Vacation Reading

Happy spooky season, everyone! I kicked things off by renting a cabin in Falun for two weeks, where I did a lot of walking (in cemeteries, no less), a lot of reading, and a lot of sweating it out in my own private sauna. I don’t have all of my photos of the walking uploaded and cleaned up yet, and there’s not much to be said about the sauna, but I can go ahead and talk about the reading. Some of these books might be worth their own post, but for now I’ll just stick to bite-sized thoughts.

Parable of the Sower

I watched Sarah Zed’s underwhelming video on YA dystopias a week before I left, so the whole trend of YA dystopias was on my mind as I read this one. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, several years before our current glut of YA, but by industry genre standards it would be slotted as a YA dystopia if it were published today. And yet, it’s clearly a very different (and much better) beast than The Hunger Games or Divergent or whatever else tried to ride that wave. Is it fair to put Parable of the Sower in the same category as them? From a quality and content standpoint, I would say of course not. But from a book-selling standpoint, there is no difference. Consumerism is a cancer.

The History of White People

Extremely illuminating reading. My father’s side of the family came to the US around the turn of the twentieth century from villages that are in the south of current-day Poland, but there is absolutely no family lore about what it was like moving here, or about life or family back in The Old Country, or anything like that. (Making sense of the immigration documents is also a trip, just because territory was a bit up in the air at that point in time.) Painter’s research obviously can’t fill in the gaps of my own  family’s history, but it gave me a broad sense of the historical context of their arrival in America, and a rough idea of what kind of prejudice and problems they might have run up against—something I’d never really reflected on before.

Beyond my own personal takeaways from the book, the examination of the construction of “white” as a middle class signifier and its gradual expansion over the years is a valuable piece of scholarship for understanding American society as a whole.  The only downside is that The History of White People is over a decade old now, and reading a discussion of race and whiteness in 2021 that ends in a discussion of Barack Obama’s presidency rather than Donald Trump’s feels a bit…unresolved. GoodReads indicates that Painter’s most recent book is from 2018, but it’s a memoir rather than any kind of scholarly work. Hopefully she’ll put out an updated edition of The History of White People at some point.

Shards of Honor

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I don’t think anyone really enjoyed it all that much? For me, at least, there was too much romance and not enough sci-fi. Internet rumor mill pegs it as Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, and I believe it.

Becoming Beauvoir

An absolutely outstanding new biography of Simone de Beauvoir drawing on previously unavailable or untranslated material.

The Cyberiad

One of my philosophy professors taught a popular and engaging philosophy of the mind course, or maybe a couple variations on the idea, and one of the texts for it was The Mind’s I, an anthology that included a story from The Cyberiad. My particular iteration of the class didn’t use that book, but I browsed through a friend’s copy out of curiosity. Long story short, one of the selections I always thought was part of The Cyberiad wasn’t actually, so my introduction to Stanislaw Lem was actually Solaris.

So now I’ve finally read The Cyberiad for real. The English edition is an incredible feat of translation; it struck me as I read one of the first stories in it that one of the textbooks or more scholarly anthologies I’d read over the years had highlighted exactly this story so now I’ll have to try to do a little detective work to see what, exactly, they had to say about it.

Un hiver à Majorque

Still the same book as it was the other two times I read it this year. Unlike my previous attempt with the original French, this time I looked up every (or almost every) word I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out from context.

The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road: A Comparative Reading

I purchased The Scenarists of Europe and 1 the Road concurrently, though this was unintentional on my part. Or rather, the only intention was: “Ah yes, there are several books I’ve been meaning to buy for some time now, let’s pick them up all at once.” A third book in this same frenzy of book-buying, A City of Han, might even claim a tenuous thematic connection to the other two, but that’s only if you’re really reaching. It’s still a book I want to talk about, but more on A City of Han in another post.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I would do if I were given the infinite resources (time, money, mental stamina, ability to decipher subtext) to pursue a graduate or postgraduate degree, or heck, even just pick up another bachelor’s. I have a couple topics picked out for English literature, and one of them would be travel writing. I love it on a surface level—living vicariously through the writer in other times and places, opening yourself up to novel (hah, hah) experiences from the comfort of your couch. But as an immigrant, and as someone who’s worked abroad, I also live for the self-conscious reflection that comes with navigating cultural differences, Othering, and living between two worlds.  I don’t think that was really on my mind when I bought these books, and yet it’s a shared characteristic.

Straight up, I didn’t entirely enjoy either of them. I am, frankly, too much of an illiterate peon to fully grasp what Judge was up to in Scenarists, and novelty only carries AI-generated text so far. But something linked them in my mind, and the books began feeding off of each other.

They are both novels deeply about place. 1 the Road is literally a travelogue. The movement in Scenarists is much more oblique, and perhaps more psychological than physical, but the focus is nonetheless on locations and environments (though these environments seem to be external manifestations of interior conditions). So much so, in fact, that I would have had a hard time placing the book in its proper historical context if I didn’t have access to the back-of-the-book summary, and that I still will refrain from using the “historical fiction” tag. What if the undeniably striking Imagist* prose of Scenarists had been pressed through the banal cheesecloth of times, dates, cities, local businesses that constitute the bulk of 1 the Road?

The introduction to 1 the Road highlights the typewriter, and then later the word processor, as tools that didn’t replace writing or render it obsolete but simply helped writers do more writing by removing a lot of awful tedium. The implication is that perhaps an AI** can do the same thing. What if an AI could help you work through your writer’s block, or generate a plot to play around with? Of course, at that point we’re discussing higher-level procedures than simply collecting random input and spitting it back out in more or less semantically intelligible English. That’s where things like perspective, themes, characterization, and description come into play.

Maybe the AI writing tool of the future won’t be one that generates anything for you. Maybe instead it’ll train itself on more books than you could read in a lifetime—all the books you meant to read but never did, all the ones that people and crit partners keep comparing your work to—and highlight the differences, whether it’s as granular as sentence length or as “big picture” pacing or as abstract as characterization.

Certainly AI isn’t going to replace writers, or human writing, at least not human creative writing. (After all, the AP is already using computer-generated writing for sports coverage, among other topics.) But I feel like if you gave a writer like Judge the building blocks generated by something like the AI at work in 1 the Road it would be interesting. The banal input of date and time might have been all it took to ground Judge’s surreal writing and turn the book into something my tiny brain could more readily grasp. Judge’s deft hand at visceral and discomfiting images would have had a field day riffing on some of the weird stuff a computer trained on Beat writers spits out.

Sometimes you read a book because you like it, and sometimes you read a book because it’s good for you—the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road, together, constitute an experience that I didn’t particularly enjoy at the time, but that months after the fact I’m glad that I had.

*Bro I know Imagism is term usually reserved for poetry but I don’t care.

**Bro I know “AI” is a vague term that doesn’t really capture what this was and also invites popular imaginations (HAL 9000, Skynet, the Matrix) that are far from the actual truth of things (machine learning, neural networks, training sets, etc.) but I don’t care.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Right before the pandemic broke out, I stumbled my way into the neighborhood book club—loudly and awkwardly, because I’m an American and unable to stumble into anything except loudly and awkwardly. My original intent was to make sure I kept up with my Swedish reading, but more often than not any given selection will originally be in English. Their Swedish translations are of theoretical interest for me, even practical, and sometimes I read them (Dödsynden) and sometimes I don’t (The Fifth Season). This was one of the latter.

I was tempted to tag this as memoirs but chose not to, since the book is classified as fiction above all else—its (purported?) origins as a letter to Vuong’s mother notwithstanding. Since I don’t know Vuong personally and am hardly in a state to speak to the details of his personal life, taking it as fact feels presumptuous. Fiction it is.

This was an excellent book to follow The Crying Book, as their structures are rather similar. This might be another reason why I was tempted to tag On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as memoirs; it nestled into my memory alongside The Crying Book almost immediately. Vuong and Christle both favor short, brief scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order and are instead connected more by theme. Nonetheless, they both manage to keep narrative tension sustained throughout the book, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a random jumble of unrelated events. Maybe Christle was inspired by Vuong, in the end, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published a few months before The Crying Book. Maybe they’re in some of the same writing groups. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the same writers. Maybe it’s an artifact of being poets. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe, since both books also deal with similar subject matter, this sort of float-like-a-butterfly approach to tackling grief and too-young, too-tragic deaths.

That’s about the the only original thought I have about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It won an incredible amount of prestigious awards; I’m sure book reviewers and judges and all the rest have exhausted anything else there is to say. But that’s my thought and I’ve shared it.

Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.

The Crying Book

In one of life’s small serendpities, on the same day my mom let me know about a death in the family, a newsletter I subscribe to about mental health (Sanity by Tanmoy) featured a write up on  The Crying Book, which sounded all the more appealing as I scrolled, sniffling and snot-nosed, through my email. On a whim I spent the 10 kronor to put a hold on it at the library (no digital version available) and by the following Monday it had come in. It’s a short book, without any chapters but with very frequent section breaks, so I offered to read it out loud to my sambo.

I finished it in two nights, in two marathon reading sessions.

I walked away from it with mixed feelings. On the minus side, I didn’t always care for her style. Christle is a poet, which you can tell not only by her explicitly mentioning it fairly regularly, but by her writing. This kind of “assembled snapshots” brevity also gives the whole book a sort of Instapoetry vibe, even if Christle is a bit too old and a bit too establishment to go with that crowd. Needless to say, I don’t like Instapoetry. For every Nayyirah Waheed (good) you get a million Rupi Kaurs (less good). About a third of the way through, I also picked up that Christle had a very annoying tic of sandwiching long asides—entire independent clauses, sometimes—in between two em-dashes, and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it and all I wanted to know was why didn’t anyone notice this and edit a few of them down, or cut them entirely? To be fair, this might have only made itself apparent because I was trying to read the book out loud—you can imagine how that kind of writing would make deciding on the right cadence and intonation difficult, while reading silently you might more readily gloss over it.

On the plus side, I was very taken with the actual content. The book is something like a folk history of tears and crying, and the 200-odd footnotes at the end make it clear that Christle did a lot of research, which I appreciate. I also appreciate how seamlessly the personal reflections are intertwined with the historical subject matter—I enjoy that tack in popular nonfiction and I don’t think I’ve read anything that does it quite how how Christle does it. The first thing that comes to mind is Ålevangeliet, or in English The Book of Eels, which is on the surface about eels but is also about a bunch of stuff tangential to eels: the author’s childhood fishing (eeling?) expeditions with his father, the long and embittered scientific battle to find their reproductive organs, weird “facts” surrounding them from people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, our impending climate catastrophe, etc. The GoodReads reviews, at least in Swedish, seem frustrated with this approach (“I wanted to read about eels, not fishing with his father!” is the short version of a lot of them) but I really liked that kind of thematic meandering within and alongside a particular topic. The Crying Book does that but on a much smaller scale.

Finally, on the mixed side, I had mixed thoughts about the actual structure of the book. While there are several narrative or conceptual strands within The Crying Book, no idea is carried for very long: Christle discusses something for a paragraph or two, occasionally a page, and then moves on to something else.  There are no chapters organized thematically, but there is usually an interior logic leading from one brief section to the next and the resulting flow is very much akin to following someone’s train of thought in real time. This works really well to build a sort of tension with her personal trials and tribulations (her pregnancy, the suicide of a poet friend), and when it takes you to unexpected but nonetheless relevant places, the subversion is genuinely rewarding. On the other hand, this approach feels scattershot and confusing when it comes to historic personages and biographies, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Alvin Borgquist; meatier, protracted narratives would have served that subject matter much better.

A quick read, all told, though at times unflinching and grotesque. Beneath the Instapoetry conceit there is a wealth of information and depth of thought.

Pandemic Vacation: Gothenburg, Day 3

I’d noticed on my walk that Göteborgs Stadsmuseum was just a block down from my hotel, so I figured a good last day activity would be just to meander through there and grab something to eat at the cute cafe across the street. Despite getting in late, I was still up early enough for hotel breakfast (pain au chocolat, my weakness!), though after I had my fill I let myself have a cozy lie-in; I finally left the hotel at about 11.30 or so.

By far the best and most interesting exhibit was the one on clothing and fashion, “Gothenburg’s Wardrobe.” I won’t bore you with all of the photos here, but the sign for the exhibit is a good indication of what it was all about.

The museum wasn’t quite as broad in coverage as the Cultural Museum in Lund, since it’s all still focused on the city and history of Gothenburg, but it was nice to get a little nutshell history of the city.

Around four in the afternoon or so, my appetite made itself known again and my legs were beginning to tire, so I decided to pay a visit to a nearby cafe, Brogyllen, for lunch and then retire to my hotel room for a proper break.

By now I’d passed the sign for Akademibokhandeln a couple of times, and I’d now finished two additional books, so I figured why not? There was also some discussion in the neighborhood book club group chat about the next book (To Kill a Mockingbird) so I figured why not pop in and see if they have it along with a book for a friend’s upcoming birthday. I was able to procure both, of course, and so I spent the rest of the night in my hotel room, finishing up the boxed wine and diving right into To Kill a Mockingbird so I could pass it along to anyone in the book club who might want it.

Pandemic Vacation: Gothenburg, Day 2

I got off to an early start, since I was taking the train out of Gothenburg (only twenty minutes or so, but still). I didn’t know how long my visit to Alingsås would take me, but I knew I wanted to visit Aniara Bokhandeln later the same day, so I’d booked a train for 10 am to assure me plenty of time for both. I got up early enough that my hair would be good and dry after my morning shower and leisurely hotel breakfast.

Alingsås was cute and charming, with a surprising amount to see and do for what seems to otherwise be a fairly small little town. I’d only dropped in because of the Karin Boye memorial, and in the end decided not to make a day trip of Alingsås this time around, but to come back another time and plan it better for the labyrinth, the large park, and I think some old castle or fortress?

I know Karin Boye best from Kallocain (which I originally read, like Aniara, in English translation in my Swedish literature course at Stockholms Universitet in undergrad) but she was prolific and talented and troubled. The ill health and death of her long-time partner (and possibly, Fascist encroachment in Greece?) finally unnerved her and she killed herself. A farmer found her early in the morning and a large boulder nearby was at some point declared her memorial.

Partner ill health and Fascist creep are deep, soul crushing worries I can relate to, so when I remembered that her memorial wasn’t far from Gothenburg I decided to go out there and sit a while.

Image of Karin Boye's memorial, taken from Wikimedia

Always weird to come upon a place you’ve seen photos of before on Wikipedia. Something about the real and the image of the real, signs and signifiers, etc. (Oh, hey, and something like nine months after this trip I finally read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation!) Nor did it help that you essentially have to cut through the Swedish version of suburbia until suddenly you’re faced with what’s essentially a small cliff. There isn’t any threshold, either, from the quotidian to the transcendent, nothing to ease you into the place of someone’s death. Rather, as soon as you scramble up that cliff the boulder is right there.

Image of Karin Boye's minnesten taken from behind, surrounded by trees on a sunny day in early fall.

The view from where I did most of my sitting and thinking. I scratched out a little poem while I sat there.

24 April 1941
Hur gick det att dö
här ute?
Bland träd och sten och mark?
Ångrade du dig
i sista ögonblicket?
Längte du efter människo-
(eller hellre kvinno-)
värme?
Hittade du en fördröjd spår av framtidstro
i en fågelsång eller en blek solstråle?
Eller var du
bara
trött?

A small group of older women out on a walk passed in one direction first, then later, in the other direction; a woman my age, whose little dog didn’t take kindly to my presence.

After maybe an hour or so, I descended the cliff again and did a little flaneuring in the vague direction of the train station, taking in the architecture and the art installations of Alingsås (light shows, statuary).

Back in Gothenburg, Aniara Bokhandeln was empty when I turned up, so the proprietor turned all of her friendly storeowner attention on me in a way I should be used to, but for whatever reason am not. It’s at least not as thoroughgoing as in the US, so she didn’t hound me as much as someone in a similar position would have in the states.

The entrance of Aniara Bokhandel in Gothenburg. The lights are on and shelves are visible through the door and a large window, where a woman sits in profile at a table.

The selection, I joked in a WhatsApp message to a friend, was full of material as erudite and impenetrable as its literary namesake. Politics, history, philosophy, and all manner of dense academic texts lined the shelves. Not so much airport novels or popular fiction, which resided in two small sets of shelves in the back, in a recess up two or three stairs behind the main floor of the shop.

I struck gold there, however. I found a copy of the much-lauded Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige (a book-length investigation of how individualism and collectivism play out in modern Sweden) and the much more obscure but the possibly way more buckwild Uncle Sam’s Cabin (a “we Swedes have traveled around the US and are now reporting back to you on what we discovered” type travelogue from the early 60s).

Books and some postcards in hand, I went off in search of dinner, which ended up being my second langos of the trip. It took them a little while to prepare, since they’d run out of feta, but I was grateful for the long opportunity to sit and read, and they offered me a free drink to make up for the wait, so it all worked out in the end. The only other customers while I was there was a couple, husband Swedish and wife of some kind of central European extraction, and the wife had no qualms whatsoever about informing the owners that her lango hadn’t been prepared quite right, and so began a long conversation about the best way to fry them.

Full of good food and warm from head to toe, I set out for my hotel room on foot instead of by tram. I hadn’t paid for a single tram ride and wasn’t about to start now, plus I wanted to know how to get from the Second Långgatan neighborhood to my hotel on foot, without having to rely so heavily on Google maps. It was a good half hour to forty-five minutes of a walk or so, but the weather was fine and I welcomed the exercise. I stopped off at a few secondhand stores to see if they had any small rabbit figurines (an inside joke with my sambo), but no dice. Otherwise I just followed the tram line as best I remembered and lo and behold it wasn’t that complicated at all. Just a bit long.

I left the books and the postcards in my room, grabbed my fully charged powerbank and cable, and took the tram back the Second Långgatan quarter. I’d thought out loud via WhatsApp at Irish Coworker about whether I felt up to crashing bar trivia in Swedish as a team of one.

“I got a mate there, Fabian. Look him up, he loves a good pub quiz” and sent me a link to Fabian’s Facebook profile.

“Nja, drinking with one of your friends? I’ll wake up in a gutter somewhere.”

“Kelly’s then! You gotta go to Kelly’s.”

So Kelly’s it was, with a lot of beer and lot of reading. I contemplated striking up a conversation with a guy I saw at the end of the bar who never once put his phone away but seemed on very friendly terms with the bartenders and a couple of other regulars at the bar, but never got around to it and so instead I more or less finished reading Une morte très douce. I stayed until closing, stonefacedly ignored the couple cab drivers making a bid for my business, and made it back to the hotel room at around 2 am just fine.

Pandemic Vacation: Gothenburg, Day 1

Next on my agenda after Lund was Gothenburg, Sweden’s “second city.” Unsurprisingly I knew, and still know, almost nothing about it; like every Stockholmare, for me Sweden is Stockholm, fuck everyone else. I mean, not really fuck everyone else, but it’s uncomfortable to admit that I have become the Swedish equivalent of the asshole New Yorker. I have brought shame and dishonor upon my house.

I didn’t do much upon my arrival because I was exhausted from too much wine and too little sleep (and too short a train ride to make up for the sleep). I stumbled in to my hotel room at around noon and napped forever. Getting sloshed on Zoom while watching a Neil Breen movie was still 100% worth it and I ended my day with no regrets.

This hotel wasn’t half as charming as my place in Lund. It was generic hotel in all its presentation and decor (as opposed to the cute, non-hotel-ish railroad theme of The More Hotel in Lund), but it was also butt ugly. I booked a room expecting something like this:

Attractive, slightly vintage hotel room.

With flashbacks to my gorgeous hotel room in Dublin last year:

Gorgeous vintage hotel room

But got this (note! this was after my nap, the place didn’t come prerumpled):

Ugly hotel room with 80s decor and a messy bed

Not to mention the weather was bleh and, once I woke up from my nap and worked up the energy to go outside, everything was closed. At just 8 pm on a Sunday! What! I ended up stopping at an Espresso House despite my undying hatred for them just to grab something like dinner, plus a smoothie to go for the rest of my boxed wine, which I of course schlepped with me. It’s in a box, after all.

That’s all of my notes for the day: “Why is everything closed??”

I spent a couple hours writing up my thoughts on Lund, and then zonked out.

After a shower and a hotel breakfast, I made for the cathedral, Domkyrkan Göteborg. The one in Lund was fresh in my mind and so I thought, might as well take in a bit of history and culture before I do anything else too crazy in town.

The website was quite dodgy about whether or not there were tours, however. I found an old Swedish travel blog write-up about taking a tour but it was several years out of date, plus coronatider mina bekanta, so I just meandered around after the Monday afternoon service was over to see what I could see, without any more guidance or context than the occasional plaque.

The cathedral is pretty new as far as these things go, dating back only to the 1800s (there were two previous, older cathedrals on the site that burned down, oops), and so lacked those good good historical vibes I like in the churches here.

Interior of Gothenburg cathedral, everything is white with gilded accents.

It was also pretty ugly, in my view, and something about it left the distinct impression of the US and the Antebellum South. I didn’t stay too long, and spent most of my time looking at the small display of goods from the charitable artist’s school and collective the church sponsors in Kenya rather than the tacky architecture.

Yet I’d had such high hopes after this straight up Lovecraftian nightmare statue right outside the church grounds!

Statue of a girl who is part human, part sea creature, not like a cute mermaid but more like nightmare fuel

I hopped a tram a few stops out to visit the Botanical Gardens, because I guess the two things I will instantly gravitate towards in a city are churches and gardens. I suppose history and flowers are as good a place to start as any when you’re in a new town!

I won’t bore you with ALL OF THE FLOWERS. Let this photo be a stand-in; you can imagine your own flowers.

Entrance of the Gothenburg Botanical Gardens on a sunny autumn day on October, 2021. The main display at the end of a long reflecting pool is a large flower bed depicting two koi fish in a kind of yin-yang shape.

On the ride out I noticed a place called Aniara Bokhandeln, and if there’s anything that’s going to get my attention it’s going to be an indie bookstore named after the great modernist Swedish poem of the 20th century. I made a mental note to check it out another day.

There was a food truck by the entrance to the gardens and it was still parked there when I had done a full circuit around the most interesting parts, and thus began my culinary theme for the trip: langos.

Lango with nachos

Lango with chicken and feta

I don’t know if there’s a particularly large population of Hungarians in Gothenbug. My Hungarian friend said nothing to that effect when I pinged him with the above photos of my food (though he was horrified at what he considered awful mash-up Frankenfood), but all of a sudden I landed in town and there they were, everywhere. At any rate, fried dough with just about anything can’t go wrong. I approve.

The whole day, I’d been in intermittent contact with a coworker who used to live in Gothenburg and had just been back to visit during his recent vacation. I kvetched about everything being closed, to which he replied: “just make it to 2:a långgatan and it’s all good!”

That inside tip turned out to be the thing that made Gothenburg worthwhile for me. Not that the botanical gardens or the other things I did weren’t nice—they were!—but it’s helpful to know where people go to relax and have fun. Even if it’s coronatider, mina bekanta.

I wandered around and eventually found Cafe Publik, another Vänster Partiet watering hole (or so it seemed, based on the lefty stickers and its proximity to the party headquarters) and one of those odd ducks that has a full license to serve alcohol but also serves coffee and tea.

Interior of Cafe Publik in Gothenburg

It was a much better lefty cafe experience than India Däck, where I felt just very, very old. If this was the party watering hole, it hadn’t become so insular that literally no one else ever turned up. I would have holed up there the entire evening with my book (Une morte très douce) except that my phone battery was quickly eating it from an unusually high level of Google Maps usage, and I didn’t want to be caught out with a dead phone.

Back at the hotel, I put my phone to charge, made plans for tomorrow (it suddenly struck me that Karin Boye’s memorial wasn’t far from here) and continued reading The Fifth Season in the hotel lobby, again with a fireplace. I thought about going out to get something for dinner, since it was early yet, but satisfied myself with some of the muesli I had brought with me from Lund and a chocolate bar.

Adulting!

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 3

My only plans for the day were the hotel breakfast (had overslept or otherwise missed it previously), a tour of the Lund cathedral, an international bookstore I’d discovered too late the previous day, open mic at Cafe och Le, and then bad movie Zoom.

Interior of the Lund Cathedral, facing the altar behind rows of wooden chairs.

There was some minor miscommunication between staff members about where the tour was supposed to start, but it all worked out fine in the end. Our guide was a cheerful and slightly theatrical young woman (she also does tours for school kids and it showed) who informed us that there was a baptism scheduled after the tour was over, so we were free to stay unless they needed to make room for the baptism guests. We stayed to watch a large, complicated clock go off, complete with good and evil knights fighting and the three Wise Men turning up to pay their respects to Mary and the baby Jesus to the tune of “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” after which I decided to wander off elsewhere and give the baptism party their….not privacy, I guess, but their something.

I made a beeline for the international bookstore I had found yesterday and immediately fell in love. No weird minimalist artsy displays with just a book or two per shelf: just shelves and shelves of books, everywhere, every which way. By this point I’d finished two of the six books I brought with me, so I was entitled to get two replacement books, right? And a souvenir book as well of course. And he happened to have the memoirs I’d been meaning to get for ages so of course I picked that up.

Interior of the French Book Store in Lund

The sign said French Bookstore, and then listed a bunch of other languages below, which I found amusing, but then once I was in there it made sense: the owner was clearly French, and also excruciatingly though charmingly slow and old fashioned. He wrote out my receipt by hand and spent most of my visit there waiting for his payment system to process a bulk order from a librarian who had come in from Malmö. And even though everything I bought was in French, I still kept to Swedish with him because my spoken French is pretty crap. But my brain did the thing and so suddenly my Swedish accent started to turn French. Wild.

I wandered a bit more and stumbled on the last half hour of a pop-up…art gallery? Flea market? Unsure. But I checked it out on a whim and ended up with three gorgeous prints painstakingly excised from an old encyclopedia: a star map with the North Star and nearby constellations, a map of “China and Japan” (and the surrounding countries of course, but at that point given as either Chinese or Japanese territory), and a watercolor illustration of a Chinese mandarin and a young Japanese woman, posed together a bit like a museum display, clearly part of the section on different cultures around the world and their traditional costumes.

The weather was starting to turn by this point, so I hoofed it back to the hotel room to drop off my booty rather than schlep it along with me to the open mic at a place called Cafe och le (Cafe and smile), which is a pretty cute little pun since you pronounce it the same as Cafe au lait. I showed up about half an hour ahead of the scheduled start so I could be sure of a seat and also have some dinner, but it ended up being more like forty-five minutes ahead of the start since it took a while to get the sound set up going.

Exterior of the Cafe och Le in Lund

It was a delight despite that, and no one who performed was tragically or embarrassingly bad. The highlight for me was an older guy who turned up and out of nowhere, THE BLUES. One of America’s few cultural exports worthy of mention; probably the closest thing I’ll ever experience to patriotism is the weird little warmth I get in my guts when I listen to non-Americans play the blues. Appropriately enough for my musical patriotism, the last song I caught before I returned to the hotel room for bad movie Zoom was “Summertime,” and boy howdy do I have strong feelings about George Gershwin!

The bad movie zoom was top notch, as always, and I polished off a great deal of (too much?) mediocre boxed wine before last-minute packing all the assorted small things and then collapsing into bed at 3 am or so.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 2

I burned through my agenda in basically one day, so I started my second day in Lund with a long sleep in and then took a walk through Stadsparken and Lund at large to enjoy the sunshine.

Entrance of Stadsparken in Lund on a sunny day.

A duck pond surrounded by trees under a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds.

A street in Lund on an overcast day. Single-story buildings in eggshell and yellow are framed by flowering bushes on either side of their entrances.
Lund feels much smaller and cozier than Stockholm.

Exterior of a hotel in Lund on a sunny afternoon.

I got a tip from a friend on a good crepe place, so I ambled over in that direction and got a crepe to go. It was a good tip and a very good crepe, so A+.

A banana Nutella crepe.

I ambled a bit more, since the weather was still good, and picked up snacks and some boxed wine for my later weekend plans. (Zoom drinking: pandemic hobbies.) I discovered a few stores and places to visit tomorrow, after the tour of Lund cathedral I had planned: an international bookstore, an open mic at a place with the very clever name “Cafe och Le.”

Exterior of the Cafe och Le in Lund

I wrapped up the night with a take out pizza, since it was Friday and old habits die hard, and then nosed around the hotel a bit to see if I wanted to use their sauna.

Pineapple, banana, and peanut pizza
Banana and pineapple are perfectly acceptable pizza toppings. Fight me.

Verdict: I don’t like Swedish saunas as much as Korean ones and I would be better served by a really hot shower in my own room. I did just that, and with my hair toweled off a bit I went downstairs to read The Stone Sky in the hotel lobby. I was hoping that the fire that had been going before would still be lit, for those good good cozy vibes, but alas it was not to be. Still, pleasant to have the white noise of people conversing (the lobby opened directly into the hotel bar/restaurant) and I read until I was ready to nod off right there on the couch.