Friday, February 27, 2009

Life in Sweden: Subway Art II

As promised, here are some pics from the wacky Kungsträdgården subway stop (I went on the blue line to get out to Kista, so I figured I'd take advantage of the opportunity). This one is from the entrance at street level:

There was a sign there with the artist's statement, and apparently a lot of the architectural details used in the installation here were recovered from buildings from around the Stockholm area.

The highlight of the station is this walkway to the platform, where architectural artifacts are strewn about in the pit below, with (fake) ivy and moss creeping over them.

Oh, and lampposts with neon swirls in them. 

Good times.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Four years. Oy.

So Friday marked the four-year anniversary of my life here in Sweden. 


That's a toddler. An Olympic cycle, a presidential term. That's high school, or a college education. And most disturbing, that's as long as I lived in New York City after college. Technically, I'm more of a Stockholmer than I am a New Yorker. 

Completely coincidentally (and randomly), I'm going to be giving a presentation this week for a relocation company to American clients about the challenges of moving to Sweden. So, naturally, I've been thinking a lot about my experience here. When I moved here, I didn't have a clue what to expect. 

Like, not even a mental picture of what it would look like. 

At the airport, the passport control guy kept flipping through my passport, wondering when I had previously visited. After all, I did have a residency visa. "Never!" I cheerfully replied. "Hope I like it!"

I didn't know anyone in Sweden except Jan and his family, I didn't speak Swedish, and I didn't know where to begin creating a life. I had just quit my supersocial job as an editor, I had left my supersocial life in New York City, and I was now working for myself at home, in a country known (I now realize) for its lack of sociability. 

The change was a shock, to say the least. In many ways, Stockholm does seem a lot like New York, and it's easy to believe that my transition should have been an easy one. But Stockholm is really, really not like New York--in good ways and in bad. The differences are often hard to identify, and they're just as hard to articulate after you've absorbed them. 

In another weird coincidence, this week also marks the end of my time at the ÖÖS studio space I've been renting for more than two years. 

Jan and his dad helped me move my stuff back to our apartment yesterday, where I'll be working now that we have a spare room. So it's hard not to feel that today I'm back to where I was four years ago: sitting in my apartment, looking out the window at a courtyard, thinking about my life as I work. 

But it doesn't take long to realize that I'm in a completely different place today.

This journey hasn't been an easy one, that's for sure. (Here's a vital tip: never think about where you've ended up in life on an empty stomach.) And I'm definitely not done with the trip. But at least now I can understand the world around me and navigate it, and I have more of the tools I need for building a life and enjoying it. It's gratifying to know that I can pass on some of the wisdom I've earned the hard way, wisdom that I wish I had four years ago. 

And as much as I don't always feel like one, I am a Swede now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dancin' on the Tracks

I wanted to add to my earlier post about warning signs.

This is a part of the sticker you find on all the doors to the subway cars in Stockholm:

I think it's supposed to tell you to *not* get your arm caught in the subway door (?!), but the body language of the dude doesn't seem particularly negative to me. To me, it looks like he's shuffling off to Buffalo--they should add little motion lines to indicate jazz hands.

And then right above it is this hilarious image:

Um, hilarious because I'm apparently still eleven. (Lesson: Don't tiptoe over Peeping Toms?)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Current Obsession: African Violets

We were at the grocery store last week, where I ended up lingering in the small houseplant section (this is nothing new for me, even from when I was in high school). They had a small selection of foliage plants (three for 100 kronor!), and as tempted as I was, I was too nervous about buying something very poisonous. (One of the options was Dieffenbachia, also known as "Dumb Cane"--or, hilariously, "Mother-in-law Plant"--because it can cause your throat to swell if you consume it. I don't want to think about what would happen to a little guy like Oliver, a bird who'll chomp up anything--vegetal or otherwise--he can get his beak on...) So I decided to hold off until I did the requisite research--but I couldn't resist taking an African Violet from the next cart, just because it looks so damn healthy:

(Except that missing leaf, natch.)

My mother used to have an African Violet in our kitchen window when I was a kid, but I remember that hers wasn't as perpetual a bloomer as they're known to be--it just sort of hung out, in a drab way, a clump of dark, fuzzy leaves waiting to die in a mug. (I don't blame the plant, by the way.) So I wasn't that into African Violets for a long time, although I knew that they tend to have a cult following (especially here--no other plant had its own fan club representin' at a gardening trade show Jan and I went to last year at Stockholmsmässan). 

Somehow African Violets always seemed too common, a starter plant that's unironically grannyish. The mother of one my childhood friends had a kitchen bookshelf dedicated to three or four African Violets, complete with a pebble tray and a grow light (a huge amount of attention, to my twelve-year-old mind), and I couldn't understand the appeal. They might as well be cacti, they're so...static. I mean, there's no fragrance, no fruit, they're available everywhere--what's the point?

Well, what a difference the years have made. When I brought my grocery store flower home, I was thrilled. It looked great! Big flowers, in February! And it doesn't even take up a lot of space! Plus, it's totally bird-safe, and unlike most flowering houseplants, it doesn't seem to require a huge amount of sunlight (a limited resource in our apartment). 

Later on in the week, I stopped by my all-time favorite store in Stockholm, a gardening-supply store called Weibull's right near the intersection of Sveavägen and Kungsgatan. Since it's right in the center of the city, the store's selection is heavily weighted toward indoor houseplants (awww, yeah), and every time I go in there, it's a revelation. So many varieties! So many colors! So many latin names I can never keep straight! And they all look amazing, these glistening tropical plants that are uniformly robust and flawless. 

Of course, I never end up buying anything when I go because I get completely overwhelmed--buying something seems like a slippery slope, a gateway drug. (Plus I'm not rock-solid on which plants might be dangerous for Oliver.) So I tend to think of my visits as a form of houseplant tourism, to go and breathe the oxygen-rich, humidified air and see if I really fall in love with any one plant--and then go home to read about it online and realize why I can't provide the right growing conditions for it (oh, for bright, direct-sunlight window! Think of the fragrant gardenias I could stock up on!). 

But on my visit this week, the plants I was most impressed by were the African Violets that were on sale (only 25 kronor each!). The range of varieties were more than you ever really see (unless, *cough*, you're the kind of person who spends hours looking at the gallery on this site). A sign said they were "locally grown", which I guess is to point out a smaller carbon cost? Or maybe Swedes are famous for their varieties? Hard to say. It's not like they're native or anything.

Even though I already had the grocery store African Violet, I couldn't bring myself to buy more. (It takes a lot for me to buy something. Don't ask.) But I did go back on Friday, specifically to buy the plants, because I saw in the paper that they were advertising the African Violets for this week's sale. (Hey, I'm cheap--that was reason enough.) So I went in, agonized over exactly which plants to get, then finally settled on two:

But I also knew I wanted the miniature ones, too, so I got the two varieties they offered:

And I validated my fears about gateway drugs by buying a mimosa pudica, the "Sensitive Plant",  because they are so cool. (I had seen them at Weibull's before and thought about buying them, but needed a few weeks to think about spending the 29 kronor, apparently.) Also African Violets = crack.

Then I brought all the plants home and realized the cashier had slaughtered a significant amount of leafage from one of the miniatures in the wrapping process:

But whatever, I love them all. 

So I'm slowly becoming the old woman I aspire to be, after all.

Friday, February 6, 2009

In the Mood

When I moved to Sweden just about four years ago, I was excited that I would finally be able to work for myself on my own projects. Since I would no longer be an editor, I imagined that I would be much more motivated during the days; after all, I would more directly benefit from all the work, it would all come right back to me.

I mean, think of all that time! I could work a few hours in the morning, then go for an refreshing walk or grab lunch with a friend, then be reenergized and reinspired for a productive afternoon. I'd have manuscripts pouring out of me, promotional materials flooding art directors all over the world, agents knocking down my door, trying to get a cut of the action... And what a fabulous lifestyle--I could sleep in! Go see matinee movies on a whim! 

Needless to say, I quickly learned that working by yourself on creative projects is definitely not what it's cracked up to be--at least, not in my case. I now know that I get most of my energy and motivation from palpable external influences: clear deadlines, a boss's expectations, coworkers with whom I immediately get competitive. 

I also totally underestimated The Power of Procrastination. It can be very easy to rationalize a break here and there...and there...and there... Oh, and ask me about anything that's been covered by The New York Times in the last four years--I'll tell you all about it! The Huffington Post? Ditto. New York public radio? I have Brian Lehrer's voice etched into my very being. If I don't know the latest minor commentary on the latest blip on the 24-hour news cycle, how will the world continue to revolve? I mean, come on, it takes work to be an informed citizen!
So, motivating myself to work every day--forcing myself, really--has been very difficult for me over the past few years, and I'm constantly thinking about ways to create the "ideal environment" that will inspire and sustain productivity. That was one of the reasons we got Oliver, the parrot--so I wouldn't feel so isolated working from home. Didn't quite do the trick, though--he hasn't learned how to say "Get to work, bitch!" yet. So, I started working outside the apartment in a rented studio space with other creative types, and that has been a godsend. (Oliver, of course, has been a godsend, too--but for wholly different reasons.)

In light of all this, I found the recent New York Times article about people losing weight because of bets very interesting to think about (see, the daily scouring of the Old Gray Lady is a good thing!). Could this be the right strategy to make sure I actually produce work for self-imposed deadlines? The article points out that people were most likely to reach their goals on if their money would go to a charity they actively disliked, a "foe or anti-charity". I could see that working really well for me--you can bet your little patootey that I would produce the Sistine Chapel in ten seconds flat before having a nickel sent to the Knights of Columbus, for example.

Of course, there are tools available that have been developed for writers in exactly my situation--Dr. Wicked's Write or Diefor example, is a website which provides a text box with preset parameters for you to type in. As soon as you start to slack off, the punishments can range from blasting you with unpleasant music (although *I* would have no problem listening to Hanson!) to actually deleting your work.

The time-pressure aspect of that strategy brings a whiff of nostalgia for me--one of my many dubious claims to fame was winning the regional title for a Power of the Pen competition in seventh grade. (Or was it eighth?) Looking back, it didn't strike me as particularly hard to whip up a short story in forty minutes. Where, oh where, did that skill go?

Ultimately, I'm not sure there is a perfect solution for me. I think it comes down to something similar to Jane Yolen's BIC ("Butt In Chair") method(And hey, whatever Jane Yolen has been doing to motivate herself must work really, really well. That lady is productive like nobody's business!)

So, when I'm between contracted projects and their associated deadlines, I just gotta keep the self-imposed deadlines coming. I've been holding writing workshops with two Stockholm friends for a while now, and we recently realized we need to meet more frequently (weekly). It was pretty clear that all three of us basically only wrote the day of the workshop anyway, so now we're acknowledging our weakness and working around it. 

But yesterday I heard a great tip: a friend was given a package of chocolate liqueurs by another writer with the instruction to eat one--just one!--before beginning a writing session. Apparently the combination of a stimulant (sugar) and a relaxant (booze) creates the perfect conditions for a productive session.

I'm down with that.

Oh, and do I even need to point out that I have managed to spend most of the afternoon on this post? 

Monday, February 2, 2009

Life in Sweden - Subway Art

Normally with public art in Stockholm, I have pretty low expectations. Take this hideosity from our local subway stop:

No, that is not graffiti done by some deranged person. That was actually designed to be there (gouged into the wall) by a professional. And I get to stare at it every day.

But on Sunday, we went to dinner at our friends' place in a suburb of Stockholm, and I was reminded of how fun the artwork is at the Solna Centrum stop. Check this out: 

The White House!! It's towering menacingly over little Swedish cottages! 

...Yeah, I dunno what it all means. Probably something anti-American, though it's hard to say definitively. There's also a military helicopter to the left, and a scene with soldiers planting a flag on the horizon to the rightà la Iwo Jima, but the lighting wasn't very good. It's all in a display case:

Jan claimed that the cottages are supposed to represent protesters. I'm all for artwork that gives you something to ponder as you wait for the train...

...kind of like this, also at the same station:

Yup, giant plastic (resin?) moose. On the left, there's a dilapidated shack with a sign for Konsum, a grocery chain. (?!) As a friend pointed out, it's particularly impressive that the graffiti isn't limited to the outside of the case--that's some pretty determined tagging right there.

There's a similarly wacky subway stop at Kungsträdgården, I'll take some pics the next time I'm there (which is admittedly almost never)...'


Bob and Jack have finally been released into the wide, wide world. 

Good luck, little bears. Sell like crazy, okay?