Paris: The Four Hot Takes

(I’m still in Östersund, so perfect time to talk about a previous vacation!)

Paris smells like piss, everyone smokes, and there’s ham in everything. That’s the second thing I noticed. The first thing was straight off airplane, thrust into the chaos of the RER line to Paris being serviced by a bus replacement: my French listening comprehension had dwindled to absolutely worthless. If it had ever been worth anything. That impression faded, however, while the piss, the smoking, and the ham were constants throughout the trip.

Fortunately for those of us who can’t stand ham, there are croque poulets in the world.

It was a singular moment to be in Paris. It was the best of times (midsummer!), the worst of times (Roe, a suicide in my sambo’s family), the weirdest of times (the Banksy art theft trial). Everything was very surreal. I thought a lot about Weimar Germany, especially at the cabaret performance we had booked on Wednesday night.

In addition to the cabaret, I had a full agenda for basically the whole trip, happy to cede the planning to someone else who had been to Paris already and was familiar-ish with everything. As a result, the trip was a good balance of The Hits (Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Shakespeare and Company, the Luxembourg Gardens, the catacombs) and slightly more offbeat destinations (aforementioned cabaret show, only a quick driveby the outside of the Louvre, a very specific crepe place).

We drank a lot of wine and ate a lot of cheese, but we also walked all over except for one metro trip and one Uber trip, so it didn’t feel particularly indolent. I certainly caught my fair share of sun.

By the end of my trip, it also dawned on me just how successfully Paris tourism has capitalized on its literary history. That was the fourth thing I noticed. You can visit Bar Hemingway if you’re lucky—there’s only 25 seats in the whole place. There’s a line down the block at Shakespeare and Company less than an hour after opening, even on a weekday. The same can be said for Les Deux Magots and Cafe Flore, which are now officially located at “Place Sartre-Beauvoir.”

Paris is a city that knows how to market itself, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it. I had a great time—there’s certainly more to do in Paris than you can do in a week—but there was nothing charming or romantic that even tempted me to fantasize about another, more Parisian life. Paris syndrome came to mind. Whether it’s romance or philosophy or jazz, people show up with this crystallized ideal in their head and then you realize that the clubs and cafes your favorite artists frequented are unnaturally, unnervingly the same as they were back then…and therefore different. They are fossilized and lifeless; today’s de Beauvoirs and Hemingways and Baldwins are in completely different clubs in completely different neighborhoods. The cycle continues and in another hundred years they’ll also be tourist destinations—assuming humanity makes it that long.

On the other hand, An American in Paris still felt very much like an on-point tonal portrait of the city, even though it’s nearly 100 years old and even though Paris has seen some pretty tough, drastic history since then.

Memorial for Jewish children from the local neighborhood who died in the Holocaust.

And Paris is huge. Going from my little village suburb of Stockholm into the 6th Arrondissement was probably just as overwhelming as switching languages. So many cars, so many sirens, so many people. Even Gamla Stan, probably the nearest analogue Stockholm has, is calmer and quieter, the narrower streets making it hard for there to be all that much car traffic. Which bookends very nicely to the first thing I noticed: my French was shit.

Which again, shouldn’t have been a surprise. But I can negotiate daily life in Swedish without really any hiccups; in Korea I was there for a year at time, part of a larger system that included other NESTs and hagwon owners willing to scrounge up the occasional babysitter for tasks like visas and bank visits. Trying to operate in French was like trying to shift gears without a clutch, and I didn’t have the time to get the hang of it. Swedish, in comparison, was immediately lucid. Comprehension was instantaneous. I was surprised at how much of a relief it was to hear it again.

Imagine my surprise at meeting another Swede.

Borta bra men hemma bäst. There’s no place like home.

Reading List: Östersund

By the time you read this, I’ll have been in Östersund for several days. With any luck, I’ll have already finished one of the books on this list. Nothing like a long vacation to really dig into some tricky reading.

  • Rules for Radicals
  • Världen av i går
  • Dvärgen
  • La Gloire de mon père
  • Le Château de ma mère

I also have an issue of Karavan with me for train reading. Even though I randomly stumbled on the magazine several years ago, I only got around to subscribing last week. Goes to show where my head’s been, I suppose.

Forever Novels and the Terrible Trivium: Camp NaNoWriMo

Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about my Forever Novel, at least not here. It’s on brand, sure, but it’s a little too personal and a little too embarrassing. Would you trust an editor who had spent over eight years on a novel and didn’t have a completed, polished draft to show for it? Probably not. I don’t know that I would. Never mind the temptation to start talking about what my Forever Novel is actually about, which I’m both dying to do and which I would prefer never to do. But since I’d like to keep up my weekly-ish schedule here and I’m out of book reviews, and since I’ve been busy with Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I guess I have no choice except to talk about writing. (It dawned on me, in the middle of writing this post, that I could have just nattered on a bit about my trip to Paris, or short stories I’ve read recently, or the books I was going to read next, or the books I’m currently reading, but oh well.)

My Forever Novel

I wrote the first draft of my Forever Novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2014. I completed the sixth round of revisions on it last week, meaning that I won Camp NaNoWriMo by meeting my self-appointed goal of revising the last 25 chapters out of a total of 156. I then overshot my goal by immediately going back to the beginning and reading through the newly revised manuscript from the beginning and—as you do—immediately making further edits. For an idea of scope, we’re talking about just a hair over 80,000 words.

I’m glad I met my goal for Camp NaNoWriMo, not least because this particular round of revisions was unusually tricky and was where I made the deepest and most painful cuts. This is the revision where I figured out the skeleton of the whole weird thing. It’s nice to finally know what I’m dealing with.

But is it anything I want to deal with?

There was certainly a personal, emotional value in writing this Forever Novel, from the first mad NaNoWriMo dash in 2014 to this rather casual rounding off last week. The entire process was a surprisingly effective way of expunging a particularly dysfunctional friendship from my psyche. Anything I ever wanted to say to the other party in real life just got dumped into the novel. Approaching all of that from a writerly perspective helped me see how much was petty spite that really didn’t serve the story, and as I cut those elements out from the story, it also seemed to drain all of the petty spite out of myself. Or did the various drafts only reflect my own maturation back to me with each passing year? Hard to say. Either way, I’m now left with a weird, ambitious story and a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my reach has exceeded my grasp.

The truth is, not every project has value. Or perhaps a kinder way to phrase that is: not every project has value in its completion. The only value this project might ever have is helping me process and discard a hang-up I’d been nurturing for fifteen years, give or take. If I feel obligated to see it through to completion, to the point of excluding other projects and losing that sense of play and exploration, is that really a good thing? Marcy Dermansky went for the jugular right in the opening paragraph of this essay for LitHub:

A lesser-known fact about me: In addition to writing my own novels, I am a developmental editor. I help authors improve their novels. Sometimes these novels get sold; sometimes—as one of my despairing clients knows all too well—they don’t. About a year ago, she came back to me wanting to work on a sixth draft based on the suggestions of an interested agent. “At this point,” she said. “I just want this novel to be over.”

There was true heartbreak in her voice—and also real animosity for her novel. It was clear to me that she had begun to hate the book she once loved, had been working on for years. And while the one interested agent’s suggestion to move the end of the novel to the beginning, forecasting the events to come, could work, it was more likely not a good idea. I could sense pure dread. All the joy, all the play was gone. “You can rework material to death,” I warned her, and honestly, she already had. “Why don’t you start something new. See what happens. Have fun. Play.”

When that essay appeared in my inbox, I instantly recognized myself in that despairing author. I was not at the stage of animosity or pure dread yet, but I could sense it as a distinct possibility. For the first time, I allowed myself to ask the question: what am I even doing with this project.

The Terrible Trivium

The truth is, I haven’t really seriously worked on any other fiction since 2014 because I’ve been so focused on my Forever Novel. I used to lament that majoring in writing was a pointless endeavor, that if you wanted to write you would; at this point in my life I have to admit that I can see value in having a two-week deadline to churn out new material or else risk failing a class. I might have hated writing short stories (as this blog post nears 1,000 words, you might have noticed I struggle with brevity) but I still wrote them within that rather narrow deadline. Without fail. They were an assignment, and I had to get them done, and so that was that. I have them all still today and I actually kind of like a few of them.

Now adrift in the real world, I don’t have to write short stories when I write. Great! But without the motivating factor of a deadline and a passing grade, it’s all too easy to fall under the spell of the Terrible Trivium.

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them. “Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”

Close-up of grains of sand
Photo by Dave LZ on Unsplash

On the one hand, I’ve certainly made progress in the Forever Novel. But if I just keep fussing with it forever—if, like Milo, I keep moving that pile of sand with a pair of tweezers—then I never have to do anything difficult. I don’t have to try any new ideas, I don’t need to worry about failing, I can just keep futzing around with this story for the rest of my life.

Thus, the $64,000 question. Am I doing the hard work? Or am I avoiding it?

Who knows?

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.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 1

I didn’t want to fly anywhere during a pandemic, and it was a bit embarrassing to be a jävle stockholmare who had never been beyond the greater metropolitan  area even after seven years of living here, so I decided this was the year to take the train out of Stockholm and visit other parts of Sweden. This time around: Lund and Göteborg.

I sprung for a hotel room in Lund, a full on grown up suite hotel room with a kitchenette and plenty of space ALL FOR ME. Deep in my heart I’m still a slummy hostel rat, but during corona I don’t want to bunk up in close quarters with other people traveling so I dropped the cash for the fancy option in a hotel built in a converted locomotive shed.

A clean hotel room with large skylights and a freshly made bed.

Once I had settled in for the night, I set about putting together an agenda for the rest of my visit. The thing I wanted to see most was the Nasal Committee, a collection of plaster casts of assorted famous noses. This sounds a bit weird when I put it like that; it’s not at all a serious exhibit but a long-running joke that started in an award acceptance? commencement? speech by a Swedish comedian back in the 80s and now here we are today. Amongst the actual noses from living people, you also have entries like the Sphinx (“mysteriously noseless” according to its little catalogue write-up), Tycho Brahe (complete with the brass bit like he had in real life) and the eel, Anguilla anguilla.

The Nasal Committee Exhibit in Lund, Sweden.

The botanical gardens were along the way from my hotel room to the museum, so I took a wander through there to appreciate the flowers and fresh air, even though the weather was a bit overcast.

The botanical gardens also adjoin a cemetery (which actually had a pair of goth kids smoking by the entrance, bless) so I had a fun time investigating the headstones. Like Stockholm, no graves were particularly old, but unlike Stockholm a lot of them had the deceased’s career listed. The most noteworthy one was a PhD. She worked too hard for that doctorate NOT to have it proudly listed on her grave!

Gravestone that reads, "Poet Critic PhD, Susanna Roxman. 29.8.1946 - 30.9.2015"

The Cultural Museum was a quite a bit larger than I would have expected, with several buildings and open-air exhibits. I ended up exploring several other areas as well.

Entrance to the Bok Kulturen exhibit at the Lund Cultural Museum.
This exhibit on the history of printing presses and book publishing was another high point of the museum for me.
Old brick work tools as part of a display in the Lund Cultural Museum.
The difference in architecture between Lund and Stockholm was a surprise to me. So much more brick work!
A display of old pinball machine art.
The pinball exhibit was a nice piece of contemporary pop art to round off my visit.

After the museum and a bit of a walk, so I decided to see if the Mexican place I passed earlier was open and taking drop-in customers. It was and they were, and for Mexican food in Sweden it was pretty good, definitely a cut above the usual crappy tacos.

A bowl of black soup with diced tomatoes and avocado in a brown clay bowl, with a small bowl of nachos on the side.

It was also blessedly empty so I didn’t feel too much like I was tempting fate: it only started filling up when I had finished, so I paid and got the heck out of Dodge.

Interior shot of an empty Mexican restaurant with bright yellow walls, black sombreros hanging from the wall, and chairs upholstered in bright stripes.
Dos Hermanos in Lund, Sweden

After a couple hours of futzing around in my hotel room (drinking loads of tea, getting some reading done) I decided to futz around at a bar instead. Most of them looked too nice to go there alone (and a bit too crowded), so I eventually ended up at good ol’ Bishops Arms, drinking beer and reading Ice  until closing. On my way home I nearly got taken out by a cyclist coming too fast around a corner, but in the end I was fine and he ended up eating shit and wiping out so I ended the night with a good laugh.

The Glorious Return: Uijeongbu

After many lean years and tight travel budgets, in 2019 I bummed a favor from my friend Yousef and got the “friends and family” price on an Air Emirates ticket to South Korea. (He doesn’t work at Air Emirates anymore so that flight was a one-off memorable experience in itself.) My itinerary was a few days in Uijeongbu, a few days in Seoul, a few days in Daegu, Chuseok in Seoul, and the last few days in Uijeongbu. I centered my visit around Uijeongbu because I had lived there for two years, so I knew people there and was eager to take in the nostalgic sites (which ended up being more “seeing how things had changed”) in addition to new and exciting cities and experiences.

The short version of fun things I did, which I might or might not expand into later entries as the mood to reminisce strikes me:

  • Hiked (“hiked”) a bit in Bukhansan park, along parts of the trails accessible in Uijeongbu/Hoeryong/Mangwolsa.

  • Visited a couple temples along said trails.

  • Finally, FINALLY attended a Royal Asiatic Society lecture about Chollipo Arboretum.
  • Finally, FINALLY attended a comfort women protest.

Weekly comfort women protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Exterior of a shop on Medicine Street in Daegu with jars in a glass display and a terrifying pair of taxidermied deer.

  • Ate everything.

Interior of a Gimbap Cheonguk in Uiejongbu, South Korea

  • Drank a lot.

A bowl of makgeolli on a wooden table.

  • Stayed in a hanok.

Courtyard of a hanok guesthouse in Seoul

  • Saw friends and former coworkers for the first time in a million years.

A chain of soju bottle caps dangling from a ceiling decorated in fairy lights.

  • Met the next generation of teachers at my very first hagwon. They had already renewed their contract for a second year at this point in Q3 2019; I wonder how the plague year of 2020 treated them.
  • Deliberately avoided visiting my second hagwon and all of its bougie environs.
  • Mourned the apparent end of my third and best hagwon, its space now a kiddie play park above the gamjatang restaurant on the first floor (which is somehow still the same gamjatang restaurant, down to the signage—cold comfort, that)

A brightly-lit gamjatang restaurant at night.

  • Took in the late-night teenage buskers in downtown Uijeongbu.

Crowds enjoying late-night busking at the pedestrian mall in downtown Uijeongbu, South Korea.

  • Got scrubbed.
  • Actually, spent a lot of time in jjimjilbangs, up to and including the date of my departure, when I:
    • Dropped myself into a jjimjilbang locker room conversation between other foreign women and encouraged them to embrace the nudity of the sauna because it was extremely fucking worth it.

The weather was gorgeous. Typhoon Lingling hit on my last day in Daegu, prompting me to bump my departure up (too soggy to go out and do anything in the morning, which had been my original plan), and for a few days after there were intermittent showers heavy enough to warrant umbrellas, but then sometime around Chuseok it broke and it was beautiful weather the rest of the time—and I came back to a cold and gray Stockholm, awesome.

Things I loved in Korea that are no longer there:

  • Tom Bar in Uijeongbu
  • the Uzbek restaurant Jong-min and I always went to in Anam
  • My third hagwon (see above)
  • The officetel my third hagwon rented for me: the building is still standing but dark, quiet, a mere ghost; no doubt slated for demolition or at least renovation (Uijeongbu really växer så det knakar these days)

  • the Thai restaurant Yousef and I would frequent after binge shopping at What The Book?

Things I loved that were still there:

  • Cox

A dark bar, with "Cox" in light wood mounted on the black wall above the bottles.

  • What the Book? (in a new, smaller location, sadly)*

Interior of the now-closed What The Book? in Seoul, South Korea.

  • My first officetel building, once a modern piece of shiny new domination on that brief stretch of road, now dingy and old and dwarfed by taller buildings on either side
  • Cheonjiyeon jjimjilbang in Millak dong
  • The mosaic along the bike path next to the stream

Mosaic of a sunrise.

  • Maltese

The restaurant Maltese in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

The one activity I’ll detail is this:

During my last days in Uijeongbu, I bought a couple cheap-o bottles of makgeolli and a box of Korean Digestive biscuit knock-offs (my favorite snack). Then I made small little pilgrimages and offerings to places that were important to me. At each location I emptied out a measure of makgeolli or left a few cookies and sat and talked to the place, out loud like a crazy person. I have a thing about being able to say goodbye to people and to places, to have as much closure as possible. What terrifies me about having so many friends spread across the globe is the knowledge that each time I see them may very well be the last (true for literally every person you see, sure, but it feels more urgent when you only see someone every few years) and that I’ll never, ever be able to give them the farewell I’d want to give. But here was an opportunity to do exactly that, and I did.

I thanked the officetel for a good year, for sheltering me and protecting me and being a cozy little room I could call home. I also told it that I hoped whatever was going to be built in its place was nice and charming and worthy of being built there. The other sites, being more a general sense of place that’s hard to really destroy, were less emotional since they’re literally impossible to disappear the way a specific building is. But they still brought up memories of friends and a life I no longer have, and my heart ached a bit.

It turned out to be a well-timed trip on my end. The last chance to visit people in Korea before they left, the last chance to visit What The Book?, the last chance to see a familiar place before the coronavirus appeared on the world stage and (irrevocably?) changed so many things. I have such stupendously good luck so often, it astounds me.

The author at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, South Korea.

*As of the date on this backdated entry, What The Book? still existed, but a few months later it closed very abruptly and unceremoniously. The books I purchased there on this last trip will never leave my collection.