On a recent evening, I was almost concerned after hearing shouting outside my host's apartment--quite common back in Spanish Harlem. Bar fight? Domestic spat? Nope. Turned out "they were just trying to convince an old man to take a taxi instead of his bike because he’s drunk.”
His bike. Welcome to Sweden.
I arrived in Umeå, the largest city of the north, about a week ago. This is the beginning of an exploration I’ve wanted to take on since I was 12 or 13, maybe earlier. The specifics have morphed since then, but the basic premise has stayed the same: can I figure out what bizarre melding of influences I’ve inherited, and use those findings to drive my particular brand of human just a little bit better? (This is a huge part of what drove me to pursue painting, but more on that later.)
A few days after settling in, I paid a visit to the Umeå Center for Tourism. Confession: I love translated tourism brochures in all their awkward, cheery glory. They’re like free, rose-colored glasses.
Not that you really need rose-colored glasses here.
“Do you love all the things a city has to offer? Preferably combined with a unique experience? Then you are in the right place! …Here you will find inspirational shopping, high-class restaurants, comfortable hotels, a lot of culture and interesting architecture. …Easily accessible trails for hiking, cycling or skiing, rugged dog sled tours, white water rafting that makes the adrenaline pump or looking out for the northern lights that calm the soul.”
Sign me up for inspirational shopping! For visual reference, just imagine IKEA exploded and crash-landed in Northern Minnesota, raining down in perfect order and cleanliness.
Lots of things are like I remember from my first visit 5 years ago—the sunset melds with the moonrise for perpetual twilight. Biking is the primary form of transportation. People actually use shoehorns (!) I’m an exciting excuse for cashiers to use their perfect English. Cheese is always sliced with an incredibly specific utensil called an “osthyvel” (literally, cheese razor). We celebrated Midsommar (summer solstice) with licorice-flavored shots called “snaps”, games like hitting a nail into a log, and this year I made my very own flower crown. I think that officially makes me Swedish;)
I’ve learned a few new things. Not even my reading up on Norse mythology or Swedish language lessons prepared me for the fact that (get ready) ...it’s mandatory in Sweden to have a traffic safety cone in the trunk of your car. I discovered this when we broke down on the side of the road. We placed our safety cone precisely 100 meters behind our stalled vehicle, and managed to avoid a ticket in spite of not wearing safety vests—also mandatory. As the child of someone who thinks freeway medians are for U-turns and sees winter storm driving as a full-contact sport, this all seemed oh-so… safe.
This goes hand-in-hand with a concept that’s been explained to me multiple times: “lagom” (lah-GOME). It means something like, “not too much and not too little”. The Swede’s find solace in that “middle” option—it is the country of mellanmjölk (middle milk) and mellanbrygg (middle brew coffee). A nation of the Goldilocks approach. Even geographically, Sweden is sandwiched right in between its Scandinavian siblings, Norway and Finland. The internet tells me “lagom” traces back to the way the Vikings would pass around the communal “mjöd” (mead) taking only their fair share so there was plenty to go around. To the rest of Europe, they may have been a terror, but amongst themselves they were quite egalitarian. Mycket lagom!
This national approach to finding balance is commendable, but as someone drawn to edge cases and extremes, it makes me strangely uncomfortable. I feel well cared for ...too well cared for, maybe? My suspicious side can't help thinking there must be hidden cost somewhere.
We'll see. Whether or not that's the case, I'm excited to explore, ask questions in awkward Swedish, and make some paintings along the way:)