is slightly lazy, but the only way you notice is that when she laughs, her eyelid blinks with astonishing speed: it gives the impression she is winking merrily, and it is the world’s most endearing mannerism.

I offered her my hat at the train station in Leuven. My hat is important to me; I have had it at least half a decade and have a number of rousing stories about where and how I got it; none of them are true. Some of you may remember when I got it, but none of you know how, and I assure you I will never tell. It has, however, been through a great deal with me, and if anything I own carries any sentimental value, it is that hat.

She wouldn’t take it. She liked me less in Belgium than in Vienna, when I was more mysterious, more romantic: an unshaven American familiar with the history of the Hapsburgs and The Third Man, who can walk into a sushi joint and order in Japanese (abominable Japanese, but she doesn’t need to know that), who has a passport full of stamps and a head full of stories. In Belgium I had become more ordinary; worse, I was plotting the next few years of my future and (I have been told) I tend to get very quiet and even more facially placid than usual when I’m plotting. She was stressed about her thesis, and I was there at an inconvenient time. Her boyfriend was less than pleased: he apparently saw me from a distance and spent the next three days hiding from me. She liked me less in Belgium and wouldn’t accept the hat.

I met a South African abalone salesman in Florence named Hannes Human, which raises the possibility that he may be an alien in disguise who has failed miserably at being inconspicuous. We had an elaborate discussion about Averroes.

As I mentioned, the strange thing about traveling the way I do, low to the ground and with precisely zero amenities, is that your life oscillates between abject poverty and astonishing opulence. On the one hand, you grow accustomed to significant periods of time without food or sleep, and you begin to conceive of sitting up all night on trains with several loud Turkish men to be a normal weeknight. On the other hand, you spend your days in Versailles or Schönbrunn or the Hofburg or the Basilica of St. Peter’s. You are utterly dependent on the good graces of others, often complete strangers, yet you are perennially alone. Your solitude does not bring privacy, however, and despite the common grandeur which surrounds you, you grow inured to the feeling of unwashed hair and unwashed clothes, to cold showers and scrubbing yourself with dish soap, since that’s all you could find. It is a strange existence, that of the modern young nomad, where transnational travel is easy, but getting from the damn train station to wherever you’re staying is a feat of Herculean proportion. It is not for everyone, or even most people, but it is the best and worst of life compressed, and without it, in my estimation, one misses out on pinnacles of the human experience which are not otherwise available.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Omnes Elegiac

I went walking through Uppsala for the last time tonight.
The last straggling revelers were limping home from Stockholms Nation, the way they always are, and were waylaid by the cunning trap of Johanna's Grill Stand, where a line waits eternally for kebabs. I wandered the narrow streets of downtown, passed all the old places I kept meaning to go into and never did, and finally sat on a bench by the silent river, watching the sun go down and then come back up in the amount of time it took me to drink a cup of tea.
The wind was there too as I visited all the tired old places, but it was quiet; despondent. It used to make long speeches and shove me hatefully from behind during the long straight walk along the cemetary road, but tonight it just sighed through the trees, saying:
"This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a whimper,
But with a sigh."
For the last time I looked up at just the right time to see the high, lonely pinprick of light where a woman was putting her life in boxes in a bedroom in which I'd spent more time than I intended, but less than I'd have liked. The world has the feeling of those first amazing days where everything is new, but it is as though I am seeing a favorite old childhood film in which the characters have all aged and grown ugly and apart, dying slowly and alone.

I am told many people have strong links between smells and memories. I have never had much of a sense of smell and tend to be a fairly visual person...I equate places with memories. Memory for me has almost a tactile, physical aspect: a given time in my life brings with it a certain feeling, something which is made from but still more than the individual aspects that shaped what I was doing and why and who with. It often has a taste of the most often eaten food, a smell of new surroundings, a feel of the weather and the time of day (early Sweden, for instance, feels like chicken breaded and seasoned with lemon pepper, fried in vegetable oil, eaten at 1:30 on a warm but breezy afternoon). Those memories were everywhere tonight, reminding me that I will never be in those places or with those people again.

It is strange how goodbyes never tend to work quite right. As a former aspiring writer, I can always envision a brief, characteristically hardboiled account of the particulars, followed by a prose sucker-punch: "And they never saw each other again." I pass people on the street whom I know quite well and say hello, the way I always do, expecting to see them again soon, but chance and circumstance intervene, and it seems quite likely I will never see them again. My two corridormates came home stoned and made pasta as I went out for yet another goodbye...I wished them well with their food, as it seems likely I will never see them again. The same with my librarian friend, who I saw weeks ago and had a trivial conversation with, but who wasn't working when I dropped in for the last time. The same with so many people in so many places, from old hotels to school lunchrooms, to student housing common areas to squares in ancient cities. There is a parting, and a sense the credits should roll, but they never do.
Goodbyes too often take the shape of lonely, windy 4 AM partings, when my shirt is soaked with someone else's tears and the eloquence I know I have seems ugly and perverse in the face of such naked suffering which I so often seem to be unable to experience it myself.

What I wanted to say this morning as I packed a sobbing woman on a bus: "We knew the job was dangerous when we took it."

But I didn't, and I never do, and I never will.

This will most likely be my final post from Sweden. It is possible I will post a written account of my experiences while travelling 9,500 kilometers through seventeen cities in seven countries over the next thirty-nine days. I may instead just tell you these stories in person. This may be the end, and after sixty-odd posts and untold thousands of words, it just doesn't seem like I've said enough. You know that quote from Flaubert: "For none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars." Perhaps there will be more crude rhythms from me later. Perhaps the next time you hear from me will be in person.

Perhaps a lot of things.

You kids take care.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Stabbing Time to Death

Just a few things. I've been meaning to talk about Swedes in grocery stores for a while now and just have never gotten around to it. Figured since I have less than a week left, I'd better get crackin.

Swedes never use full-sized shopping carts, just the little hand-held ones and these special blue ones that you kind of drag after you on little wheels. They put their stuff up on the conveyor belt exactly one thing at a time in a neat row, and they are fanatical about using that little divider-thingy between people's groceries. If you don't put that thing on the belt after you've put all your stuff up there, the Swede after you will literally never put up their own groceries, no matter how much space has allotted between yours and theirs. They'll just stand there, twitching with silent welfare-state fury, showing absolutely no facial expression. If I ever wanted to take over Sweden, I'd just send agents to grocery stores to do this, and all of Sweden would grind to a halt.
Also, there's no bag-person and you have the choice between small, flimsy plastic bags for free and big, sturdy plastic bags that you have to put on the conveyor belt with your groceries (so you've gotta know how many you'll need) because they cost you like 1.5 kroner. They slide your stuff down one side of the metal table-thing that's after the cash register, each side separated by a retractable metal arm thing, which is controlled through some eldritch process by the cashier. In this way two people can be bagging their stuff at one time, but if both of them have a lot of stuff, there's nowhere for the next person's stuff to go, so the line backs up and people just stand around waiting for the damn old people to finish bagging. It can be an arduous experience.
Swedish grocery stores are filled with things in tubes. You can buy damn near anything in a tube: the usual condiments, but also meat and fish paste, pickled herring, fish eggs, all of which are scraped onto crackers and called "sandwiches." I know I've complained about this before, but it gets to a guy, you know?

I've started packing, and have made arrangements to loan out my room while I'm gone to a couple Polish girls I know. Spent the day wandering the city, returning the last set of library books and taking pictures of stuff (and further, realising there's nothing in this town to take pictures of except the cathedral, the river, and lots of trees) since I'm done with everything and have nothing left to do except make the rounds of goodbye parties, watching them dwindle down until finally there's just three or four inebriated Swedes and poor Sofie left.

Been thinking about it, and there's actually some things I'm looking forward to about going home. I mean, legitimately, I do want to go home...but only for a month or so, you know? Just to visit, really. But I am looking forward to seeing everyone, to getting my Netflix addiction back up and running (I already have a list of some seventy-odd films and three TV shows I'm aching to watch while munching on unhealthy food) and I'm looking forward to getting back into some sort of exercise routine. I really was looking forward to doing that this year, but then learned of the prices for gym memberships and consequently am in by far the worst shape of my life. Baseball will be good, and seeing my dog, going to San Francisco, and drinking iced tea. The year won't be bad at all, I expect.

Just...twiddling my thumbs here. Nothin doin. Nothin to see here. Go on about your business, folks.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Time is the Fire in Which We Burn

In great contrast to the last post, this one will consist entirely of me complaining angrily.

There are many things in the world which I acknowledge and accomodate but don't entirely understand. For instance, if someone says to me "It's really annoying that you know everything," I am aware that I am not allowed to reply "Yeah, well, it's really annoying that you don't know anything" but I don't entirely understand why not. I receive these complaints often! Sometimes I consider hiring someone for customer service purposes. I tell you, I am the eye of the goddamn storm.

Something else. Why is it that whenever I am about to make a transcontinental move, immediately legions of women emerge from the woodwork, suddenly quite hopelessly interested in me, each demanding my sole attention apparently for the purposes of engaging in soon-forgotten hystrionics? My last couple weeks here seem doomed to consist entirely of making frustrating, overpriced travel arrangements, and having pointless fights with angry women. Can't we just have a drink and then a manly handshake, like I do with guys? Why can't we deal with things like adults? Was there some sort of orientation class I missed? Is this mandatory? Do I actually need to be present, or could I just like put a bucket on a mop and draw kind of a frowning face on it, and they could shout and cry at that?

You know what else bothers me? Gender-segregated evenings. Always has. I have never understood the appeal of these things. I mean, I might go out with a few friends and realize that they're all guys and therefore we spend more time talking about interesting things rather than shoes, but the reason I went out with these friends wasn't simply because they're all guys. I have never understood the attraction in exclusion based on things outside of someone's control, I guess. I don't want to have a "Guys Night Out," and you know what? I also don't want to have a "White People's Night Out." All I ever really want to do is sit around, drink tasty things, eat unhealthy, greasy food, and talk to people I find interesting. I don't care in the slightest about virtually any other trait those people possess, so long as they're interesting. And if they're not interested in the conversation or want to do something else, then I trust them to be self-sufficient grown-ups and go off and do something they like instead, but the choice is theirs. This often seems to be linked to another thing I don't get: people who feel threatened by people who are smarter than they are. I love people who are smarter than me! They're almost always interesting, they have stuff I can learn (and thereby--gasp--become smarter, perhaps even as smart as they are) and I recognize that coddling myself is intellectual cowardice and isn't going to develop my personality or my intellect at all, so I try to seek out these smart people as best I can. I consider this a rational policy. Am I alone in this? Why do so many people like to hide in their insular little comfort-bubbles? I don't understand this!
Anyway. I got in trouble recently because I was sitting around drinking and chatting with these people I know and they told me to leave because more people were coming over and it was going to be a girl's-night thing, and I said something like, "You're probably right, I wouldn't want the stupendous weight of my intellect to shatter their frail minds like so many eggshells on the anvil of their own mediocrity." I maintain this statement was a paragon of rationality.

Yeah, so as I'm sure you can tell, I have nothing interesting to mention at all. Down to eight more days here. Actually getting to be about ready to be home for a while. Going to eat so much food, I tell you what.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Springtime for Reinfeldt

This post is going to consist entirely of me complaining.

I miss the constant dark. I mean, yeah, it did get fairly oppressive by January, when I hadn't seen the sun in months and if I slept too late, I'd miss the two-hour window of "dark gray" sky and it would seem like the night just went on forever. And yeah, I like the sun and all, especially since I could probably throw a rock out my window right now and hit three or four topless sunbathers.
But my God, man. The sun goes down at midnight now and comes back up again at 2:30 AM. Even then, it doesn't really get dark: the sky just turns really deep blue. And of course my window is facing the direction of sunrise, so I get this apocalyptic blinding blast of ultraviolet radiation at about 3:00 every morning.

And then the goddamn birds start up! I have never heard such a mindless cacophony in my whole goddamn life. Just in case they aren't bad enough, the fuckers in Flogsta have started having rooftop parties again, with bands and elaborate sound systems, so you can hear their music as far away as Ekeby. The guitar guy who lives below me starts up his Bob Dylan impression reliably at 10 every morning, apparently unfazed by the constant noise all night, since he clearly inhabits a strange and inhospitable musical world of his own.

I haven't slept in goddamn weeks.

Been seeing an Irish girl (I know, but I'm a sucker for the accent, and damn can that girl drink) with whom I have stunted conversations like this:
Her: I miss you.
Me: Want to do something tonight?
Her: No.

Also been making my travel plans and have discovered that shitty hostels in Italy (which, of course, is the one area in which I know nobody) cost about three times what I'd expected. Never thought I'd actually miss working, but what I wouldn't give for the feeling of actually being productive and then having disposable income to show for it. Going to have to start working the instant I get home, which no doubt will entail a long commute into Sacramento proper...and I'm certain by then gas prices will be in the quadruple digits, and the nighttime low temperature will be a hundred million degrees.

Yeah, that reminds me. I was walking to ICA yesterday and found myself realizing that I'm leaving Europe to return to a place that has "Bad Air Quality Days" announced on the news to inform you that you shouldn't go outside because the air is poison. I am returning to acidic suburban hell.

And as bad-tempered as I am, the time here is dwindling all too quickly. I've got two weeks left in Sweden, then about five weeks of travel and I'm home. There are nothing but goodbye parties from here on out, and the nations have started shutting down as classes end and the Swedes are returning to whatever moderate little northern caves they emerged from. Three-Bottle Josh and his weird little brother are gone. Ludovica who always makes pasta after a long night of partying is gone. No more weekly poker games in Building 3. Going to be strange leaving here and returning to my family's house back in the States, where can I drive a quarter-mile to the store anytime I like and buy liquor and have a real television and a video store from which I can actually rent movies, and sometimes eat food I don't have to create myself.

You know what else is going to be weird? I've worked at that university-owned place on T Street every summer since 2003. Summer to me has meant long hours sitting in my car in the parking lot, smelling the pines and listening to the traffic on I-50 directly behind me, sweating through that oddly-cut shirt they gave me and waiting for the shade to mercifully fall over the car. I got paid to read a hell of a lot of books out there, and I found that if I brought a big thermos full of iced tea and a radio to listen to the Giants game, it was pretty much the best way to make money ever. Everyone else always went home by about 10 or so, so I'd be left to close up alone, and it was rather pleasant walking around the grounds on a warm summer night, taking my time throwing all the locks, and then having a peaceful drive home around midnight (since I-5 is always deserted that late) to either pick up some Jack-in-the-Box or make pizza bites and watch whatever crazy movies had showed up in my Netflix that day.
But now the place is closed, the parking lot chained up, and I doubt I'll ever get paid to sit in the shade, drinking iced tea and reading ever again. It's going to be an odd summer without it.

Yeah, all right, I've complained enough. I'm mostly avoiding writing the last few pages of this idiot final paper, and I realized I hadn't put anything up here in a long time, so here you go.

What I'm Reading
Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents
Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Notes From the Underground

Instead of writing my last paper, I have decided to drive Tove insane.

My corridormates have become accustomed to the eccentricity I develop when left with nothing to do for too long a time. I tend to think of it like a dog left home alone who begins chewing on the furniture...they just say it's like living with Kramer. Back in October I learned of astonishing advent of deep fried Twinkies and, like the luminscant appendage which draws prey into the gaping maw of a lamprey, the thought of fat-battered fried sugar was irresistible to me. Unfortunately, you cannot get Twinkies in this frozen communist backwater, so I was eventually forced to build them from scratch--making my own cream and performing delicate surgery (I assembled all the lamps in the corridor around the kitchen table and wore a little mask) on several yellow shortcakes. A number of the patients did not survive the operation, but no science is exact, and they had to be sacrificed for the greater good.

My corridormates viewed these proceedings with a sort of Swedishly detached combination of amusement and abject horror, sort of like watching a friendly clown throw pies at a pile of dead puppies. But when at last my creations emerged, glistening and steaming from the vat of primordial lard from whence they came, it was I who had the last laugh.

Anyway. We have two sinks in the kitchen, and I've developed a nasty habit of reaching underneath and turning one or the other off when Tove's not looking. The rest of the corridor is in on it now and aids in my guilty transgressions. I can't help it...you see, Tove is very health-conscious and athletic and tends to be getting up for her morning run just as I come staggering home at 5:30 in the morning, and she has this speech pattern where her voice gets really high and shrieky in the middle of words, so I feel after uncountable mornings of that voice stabbing into my hungover brain, she had it coming.
Maybe later I'll find a crosscut saw and lower the legs on her desk by a couple inches.

I don't really have much to report here, but I didn't want to let this blog go too long neglected and I know my strange despatches are the only light in your otherwise muddy lives, so I'm just going to put up a few random things here.

Like, for instance, this recent conversation with Ashley. The timestamp is important.
[14:02] *****: omg
[14:02] *****: did i tell u
[14:03] *****: i had this horrible holocaust dream
[14:03] FailingPiano: That's what I like to hear.
[14:04] *****: okay so i dreamed we were watching schindler's list and people kept coming over and pooping in my toilet
[14:04] *****: i was so upset!
[14:09] FailingPiano: ...We can't be friends anymore.

For the benefit of you non-Facebookians (fools! ingrates!) here's the vague itinerary for my summer travels. If you've been to any of these places or know someone in them or have anything useful to offer about them, do please let me know:

Italian Riviera

I start travelling 10 June, and I'll be home in the afternoon of 20 July. My birthday is the next day, so expect a party soon after. And yes, I use the term "party" in my usual euphemistic sense, since we all know that my idea of a party consists of sitting around listening to Tom Waits, drinking scotch, and talking about stuff. Should you wish to buy me "Welcome Home"/"Happy Birthday"/"Fealty Tribute" presents (and you should!), then peruse my Amazon Wishlist.

That's about all for now. More news as it develops.

What I'm Reading
Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Land of Opportunity

So I went to Riga, Latvia last week because some people asked me to go and I mostly just agree to stuff.

The boat trip was much like every other boat trip across the Baltic...this one was my fifth and sixth times transversing that dull gray patch of water. The only difference was a) this boat was smaller and dingier than any other I'd been on and b) instead of travelling with a small (though loud) handful of American women, I was travelling with no less than ten exchange students from the International Media and Communications Studies crew. Henceforth I will refer to them by their self-chosen cognomen: IMCS. They are:

Three Bottle Josh: of Colorado and Napa, wine afficianado, tall and unkempt, rather awkward with a sense of repressed homosexuality about him.
Rameel: possibly the coolest guy in Sweden, a short Phillipines-born San Franciscan with excellent taste in music, a little beard, and an ever-present beanie.
Melaniea: some German girl I don't know at all.
Stevie G: a massive stubbled German, very soft-spoken after having his jaw broken in a fight at a party earlier this year. Claims to have once saved the world "from food poisoning."
Amie: one of the first people I met here, a short, overweight, deep-voiced former ballet dancer, nearly as vulgar as Ashley. Together they have a radio show they call "The Obese Hour."
Ashley: of the frog-tattooed ass, the French girlfriend who speaks Mandarin. She's a walking mass of neuroses and tells the filthiest stories of anyone I've ever met.
Goran: Swedish philosopher with a pipe and the most comfortable chair in Flogsta, apparently lately Amie's boyfriend.
Jesper: some Swedish dude.
Sofie: septalingual Finnish girlfriend of my German buddy Ben.
And lastly, Sarah, bane of my love-life and lunatic extraordinaire.

We were in three rooms all next to each other, each with two cases of beer apiece (oh duty-free shopping, how we Swedish veterans love thee!) and an abundance of bad Tunisian wine. It was on sale. We played a lot of poker and pretended to be scandalized by the filthy things Amie and Ashley spout continuously, while instead being quite bored, since we've heard essentially the same things every day since August.

Riga is a surprisingly nice city, though you get the immediate impression the whole place is owned by the Mob. There are a lot of very nice green parks, and lots of trees all over the city so in the spring with the leaves just opening and the sun shining, it doesn't look at all like it's endured seventy years of ComIntern repression. There is more conspicuous opulence than in other Eastern European cities I've visited, though it also seems to be overflowing with short, wide, scarred old homeless women.
Latvian bums, man. Easily set the bar for the most aggressive and deranged group of bums I've ever encountered. My favorite (?) was the woman who ran up to Josh with her hand out and just started screaming inarticulately at the top of her voice and followed along doing it until he threw a latt (the dull currency--the paper bills just have like brown rectangles on them, as though some committee thought "There's no famous Latvians, who are we kidding?") and she chased it.
Anyway, Riga is bigger and cleaner than Tallinn, with plenty of nice quaint buildings and impressive monuments:

It also seems bigger and more interesting than Helsinki, a city which I found to be a decided let-down. I felt like eight hours in Helsinki was about three hours too much, whereas I felt like Riga could easily have offered another day or two. Having now seen the Baltic from more sides than anyone really should (St. Petersburg is really the only Baltic city of importance that I haven't been to) I think Riga comes in a solid second behind Stockholm as the best, though possibly tied with Gdansk.
We drifted along the large park which takes up much of the center city, then along what looked like the main boulevards which branch out from the pedestrian street where that big monument pictured above is located. That's the Monument of Freedom, apparently. We found the central Market Square, the big cathedral, and finally the produce market.
I am not now, nor have I ever been interested in produce in the slightest. I quickly got bored and decided to follow the market and see where it ended. I proceeded down long lines of stalls where wrinkled apple-doll faced women in headwraps sold giant tomatoes and old brown bananas until I reached a doorway into a massive stone building. It was covered in those thick plastic strips like you might see separating the shop area from the retail floor in a hardware store. There was a faded sign painted over the door which I later learned identified the massive building as the city's zeppelin hangars.
Inside half the population of Latvia was selling bootlegs, ripoffs, knockoffs, factory defects, and just plain stolen goods. There was a full-on grocery store in there, complete with glass display cases showing off what I can only assume was bootleg cheese. The building was enormous, echoing, a riot of humanity and hardscrabble capitalism. I wandered for a while till I found a little cafe tucked away in a back corner, with four plastic tables and some plastic chairs and an ancient woman in purple who shuffled around wiping things with a dirty napkin and muttering "Aiyie-yie-yie-yie."
I bought what I assumed was a donut, but which turned out to be filled not with scrumptious jelly but in fact with some sort of incredibly greasy pig gristle. I indulged in a favorite pasttime of mine: stating my present circumstances in one sentence, to gauge the absurdity. So I said to myself, "Self, I'm eating a pig-gristle donut in a black market held in a zeppelin hangar in Latvia."

I hooked back up with IMCS after that and we wandered some more, stopping by the big Town Hall Square, where there's a statue of Roland (wasn't he French?) and a building from 1337 called (inexplicably, as far as I'm concerned) "Hall of the Blackheads."

Then we went to eat, the way you do, and I discovered that Latvian food is the heaviest, most massive and hearty fare on the planet. It consists entirely of meat fried in grease, potatoes fried in grease, and grease fried in more grease. It was a sort of crazy buffet place and the guy kept piling this stuff on my plate until I was reminded of that classic bit of advice: "Never eat more than you can lift."
So I probably consumed a solid kilo or so of grease and a liter and a half of dark Latvian ale and then discovered I didn't much care about the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia anymore. Or about anything, really. I had achieved Nirvana.

We dragged back to the boat, drank our way home, blah blah, the usual. Nothing especially surreal happened, nor do I have anything else of interest to report at this time. I give Riga three stars out of four--not worth it's own trip, but if it happens to somehow be on the way to or from somewhere else you're going, it's definitely worth a stop. Or a cruise from Stockholm for twelve bucks.