Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I was really hoping to go out with a flourish, finally posting again at a nice tight clip. Unfortunately, the pace here hasn't let up since my return from Tanzania. I think that you can guess where this is going.... Bring on the lamentations!

Unfortunately, since I've been too busy to give this page the attention it deserves, and since I'll be heading back to the states on Thursday (!?) I've decided that it's officially time to close up shop here. While I'd still love to share stories both from my Tanzania trip and from my final months in Sweden, I'm having a harder and harder time finding the time to do so. Once I get back home, I'll have just a couple days with my folks in Montana before I fly down to Houston for another summer working at TFA's training institute. After institute is over (late July), it's time to gather up my stuff and make the move to Chicago! It'll be busy, it'll be exciting and it'll leave me with plenty of stories. Be it in person, email, or perhaps another website, I hope to share some of those stories with all of you in the upcoming year.

My apologies for letting this website fade off near the end (and for this funeral dirge of a final post!). Be assured, though, that I became a more inactive poster not because I was running away from angry mobs of well-coifed Swedes demanding my lunch-kronor, but because I was trying to take in as much as possible during my final months. It's been a great year; Sweden has been unspeakably wonderful. While it will be great to be home, it's been a real treat to discover how much I love this country as well. Thanks for being a part of this while it lasted! I hope to see you all soon!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


No posts?? Not even after very kind reminders from kind, patient friends?? What kind of insufferable jerk are you Bucks?

Great question! I'm an extremely fortunate but extremely busy jerk, currently even further out of the country than has been typical this past year. Thanks to a supplementary research grant, I've been able to do a week's worth of work down here in Tanzania (my first time out of the U.S. or Europe). Stories to share? Yes, absolutely. Time to share them, at least while paying by the shilling in a very kind but only sporadically powered internet cafe? Perhaps not quite yet. Thinking about all of you (and hoping you are well)? Undeniably!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

It’s the Remix to Ignition

Stockholm is thawing. Sort of. It’s still a hesitant thaw, with absolutely gorgeous, reaffirm-your-faith-in-a-benevolent-world sunny days followed without exception by that patented Nordic winter gray. But it’s thawing! There’s been a layer of snow on the ground since Christmas Eve, and while it’s fighting to hold on, it looks like we might be dealing with pure, uncovered concrete in a few days. While nobody would confuse this with permanent spring, we’ve had enough blue-sky days to catch a glimpse of the mountaintop, and we’re not turning around any time soon. Case in point: Wednesday was beautiful, leading a plurality of Stockholm café and restaurant proprietors to break out the patio seating Thursday morning… right in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm. In the days that have followed, blue-skies have come and gone, but the patio seating remains. It's enough to make this temporary quasi-Swede pretty proud.

It’s a good time to be back in town. I was gone for a good portion of March, mostly at Fulbright conferences. They were good, very good actually, but I’m happy to be back.

Plus, did you hear the news? Berlin’s been reunited! Might as well jump:

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Pillow Fight!

Let’s say you’re a mid-sized European country. No, not Andorra. We’re talking truly mid-sized, like Belgium or the completely thawed portions of Finland. It ain’t easy being one of Europe’s middle children. You’re not Germany or France, so you’ll never host the World Cup or get to call “dibs” on the good seats at EU headquarters. And you don’t have the adorable novelty value of a tiny country (“Look at Liechtenstein! Cute!”)

So how are you going to make your mark? Innovative social welfare policies? Yeah, those will get you some attention for a while, but somebody can always come along with a shinier, even less privatized pension system to take the limelight away (I’m looking in your direction, Norway). The Winter Olympics? Awesome as they are, you realize at a certain point that the rest of the world doesn’t care about them quite as much as Northern Europe.

At the end of the day, mid-sized Europe has one chance to make its mark. I’m talking, of course, about the Eurovision Song Contest, grandmother of all reality programming and permanent diffuser of otherwise messy European nationalism. Eurovision is American Idol for those who worry that American Idol isn’t scripted enough. Not only do competitors have to bear the collective weight of their country’s expectations, they also have to follow a ton of rules (most of them involving compulsory key-changes).

Picking your Eurovision representative is big business. This year, Sweden has switched to the longest selection process imaginable, spanning four regional preliminaries, a “second-chance” round and a final blowout performance at the Globen Arena in Stockholm. The competitors are, for the most part, culled from the ranks of Swedish pseudo-celebrity. Here former novelty hit-makers compete against mid-day quiz show presenters for the opportunity to be hoisted on their country’s shoulders and paraded across the continent.

So far, we’ve been with them every step of the way. There has been redemption and disappointment. There have been ballads and anthems. And yeah, there’s also a little heavy-handed wink-nudge irony (including at least tongue-in-cheek mustache… courtesy of “Gunther” and his equally ironic although less mustached “Sunshine Girls”). With that being said, what’s really nice is the sheer amount of unabashed earnestness on stage. And we’re not just talking from folks who’ve spent their career on the Eurovision circuit. Everywhere you look, you’ll find enthusiastic Swedes giving it their all. The Poodles, that lovable crew of hair-metal revivalists whose percussion kit features four bass drums and a flaming gong? Incredibly earnest. The unfortunately named Rednex, who were last seen in America playing insufferable, vaguely country-tinged Euro-dance music? Also earnest.

And these guys?

You’d better believe they’re earnest! Unnecessary pouts notwithstanding, Pandang (pictured above, presumably on their way from the festival to study hall) went so far as to enthusiastically perform a song about pillow-fighting (called, appropriately enough, “Pillow Fight!”).

And that’s what’s great about the Eurovision Song Contest. This isn’t reality programming for folks who want to feel better about themselves by laughing at the rubes on the TV. It’s impossible for anybody to be cool while watching or participating in any part of this scene. Eurovision asks us to trade our ironic mustaches for an actual, legitimate grin. Europe’s watching, and they’re not going to be fooled by anything except for pure, unabashed enthusiasm. If you’re too cool, be prepared to get trounced in the preliminaries. What’s the time? It’s time to get earnest.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

What’s Up Now?

Listen, Virginia. You can have the tourist bureau slogan. If you really want to make a big fuss about how your state is “for lovers,” I won’t stand in your way. Let’s face facts, though. How does the average Virginian end phone conversations with their friends/family/significant others? “Bye”… “Love you” …. “For Liberty” … I mean, maybe I’m missing something; perhaps every Virginian salutation is embossed with a special dose of Delmarva affection. If so, I haven’t seen it.

In the other corner, we’ve got Sweden. Or, perhaps more appropriately, we’ve got one particular Swede, a young woman whom Kjersti recently encountered on a public bus. Single-handedly laying down the international love gauntlet, the woman in question audibly ended her cell-phone conversation (presumably with a loved-one, but perhaps with a particularly helpful Apple Computer troubleshooter) with not one, not two, but at least six terms of endearment (more if you count “goodbye”).

Here’s the complete transcript (translated into English):

“Kiss, Kiss, Hug, Kiss, I Love You, Goodbye, Kiss.”


I’m warning you Virginia. Considering that most Swedes already end phone conversations with at least one solid “Hug, Kiss,” it’s really only a matter of time before this unabashed affection explosion starts catching on country-wide. If you want to keep your title, you’ve got to do something big. I don’t know what road you’ll take… ripping up all your grass and seeding in rose petals… giving Delaware a big box of chocolates… finally electing Teddy Pendergrass to the Governor’s mansion. Whatever you choose, watch out for the mountainous north. They’re on to you.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Competitive Athletics Rule!

As you might have guessed from that last post, Olympic fever swept through Sweden and left a trail of national pride in its wake. It’s fun to watch a group of people get really proud of their country for all the right reasons (“all the right reasons” defined, of course, as general agility and endurance on ice and snow). There’s just no resisting it. The games may be over, but you can bet that my personal Olympic fever won’t be subsiding for at least another week. More on that in the next few days….

Undergraduate Cleverness Rules!

In the meantime, I’m finally getting to the point with my Swedish comprehension skills where I can puzzle through a good portion of Stockholm University bathroom graffiti. And yeah, while it helps that these missives are usually heavy on cognates and famous quotations, it still feels like I’m making progress. Here’s one of my new favorites:

1st Writer: Marx sa: religionen är folkets opium
(Marx said: (The) Religion is the people’s opium.)

2nd Write: Pratade han Svensk?
(He spoke Swedish?”)

Goodness, that one gets me every time. No wonder they always say that easily decodable Swedish is the soul of wit.

Hope all are well.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Du Gamla, Du Fria

I’ve got an opinion or two about popular music. I like key changes and big finishes. Strings usually don’t hurt, but brass should be used sparingly. As for lyrics, there’s a ton of tried and true classic themes available to a potential pop music wordsmith (“I find you attractive,” “You broke my heart,” “I myself am quite attractive/talented/vaguely dangerous,” “I enjoy partying,” “Dance!”). For my money, though, the best songs are those that let you know that we’re all going to be OK, that if we stick together, we’ll do all right. When done right, these are the kind of songs that make high school kids and real live grown-ups alike feel like they aren’t alone. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what pop music is all about?

The problem, of course, is that there’s a fine line between affirming and saccharine. Most songs in the “we’re going to be all right” camp skip that line altogether and make a blind rush towards overt triteness. They show their hand too early, either in the title or the first chorus. My message for these songs? You can do better. You’re not going to convince me by telling me right off the bat that every little thing is going to be all right. That’ll just sound silly. Paint the picture for me. Pop open a can of nuance and make me figure out the rest.

That’s what’s so great about national anthems. Here’s a batch of songs that exist solely to make people feel good about themselves, their neighbors and their country (and yeah, I know that’s a generous reading of the genre, but it won’t hurt to give Manufacturing Consent-style skepticism a rest for right now). They’re the ultimate “We’re going to be OK” songs, and for all their bombast and swells, they generally do so with a good bit of subtlety.

It might just be the novelty of being in a new place, but I’m particularly taken by Sweden’s national anthem. It’s a gentle little thing, more likely to evoke tears than militance… but it’s got no shortage of passion. It lets Swedes know that they’re a special bunch, but never directly. It does so by taking what many would consider to be Sweden’s biggest drawback (it’s a cold dark place up near the top of the world) and pinning it on with pride. Yeah, the song seems to say…. our country’s old… and mountainous…. but it’s the loveliest land on Earth. It’s even got our hearts beguiling, which is barely even a verb!

The kicker, though, is the end of the second verse. The point has already been made by now. The listener and singer (but especially the singer!) both know that this Sweden is a pretty special place, populated by a loving, rugged people with beguiling hearts. Any further sentiment is just gravy. This is when the song makes the jump from appreciation to pure, unadulterated pride. This is when, if you’re Swedish, your voice gets to swell and you get to tell the world that you love the North, that you would like not only to live there but also to die there. Then, as soon as you’ve done so, the music fades out and it’s time to get back to rationalism and modernity. See? This is how you write a great song. We’re OK. We live in a good place. It might not be for everybody, but it’s home and we’re proud of it. Cue the strings and invite some friends over to sing together. It’ll work out.