24 October 2007

How The Vikings Got Universal Health Care and Other Bedtime Stories

In the current state of geo-political affairs one tends to think of Christianity as being the religion of the West, of Judaism perhaps straddling the West and East and of Islam being more or less firmly Eastern -- Oriental in the now incorrect parlance -- along with all those other weird faiths that hardly bear mentioning. But the fact remains that Christianity along with its monotheistic bretheran, Judaism and Islam, is most certainly an Eastern religion, formed and forged in Jerusalem and environs: a product not just of Abraham, Moses and Jesus but of 1,000s of years of philosophical, cultural and legal development far removed from the unknown Americas and the brutish heathens of Northern Europe.

The farther one got from the Mediterranean rim the more tenuous the hold of Jesus and Moses, Abraham and Mohamed, at least within the native populations. Christianity did have a brief vogue in Scandanavia which, while staying within the general area, is about as far as one could get from Jerusalem and Mecca. Churches and cathedrals were built over cast-down pagan shrines, sermons were said, maidens ceased being strangled on the funeral ships of Viking lords and Thorvald and Svengaard gave up rading, raping and pillaging for universal health care. But I don't believe Christianity ever really took hold. Odin, Thor, Loki and the host(ess?) of Valkyries were shunted off to Valhalla and mostly forgotten but nothing stepped in to firmly take their place. Remember that the ancestors of the modern and tolerant Philipsons and Svensons moved up into these inhospitable parts a 1,000 years ago or more and while they spent a lot of time bothering people from the halls of old Paris to the shores of Constantinople, nobody much ever bothered them except the Danes -- and that doesn't really count.

Scandanavia looms above the rest of Europe, hangs really, with modern Sweden like a huge uncircumcized phallus with Finland for its balls and Norway alongside like a giant sperm, dangling there above everythng, pretty much untouchable due to geography and the at least formerly ferocious disposition of its inhabitants. Besides, there wasn't a whole lot up here to take even if one were suitably motivated to attempt moving an army North, facing less-than-friendly Germans and Danes along the way, crossing open water and finding oneself cut off from supply lines in a frozen land surrounded by the bastards who'd been raping and pillaging you for centuries. No, better to leave them alone. It's a myth, of course, that all the Nords did was rape, pillage, plunder and kill. To be certain they did quite a bit of that but they tended to do it West and South towards England and France. Towards the East they tended to trade that which they had plundered, human or otherwise, as well as their own goods: finely made weapons and armor from natural iron deposits, Baltic amber, furs and skins. So, best to deal with the big, blonde bastards since you couldn't do much about them anyway except close the gates and hope Thorvald and Svengaard would get bored and go back home rather than getting in a stubborn Swedish snit and staying until they leveled the place.

And so Christianity spread, as it did, and maybe no one here really cared all that much about Odin and Thor and company anyway and one day Thorvald and Svengaard were sitting around drinking fermented honey out of finely tooled drinking cups made from Parisian skulls and Svengaard said something like, "Ya know, Thorvald, I like this Viking stuff, I really do, but..."
Svengaard burped and grabbed a handful of passing wench and replied, "Yeah, but you know, there's something missing..."
"Right, like we already have all the large breasted blondes, or at least as many as we'll ever need."
"No need to get crazy dude!"
"No really, man, I'm being serious."
"OK, OK, chill, pass me another mead."
Thorvald was warming to the subject, "Like we have cleverly designed ships and swords and helmets but what about furniture with minimalistic lines and things to hang our helmets and swords from?!"
Svengaard, despite his flippancy, had obviously been giving the matter some thought as well, "Maybe in blond wood and brushed steel?"
"Yes, that fit efficiently in our small but comfortable longhouses!"
Thorvald was quiet again before adding, "And while we're away, you know, doing what we do..."
"What about our families?" Svengaard finished.
"Like what if we don't come back from Vinland, who'll take care of them?"
"Or if I, or you, get hurt or disabled while butchering Scraelings who will pay for our rehabilitation if we can't be out there pillaging?"
"And, and, uh, Helga is always on at me about being preganant...."
"It really is hard on the girls, er, excuse me, women. There ought to be some sort of State funded program to allow for time off during the post-natal period..."
"Good idea!"

And so it went. The Viking eventually hung up their (not horned) helmets and invented universal health-care, realizing that their pillaging ways were only feeding the male hegemony and contributing to the oppression of the less fortunate. In such a new world old one-eyed Odin and his death ravens, Thor and his hammer, really didn't make much sense. Neither did the teachings of the whacky new Christian God, though. Why turn the other cheek when no one since the dawn of time had ever slapped your cheek and gotten away with it. Why care if He died for your sins when you'd never sinned anyway (sin to a Viking being a completely different thing altogether).

I would almost suggest, although it is ultimately ridiculous, that the Nords' current debilitating lack of spirituality might best be solved by returning to their original gods for whom they seem much better suited than to some weird ONE God from far off hot places. Of course the world, and Swedes, have changed so the old gods would have to adapt as well. Being pagan and adaptably un-Koranic, this should be of little problem. Thor could be the Hammer of Social Conciousness and Activism, Odin the symbol of the almighty State that provides for you until the ravens pick your bones, Loki the trickster that allows the Swedes in good conscience to go on being one of the world's largest arms dealers. Of course it will never happen but still, it is nice to imagine holding a naked Swede woman in your arms and hear her cry out, "Oh Thor, oh Thor, oh, oh my Thor, Thor, Thor, oh, my god."

That would be very fine indeed...

23 October 2007

Musings on the Swede Den

LUND--The individual Swede is rarely odd looking by American standards. Most, other than being generally slim, well-dressed and good-looking would not look out of place on the streets of Ohio. But what is strange, to my eyes, are the Swedes en mass: whole herds, packs, gangs of fair-haired white people walking and bicycling swiftly and confidently at me. And while compared to the rest of Europe the Swedes don't dress particularly oddly, they do have a sort of Swedeiform. Men and women alike are almost all dressed in shades of black or grey under black anoraks or leather coats. The women wear tight pants or jeans tucked into high boots. While personally friendly, there is no casual interaction on the streets or in the stores, no hellos to strangers are exchanged, no eye contact is made. The scrum in the grocery store is almost brutal with no "sorrys" or "pardon me's" in any language, just a fast and efficient hunt for meatballs and herring and tubes of squeezy fishpaste.

Lena recalls how surprised she was in the Wal Mart back in the States, that total strangers not only smiled and greeted her, but, "They said, 'Excuse me,' from two or three meters away, not even close to bumping me." She theorizes that this, in the US, is due to hundreds of years of acculturation to the fact that your fellow American shopper might well be heavily armed. So best, then, to smile, keep one's distance and make sure it is evident that one is a non-threat... that and at the same time watching the other's eyes and hands for evidence of a quick draw.

Here, she says, one barely needs to look both ways before crossing the street. I am always stopping, assuming that the boxy buses (equipped with passenger seatbelts) and speeding Saabs ain't gonna stop for the likes of lil' ol' me. But, as she says, they are far less of a danger than the Nordic hordes of bicyclists. What does a gun-owning, American SUV driving, Republican do in a land of unarmed, bicycle riding socialists? I have taken to wearing all black naturally enough and am more or less tall and blonde. I may add a Che Guevera t-shirt and a little red star on my lapel so as to study their habits more closely... After years of travel in Central America it is rather a relief not to stick out of the crowd. It wasn't like I could dye my hair black, throw on a straw hat and suddenly look Guatemalan. Here, if I don't open my mouth, I can quietly observe the Swedes in their natural habitat...

I met Lena in downtown Malmo after she got off work. I was munching on some sort of wrap or roll containing a hot dog, mashed potatos and what might have been shrimp salad, something from a local take-out stand that I had pointed to a picture of and grunted. It was good but not as good as it probably was meant to be since I was sober. I walked with Lena through a big square and she said that on weekend nights it was one of the most dangerous places in the city.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it has both a MacDonald's and a Burger King!"
"What and Swedes get in violent disagreements over Big Mac versus Whopper?"
"No, it's where all the boys who aren't getting laid go after the pubs close, all drunk and frustrated."
That made sense of course, there being universal danger around take-out food stands after closing time but still I found it amusing, MacDonald's and BK being epicenters of Scandanavian violence, Friday and Saturday nights ending in fists and boots, clumps of blonde hair pulled out, Super Size fries and Whoppers and Big Macs exploding in sprays of blood and secret sauce. And the pale morning sun rising sadly over inert bodies and half-eaten beef patties, a jaded cop prying red-stained fries from a cold, dead hand...

22 October 2007

Gone Daddy Gone

"...But I have learned some things. I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep -- leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late."
--Beryl Markham, "West With The Night"

MALMO--It is almost warm sitting in the afternoon October sun on the raised patio of O'Leary's Sports Bar. I had hoped to find a place showing the baseball games back in The States, to see if maybe The Indians might finally get the pennant. But Swedes seem about as interested in baseball as they are in sending troops to the Middle East and other American pastimes. So no, there was only the other football on the televisions. I had half hoped to walk into a room of rowdy American expats in baseball gear, whip out my new Cleveland ballcap and plant myself among them like just another one of the guys, cheering on our abandoned home-teams way over here in Scandylandia. I had to laugh at myself a bit, searching out televised sports and the men who watch them is an entirely new activity for me but I know that sooner or later I'll want to sit down with a fellow American -- preferably one who appreciates the blondes but not the socialism -- and disect my new home over beer and boneless buffalo herring bites.

The last year has been an exhausting one. There was Sweden ten or so months ago and a long, hard and lonely Ohio winter of which I remember little. It was more snow, more Ohio and a lot of time spent with my best friend Jake after the death of his father, of designing a sapphire ring for a certain Swedish lass and preparing to go back to El Salvador to work on a documentary film for S.A.R.A. (Sharing America's Resources Abroad). I was prepared to go to Salvador in February but the grant money hadn't come through yet and, truth be told, I had a horrible feeling of dread about the trip. It was the same feeling of dread and doom I had had a few years before prior to a trip to Guatemala. On the morning I was to leave for that trip my alarm had never gone off. I rebooked the flight for the next day and felt fine. So, I didn't go to El Salvador in February and feelings of doom aside it was much better in many ways that I went in June and July, leaving a week after Lena visited the States during a beautiful Ohio Spring. And El Salvador was a good trip, at least that in nothing bad happened (more posts about it later) and since my return from Central America my life has consisted of packing up my things, giving things away, filing papers and negatives and saying an endless round of goodbyes. The date of October 10 seemed to hang out there in the future, never getting any closer even if the calander seemed to indicate that it was. A week before that I flew to Phoenix, Arizona for my 20th High School reunion (another story to be sure). Before leaving for there I ran into my friend Andy Strader late one night at the Wal Mart and he asked what I was doing. I told him and he replied, "You never stay still for a second, do you Andrew?"

And the time passed like it always does and then it really was last goodbyes, some hopefull and others, well, I probably won't see you again. Jake drove me to the airport and before we left we had lunch with my mother and then stopped at Seattle's for a coffee to go. Shelly Wilson, one of the owners, asked where we were off to. "Going to Cleveland," I replied, being intentionally vague. But she asked what we were doing in Cleveland and I told her and she bought me a last Guinness which I gulped down on the patio. Another friend, Jamie Miller, stopped in and asked when I was leaving for Sweden.
"Now," I replied."
He laughed, "Really?"
"Yes, now, really, right now."
"Well goodbye, goodluck."

Dr. Jake drove me north and in that last hour claimed to have figured me out psychologically after having observed me for the last six years. He gave me his diagnosis and I couldn't argue, he was right, I am mildly obsessive compulsive, ordering my world in the details of packing and minute planning and perfect equipment, ordering my world by sectioning it into perfect little photographic rectangles and neat descriptions and stories. We approached the airport and Jake cued up Warren Zevon's "My Ride's Here." I shrugged into my old leather jacket, slipped on my wraparound RayBans, centered my new hat, checked the time on my orange face Doxa watch. We stopped at the curb. Iifted on the Lowepro pack filled with Nikons and Leicas and Panasonics, slung the leather satchel containing two Mac laptops over one shoulder and paid the porter to wheel in his cart containing an olive Army deployment pack, a Columbia pack with an old NorthFace Recon pack strapped to it and a Zero Haliburton suitcase. Other than a few boxes I had mailed I had reduced my possesions to a managable amount, what I could take on a plane. Jake took a picture of me with his phone. We hugged, slapped backs, "Take care of yourself you sonofabitch." And like that I was gone.

01 October 2007