said and read

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My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.

Random abandon – I am a wee marshmallow fox

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I can’t sleep. Checking out the ridiculous Eastbound & Down and overdosing on cute pics of twin baby polar bears. Thinking I will switch over to news even though I am tired of hearing about Crimea now. How is that story a surprise to anyone?

Reading about the talented and alluring Yasmine Hamdan – always wish I knew Arabic.

Love – I never knew I needed or wanted to hear sweet words. You can just call me a wee marshmallow fox. I have completely melted.

I like multimedia, multitask, multithought, multifeeling multistories that are as full of random abandon as I am.

And poetry, of course. Uncertainty.

ДРУГОЕ

Белла Ахмадулина, 1966 / -Bella Akhmadulina

Что сделалось? Зачем я не могу,
уж целый год не знаю, не умею
слагать стихи и только немоту
тяжелую в моих губах имею?

Вы скажете – но вот уже строфа,
четыре строчки в ней, она готова.
Я не о том. Во мне уже стара
привычка ставить слово после слова.

Порядок этот ведает рука.
Я не о том. Как это прежде было?
Когда происходило – не строка –
другое что-то. Только что?- забыла.

Да, то, другое, разве знало страх,
когда шалило голосом так смело,
само, как смех, смеялось на устах
и плакало, как плач, если хотело?

 

Unexpected turns – So far from “home”

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I am asked all the time why I live so far from “home” – but people don’t understand when they ask that “home” is a relative term. Where is home? I feel at home in Sweden now. Iceland was always home in my heart. But time does change things.

Sooner or later everyone asks how I would end up in the woods of rural Värmland, western Sweden – most of the people native to this region think I am weird and/or exotic… the neighbors apparently could never work up the nerve to talk to me so they just talked to each other about me, making up stories. They were convinced I was German because of my name (and there are a lot of Germans and Dutch people around here in the summertime). Eventually one neighbor came by and told me all the “theories” the neighbors passed around. I can see how they thought I was quite an anomaly since everyone here seems to have been born within a 30 kilometer radius of this place. And my moving here a handful of years ago was the most dramatic thing to happen in ten or more years.

I had a little fling with a local guy – never met people more vanilla in their tastes and experiences – and so in awe of the smallest things that they perceived to be outside the norm. The local yokel tells me, years after the fact, that he was also in awe and still sometimes looks back on these little dalliances together as though they were some kind of dream. It was so “Hollywood” for some glamorous (HAHAH) American to turn up and actually express some kind of interest in him. And to his delight – not even interest in him for something long and drawn out but rather just in a few light-hearted conversations and a bit of casual sex here and there. I didn’t need or want something else, nice as he was. Sometimes he agonizes that maybe he used me, even though it has always been clear that I took and got exactly what I wanted from knowing him. It was mutually beneficial, and apparently this is outside the norm as well. It seems people in this neck of the woods jump into committed relationships with everyone they sleep with. That would explain the inexperience and the awe.

My ending up here is no mystery. I am a practical and pragmatic person. I lived and worked in Oslo. I disliked it. I started looking for places to live outside Oslo, and the area I covered in scoping out suburban and rural areas within a reasonable commuting distance from Oslo grew wider and wider until I might as well have been in Sweden. Sweden offers an abundance of benefits – much lower cost of living in every way. Being part of the EU, it also is not subject to all the taxes/customs when buying stuff online from other European countries (one of the banes of my existence in Iceland and Norway). Also, as a citizenship collector, I could get Swedish citizenship (since Sweden allows for multiple citizenships) but Norway is one of those countries that makes you choose either/or – Norway or “nothing” (whatever you have already). I found a liveable house and land not far from the Norwegian border. I worked at home most of the time. It was the best of all worlds. Many years into what started as an experiment in cross-border living and working, despite not working in Oslo anymore (for the time being), I have not once regretted this choice. If anything, my connection to this place has become so much a part of me that, despite my wanderlust and nomadic tendencies, I always long to go home. And when I think “go home”, I think of this little house in the Swedish woods.

Part of the torment of the nomadic mind is that it can occasionally fool me and make me start to wonder whether I should try out some other place. For a while I thought maybe I really wanted a balance of country and city life. So I took a job in Gothenburg (which is not a huge city but is a big enough city to qualify in my experience) and originally planned to live in both places (coming home on weekends). Things have not worked out quite as planned, so I have spent much of the last year living in hotels and succumbing in every unfortunate way to a life of commuting misery. At this point it is not just the hotel life and lack of “settling in” for me – I realized that I just don’t want to be there. At all. No matter where I lived in the city, I just want to be at home.

Who could ever have imagined that this concept of home – this longing for home – would mean a life in Sweden? As I discussed and wrote about recently, I used to laugh at people who opted to be Scandinavian studies majors at university – what on earth could they possibly do with that? Turns out, seeing as how I have spent almost my entire adult life living and working in Scandinavia or for Scandinavian companies, I might have benefited from studying Nordic languages rather than Russian and Serbian-Croatian (as I did). Sure, I can read Anna Karenina in the original now – but speaking everyday Swedish is a silly challenge. I had a couple of pen pals from Sweden in my high school years – seeing written Swedish and hearing all these place names, it felt even more far off than a place like Vladivostok or Khabarovsk, which were like second nature in my academic brain. When a college classmate (which almost makes it sound like we were friends – she was hostile toward me from the beginning for absolutely no reason) told me she had been an exchange student in Sweden during her high school years, it struck me as perplexing – why Sweden? (Of course I remember that everyone I know who became an exchange student had the “dream location” for their studies abroad – and all of them ended up somewhere else. The girl who dreamt of fluency in French was sent to Adelaide, Australia; the guy who wanted to advance his Japanese studies was sent to Germany….)

It’s funny now when I talk with Swedish people about locations in Sweden, it dawns on me now that I know exactly what they are talking about and where they are talking about. First and foremost because I live in just such a remote place and thus have become intimately familiar with a part of Sweden that a lot of Swedes don’t even know particularly well. Secondly I suppose this is just because I am so portable – carrying bits of my life to and fro, driving all over Sweden, discovering all its towns and hidden places. It is like my experience of Canada – most Canadians have not even seen as much of Canada as I have. Sweden, despite being so much smaller than Canada, seems to suffer the same fate. Swedes seem to know where they came from and then seem to know the place where their summerhouses are. I suppose that is one way to know one is at home.

And the living is easy …

On a similar note, you can always tell how “Swedified” a foreigner is by what prepositions they use when they speak English. When a native English speaker repeats, “He is on the table” instead of “at the table”, you know they have been here too long and their native language has been infected (and inflected) by their adopted language. I’ve been saved from this – slightly – by the fact that I wasn’t a Scandinavian studies major and spent so much time reading stuff like Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don (Тихий Дон) or Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija/На Дрини ћуприја).

Crushing and cruising – Lazy man food – Sesame noodle prawn salad

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Salad that brings haunting memories to life

Salad that brings haunting memories to life

The lazy man food that is a cold salad of some sort has traveled with me through life from the potluck culture of America (and especially my university, The Evergreen State College). I cannot count how many of these salads I made during those few years – you would think that I would never do it again, considering how often it was required of me in those years. I have one particular memory of having made both of the salads I made tonight (tomato green bean and mozzarella and the sesame noodle with prawns, as shown below). I was taking a “field trip” to Victoria, British Columbia with a couple of classmates and our Russian teacher (who was in the US for a year or half a year or something). Our class consisted of three other students and me – and one of those students, a Polish woman, could not attend. Thus, I did all this cooking, all the driving and off the four of us went. I got the worst, most brutal sunburn of my life on that excursion – on the ferry from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria on a deceptively overcast day. I also realized the perilous depths of my propensity for seasickness. The one guy in my class, a nice guy apart from his hopeless, shameless and relentless flirtation (presumably one factor that may have led to the demise of his marriage), talked me through the seasickness very sweetly, talking, telling me stories, trying to distract me by singing Marlene Dietrich’s “Lili Marlene”. “Crush” is not something compatible with my aloof, indifferent personality and often laissez-faire attitude toward pretty much everything. But he is one of the few people who caused me to feel the real ache of crushing on someone who is completely out of reach.

It was on the trip home from what was a beautiful day in Victoria that we stopped to have a picnic of sorts and ate these lazy salads. We contentedly sang together the rest of the way back to Olympia. We started off with songs we all knew (the Russian songs we were learning in class, for example) and moved on to the entire Cowboy Junkies’ catalog (although by the end of that I was the only one singing since no one else knew the songs).

Usually songs capture moments and events in a way that vividly awaken a hear-taste-touch-smell-feel sensory overload that cannot be replicated in any other way, as though you have been transplanted back into that moment. In this case, though, it is a noodle salad taking me back. I briefly relive the beauty and ache of that day – and then my memory shuffles through a few other memories of that year, those characters, the prickly, painful moments that shine a bright light on my awkwardness during that period. I cannot call it anything other than “trying too hard”. I tried so hard to be likeable that I am fairly sure I wasn’t. I kept giving and volunteering and twisting myself into someone I wasn’t and someone I did not even like. I remember spending a lot of money buying gifts for these people (the Russian class, among others), somehow imagining that that would make me more endearing, memorable? It didn’t, of course. I actually lost touch with all these people within a year of the course ending. The other girl in the course, with whom I thought I was close friends, was apparently bullied by her boyfriend not to be friends with me (or anyone who might encourage her to think for herself). The instructor went back to Russia. The flirtatious guy went on with his studies, I suppose, got divorced (maybe remarried and divorced after?) – but I did not really keep up. (We briefly connected on Facebook before he disappeared from there.)

Reflecting on this – thanks to my noodle salad – it’s interesting to compare how people so often meet their life partners in college. I cannot even begin to imagine. (Scarier still that people who meet in high school manage to pair off. To each his/her own. I get it but at the same time don’t get it.)

Interested in making your own salad – whether or not it ends up being inextricably linked to stirring and sharp memories, made while eating it – follow the recipe below.

Sesame noodle salad with prawns

A large package of Asian egg noodles or four packages of instant ramen noodles
One packet of seasoning from a ramen packet
1/3 cup rice vinegar
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 clove of minced garlic
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Cooked prawns (as many as desired)
Chopped green onions

Mix all ingredients together (other than noodles, prawns and green onions). Cook the noodles according to instructions (or very slightly undercook them, as they will soak up more of the dressing). Cool the noodles, rinsing under cold water. Drain well. Mix the dressing into the noodle and refrigerate for a few hours. Cook the prawns, chop the green onion, toss into the noodle mix. Refrigerate overnight if desired as it helps flavors develop. Or eat immediately.