letter from sweden

It’s lonely at the top.

These poor Swedes. They are so self deprecating. The king? An idiot. Their beer? Nothing special. But Mariestads is a fine brew, it does the trick, and the king hasn’t started any wars, so … why are they so down on themselves?

“I don’t understand these Swedes,” an older British man confided in me years ago. “They seem so pleasant, even happy, they are industrious, cooperative, good team players, never complain, and then one day they wake up and decide to kill themselves.”

“It’s because they finally figure out that everything is controlled,” said my friend Erland, a Swedish chef who happens to live in Viljandi. “They ask themselves, ‘If the state controls everything, what’s the sense in living anymore?'”

Entertainment, I might answer. The big scandal in Stockholm these days revolves around a the appearance of a few mysterious one-crown coins that feature the profile of King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Yet these were not your average coins. Instead of the usual “Carl XVI Gustaf Sveriges Konung” (‘Carl XVI Gustaf Sweden’s King’), the text written around the image of the King’s head on the coins read “Vår horkarl till Kung,” which translates roughly into English as “Our whorer of a King.”

After much public discussion and high-tech analyses at the Swedish state bank, the defacer of the coins came forward to acknowledge his work as art, and to claim that he has committed no crime. As the coins were never in circulation, and they were real coins, the coin artist argues that he is not guilty of forgery. The Swedish authorities know not what to do. They feel he has done something wrong, but they are not sure yet what it is. “The king can charge me if he likes,” says the defiant coin artist.

I heard this and other lamentations during my savage and tragic sojourn into the capital of Scandinavia. Savage you say? Tragic, how so? Well, for example, I did not notice that my hotel in Uppsala had a shared shower when I booked it. Early in the morning I tiptoed down the hall to use it, while it was still relatively clean, in nothing but my bathrobe. I had grabbed my room key before I left, of course, and inserted into my pocket. But things were not as they seemed. To my horror, I discovered it was not my hotel key but my train ticket from the night before. And so my fellow lodgers might have heard a dripping wet half nude American man standing in the corridor at 6.20 am mutter something to himself along the lines of, “Oh my God, I am so fucked!”

I hid in the janitor’s closet until I came to my senses, and then called the front desk from the hall phone but got no answer. I stepped out into the staircase while another door shut behind me, locking me out of my own floor, then descended the cold stairs barefoot. Luckily, there was someone on the first floor vacuuming in the lobby. A trio of Indian businessmen sat around sipping coffees but didn’t seem to notice me, as such attire is common in their country. The Swedish woman understood at once the problem, and we returned to my room, where I was let in, and thanked her many times with all the takk skal du have and takk  så mycket I could muster. Then I opened up the room window, let the cool air pour in, and stared out at the sun rising over the Uppsala skyline, wondering how an idiot like me had managed to score a career, a wife, and three children.

Skyline? Well, actually, in Uppsala there is no such thing. Only the spire of the Domkyrka could be seen from afar, the same church that guided me to my hotel room the previous night. I had bounced around with my luggage from the train station up the hill, no urge to use a cab, as I wanted to see the city. It did not disappoint. The glistening waters of the canal. The spectral Swedish ladies ghosting by on bikes, silent, golden heads forward. The faces of the young and beautiful students laughing behind the cafe windows. The darkness of night, the perfection of the ivy hanging on the fences, the moonlight on the red-tiled roofs, the yellow glow of life through the ancient windows. The silence of a university town, punctured by the lone cries of inebriated happy students. This was Sweden as I imagined it, first encountered it, never forgot it.

In some ways, it reminded me of Estonia, yes, but it was better kept, cut and trimmed, more controlled, less hostage to the architectural whims of well-connected businessmen. To stare at the so-called skylines of Uppsala and Tartu is to see it all, lovely buildings, but few taller than three floors, surrounded by lush forests and the lull of distant streams. But there was no Tigutorn in Uppsala, thank God.

Amidst these ponderings, I made it back down to Stockholm, a city that claims to be the “capital of Scandinavia,” but that’s not saying much. I mean, what’s the competition? Oslo? Copenhagen? Reykjavik? A certain Estonian word comes to mind here, provintslik, provincial. Reykjavik isn’t really a city, it’s a town, and so is Tartu for that matter, or Turku, or Bergen. These are big towns, not cities. But they must be called cities, because even if Sweden is as long as India, there are few people there, and those who do live there fulltime don’t make a lot of noise. So houses become villages, villages become towns, towns become cities, cities become regions. You’ve read Astrid Lindgren’s books, so you know how good the Swedes are at make believe.

Yet at least they get the joke, the joke of themselves. For all of their self loathing and introspectiveness, their dumb king and unexplained suicides, the Swedes of all northerners seem to have noticed long ago that people abroad confused them with the Swiss or, once in a while, the Swazis. When it dawned upon them, I do not know, but they decided that something must be organized, so some time in recent history, a new construction was born, a “Nordic Council.”

What a splendid name it was. One could see them, sitting around at some ice hotel, warmed by their sled dogs, talking in vowel-laden sentences about, well, important stuff, like the latest coin scandal, or, “Did you see what the Estonian president wrote on Twitter?” The Estonians were off limits in the 1950s, but the Swedes did manage to pull in the Danes and the Norwegians, the Icelanders and the Faroese and the Greenlanders. After Stalin died, they even pulled in the Finns. It was their antidote to irrelevance. Their main university city may have lacked a skyline, but they weren’t about to be outdone in any category by the West Germans or any other fictional continental nationality.

Nej! They were Swedes, the top of the world, the pinnacle of mankind! Not only did they live long and prosper, but they were all magnificently blonde. And under the auspices of the Nordic Council, the Swedes could siphon talent from adjacent countries and former territories and claim it was in their own collective self interest to send their biggest brains to Uppsala! Genius.

There is still much competition and finger pointing though.

“The Finns are really macho, they think that all Swedes are gay,” a Swedish friend informed me during a boat trip in the archipelago. “My friend actually is gay but he works at Nokia, and he is too afraid to tell anybody. He says it’s really awful, they are always trying to set him up with girls.”

Our Finnish friend smiled when he heard this but said nothing. Then they turned on me. “How is the homosexual situation in Estonia, Giustino?”

I was now in a position to influence people’s opinions about my wife’s country. Of course, I just wanted to say that it was wonderful, and Estonian gays are the most content of all Estonians. And, from my perspective, it is rather tolerant. At the same time, Estonia still seems to be stuck in “don’t ask, don’t tell” land. It’s your own business, so don’t discuss any of that gay stuff with me! What people don’t realize is that all of Estonian sexuality is like this. Nobody talks about sex, but people seem to do it quite often. Every month brings news of new babies. And yet if you actually came upon the mothers and fathers, few would openly express their desire for anything. I don’t think an Estonian man has ever pulled me aside and said something like, “Hey now, that Kadri Simson is really sexy.” If nude photos of the presidental pair were to surface, people would yawn and turn the page.

“But which is the country where they introduced a bill to make homosexuality an offense?” the Swede asked on the boat. When I answered “Lithuania,” he pulled his jacket tighter and shuddered.

“You know, we in Sweden consider Estonia a Nordic country,” he said. “But Lithuania …” he furrowed his brow and didn’t finish his sentence.

Only then it occurred to me that I had been writing a blog about Estonia, “the world’s only post-communist Nordic country,” for more than seven years.

Still, I did not raise the issue. It was just a statement that was handed to me, and I did not know what I should answer. Should I thank them, or agree? Should I protest? Could I honestly try to pass Riga off as the “Capital of the Baltics” without making them laugh, not to mention embarrassing myself? No. In the end, I just smiled and nodded, that’s what they thought, and since they actually were from the Nordic countries, who was I to argue with them? I wouldn’t dare mention it front of the Lithuanians though. The very coupling of the “N” word and Estonia produces sad, sorrowful faces down south.

Yet, as different as Sweden and Estonia are, I have to say that I could see where the Swede was coming from, for, after spending much time among the Swedes, I felt like I was talking to the Estonians. Other than their beer and their king, the Swedes complained about their marginalization, their isolation. Their best and brightest left to the UK or the US, they said, where they were paid much higher salaries, compensation they could never get in their home countries.

But at the same time, the Swedes exuded that inner steely confidence, that resolve. They had an innate belief that they could do better, that they must do better, and because of this faith, they would do better. They were relentless in their pursuit of making things better, all things, infrastructure, healthcare, sandwiches. And many of the Estonians I know are the same way. They are never content.

As our boat stole away into the night, I did wonder that if these northerners thought of Estonia as a fellow country, then how come it didn’t have a place on the vaunted Nordic Council? Surely that schemer Carl Bildt has known that it is to Sweden’s advantage to steal away Estonia’s best talent under the guise of Nordic cooperation. So where is Estonia’s invite to the ice hotel?

bundle up

So that you won’t catch cold!

It’s still summer. I keep reminding people around me but they don’t seem to believe me. Honestly, this year has been so cold that I am thinking of writing a depressing novel in Estonian called Külm Aasta, if it hasn’t been done before, because so many Estonian years would qualify. The novel would be set in Viljandi and involve disappearing cats, local oligarchs, grimy drunks, and folk musicians.

But that’s not what this post is about. As I was saying, it is still summer, but the Estonians think otherwise. So when it is warm and sunny out, they seem puzzled. “Kui imelik, päris suvine ilm,” somebody remarked to me yesterday, “how strange, what nice summery weather.” I answered “Jah,” but what I was really thinking was, “Of course it feels like summer, it is still summer, damnit!”

I should get a t-shirt made up that says  “Sept. 22” on the front and “Autumn Equinox” on the back. I don’t think anybody would believe me though. For Estonians, fall begins on Sept. 1, the first day of school. End of story.

Clothing at this time of the year never suffices. It is either too cold or too warm. A cool breeze hits you as you walk outside so you put on a light jacket. By the time you are walking back from the store in the warm sun you notice that you are sweating. You take off the jacket and another breeze hits you and all of a sudden you are cold again. It makes me wonder if I should get one of those full-body track suits that middle-aged Italian guys wear. No matter the season, you are always comfortable!

A glance out the window provides no useful information. At the first instant of a cool breeze, Estonian mothers begin swaddling their children, a practice that will continue until May or so of next year, when they just might let their child leave the house his or her head uncovered. This morning I spied the neighbor boy collecting firewood wearing a thermal hat, an insulated jacket, and boots. It looked as if it was about to snow! But when I stepped outside, except for  a cool breeze blowing off the lake, it felt like t-shirt weather. It’s still summer, damnit!

The official explanation for all the swaddling and bundling that goes on in Estonia is that it’s done, “so that you won’t catch cold.” I am not so sure I believe in this. Is it really true that even slight exposure to cool weather will make one ill? I feel just as bad sweating feverishly in a heavy jacket on a warm late summer day as I do getting a few goosebumps in a t-shirt. It seems that there is no good option: both approaches could make one sick.

But these are questions, and the Estonians don’t like to be interrogated about their customs. Things just are as they are, and that means that even if it is 18 degrees Celsius outside (64 degrees Fahrenheit), you better put on your woolen cap and winter jacket, “so that you won’t catch cold.”

Still, I feel bad for those little Estonian boys and girls who are forced to wear winter clothing deep into spring. Even on hot late April days, when the sewers groan with melted ice and snow, days on which most people would feel fine just putting on a light, long-sleeved shirt, you can catch sight of some poor youth trudging down the street in hat, scarf, jacket, gloves, thermal pants and boots, and holding the hand of an overprotective female relative.

This may not be the Arctic, but sometimes it sure feels like it.