Keeping an open door

Last week we hosted a couple of friends at our apartment, and had a busy, fun and full-on week. That now seems like a long time ago. The world becomes broader and less understandable the older you get, which seems like the wrong way of going about it. I don’t want to talk about the deaths, war and fear that feels much closer to home than ever before. There’ll be time, when the facts come out and whatever form the aftermath takes, takes form.

Though I’m going to be focusing on our visit from friends in this post, and staying clear of dwelling on recent world events, I can’t help thinking about them in light of the events. We are so lucky, and I’m certain, with more than a touch of shame, that before too long life will continue as before until the next disaster. With that in mind I want to begin by thanking my friends for visiting, all the way over here in chilly Sweden.

Our one day of sunlight

Our one day of sunlight

So what do you do when you have visitors to your home city? You can start by pointing out landmarks, apologising for the weather and prompting them to attempt to pronounce difficult local place names. These are tried and tested methods. Things to avoid include the contamination of the local water supply requiring the boiling of all drinking water for the entirety of their stay. This does not add to the fun atmosphere. Neither does the dryer breaking down and then blowing the fuses. Do not do either of these things.

Little incidents such as these aside, I think we did pretty well, though if we’d had a chance to advise about the dates of the visitor from Australia, we would have suggested more or less any month rather than November. All Summer activities are over, Halloween has just finished and Jul festivities won’t start for another week.

On the other hand, letting guests go grocery shopping and then making you dinner two nights in a row works quite well. Especially if they decide to try local food and make traditional meals and bring along delicious bottles of lavender and strawberry schnaps and ice wine that just needs to be drunk.

Guest-cooked dinner

Guest-cooked dinner

Or keep you up late into the night with laughter, company and stories, and not minding when you have to get up early for the work the next day and drop something in the kitchen. Or give you an excuse to enjoy a rare sunny day in town.

So here is my list of dos and don’ts for when you have visitors:
– Do point out landmarks, and don’t make up lies about them.
– Do get people to try out the local language, but don’t overdo it.
– Don’t allow the water supply to be contaminated. If it is, get lots of water bottles ready and keep bread crumbs away from your big pot.
– Don’t let the dryer break down.
– Do enjoy the sun, as much as possible.
– Do find them local wildlife, and allow them time to photograph them.
– Do let them make dinner, as often as they like.
– Do provide homemade bread and homebrewed beer.
– Do have a good time.
– Do let them sleep in.

Home baked bread

Home baked bread

I think I have also learnt what it’s like to live in a share house, including the bathroom queue. I now know that I could manage in that sort of environment, but there is also something to be said with sharing your space with only one other important person who doesn’t have overlapping shower times.

In conclusion, when someone asks if they can stay, invite them in.

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Perfect moments and deserving them

A couple of weeks ago we were gifted with two splendid weeks of sun and fine weather, which culminated in a perfect day.

It coincided with a visit from a friend from Australia, who I suspect now thinks I exaggerate when I say that Swedish weather is terrible. She was after nature and relaxation, and so we took advantage of the fineness to bask. It was not entirely selfless of us, as we’d thus far missed our annual dip.

It seemed that the entire city of Gothenburg had the same idea, however, as the succession of bus and trams were packed with people with packed lunches, all equally confused about why all these others were spoiling their pleasant day out.

At the harbour we were borne along by the throng to the ferry, ice-cream in hand, and were then off across the sea. If we had wanted to reach the open sea, we would have had to navigate the maze of islands that make up the two archipelagos lying at the mouth of the Göta river. Plus Denmark. The profusion of islands and distance of the truly open ocean is a bit disorienting for someone who grew up on the edge of an ocean that unfolds all the way to Africa.
We disembarked at the first stop, a little island called Asperö. A small village occupies much of the island, hedges not quite concealing cottages, filigreed in wood, traditionally painted or with modern bare planks. Flowers bloomed, branches bent under the weight of wild apples, bees buzzed and cats watched sleepily from under hedges. It felt like walking through a photo of a timeless summer.

Swedish cottage

Swedish cottage

Behind the village a path lead us into a wood, and into what seemed a painting. Birches swayed, wild flowers were spread among the moss and heaths, and ducks floated on a Monet-esque lily pad strewn pond. It was a fairytale wood, which ended when we reached the little beach.

Monet's pond

Monet’s pond

It was sheltered, partly by a rocky outcrop and a jetty that was built out from that. Families were paddling in the dark water and sunbaking on the rocks and grass, the peace broken by the giggling of children and splashing of teens jumping off the diving boards. Into this idyllic setting we settled down, little the bbq and sipped wine as the food cooked. Behind the jetty and the occasional kayakers we could see the mouth of the Göta river and the harbour we had come from. Now and then a huge ferry or other ship would slowly pass through the scattered islands and disappear around the side of our island, to quiet and distant to be anything but a background.

A beach and the Göta

A beach and the Göta

For a few hours we ate, swam, splashed and dozed in the sun. The perfect moments passed by.

Swedish summer days

Swedish summer days

That night we shared dinner with various Swedes and Finns on a row of tables on a balcony, the tables covered in food and drinks. We scoffed Västerbotten pie, vegan sausages, halloumi, salad, bread and grapes, the food and talk going on well into the night, as our eyelids got heavier. At one point a few thousand joggers ran down the street outside and we cheered at they passed, some wearing costumes and most looking very focused indeed. More so than us with our glasses of wine and beer and full stomachs.
Then, as the night drew long and began to get chilly, we set off home and in time slept.

What I wonder now as I write this and read the news is how do we deserve this? Why do we get the beautiful summer days and long summer nights with friends, in peace and scenery worthy of paintings? Maybe no one ever deserves anything. Perhaps there is no scale deciding whose 3 year old boy dies in a dark sea and whose 28 year old daughter gets to doze in soft Swedish sunlight with loved ones around her.
There is no fairness, or luck. But we do have love.

*Photo credits to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jg31/

Songs of revolution, joy and home

It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the immigrant experience that you spend a lot of your time noticing other immigrants. Sometimes it’s just a flicker on the street, or it could be heading to the local watering hole for an expat get-together. Or you may even find yourself at a concert, watching performers from around the world singing of love, politics, joy, revolution and home in a mix of languages. All the things that make us lift up our feet and head out the door, and someday find a place to take off our shoes and put our feet up.

My fella and I had spent the afternoon walking around slightly dazed in the sun, savouring ice-creams and the warmth that I still can’t take for granted. When we had finished a snack at a Greek restaurant I got a message about a free ticket to a concert. Without really knowing what the concert would be, other than that it would feature Syrian and Iranian music, I said yes. Which is how I found myself in the Stora Teatern in the centre of town on a Saturday evening, as the compere introduced us to a night of music that would show us how many world class musicians there are driving taxis or living anonymously in Sweden, and the music they have to share with us. And how much joy we can return to them.

The concert was billed as a showcase of artists who have found a home, even a temporary one, in Sweden. It seemed that often they found their way here after running away from something – as with all expats and immigrants there is a reason we leave. Two had been tortured and another had grown up in a country where love songs had been forbidden for generations, and where he secretly sang forbidden songs. There was sadness in the songs, and joy but the strongest emotion that ran through all of the songs, and through the audience as the night went on, was defiance.

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

The first performer was a tall, elegant man from Kurdistan, who sang folk songs in a deeply resonant voice. Of all of the artists Naser Razzazi was the most charismatic. He had the audience in the palm of his hand each time he stepped on stage, and what sticks in my mind now, almost a week later, was his neat white mustache, tall frame and complete confidence.

Habib Mousa was another man with a presence, who sang about love and dreams, and spoke about his old homeland of Assyria. He was quietly spoken, with a powerful voice.

The next man is known as the Elvis Presley of Eritrea, who brought rock and swing to his country and then to us. Osman Abdulrahim grooved, grinned, sang and spoke briefly about the war and dictatorship he had escaped, and told the daughter of Dawit Isaak that he hoped her father could be returned to his family soon.

Elvis of Eritrea

Elvis of Eritrea

Throughout all these performances, people coming on stage to cheers and then departing for the next guest only to return a bit later, a band had played behind and around them. Drummers, a bassist and guitarist, keyboard player and a very enthusiastic violinist accompanied all of the performers. The next performer brought his own instrument, perhaps the one he’d brought to Tahrir Square 4 years ago. Ramy Essam is one of the most well known faces of the Arab Spring, who played rock music among the crowds as the revolution swept through Egypt. He’s currently living in Malmö, having been granted safe city residence, and while there he continues to write songs about the revolution. When asked how he is enjoying Sweden, he said he liked it very much, but would always want to return to his homeland and continue the fight.

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Finally there was a young woman originally from Iran, who grew up in Sweden and seems to me to combine the two cultures. Safoura Safavi sings in a mix of Farsi, Swedish and English, her music a mix of punk, reggae and soul and very infectious. She bounced around the stage and the audience bounced along with her, even more so when her sister joined her for a duet. She sang about pretension, life in Iran and in Sweden and was joined by the rest of the performers for a final song in Farsi that brought the audience to our feet. After they had left and the calls for an encore were answered she stepped back on stage and sang a song about Sweden, as blue and yellow lights shone on the stage.

Safoura from Sweden

Safoura from Sweden

The music had taken us all around the world, through war, revolution, oppression and hope, and then in the end it brought us home.

Songs of snow and the future

The first time I saw Sofia Jannok was at an open air concert as part of the Kulturkalas, a city-wide festival of music, crafts and dance, which I wrote about in a previous post. It was a wonderful performance, though I was too far back from the stage to be able to hear what she was saying. I am glad that I got to hear her recently, as what she has to say it definitely worth hearing.

Sofia Jannok singing

Sofia Jannok singing

Last month she did a free concert at the Värld Kultur Museet (for those of you with no Swedish, yes, it does mean what you think) and my partner, myself, some friends and a mass of others piled onto the steps in the main hall to listen to her. By the time she stepped onto the stage, we were all crammed together, leg to leg, babies on laps and in some cases knees to chins, which somehow suited the intimate feel of the concert. She was dressed quite casually, with a large round brooch festooned with polished discs on her chest, that I had seen once at home when my mum brought out the family jewellry and since then in traditional stores. A chap with a guitar played with her, and aside from a duet, there were only two on the stage. Despite the simplicity, there were many threads to her songs, and many layers beneath them.

Sofia was born in Sweden, and identifies herself as Sami, the indigenous inhabitants of the European countries that hug the arctic circle. They are known as reindeer herders who wander the snowy steppes, continuing the nomadic way of life of their ancestors. From what Sofia said this is basically true, but there is more to it than that, and those of us who live in cities are ignoring the deeper layers to our own detriment. I couldn’t understand the words she sang, but they conjured for me the sound of snow falling, longing, the past and a hope for the future. Sami lands are being plundered for oil and the culture is gradually disappearing. She spoke of watching the movie Avatar and crying the whole time, as the story echoed what was happening to her own culture and lands.

Sofia Jannok mid-yoik

Sofia Jannok mid-yoik

She was passionate, hopeful, angry and had a lovely voice, which I hope I will get to hear again.

A few weeks later we decided to end our weekend with music at a cafe we are fond of. We didn’t know much about what we would expect, other than the somewhat vague hints of Finland, traditional music and the extremely broad ‘world music’ and that the artist was called Aino Kurki. What we saw as we sat down and settled in was a large wooden instrument resting on a stand, somewhere between a harp and a guitar, or the insides of a grand piano. I very much wanted to touch it or try plinging on the strings, but managed to hold myself back. Before long a young woman stepped up behind the instrument and began to play. The music was a mix of blues, samba and something that I’ve never heard and so can’t put a name to it. We sat mesmerised as she played, her hands finding the correct strings with seemingly inhuman precision, knowing against the boards for a beat and constantly twiddling the tuners.

Aino with her kantele

Aino with her kantele

The instrument, Aino explained between songs, was a kantele. Kanteles originated in Finland, and have been around for thousands of years. My research while writing this post revealed that there is a mention of a kantele in the Kalevala, and ancient saga from Finland. After hearing about it’s history, I wanted to play with it even more and even own one myself, half for the fun of trying to make music and half for the pleasure of owning something beautiful and historical.

After the show, she sold CDs (one of which I bought) and spoke to the audience. It seemed as though half of the Finns of Göteborg had gathered in the cafe, listening intently and clapping politely, and talking to her in their clipped and unfamiliar language. I wished that my grandmother had taught me some words of her native language, if only just hello or goodbye, though I suppose I could have asked. Maybe I will when I see her next.
If nothing else it serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t let the past disappear, and there are those who can carry it into the future.

(Photos of Sofia Jannok from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jg31/, photo of Aino Kurki from: http://ainokurki.com)

Heroism and enigmas

For a few months now I’ve been waiting for a day of rain and cold that would compel me to seek the shelter of the city art museum. There has been a particular exhibition on that I’ve been pining away for, but the opportunity never turned up. I regularly faced ex-Queen Christina’s look of betrayal as I thought, ‘next time for sure’. So rather than wait for the weather the provide an excuse, last Sunday we made an outing of it, thumbing our noses at the threat of sunny skies.

Which is not to say that the weather was fine and clear; rain and winds threatened as we headed into town and a couple of times we were caught in brief flurries. The flurries became meaningless when we stepped inside a burger restaurant just off Avenyn, all brick walls, low ceilings and warmth. We were soon warmed on the inside as well by a meaty, carby meal and a few drops of wine and beer.

Thus heartened, we faced the light rain again and were soon inside the Konstmuseum, and facing a rather long queue. It seemed we were not the only people to decide that an overcast day is best remedied with art, preferably inside a warm building.

Tickets purchased, we scurried up the stairs to the first of the exhibitions, a painted history of Sweden. The first thing we saw as we turned a corner was the famous photo of the US soldiers erecting an American flag on Iwo Jima. Further inspection showed a large version of the crying Vietnamese girl running naked from her napalmed village and a grainy shot of Jackie Kennedy clambering past the slumped form of her husband. Among them were various paintings from Swedish history, with heroic figures and dramatic scenes.

A tour had just started and as we tagged along, the guide explained that the intent was the contrast the use of paintings as propaganda, and to consider the purpose and impact of art on culture.
A number of the paintings showed heroic kings fighting and dying in battle, from pietà scenes, gigantic victory parades and contrasts of blonde, light Swedes and dark, bearded enemies.

On a wall opposite a huge battle scene, a tv showed a scene from the film Arn on repeat, armies lining up, serious battle-faces assumed and then forces crashing into each other again and again.
Next to this was a photo the was purported to show the moment that Osama Bin Laden was killed, watched by President Obama, Biden and Clinton, among a host of others. The guide pointed out the almost solitary emotion shown by Clinton, contrasted with Biden and others, and then the way that Obama was portrayed. He was in the centre, but smaller, hunched and intense, a different sort of heroic figure than the warrior kings of Sweden.

Queen Christina by Johan Fredrik Höckert

Queen Christina by Johan Fredrik Höckert

There the tour ended, but I spent a little while considered the final painting, the one from the advertisements. The text by the painting described the moment the former Queen found out a close friend and possibly lover had betrayed her, and sentenced him to death with a flick of her hand. She looks both vulnerable and angry, a rare image of a ruler shown outside a moment of heroism.

Queen Christina is someone who I would very much like to find out more about. From first hearing about her in University as the cause of Descartes death, to a photo recreation of a pale woman with haunted eyes at a museum in Oslo to finding out she was examined after death to confirm that she was a woman, she has floated around enigmatically, waiting for me to find out more. Soon I will.

From Swedish history we descended to investigate an heroic theme playing downstairs, and found an exhibition of darkly romantic landscapes. It included a teaser from the latest Elder Scrolls video game playing on a large screen, as well as paintings of dramatic landscapes, monsters, light and darkness. There were sinking ships, crows, mountains, travelers and cloudless nights in dark forests.

The complexity and broad strokes suddenly disappeared as we turned a corner into an exhibition of photography from a woman whose work may have been lost if not for chance.

The photography on show ranged from a shadow of the photographer, Vivian Maier, to hunched homeless men, crying children, contemptuous well-to-do women in furs and incongruous feet among cans of soup. They were all gently humourous, curious and like doors onto the streets of not terribly long ago New York and Chicago. My favourites were the portrait of Vivian and a little girl and a young man feeding pigeons, his hair curling like feathers.

Young man with pigeons by Vivian Maier

Young man with pigeons by Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier is another woman who I had found out about some time ago, an enigmatic woman who died before she became famous for the many photos and short films she made during her life. It was exciting to see her work on display and find out a little more about her life.

Finally we made a quick trip through the rest of the museum to see a painting and a room that I remember fondly from my previous visit. The painting that I had felt such a strong feeling towards seems to have faded slightly, though is still lovely, and the quirks and beauty of the little exhibition room were still charming. From there we made a brief visit to the museum shop (anyone fancy an eraser in the shape of a peanut? Or a walnut? Well your wait is now over!) and then exited into a world that seemed slightly sunnier than before.
A world for the moment free of heroic battles, betrayed ex-Queens and crow haunted lakes, but could possibly have felt familiar to a lone and curious photographer with an eye for humour and humanity.

A mid-Autumn weekend dream

Quiet recovery

Every now and then you get a weekend that seems to meld into one long day in which you barely get a chance to come up for air before you are off again.
Case in point: last weekend.

Sometimes you go to a party that combines great company, a lovely setting, delicious food and getting just tipsy enough to wobble but not enough to fall over.
Case in point: last weekend.

Every so often you plan an event on the spur of the moment, rush the prep while hungover and it still turns out wonderfully.
Case in point: last weekend.

The old belfry

The old belfry

My weekend started with a morning run, trying to time my steps to Don’t Stop Me Now and the Buffy musical soundtrack and not get thrown off by tolling from the old belfry as I crossed the river. It passed into breakfast and preparations for the day at weekend speed (approximately .25 of weekday speed) and then picked up tempo when the actual reality of time passing began to set in. Baking ensued, biscuits and bread, and they were still hot and steaming when our lift arrived.

As the bbq wasn’t mine, and I don’t know the people well enough to presume, I’ll just say that everything was wonderful. As with another party at the home of a Swede on New Years, the organisation was seamless and we as guests happily slipped along through the courses and after an impromptu piano performance worked out how to open the whiskey cabinet.
And the night would not have been complete without learning a new word – skamkudde (literally shame-pillow) which is how you feel when trying to avoid watching someone being humiliated – and being treated to impressions of Minecraft-gubbar by 5 year old boys.

By the time we got home and collapsed it was about 4 and before too long, or so it seemed, we were up again and making preparations for our own party. I had thrown out the suggestion on Friday that we ought to use the final days of sun and have a picnic somewhere scenic. Murphy’s Law being what it is, we awoke to news that Sunday was forecast to be rainy and cold and so quickly changed the plan to an indoor picnic.
A dash to the shops and shuffling of furniture later, and very importantly a playlist on Spotify chosen, our first guests arrived and the party was on.
A few hours later the last guest left and silence fell, unbroken by the need to bake, cook or do anything preparational.
Of course the next day I had an exam, and then there were lessons to prepare for classes, and work to get ready for and the weekend to basically get its act together and pull us under again.

Quiet recovery

Quiet recovery

But for a little while I was in a car on the highway heading home, my head resting tipsily on my partners shoulder and Håkan singing something nostalgic from the stereo. Unlike my Swedish friends, I may not have grown up with him, but now I can say that I have my own Håkan memory. And it is one to treasure.

Happy tipsiness as I lean on my partners arm and listen to En Midsommarnattsdröm.