Thursday, March 18, 2010

15°35North, 13°00East

From late 2001, when I was starting a new life in an exotic place.

The Flat:

I live in the middle of the southern-most city in Sweden, a Euro-dense urban area of three-hundred thousand people. So it's not surprising that even now at 2am cars continuously hum past in ones and twos. In the small park across from our fourth-story flat a woman is walking a rat-like thing that must be a dog. There is also an old man is sitting on one of the park benches where heroin-thin gray-skinned baby-boomer junkies pass the time on warmer days. This is the yet-to-be-named first decade of the twenty-first century, and smack is still very much in style. Often, in the middle of the night, some Arab or Swede or Persian will be out on the sidewalk yelling for our neighbor, whom we assume is a supplier/dealer.

It should be mentioned that Swedes do not seem to believe in the use of curtains. Drapery apparently exists to frame views of the outside world and in no way used to obscure, to obstruct, or to grant privacy. There is an unspoken assumption in this land of egalitarianism that no one could possibly be rude enough to look into your home at night.

Yes, there are rare nods to the reality that passers by do glance in. Occasionally a degenerate bottom-floor dweller installs a half-pane of frosted glass to provide a degree of privacy from pedestrians on the sidewalk. However, even such a weak-willed individual knows better than to threaten the social order by going so far as to actually draw the drapes.

My residence is part of a four-story fortress of brick apartment buildings that encircles a city block. The curtain etiquette means that the kitchen window reveals an uninterrupted panorama of domestic evening life on the far side of the inner courtyard. Some of the block's component edifices are pleasant, and others are dreary affairs thrown up during a desperate 1930s madhouse attempt to shelter the masses of ship-building workers who were pouring into Malmö.

Ours is one of the latter.

Across the courtyard, the neighbors are often visible after dark preparing dinner, and in a washroom scruffy twenty somethings regularly gather around the washing machine and dryer to laugh and smile a lot. I won't discuss the peculiarities of the overweight gentleman who practices the culinary arts in the nude, but only out of politeness.

Three years ago, during a visit here, a young girl and her mother watched excitedly as my girlfriend-to-be hung an orange paper Christmas star in what is now our kitchen window.

The flat can be described as a narrow rectangle divided into a kitchen and a living room. There is also a former broom closet that has been converted into a shower/bathroom. One can sit on the toilet and shower, making it vitally important to remember to set the toilet paper on the floor outside the bathroom before turning on the water. Also, the toilet is haunted. When flushed it moans loudly enough to be heard at the bottom of our four-story stairwell.

At the moment, low-hanging clouds lit from below by street lamps are being driven across the city sky by an ocean breeze. These have just crossed over nearby Denmark while coming in from the North Atlantic.

A long-time mountain and inland desert dweller, I love sea winds and have always cherished the thought of living next to the ocean. In South Korea I resided in a camp of five hundred cavalrymen almost eight kilometers from the sea, and I never saw the water there during my year-long stay. Of course that water belonged to the wrong Korea, and it is my understanding that the beach there is a tangled mire of razor wire and rusting forty-year-old landmines. So perhaps not seeing the Han Estuary wasn't much of a loss.

The wind and water in Sweden however, are different from Land of the Morning Calm. Here there is no tragic hermit kingdom nearby to flavor the rivers and breezes with heavy metals, no starving inhabitants, no six-hundred thousand enemy riflemen on the border, and no demigod son of the Great Leader. I no longer sit on the fire escape of the steel-sided barrack building (the Rat House) with my friends to watch the afternoon thunderstorms pummel our northern neighbors — Mother Nature really seemed to have had it in for the Norks that year.

Where I live now, the natural geographic border is the Öresund strait. Across those dark waters lies Københaven and Danmark. Hard-drinking hard-working pale-skinned people live there, who seem to me to be the bridge between continental Germany and peninsular Scandinavia. I can hear it when the Danes speak, and instead of trying to Danishize my meager but growing Swedish vocabulary, their Hunnish cadence tempts me to slip back into my Bavarian-accented Deutsch.

The Army English that I spoke while living in Germany was for the most part a hybrid language. There were not quiet as many cool sounding euphemisms for killing as Hollywood would have you believe. There are also very few of the acronyms that are liberally tossed about in movies. Instead, G.I. speak tended to be a gumbo of foreign words picked up from around the world.

A Joe who has been to Korea will sometimes speak about that Ahjahsee (old man,) or tell you to bali bali (hurry up). A soldier in Germany might substitute autobahn for freeway, bahnhof for train station, and pomesfrits for French fries. There are even a few fragments of Vietnamese and Indochina French floating around courtesy of everyone having watched Full Metal Jacket or Hamburger Hill a few times too many. There are guys in the Army who can recite lines form Apocalypse Now the way role-playing nerds can parrot Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail.

As an institution I don't think that we picked up much in the way of local words while we were down in the Balkans. We were there to keep the natives from killing each other, which didn't leave much time for learning the language.

Anyway, the park across the way from us in the here and now: It is dominated by an elm that looms over our fourth-story flat and spreads its branches above nearly a third of the green recreational space below it. A few blocks behind the tree stands a six-story bluish copper-domed monstrosity of a vary Scandinavian water tower.

During the drawn-out Swedish summer twilight, throngs of narrow-shouldered long-haired teenagers gather in the park to celebrate being alive by pounding on drums, twirling weighted ropes, and bending their bodies in odd angles to the rhythm of their music. These are polite rebellious Swedish teenagers, so their big, penetrating bass drums cease their tribal diatribes promptly at 10pm.

During the summer there was also a junkie who moved his furniture into the park. He dragged in his ragged-assed couch and an easy chair underneath the sheltering structure of the uber-elm. Then the municipal workers of Malmö showed up and confiscated his couch and chair. For a day he toughed it out underneath a bush with a blanket and no small amount of chemical fortification, then the social workers took him away as well. He was back with the couch a day later, and the process proceeded to repeat for some weeks.

I had to admire their determination: Both man and sofa were out there striving to beat the system for nearly a month, braving the rain and other elements, before disappearing a final time.

Now, lest you think Sweden in general is an exotic place, it's not. This land is a left-leaning middle-class nation--a liberal suburb of Europe, isolated in many ways from the world at large. That being said, the neighborhood I live in is only notionally a part of Sweden, and it will do nothing to counter any suggestion of mine about non-exoticness.

We reside on the edge of one of the immigrants' quarters. About two-thirds of our brick stockade is occupied by Swedes — mostly young, trendy, and upward bound. Many of these are medical students who work at the local hospital, which is why we are here. The remainder of the Swedes are pensioners, many of them jobless since the Swedish ship-building industry went tits up back in the 1970s. The other third, however, is inhabited by Arabs and a few Africans. Some are here as refugees from the wars of this past decade. They come primarily from Iraq and Somalia. There are also Kurds and Persians, as well as a few Palestinians seeking relief from the discrimination directed at them in the Middle Eastern lands where their parents and grandparents sought refuge after 1948.

Off on the northwest corner of the park stands the Iskander Food Store, which specializes in food products of the Middle East. Passing it and heading west on our street will take you past the Oriental Gill, which features fantastic kebabs and Arab-style chicken, as well as several Arab-owned markets, butchers, barbershops, and electronics stores. Further down is a Persian restaurant. You will then arrive at the market square where workers and union organizers helped to usher in the 1930s birth of Swedish socialism. This public place in turn is ringed by Thai, Chinese, and Swedish restaurants. There are also a couple of Asian food markets, as well as butchers of various nationalities.

Circle back towards our flat on the street called Ystadsgatan, and you will see shops displaying water pipes made of colored glass and imitation brass. You will the go by a sea-themed playground of wooden structures and sand where children speaking Serbo-Coratian and Albanian play.

Before the park, you'll pass the Red Star Café. Here, energetic black-clad teenagers strive to keep alive the heyday of trendy, 1970s Swedish communism. There are also — I believe — some long-exiled members of the Iranian Communist Party present as well. The teenagers plan out remembrances to celebrate the whateverith anniversary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by slapping up freshly printed anti-European Union and anti-globalization posters across this, the most globalized of Swedish neighborhoods. For good measure they also spray paint metallic hammers and sickles on random buildings.

Then of course, there is Che, whose glowering countenance glances heavenwards from an array of handbills posted around the neighborhood.

I am often tempted to stop in and ask the teenagers if they also plan to remember those who perished in the Cultural Revolution: the intellectuals and Buddhist monks who were burned alive, and the musicians whose hands were smashed to prevent the playing of counterrevolutionary music. I am also curious if they memorialize the thirty million farmers who starved to death as a result of Mao's Great Leap Forward during the 1950s.

Probably not. Theirs is a secular extremism that is religious in its intensity, and either inherited from their parents or bought from their peers. If the fact that so many former East Block countries have rejected communism does not faze them, I suppose that I won't either. That does not mean that I am never tempted to spray paint Mickey Mouse silhouettes over their posters, or maybe a giant pair of golden arches on the window of the Redstar Café. I despise McDonalds and dislike Disney, but at least I do so from qualitative judgments rather than a belief in conspiracy theories about capitalist crusades for world domination.

There are times when I step out onto the street that it feels odd that I do not have to board a plane for Germany. Two hours flying time to south are the hills and dark forests of Bavaria where I spent nearly three years of my military career. There, under twilight skies, we scouts stalked through the woods hunting tanks with night vision optics strapped to our helmets and armor around our chests. We drove HMMWVs through the pitch black with the lights turned off--Humvees with fifty cals and thermal sights mounted on top. During the weekends we traveled among castles and Gothic cities. Sometimes we set out in pursuit of art and history, but more often for interesting meetings with long-limbed German girls or slender females of Asian and Turkish ethnicity who were just as European as their paler counterparts--even if Germany still does not grant most of them citizenship despite their having been born there.

I grew up in an environment so very different from either Sweden or Germany. My childhood was sagebrush, dry golden cheatgrass, and rolling tumbleweeds fifteen minutes south of Reno near the base of the Carson Mountains. When we first moved in during late 1979 there was only a loop of asphalt and circle of newly built dwellings amidst in the freshly bulldozed mud. Land was cheap and anyone could own a house then--it seemed to be a natural economic right of even the poor, from which we were not too-far removed at the time.

These residences were late-seventies ranch houses, each with an acre of land. If you walked twenty minutes out of the neighborhood into the desert of rock and sage you could find dumps where people had tossed out washing machines, dryers, and ovens in the 60s and 70s. It was, of course, unthinkable to find an abandoned car lacking perforations from bullets and shotgun blasts.

The human race in my childhood mind was by in large white, which is not surprising as almost everyone that I had ever met was caucasian. Most of these Nevadans seemed to have no strong opinions on the matter of skin color, neither disliking nor liking any other particular ethnic group. If they had strong views, they kept these to themselves. The rest of the world was far away from us, and even if a cold war was raging, that was a distant thing as well. Mostly there was the feeling that an age when everyone had been young and free--or at least carefree--had just come to an end.

My friends and I hiked and played out in the desert among the rocks and dryness, hoping to find rattlesnakes, black widows, scorpions, interesting discarded junk, or at least a relatively straight stick that would make a good magic sword. This was back before the weekend California hiker or the enlightened body-conscious Yuppie with high-top, high-tech boots. Walking along the base of the mountains, you were sure to meet guys in flannel shirts with rifles or shotguns (and some times both) slung over their shoulders, who would wave from a polite stand-off distance.

Not that we paid these solitaires much attention. Our imaginary worlds were our focus--existences shaped by the stories of Heinlein, Tolkien, Gibson, and other writers of science fiction and fantasy. Such imaginings were bright realities compared to the monotony of endless schooldays.

Now a good deal of the near-future science fiction that we used to read has come to pass. Nowadays Mr. Bill Gib's matrix is a reality, and I have only to walk over to the PC in the corner of this 1930s workers flat to access a growing realm of virtual communities.

The twenty-four-hour news networks that Heinlein described in his book, Friday also exist now. Last month, we found ourselves at another couple's flat on 12 September, sharing a bottle of wine and trying to figure out what had just happened to the world. Like Heinlein's characters, we chose to leave the TV on mute as the images played out over and over again, and like the protagonists we found ourselves in a world in which non-state actors had acquired the power to wage war against nation-states. Now I find myself wondering how many more of these scenes I will live out from the novels of my childhood.

Al-Quaeda's first impact on my life took place in 1998 at the end of a cold gray summer weekend in Germany. 2-63 Armor Battalion had been given time off from work for a day of sports and family activities known sardonically by enlisted soldiers as "mandatory fun day." I and several other members of the scout platoon had managed to escape this by having signed up for a white-water rafting trip in Austria. The weather was chilly, the young Christian couple who served as our guides were horrified by the number of profanities that we worked into each sentence, but it was nice be out and about in new territory unconnected to the world by either telephone or television.

Coming home on Sunday, however, quickly turned into a "what the fuck is this?" moment when we spotted a line of cars waiting at the post entrance. A thirty-ton 2-2 Infantry Bradley was parked by the front gate with its 25mm chain gun and coax trained in our direction as armed soldiers conducted vehicle searches. There hadn't been gate guards at American posts in Europe since the end of the Cold War. During my time there it had been a common summer evening sight to see middle-aged Bavarian housewives rollerblading through the post on our running paths or to encounter self-invited German teenagers hanging out on the front steps of the Burger King.

Bin Laden's bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania meant the end of open posts and the beginning of working through the weekends as we manned the entrances and patrolled the surrounding areas. The lost free time is not what has stayed with me, though, but rather the sudden shock of seeing that Bradley parked at the front gate and the horrible jolt of wondering what terrible thing had just happened. As we waited in line to be searched, there was an almost Cold War-era dread as we wondered if war had somehow dropped in out of the blue.

The shadow of nuclear doomsday had intruded on my 1980s childhood whenever I had found myself wondering if I would live to see mushroom clouds rising over the central valley of California. There were a number of SAC and MAC Air Force bases that were certainly targeted by the Soviets in the event of all-out war. Would the fallout have made it over the mountains to Reno, or would we found ourselves living out our lives in an isolated high-desert post-apocalyptic existence had the ball gone up?

A few nights back here in Post-9/11 Sweden I went down to take out the trash. Coming back up the stairs I glanced out a landing window and caught sight of a luminescent globe of oceanic blues, earthen browns, and living greens. Australia, Indonesia, and the coastline of Southeastern Asia were clearly visible, floating in the outer space-like blackness of an unlit apartment across the courtyard. A few evenings later another earth had appeared in the flat directly across from our kitchen. Not bad. This globe was slightly larger and tilted at a different angle, but someone had spoiled the illusion of space by leaving on a dim light, revealing a dark-red wall and the shadowed form of what I think is a refrigerator in the background.

The Earth is now living in a flat across the courtyard from me. It would be nice to think that our planet has finally found shelter and is living comfortably indoors after all of these years of chaos and uncertainty.

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