I am reclining in a 70’s style loungechair, itself and its twin arranged around a little table precariously placed on a groin-level shelf normally reserved for potplants underneath the street facing window of a cafe in Sodermalm, which is normally spelled with an umlaut, in Stockholm. A wrist width gap between the striped awnings directly outside produces a bar of blinding white light right across whatever I have on my lap or table, like a long fluorescent bulb which phases in and out of existence with the sun passing between clouds. It is making it very hard to see my laptop screen and it makes me screw my eyes up like a drunk driver when it bounces off the pages of the novel I have been chipping away at uselessly for three months.
The cafe has many free seats. I do not know why I am sitting here. It may be because of the very pretty girl sitting at the table directly in front of me skimming what looks to be fashion blogs on her macbook. She is wearing a blouse and tights made of very thin material, and when the glaring strip of light slides away from me and over her I think I’ll be able to see a slow motion letterbox X-ray of her body.
I have been here for about three weeks now. The eclectic travel of the last six months has transformed from carefree substance-abusing hedonism into the slow paced strategy game of “spend as little money as you possibly can”. I divide my time between languishing lazily around my apartment, drawing in this cafe and fucking around with my Swedish friends. Splitting my time like this between hipster suburbs, life has become a parody of what it was back home in Melbourne. With no new countries on my itinerary and no looming flight or music festival my mind has relaxed out of “holiday” mode and into “everyday life”. It is not unpleasant but it feels like a show intermission, though an intermission where you can’t afford to buy anything from the bar in the waiting room. My hair is growing wild and wooly and I am on track for a full-blown whiteboy afro in 2012.
I thought perhaps I would write about some of the things in Sweden which strike me as strange.
In Sweden, anything with an alcohol concentration over 3.5% is sold exclusively in a government operated store called a “systembolaget”. “Systembolaget” translates flatly into “liquor”. This store is open for business inside a very narrow bracket of hours. To illustrate, if the bank is not open you cannot purchase any drink much stiffer than a soy chai latte. This means you need to plan your drinking ahead of time. Forget falling out of a club at 4am and slurring your way through a transaction at your friendly local 24 hour bottle shop like we do back home because here you can’t even score a fucking bottle of wine after 7, and don’t even think about picking up a drink on the weekend. The best tactic I have devised is just to make sure your fridge is full of alcohol all of the time and to replace it with room to spare more diligently than the battery in your smoke alarm.
In Sweden, everything opens the wrong way. Doors. Microwaves. Cupboards. Taps turn the opposite way and when they turn both ways, facilitate the function directly opposite what you would expect them to when rotated in either direction, adding a sense of danger and adventure to showers. I’ve splashed myself at sinks so often that the proprietors of this cafe probably think I’m some kind of urophilliac with a busted catheter bag who is repeatedly pleasuring himself in their tiny single bathroom.
In Sweden it is difficult to cook and eat tasty things, on account of the selection available at supermarkets. Supermarkets are either spartan bulk-buy soviet rectangles where you can get low quality, highly processed basics en masse, or they are sprawling labyrinths (I’m not kidding, they are fucking mazes. It is a little known fact that Swedish supermarket layouts were designed by Escher) stocking the most puzzling and exotic fare I’ve ever seen. Do you want bacon? Well, you can’t have it. Have some shrink wrapped bear anus instead. Vital vegetables are supplanted for punnet and punnet of odd berries that, frankly, look poisonous. Stockists have opted, instead of meats from recognisable animals, to include rack after rack of sickly pink, fat processed “sausage” which taste like kitchen sponge, slickes of which foam and froth ominously when you put them in a frying pan.
The bread is good, though. I’ve been eating that. The bar of light, just now as it finally reached the girl in front of me, melted away with the sun because of an enormous cloud. Life can be cruel.
In Sweden, drug use is a big taboo. No one does it. I went to an underground party a whiles back, little more than a DJ deck and festival grade speakers blasting a forest hilltop with a small adjoined desk set up to sell beers. The same scene in Australia would mean at least half of the jumping guests would be dancing with pupils dilated to dinner plates or constricted to pinpricks. Even the mention of smoking an innocent joint outside of a trusted circle draws aghast expressions and uncomfortable hand wringing in your direction. You wouldn’t expect it in a country so wealthy in neck tattoos.
In Sweden, women you would happily chew your left arm off at the elbow to sleep with saunter by every five minutes at train stations, on the street and in bars. There is some sly long-term eugenic plot at work here, bearing fruit with great success.
On that note- In Sweden, when it is warm and bright, girls frolic about riversides and canals topless, sunning themselves happily in crowds.
In Sweden, you need to negotiate a schedule with your neighbours to use the laundry before you do your washing, or cranky landladies will call the girl you are renting your room from and complain about you.
In Sweden, everybody owns a summer house on an island and, like, two fucking boats.
In Sweden, everybody speaks impeccable english. Turned on its head, the national language poses several obstacles to new speakers. In addition to the several new vowels you will be required to master, mouths speaking the language flare their cheeks so as to not involve everything from the corners of their lips back, like some exaggerated nerdy John Safran lisp. Students of the language are instructed to speak with pens uncomfortably held between their teeth. Even if you yourself cannot discern a difference between what you have said normally and what you have said clenching a pencil like a horse does a mouth bit, Swedes swear up and down that it is the space between gibberish and effective communication.
In Sweden, ironic moustaches are still the height of male facial hair fashion.
In Sweden, people pack their upper lips with teabags of special tobacco instead of smoking. It is called snus, and it eventually burns a pocket in your gums that, in its advanced stages, you can insert your little finger into and poke your eyeball.
In Sweden, the seagulls are the size of labradors.
In Sweden, people dread the coming winter like some great prophesied ancient evil from a fantasy novel, waking from subterranean slumber in the womb of the world to spread fear and misery. People talk about past winters like veterans recount grisly battles, fingering scars and stumps with a far away look in their eyes. Swedes certainly squeeze every drop out of summer but they do it with this faint resignation, like someone spends something they’ve bartered their firstborn for.
It’s an interesting place.