21 November 2007

A Tale of Cameras and Kings

STOCKHOLM--We left the Royal Armory and its blood-stained clothes of long dead kings and wandered through the streets of old Stockholm. Rounding a corner we found ourselves at the Nobel Museum, edifice to prizes of peace and trinitrotoluene. In the window was advertised a show of the photos of Robert Capa. We went in and stood in front of black and white prints that were witness to the horrors of the last century, many of the men who made it that way and others who witnessed it in turn. There was old Leon Trotsky raging about kulaks, high and mighty before he ever imagined an icepick in Mexico. There was the famous, anonymous, Spanish soldier forever caught in the act of dying. There was Papa Hemingway, quiet beside a lake, his son and two shotguns by his side and there was that squat devil Picasso playing the demon fool. There were refugees and soldiers, the liberated and the oppressed and in a glass case was Capa's worn old Leica. I took mine from my bag and laid it over his and let them talk for a while, separated by inches. Later, when no one was looking I snapped a photo of his camera with my little digital and thought how he had said, "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." I thought about the landmine he had stepped on in French Indochina and wished it had ended some other way. I took my girl's hand, we left and walked through cold Stockholm streets, talking of other places, telling tales of cameras and kings and the blood-stained world.

They're Coming to Take Me Away

It is a dark wintery night in Northern Europe. The streetlights cast pools of dim, yellow light on the cobbled streets, windows are boarded and taped against the increasingly common Allied air-raids and most know, though cannot speak the fact, that the War is lost. From the tinny speakers of my hidden radio I know that the landings in France were not pushed back. Every time I transmit SHAEF gains another edge and I lose a year off my life from the stress. I try to send when other transmissions are at their peak and I move apartments every few days but I know they know I am out here...

Or, it is a dark and wintery night in Northern Europe and I am increasingly driven to flights of fantasy to keep the boredom off. I stood on the balcony the other night and watched spotlights criss-crossing the cloudy midnight sky. Never mind that they were advertising opening night at the concert hall. Don't tell me that because for a moment I was Edward Murrow reporting live from the London Blitz or some nameless OSS agent looking at the Berlin sky in the final days of the Third Reich. Living in Europe gives you access to these types of fantasies. The sounds and smells, the old streets and ancient buildings, train stations and sirens, the slightly odd cut of clothing and the often undiluted, un-colonial, un-American look of the faces add up to a bizarre alternate reality where it isn't so difficult to imagine oneself as some sort of desparate character living in desparate times. Which brings us to the sirens...

Perhaps it is too many old war movies and comics, the same ones that have given me a sort of weird German vocabulary (Gott und Himmel! Schwinehund! Mach Schnell!) that about 60% translates into Swedish, but there is something about the flat, two-tone sirens that always send a chill down my spine -- never mind that it is 2007 not 1943 and I am in Lund, Sweden not Berlin, Germany. The sirens, are, frankly, creepy. The ululating wail of American sirens makes me hope the good guys are on the way with reckless urgency and heroic abandon but the European 'EEE UH EEE UH EEE UH' makes me think of Anne Frank. They make me start for my false papers, hidden Lugar and the fire-escape (none of which I have which is sort of frustrating). They predicate men in black leather trenchcoats...

But my father made my mind rest a little easier with sage words of parental wisdom, "Son, when the Gestapo comes for you they kick the door in around 0400.... And they don't use the siren."

13 November 2007

12 Minutes To Malmo Redux

LUND TO MALMO -- I stand at the station amidst the smells of tobacco smoke, heavy iron and foreign soil wet with foreign rain. My train hisses to a stop and I scan the faces around me as we push forward into the car. I sit across from some stranger. The doors close and the thing begins to accelerate, rocking side to side as it gains momentum. There is the rhythmic sigh and clatter of the rails and the darkening world flashing by the window. I think that I exist nowhere but in this car, my body moving forward through the land but contained within an anomoly of space and time. This, even, on a 12 minute ride from Lund to Malmo.

Perhaps it is being an American, from a mostly un-trained country. Perhaps being American in a strange land surrounded by conversations in unfamiliar tongues adds to my little adventure. It allows me to extrapolate 12-minutes-to-Malmo into a reasonable facsimile of the Orient Express and change the tired commuters around me into spies and killers and femme fatales, all on desperate missions or escaping to and from doomed liasons.

Soon this mode of travel may well become as commonplace as driving in Ohio. Perhaps too, for many Europeans, traveling by private car has a similar cachet -- a taste of the open American road populated by cops and killers, beatniks and bikers. And I do miss my car. But for now, as the train pulls into Malmo central, I will step into the old station, call my Swedish lover as soon as I am sure I'm not being followed by that man in the trench coat and think, that perhaps I once knew the woman over there in the black leather jacket who is lighting a cigarette. But that was long ago, in Budapest, when she, and I, were both known by other names...

Swedish Sex

In the interest of disapointing the world at large and taking potshots at dearly held beliefs I am going to state that the Swedes seem a bit uptight sexually. It is hard to put one's finger on, so to speak. They are, certainly, very open in many ways and seem to attach little or no shame to having had a one-night stand or brief fling. They do it and like it but perhaps their almost militant (if such a word can be applied to modern Swedes) openess and liberality has, in practice, translated to a sort of de-sensualization -- that in removing any shame or prurience from the act they have also lost some of the essential mystery and even romance that tends to make sex so much fun. Perhaps exorcising neurosis from the physical act of love has created its own set of neurosis.

Think that, at least for some, that during the ascension to climax the name of the Creator is called out, repeated mantra-like, combining, I would theorize, an inner tension between calling such a name in possibly sinful or blasphemous conditions but also transcending those notions in that generative moment as two (or perhaps more?) individuals join as close together as is possible for the essentially isolated human organism -- briefly reaching for a shattering moment of transcendence and oblivion. But what would one call out in a dedicatedly Godless culture?

Amongst the average Swede the divine spark has been so thoroughly denied, religiosity so completely quashed, that calling out such a name would seem ridiculous. In America and other ostensibly civilized lands many are victim to endemic agnosticism, casual atheism, unfocused paganism and a vague anger at organized religion for the neurosis it has given, real or imagined, to childhood dreams and adult confusions. Not so, here in Swedelandia. For most, religion, God and faith simply did not and do not happen. They have no relevance. They are things that happen elsewhere in less-evolved societies and are rarely even a cause for anger here as they are essentially inexplicable phenomena that involve others. The unstated implication that such irrationality is, perhaps, the idiom of hotter places where passions run freer beneath layers of oppression or of other chillier climes where governmental or societal oppression causes the heating of the blood and emotions. In other words, more savage places where the masses need their opiates...

Currently, the question is what the future will hold for Sweden as their economic system and cradle-to-grave social programs go through a correction. They are facing erosion of a core belief: that the more or less benevolent government cannot, for annoying economic realities, forever continue to provide every last social service both to native Swedes and an increasing number of immigrants. Those Swedes I have spoken to seem genuinely angry and more than a little hurt. While anyone in any country might get angry that their government has proved incompentent or corrupt, few wold be surprised. In the majority of world views that is the state of the State. No one trusts their government as a matter of faith. No one, that is, except the Swedes. And now they seem actually bereaved, almost as if they were Republicans that found out Ronald Reagan was actually a commie spy or Catholics recieving undeniable proof that the Pope was a fraud and a humbug, pulling levers and pushing buttons from behind a curtain to provide an insubstantial light and dance show. And if The State, whom Swedes trust in a way as unfathomable to Americans as God is to the Swedes, loses its credibilty, then Swedes will have lost faith in the one thing larger and more powerful than themselves as individuals.

What then does the future hold for the Swedish psyche? Well, perhaps someday, in the act of clean, tested, unshameful love (between consenting adults of whatever combination of course) someone might call out in a moment of clarity, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and find transcendence in the unknowable. Then again they might just turn their faces away into the pillow of self-indulgence, grip the sheets, raise their asses in the air and cry out, "Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, why hast thou screwed me so?"