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Archive for August, 2009

Robert and I went to an IKEA exhibit yesterday at Liljevalchs Konsthall. At first glance, we wondered what the heck  an exhibition about IKEA was doing at an art gallery.  But slowly the genius of the exhibition became clear. Because when you get down to it, IKEA is a design phenomenon. The company has taken their very Swedish concept of sensible and affordable Swedish furniture for everyone and sold it to the world. No matter where you go, when you shop at IKEA, the look of the store and the products are the same. When I visited an IKEA in Cincinnati earlier this summer, I have to admit it actually made me feel like I was back home in Sweden.  I don’t think there’s any company that says Sweden quite like IKEA does.

Last year, 565 million people shopped at IKEA. As the show catalog says: “Anyone can manufacture a chair. But IKEA does not only sell a chair – IKEA sells a Swedish philosophy of living. A philosophy that has provided us with functional furniture, rationally distributed and democratically accessible for everyone… Nothing fancy, no frills.”

But in looking back at IKEA designs through the years, I was  left feeling that IKEA has lost some of that original and fresh design savvy that they started with. Sure, the company still does a great job of giving credit to its designers. But those early catalogs and produtcs were a bit more on the cutting edge and dare I say it: cool. I don’t think you could call IKEA cool these days. Sensible, practical and affordable yes. And hey, we all need sensible and affordable stuff, don’t we? But it would be great to see a bit more of that old cutting edge and cool design too.

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Learning Swedish

When you are learning a new language, I think it’s a known fact that you revert back to the childish behavior that reflects your childish command of the new language. When we first moved here, Robert and I learned the word for hospital  – sjukhus – because we always referred to it as what it looked like to us: sick house.  I had a childlike glee in saying  morgon to certain annoying people as the word is pronounced moron. And prick 8 caused a bit of a laugh in Swedish class: in referring to time, this means 8 sharp or exactly and not what you were thinking it meant.

Of course, visitors from other lands have lots to laugh at as well. When my friend Mary visited from the US, we went out to dinner and the waiter asked us if our food tasted good. Det smaka bra? Mary wanted to know why she was being asked about having Smuckers jam in her bra. Of course, hiss (elevator or lift) is popular for the noise you can make in saying it. And my brother was amused by utfart (exit) for all the reasons you can imagine. Who says learning Swedish is not fun?

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From the gym to the beach, there’s an unselfconscious attitude toward the body here. People of all ages and shapes will change into and out of their swimsuits right on the beach. In the gym locker room, there’s a similar carefree attitude. And I’ve seen more nude sunbathing in my time in Stockholm than I have in my entire life in the US.

Of course, this casual naked attitude does make for good stories for my American friends. They love to hear my naked neighbor tales. Out of my kitchen window, I am likely to see at least one naked neighbor on his or her balcony or standing at their window on any given day. And from my dining room, I can see everything from the naked 20-something-year-old female vacuummer to the 70-year-old topless sunbathing retiree.

Coming from the Midwest, I find this casual attitude refreshing. I was the editor in charge of art magazines in the US for many years and always took a lot of grief for publishing nude paintings and drawings. I just could not understand how artists could not appreciate the nude form.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the direct contrast to this attitude at this year’s Pride Pride. There were tons of topless females. And there was one very brave woman who marched completely nude with only three small X-mark pieces of tape covering her in front. She was so happy.

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Based on my blog from Saturday, my friend Sharon gave a great description of her experiences in eating surströmming or fermented Baltic herring. As I thought it was such a good description of eating this very pungent-smelling fish, I thought it should be shared here. Thanks Sharon!

“The first (and only!) time I tasted surströmming was the very first year I came to Sweden. My husband Tom’s parents invited us over for dinner on a chilly October day. When we arrived and started to take our coats off, we were told to leave them on as the first course was to be taken outside. When we went out to the back, I immediately understood why. A stench that nostalgically, but alarmingly, reminded me of the outdoor toilets at Patapsco State Park permeated my nostrils and I thought I would vomit.

“But I actually got the smelly fish down. Wrapped in tunnbröd with potatoes and sour cream, it didn’t taste any where nearly as bad as it smelled. If I managed to nibble one whole pigeon – head, eyes, feet, the works – in Taipei once, a little smelly fish wasn’t going to get the best of me! But once was definitely enough of this Swedish delicacy!”

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After I had been living here for about three months and studied Swedish for almost as long, I went into my bank to make a few transactions. In my best Swedish, I asked the teller – a male somewhere around 30 – if  he spoke English. To which he replied no and told me that I must speak in Swedish. Stumbling and sweating over my limited basic vocabulary and grammar knowledge, I somehow managed to use hand gestures and toddler Swedish to describe what I needed.

Three transactions were on my to-do list. None of them could be made.  Just as I was turning from the window to leave in defeat, the now smug clerk said in perfect English and with a smile: “It seems I have done everything in my power to make sure that you get nothing done today.”

I was so shocked by his behavior that I could  not reply. Instead, I slunk out of the bank, went home and felt sorry for myself. It was such an unbelievably cruel act and so very surprising as most young Swedes in particular want to practice their Swedish. I’ve never known what to make of his behavior.  My only guess is that he wanted to make sure that I learned the language!

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Robert and I were out last night, looking for a pub that was broadcasting the England vs. Australia Ashes cricket match. While Australia sadly lost, we did come across a great new pub on Gamla Stan. Just opened in June,  The Liffey (more details here) turned out to be a fun new find. Not only did we have some good pub food (I had an excellent fish and chips, Robert had a hamburger), but we also got to hear some great live music in a large and airy bar. Brian Friels’ Sunday Session was playing and we heard some of the best blues music I’ve heard in a long time. The band leader/singer/ saxophonist would regularly get down off the stage and circle through the crowd, playing his horn and working the crowd with his charm. Somehow, I need he had to be American, even before I heard him speak. He just did the blues and worked the crowd too well to be Swedish. In talking to him on break, I found out that the bluesman was from San Francisco but had lived here for 20 years. I would have to say that both the band and the bar are well worth checking out.

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The smell was an indescribable stench unlike any I had known before. “Ugh, is that a sewage backup,” said Robert as we were eating dinner last night when the stench  first came drifting into our apartment. No, I replied, I think someone died. Quickly, the smell permeated our place and just as quickly, we began opening doors and windows. Good God, I said to Robert, it’s surströmming.

Earlier that day, I had noticed the sign posted in our lobby announcing a surströmming party in our building. No wonder Ingrid was apologizing for the party, I continued. This is just beyond disgusting.

Surströmming is fermented Baltic herring that is sold in cans. As the cans age, they often bulge thanks to the ongoing fermentation. Then when the surströmming is opened, the noxious gas is released. The surströmming is an acquired taste even among the Swedes, but it is a traditional food and often served at parties with tunnbröd (thin, crispy bread), potatoes, onions and sour cream. And to wash it all down, snaps is the drink of choice. Funnily enough, many airlines ban surströmming on planes as they say it is potentially explosive. Explosive or not, you certainly would not want one of those cans popping open in the confined space of a plane.

Being a more adventurous food explorer than I, Robert was offended that we had not been invited to the party. As for me, I did not want to be any closer to the stench than what I already was. We left the building for a while later and when we came back, you could smell it at the building next door. It was truly amazing. This is one Swedish delicacy I don’t intend to ever sample.

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