Part I: “Respect the Cheese Form!”
If you’re from Topeka, you can go to Kansas City. If you’re from Kansas City, you can go to Chicago. If you’re from Chicago, you can go to New York. But if you’re from Manhattan, where can you go? By the time I was 40, I had to go to Sweden just to calm down. I’ve spent nearly half my time there ever since.
There’s been some confusion. These are not the people who drill holes in cheese. They are not a fondue people, nor do they yodel. Their trains are sometimes late, their mountains are unimpressive, and their chocolate is adequate at best. No. These are the people who brought you The Nobel Prize, the Volvo, the smörgåsbord, free day care, suicide, and full frontal nudity. These are the blondes. Enormous blonde herring-scented nauseatingly fair-minded nymphomaniacs in clogs.
When I lived in Paris, nobody said, “Paris? Why Paris?” But now they ask, “Sweden? But why?” And I don’t know how to answer. Sometimes I say, “Because nobody in Sweden has anything better to do than chat with me!”
I’m an artist. There, I said it. For the arts, New York is just so…obvious. New York is for exposition, but Gothenburg, Sweden, where I hang out, is an “arbetarstad”, a worker’s city. It’s a good place to produce. Volvos, Hasselblads, and, in my case, oil paintings. Animations. Illustrations. Books. To work. In laughable obscurity.
How did I end up here? I’m a lifelong colony bum. Earlier, I’d been to Yaddo and an artists’ residency in Vermont. So, in the sweltering summer of 1999, I wrote a brazen e-mail to fifty different artists’ residencies, all over the world. Normally, they have mile-long waiting lists, but I dared ask them all for a residency starting “right now,” adding that I did not expect to get a grant. “I am happy to pay,” I informed them. The residency in Sweden, in my opinion, was so shocked to see the words “happy” and “pay” in the same sentence that they insisted I drop everything and rush right over. They didn’t even want to see my slides. The place was called something that, to my ear, sounded like “constipated.” I’ve been returning every Summer since then, but because the guest studio program is now kaput, this year will be my last residency.
Looking back, I reminisce about my first. I don’t keep a diary, but humor me.
It’s June of 1999. Dear Diary: This summer there have been approximately three days of sunshine since I arrived on June 6th. This has, officially, been the coldest, rainiest summer on record in seventy-five years. I won’t complain, however. I prefer to complain about the stinky, fetid, rat-infested hell, the human gridlock that is my neighborhood back home: Broadway and Canal street. I choose this, my Northern Nowhere Land. In addition to my studio, I share the office where I do my illustration work with seven people, most of whom are called Lena. Most Swedish women are named Lena, and all Swedish men are named Stefan. The other day I was using the osthyvel (special slotted cheese slicer) on a hunk of “grevé” cheese, and Lena, Lina, Helena, and Lene started yelling at me. “We always know when you’ve been in the cheese! It looks like a ski-slope!” Apparently it is of great importance that every slice be an attempt to even out the cheese level. All Swedes are brought up with this habit. I call this enlightening episode: “Respect the Cheese Form!”
“Lagom” means “not too little, not too much. Just Right.” The Middle Road. Social Democracy. Fairness. Even-ness. The classic metaphor for “lagom” is the stalk of wheat: if it grows taller than the others, it’s mowed down. Show-offs are not to be tolerated. But apparently “lagom” can also be expressed in cheese.
I have learned some Swedish, although everyone over the age of six speaks English as well as I do. Although Swedish is a word-poor language, they have a few gems that we don’t. They have a word for the crime of washing dishes in a sloppy, superficial way. “Fuskdiska!” Just what it sounds like, “hjärnsläpp”, or “brain drop”, describes the blank moment where we might complain of early Alzheimer’s. There’s an onomatopoetic word for a person who is “dreamy, rootless, undecided” with a hippie quality: “Flummig.” You can call someone a dust bunny, or “torrboll.” But only if they’re really boring. And back in the day, there was an expression for a cell phone: “juppinalle”, or “Yuppie Teddy Bear,” which has fallen out of use because not only yuppies but also every eight-year old is hugging and cuddling a cell phone. Sweden is the most wireless nation on earth. I just made that up, but it’s true.
Swedish invective is adorably tame. You can tell someone off by saying, “Dra dit pepparn växer — i sydamerika!” This means, “Go grow peppers in South America!”
To round out our Swedish lesson, let me correct a misconception. Contrary to a cruel international myth, the word “IKEA” does not mean “wobbly” in Swedish. Wobbly is “ostadig.” “IKEA” is an acronym for Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd. Aren’t you glad you asked? Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea’s billionaire founder, says in his 1999 book, Leading By Design: The IKEA Story, that his youthful affiliation with the Nazi Movement in Sweden was “the greatest mistake of my life,” but in my opinion that honor should go to the ineluctably hideous “Byholma Marieberg” armchair.
When the catalogue comes, if I am in the right mood, I am proud to say that I now have the language chops to translate your “Bestå Burs” desk, your “Klaviatur” lamp, and your extremely wobbly “Ekby Järpen” shelving. Unfortunately, I am never, ever in the mood, because I’ve decided it’s better for you not to know.
Incidentally, back in the ’80’s, I was briefly married to a Swedish illustrator whom I’d met in New York, where we lived together. We divorced so amicably (in 1986) that we still travel together, and he corrects my Swedish spelling and grammar for certain stories I write. Also, he is handsome, brilliant, and perfect. One day, I came back from Tokyo — where I’d had an art exhibition — and remarked how meaningful it was that “clean” and “beautiful’ were the same word in Japanese: kirae. “So what?” he said. “In Swedish, we use the same word, “ren”, for both “clean” and “reindeer.”
I love Sweden. It’s boring, but in a good way.
Rosenwald draws for The New Yorker, wrote All the Wrong People have Self Esteem, and holds workshops called “How to Make Mistakes on Purpose.” Visit www.rosenworld.com.