31 December 2007

New Year's Eve 2008 (What the hell else are you going to call it?)

LUND--The day, New Years Eve day in Sweden, broke blue and light. The sun had not been out like that in over 60 days and the grey had become intolerable. We lay in bed on the morning before the new year and saw the strange blue light come past the cloaking blinds. And we went out into it to buy this and that, wine and asparagus and the last few things we needed for our small party to come. And the light was strange and hopeful. For the first time since I had arrived in the country the light seemed to shine on things instead of being separate. We walked and she took her long black leather gloves off and took my hand. We bought Hungarian champagne at the State liquor store and asparagus at the market and a few other things. We cleaned the flat and bought fireworks, packs of huge skyrockets with three-foot poles. I began to prep dinner.

She dressed in a full-length, red-sequined ball gown she had bought at the Goodwill store in Ohio and I in a raw silk, shawl-collared dinner jacket with vest. We met the guests at the door with Jell-O shots (a remarkable American invention) made with Russian vodka and strange Halal raspberry gelatin. Our guests were as follows: There was Fredrik and his girlfriend Catherine, Lena’s old friend Tatjana and her friend Katy from England. Fredrik went to journalism school with Lena and is a News-writer, Catherine is from the French and a counselor for the hearing-impaired and a potter of note, Tatjana, Swedish of Croatian descent with a law degree, works in Chiapas, Mexico as a peace observer and Katy is working on her Doctorate focusing on the way indigenous people view themselves in photographs, view photography (King’s College, Cambridge).

I made salmon en croute with pesto, herb-roasted potatoes, and steamed asparagus served with a garnish of raw, julienned carrots and drizzled with a pesto cream sauce. We began with a dish made by Fredrik and Catherine, shrimp marinated in balsamic vinegar over toast with fresh greens and a nice Rosé brought back from her aunt’s village in the south of France. With the main course we drank a Pouilly Fumé brought by Katy and for desert we had a mix of fruit and meringue and cream that someone said was Russian in origin. With it we drank the Hungarian champagne. The women were all beautiful.
A little before ten minutes to midnight we went down to a piece of public greenery at the local bus station that Lena and I had scouted out earlier that day after buying the ridiculously powerful skyrockets. We took the bombs and three bottles of champagne. Lena wore a mink coat and matching hat. I wore, with my tuxedo, the Finnish army motorcycle goggles I’d bought with agent 016 in Texas a few years before on my way to Mexico. For the minutes before and after midnight we did a lot of kissing and setting off of fairly high explosives. I liked that.

The rockets went up with military whooshes, streaked up and blew up and I was impressed for my second year in a row how the Swedes might be overly safety-conscious about most things but their fireworks were top-rate. The only one that went wrong shot out the side and almost got Anna Palmehag who had come by to wish us a happy midnight.

At the bus stop we spoke with some pretty girls, proud of their African immigrant roots, who were on their way to Malmo. They cheered America when I said where I was from. Then they cheered Zambia, Thailand, Sweden and everything else. We went home and soon everyone left. Lena and I put my Nikon on a tripod and took our New Year’s portraits. We downloaded those. Then I downloaded all the pictures from the little pocket Canon my Father gave me. We looked at the record of the night and looked at a sort of slow motion movie of the time since I have been here in Sweden. I thought that it would make an interesting movie. I thought about the pictures I would take in the next year and what an interesting movie they might make. I thought about what I might write and then wrote. Then I went to bed. Or not. But it was already four hours into the new year.

18 December 2007

Dinner at Pelikan

LUND -- I was lying sick in a hotel room in San Salvador medicating myself with liquids, Cipro and television. I don’t have a television at home and find myself exposed to its weirdness in places that accentuate the strangeness of the medium. I found that the TV often contains odd corollaries to actual life and in between masked Mexicans tossing each other about and the psychopathic progression of one dying, dismembered and disappeared show after another I found Anthony Bourdain’s food and travel show “No Reservations.” Bourdain, in this episode, was visiting Sweden, where I was soon to be.

What I love about Bourdain is the glee with which he has, “sold out.” He has, for better or worse, and that is up to him, “sold out” to the complete dream and in the best possible personal way that I think I have ever seen, parlaying his own intelligence, wit and anarchic personality into a living on TV. And while actually doing the show undoubtedly is often annoying, it still allows the finances and freedom to travel the world and eat and drink for a living instead of toiling forever in the body and soul crushing commercial kitchen. Cheers to that!

What Mr. Bourdain has found is a traditional refuge of the talented rogue: journalism. Of course I use the “j word” loosely, but there is a long and gloriously checkered tradition of the adventurer using both restaurant work and published words or images to further and fund a personal taste for world experience. And no real rogue is worth his salt (or pepper or saffron or garlic) if he doesn’t like his adventure combined with meat and fowl and game and wine and all other gastronomic possibilities for good, ill or dysentery as the road finds them.

So, I was sick in San Salvador, undoubtedly from something I had eaten, and Chef Bourdain was cavorting in Sweden, my soon-to-be-home. Among other televised adventures he ate at a traditional old Stockholm restaurant named Pelikan where he dined upon knuckle of pork. Now I already knew that Lena and I were planning to go to Stockholm in November and she had been asking me what I wanted to do upon arrival in Sweden. The sights of Sweden, unfortunately, are less obvious than, say, Rome or Paris, but now I had a destination in mind.

The Pelikan was only a few blocks from our hostel and we went on a Sunday night. It is a large, open, wood-paneled beer hall with 30 foot ceiling painted with fading murals of gamboling monkeys. It was mostly full that evening but felt convivial not crowded. Our waiter was a short, Germanic man who was curt at first, though not impolite. He seemed to warm to us, however, as it became evident we truly enjoyed the food. We began with drinks, Lena a Martini (red vermouth not the cocktail) and I a Laphroig single malt neat. We decided to make a whole meal of the experience and began with starters. I got a salad of anchovies and egg on dark bread and she the charcuterie plate. They both were good, the cold cuts slightly strange in their spicing and texture to my palette and the salad a hearty mix of flavors, both perfect with the Carlsburg Hof that we washed them down with.

I considered the meatballs, what could be more Swedish than that, and rather wanted the duck in cider sauce, but Lena questioned my manhood if I didn’t get the pork knuckle like some cook with a French name had managed to eat. So I ordered the pork, which came as a huge bone-in joint of boiled swine-flesh with three mustards and a side of mashed root vegetables. Lena got the elk in chanterelle sauce with mashed potatoes with rose hips. We vowed to return for the meatballs and duck.

And the pork was sublime, cut-with-a-fork-falling-off-the-bone, salty and perfect with the mustards and the buttery mash of carrots and parsnips and potatoes. Lena’s elk was excellent as well and we traded back and forth a few times until I declared the pork knuckle mine and fended off her questing fork. We drank more of the Danish Carlsburg (Probably the Best Beer in the World reads the label, I love Scandanavian pseudo-modesty).

Between the meal and desert we had strong coffee and two kinds of Branvin, literally “burnt wine” (schnapps). One, the traditional caraway flavored type and another infused with bog myrtle. We finished with a cloudberry parfait and a blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream.

What else can one say? The interior of Pelikan is warm with light and laughter and talk against the dark Scandanavian winter night. The food is perfect. All in all it was one of the best restaurant experiences I have ever had. I aligned my fork and knife (gaffel och kniv), let the waiter take away the plates, looked deep into the blue eyes of my Swede and let out a long, satisfied, traditional burp.

12 December 2007

Off to See the Wizard

LUND -- We were driving through the Scanian countryside and I saw something odd to my American eyes, it isn’t important what, and I turned to Lena and said, “Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“Is this not like Kansas?” she asked matter-of-factly. As a credit to her non-jealous nature she didn’t even ask why I called her Dorothy but, then again, she is used to me blurting out strange statements. In a moment of equal literalness I replied, “Actually I’ve never been to Kansas but this does look a lot like Ohio.”

“Then why did you say Kansas if you’ve never been there?”

“You know, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”

There was silence for a moment, then, “No.”

I laughed, “C’mon, you’re kidding. You’re trying to tell me you’ve never seen ‘The Wizard of Oz’, never read the book? Dorothy? Toto? Tinman? Winged Monkeys????”

“I have heard of it,” she replied, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I mean, I know you’d love to have some winged monkeys…”

“Yes, and they come from Oz.”

“Of course they do, darling,” she replied and, again to her credit, she didn’t pat me on the head or begin dialing the police. In questioning her I discerned that the Swedes know little of Munchkins but, perhaps more interestingly, I realized how deeply the mythos of Frank Baum’s imaginary land has pervaded the American psyche. References to his 1900 book and, more particularly to the 1939 movie based on it, have acquired a level of shared knowledge in the U.S. far beyond the normal usage of movie quotations. I will go out on a limb and say it is the most quoted movie of all time. Let us begin with the quote I began this essay with which is actually, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” (incidentally, is it better to refer to your girlfriend by the name of another woman or of a dog?). This phrase is used in any number of situations to describe the sudden, profound realization that geographically, or situationally, things have taken a turn for the weird: Kansas being the metaphor for home and normalcy and Oz (wherever one has found oneself: Sweden, El Salvador, transvestite-midget-strip-club, etc.) being the other, the direct and obvious counterpoint to everyday existence.

This list and analysis is by no means complete or comprehensive and simple explication of quotations somehow fails to adequately describe how deeply Americans know what these phrases mean, even as they have become separate from their origin. There is, “I’ll get you my pretty….and your little dog too…” exclaimed by the Wicked Witch of the West. Often this is wittily shortened to, “….And your little dog too.” When this is said is difficult to explain. Sometimes when one sees an annoying little dog. Sometimes when one wants something or someone. But, really, you just know when to say it and when it is funny.

“Follow the yellow brick road,” and, “We’re off to see the Wizard,” both of which can be applied at the beginning of any journey, particularly when the end result is unknown.

“Fly my pretties, FLY!” said by the aforementioned witch to her legion of avian simians as she sends them off to interdict Dorothy and her companions. This is often used either when one is out of beer and needs more or when one has a nemesis and wishes, as we all do, for a praetorian guard of flying monkeys to do one’s bidding. There are unconfirmed reports that President George W. Bush said this to Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Security. It is also unconfirmed though highly suspected that Hillary Clinton not only says this on a regular basis but has access to actual winged monkeys.

There is the metaphor of The Wizard himself, which is often used in serious discourse to illustrate the faceless and feared power behind the scenes which, in fact, is nothing more than smoke, mirrors, light shows and, well, humbug.

And, after some mistake or misstep, depending on the circumstances, one might well say, “If I only had a brain / heart / courage — the character traits wished for by the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion. As well, these traits are often, making use of the Oz movie’s internal metaphor, our inherent qualities, proven under fire, but which we only recognize in ourselves when validated by the authorities — even when said authority is humbug…

A Munchkin, in short, is anything or anyone small, cute and possibly annoying.

Come in contact with unwanted liquid and see if part of you doesn’t shriek, “I’m melting!”

Be sent off on some odious task by a hated boss and see if you don’t sing the Winkie’s marching song, “Oh ee oh, eeoh oh.”

In parting from some beloved, perhaps underappreciated friend say, “I’ll miss you most of all Scarecrow…”

Then slip on your ruby slippers, click your heels together three times and say, come on, you know the words, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home…”

There are, undoubtedly, more than the above; everyone has their favorites. And we’ll skip the cinematic conclusion when Dorothy wakes up to the possibility that it was all just a dream. We’ll skip that for two reasons, first, and less importantly because it was a cheap, disingenuous Hollywoodization at the end of an otherwise brilliant film and two, because it most certainly was not a dream. Because as Americans know, there is no Santa Claus but there most certainly is an Oz.