Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A tale of two houses II

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Part I ended on a very downbeat note, more so than I had originally intended. For my part, I took a break over night to reset myself after finishing the draft. The reader might want to take a break of his own, as house number two might require a different mood. (If nothing else, we are now on the other side of the family, where uncle, aunt, and two out of two cousins are still alive.)

This house of my maternal grandparents has already found direct or indirect mention in some texts,* and I could write a great many pages on the house and various experiences in and around it. As is, I will try to be brief.

*Notably on Skåpsängen ([1]) and Christmases (e.g. [2]).

Imagine a house in rural Sweden. Likely less than a hundred meter northwards, the forest begins. Ditto eastwards. Westwards, we go towards the village center, but not without passing a stream of running water. Southwards, there is first a bushy semi-wilderness for a short stretch, then follows the local hospital (where my grandparents both worked), the main road of the village, another short stretch of bushy semi-wilderness, a stream of running water and some walking paths,* and then more forest.

*With some reservations for my memory. The section after the main road might or might not have been further westwards. If so, I am a little uncertain what truly followed.

The northwards parts might have been the most interesting, as my grandmother instigated a great many walks, (cross-country) skiing trips, and excursions to pick berries to earn some extra money* in this direction. The pre-forest part also covered an old barn of some sort, where my uncle stored many years of split wood for his own heating,** the home of a kind old lady, whom my grandmother used to help with this and that,*** and an object that a sufficiently young incarnation of me might have taken to be literal magic—a tree with a metal chain going through some individual branches.****

*The latter is a semi-large industry in Sweden, where, during the season, commercial buyers take in berries by the bucket from private individuals in exchange for money, and then resell them to businesses who process berries (e.g. into jam). Going by news reporting, the berry picking by Swedes might have dwindled in favor of low-wage foreigners brought in for the specific purpose of picking berries (and then sent back again, post season), but it used to be somewhat popular among Swedes too. (And there is some chance that the news reporting is just aimed at pushing a “see how evil and exploitative Capitalists are” angle, not at giving a correct view.)

**I am uncertain about his exact motivations, as the amount of wood grew and grew, and as the payoff per hour worked is unlikely to have been very high. One possibility is that he used splitting wood for physical exercise (and it is a good exercise) and saw the cost-savings as a bonus—two birds with one stone.

***She was a great deal older than even my grandmother, was, it seemed, “local gentry”, and was referred to as “Fru” (“Mrs.”; but more archaic) by my grandmother—the latest occurrences of (non-humorous/non-ironic) use of such titles that I can recall in a Swedish context. Even that is more than thirty years ago by now, as she probably died in the late 1980s.

****From an adult point of view, I suspect that someone had once put a chain around the branches to prevent them from falling down (or some similar reason), and that the natural growth of the tree had later caused the individual branches to grow around the chain.

The immediately surrounding property was comparatively large, sloping down from north to south, and contained some trees and a handful of bushes with gooseberries, black/red currants, and (with reservations for what is considered a bush) strawberries—as well as some occasionally appearing wild raspberries. There was even a small plot for growing potatoes and the like, and a small sandbox for growing children. (But in the spirit of being brief, I will not go into further detail.)

The house as such had a comparatively small main floor, roughly apartment sized (although so much of my memories are from my early childhood that it seems larger), but there was a full cellar with a garage and a walk-in earth-cellar. This cellar was chock-full with funny, mysterious, or fascinating items, including many from the childhood of my mother and uncle, old equipment, a training bike, a safe, and two large chest freezers, likely from the 1960s,* both filled with food and, most importantly, ice cream. The garage had more than its share of equipment too, by today’s standard, as my grandfather actually performed occasional work on the car, especially to combat rust.

*Energy crisis? What energy crisis?

Going down the cellar stairs, there was a ladder on the wall, which could be lowered and led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Here there was a very dark and primitive attic. It, too, was filled with old things, but I might only have been up there twice or thrice, and only for a purpose. If in doubt, it was a little scary, and might well have been associated with enough real danger* to a child that some adult supervision was needed.

*Say, that a child might have fallen down the ladder, failed to affix the ladder properly, might have stepped through the (in my memory) weak floor and not been able to get out without help, whatnot.

The main magic, however, was on the main floor, with dozens of things that might warrant their own descriptions, ranging from a few antique chairs to a spinning wheel to a small potted orange tree to an old mechanical toy-dog. Skåpsängen, my very favorite, has already seen its own discussion (cf. [1]), and I will point in particular to just (a) a little toy/decorative windmill, which I could spend minutes with, blowing on or otherwise moving the wings, (b) a key-chain fob (?), likely a BP-promotion, which had an amazing see-through green color, and which I got lost looking at and through, (c) a 1970s Assistent, constantly used by my grandmother, who not just cooked but baked quite frequently (also see excursion), with a honorable mention to (d) a door post with markings for age and height of various family members, going back to the early childhood of my uncle, as the oldest child in that generation. (I was the number one in height at most, maybe all, ages.)

Then there were Christmases (cf. [2]) with the extended family (mother’s side); and most of my recollections of my grandfather,* who was almost** always very kind to me, even though I, today, suspect that he found me annoying. Not only do I, myself and as an adult, find children hard to stand, but I had some particular habits likely to be annoying, including turning on various radios and record/tape players as soon as I got through the door. (Not because I enjoyed the sound—it was a matter of enjoying the ability and the know-how.)

*As well as many of my grandmother, but my range of recollections of her in other settings is much larger and covers a much larger portion of my own life.

**When I was six-or-so, I and another kid went into the house through the unlocked garage to hide, for some reason or other, and we were summarily thrown out. This is the one exception that I can recall—and one that seems very fair, as we were neither invited nor had asked for permission, and as the other kid was likely a complete stranger to my grandfather.

Here, too, the magic eventually ended, and the house has long been torn down, but the end was not as tragic* and my memory is untainted, except for the knowledge that the house, as such, is gone—but a house is just a house, not a human, and so much of the magic came from other things and persons than the house per se.

*It did involve the premature death of my grandfather when I was seven (followed, some years later, by my grandmother moving to a cheaper and easier-to-care-for apartment), but (a) he was already in his sixties, while my cousin was in his late twenties (and my uncle-by-marriage, likely, in his fifties), (b) he died a natural death, (c) even if he had avoided this premature death, he (born in 1920) would still almost certainly be dead in the now, while my cousin would still have been a youngish man.

Excursion on energy and heating:
With an eye both at the current politician-made energy crisis and my own prior decision to do without heating, a lesson from my grandmother can be/has been helpful: Whenever I complained that I felt cold, she told me stop whining and put on another sweater. I did not appreciate the wisdom of this at the time, but it has proven one of the few really valuable pieces of advice that I received from the older generations. What matters is not how warm an apartment/house is—but how warm the humans in it are. (Note how this works well both in the literal sense and, with an eye at parts of the above, the metaphorical.)

Excursion on only seeing the sunny side:
An interesting aspect of the magic world of a child is the focus on the sunny sides. Indeed, I likely only ever saw the house of my uncle-by-marriage in the summer—and I certainly never had to bother with repairs, maintenance, government interference, whatnot. My times in my grandparent’s house had a much wider range of seasons and circumstances, but still saw me sheltered from almost any own work and responsibilities relating to the house. For instance, I have later been told that there was a yearly problem with the garage flooding a little, as the downwards slope of the northwards part of the yard made for a much larger “catchment area” for the level part of the driveway and the garage than if rain had just fallen on that driveway—but I never noticed, myself. I do recall one instance when there was enough snow and ice that neither of the two cars available (my grandfather’s and my mother’s) managed to make the way up that slope, but to me that was less of a problem and more of an adventure.

Excursion on own baking:
Competent baking (and, m.m., cooking) can be quite superior to what is bought in stores, especially through the advantage of truly being oven-fresh for at least the first serving. Some of what my grandmother made are among the best that I have ever eaten. Two observations:

Firstly, I have repeatedly heard food-snobby German colleagues proclaim the superiority of bakery-bought bread (and whatnot) over store-bought bread. These miss the point entirely, as the drop from competent and individualized own baking to bakery-baking* is larger than the drop from bakery to store. Even with a bakery that does actual baking, if one can be found, there is little chance of truly getting that just-out-of-the-oven experience, unless eating on the premisses and having luck with the timing. As to the smell of fresh baking in the own house, there is no comparison. This type of snobbery is, if anything, a sign of a lack of refined taste through not knowing what else is available.

*Which, at least today and at least in Germany, often consists just of putting “prefabs” in an oven and waiting for a timer to go “Ding!”. In the days of yore or in more traditional and/or high-end bakeries things might be different, but this is not a distinction made by the aforementioned German colleagues.

Secondly, I strongly suspect that the modern woman’s approach to attracting men, with make-up, high heels, colored hair, and whatnot, is much less effective than the older generations’ attempt to actually bring a practical value (not restricted to the kitchen or “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”). If in doubt, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett: looks dwindle over time; cooking/baking (and other) skills grow better. From another point of view: when it comes to living with someone, sex, looks, and whatnot is just one of many aspects and the modern woman’s approach is similar to someone making a car with a focus on just optics and no thought given to engine, brakes, transmission, etc., beyond “car can be driven”.


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December 22, 2022 at 10:58 pm

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A tale of two houses I

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The sharing of some personal memories and whatnots has become an informal Christmas tradition on this blog. This year, let us look at houses and magic:

While I have spent most of my life in apartment houses, there are three one-family houses that have some importance. The one that might seem most important on paper, my mother’s house from around 1990 and onwards, leaves me somewhat cold, maybe because I encountered it comparatively late. It was mostly a place to live, with its ups and downs, and I will not go into details. The other two were magic in that childhood sense that also infuses Christmas.

The lesser of the two was a summer* house owned by an uncle-by-marriage (my father’s sister’s husband). It was arguably the more magical, exotic (to the child), and more adventure-filled, but also a place were I spent much less time, a week here and there in the summer. The house was small and, by today’s standards, poorly equipped. For instance, there was** no running water, and the water that we needed for drinking, cooking, whatnot had to be collected from a hand pump at a public well some small distance from the house, and stored in a few large plastic containers—but this was an adventure, which added to the child’s experience. I do not remember whether there was plumbing in the sense of “exit for used water”, but, if there was, it was limited to a sink in the kitchen. The toilet, certainly, came in form of an outhouse with some type of bucket beneath the toilet seat.

*He and my aunt also had a house of some sort in town, as their main residence, but from my point of view it was never more than a stop on the way. We arrived there after many hours in a car, had something to eat and a short rest, and then continued on to the summer house a few kilometers away.

**In the early years. At some point, running water was added to the kitchen.

Even this outhouse, however, had something charming to a child, through a certain “rustic quaintness” and a few funny signs. Then, again, it had something a little disgusting, and I was never quite comfortable with the outhouse in its actual role as outhouse. My much younger cousin once managed the trick of falling into the toilet, and had to be dropped into the nearby sea for a wash by his parents. For my part, I escaped without such problems, but going in the late evening or in the night was an adventure of its own, with the darkness and the uncertainty of what might be lurking in the shadows, the cold (but mostly refreshing) sea air, the often wet and slippery grass and stones, and all those bloodsuckers* trying to get at me.

*Mosquitoes and the like—not vampires.

Speaking of sea, this was at the sea side, and other magic parts stemmed from the water, a very, very small private beach, a jetty, a dinghy (?), various fishing roads, nets, and whatnots—and a small secondary house on the jetty, partially used as storage, partially as a small one-room guesthouse. During my later visits, I enjoyed immensely this secondary house and the assorted pulp novels and old 1960s “Reader’s Digest” volumes found inside. One of my very first visits included my attempt to pump out the sea using some type of hand pump (presumably, intended to get water out of the dinghy). My success was limited, which was probably, all things considered, for the best.

The main house also had a somewhat sea-ish theme, including two old ship’s lanterns, but also held various objects of a more generically exotic or old character, including a cuckoo clock (fascinating!), a small hour glass, several old heat-in-the-fire-before-use irons, and whatnot—I even managed to forget the lack of a TV. Most interesting of all was an open fire place, and one actually used in the evenings,* which was a very different thing to someone mostly** used to seeing fire as a lit match or candle. To note: many of the items encountered were “firsts” to me—some might even be “onlies”. I was, for instance, not even aware that there was such a thing as a non-electric iron before my first visit and cuckoo clocks might have figured in some comic, but I doubt that I had ever seen one in real life. That water pump (the well one; not the sea one) was almost certainly an “only” in terms of actual use, and I cannot, off the top of my head, recall using any other plumbing-less*** outhouse.

*My grandparents’ house, see part II, also had a fireplace, but to this day I do not know whether it was just decorative or actually worked. It was certainly never used during my stays.

**An exception was the yearly “majbrasa”, a public bonfire lit on Walpurgis Night.

***I have, of course, repeatedly encountered more-or-less detached toilet buildings in other places, but they have been fully equipped with ceramic bowls, flushing, tap water, etc.

The outdoors were not bad either, with grass, flowers, trees, and regularly food, including the near-mandatory Swedish coffee-and-cookies (“fika”) and a few barbecues. One of the later barbecues included my uncle sneaking me some beer for another first. Other recollections include my trying to beat my uncle at darts and, cf. [1], “beating” him at croquet. Depending on the year, there might also have been that little cousin running back and forth, reading comics, or getting himself into mischief. Other memories include some indirect demonstrations of physics, as when walking barefoot on that jetty during a hot and sunny day—most of it was in a dark brown color, but there was a white stripe at the side; walking on the main parts could be painful through the heat, while the white stripe was safe.

Did I say “lack of TV”? Paradoxically, one of my strongest memories from this house is watching TV—specifically, the 1994 World Cup, the Swedish bronze medal, and, above all, the highly dramatic quarter-final against Romania. This was a different kind of magic than early on: my first memories might be from the late 1970s, the bulk from the 1980s, and in 1994 I was already 19. It was still magic. (As to the TV set, it was presumably a late addition.)

But sometimes magic ends—as did the marriage between my aunt and my uncle. That 1994 visit would be the last, my now ex-uncle eventually died, and the house passed to my cousin. Shortly before Christmas, ten years ago to the day, my cousin drove out to the house and killed himself. Today, even the magic of memory, and the memory of magic, only lasts a few moments. Then I see the face of a blond little boy of five, who is hyper energetic and loves his He-Man comics, is careless in outhouses, and is no more.

Above, I speak mostly of magic places, things, and experiences, but that is only half the story. The other half is all the family members that were there, at one time or another. Grandparents? Dead. Mother? Dead. Uncle? Dead. Cousin? Dead. Father/aunt/sister are still alive, but that still makes for only three out of ten—eleven, if we count the family dog. (And my father is currently in the hospital. Nothing life-threatening, I am told, but I cannot deny being a little worried.)

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December 22, 2022 at 10:55 pm

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Dying connections

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One danger of leaving Sweden, those 25 years ago, that I had not considered, and that has only began to truly hit me over the last few years, is connections dying.

When I lived in Sweden, I built up a long list of cultural and other connections to Sweden, including through familiarity with various TV shows, songs, actors, TV hosts, … Some of these connections were to the current, others more retrospective (often going back long past my own birth year, 1975, just like a U.S. someone born in that year might have gained a familiarity with, say, Lucille Ball and Milton Berle).

Since I left, the addition of such references has been rare and time has flown. For instance, last Christmas, I read up on “Julkalendern”* on Swedish Wikipedia, and found a mention of some series considered one of the most classic. I was temporarily thrown, as I did not recognize the name at all. I clicked on a link to refresh my memory—and found that this alleged classic had not aired in the 1970s or 1980s, as a true classic “should” have, but in 2000-something-or-other. We now have TV classics that first aired after I moved away… That I stopped watching “Julkalendern” long before that does not help.**

*In a very long tradition, SVT (the “Swedish BBC”) broadcasts a new kids’ “Christmas calendar” series during each advent period, one episode per day. As an example, and a then personal favorite, one series dealt with the adventures of various supernatural creatures during the Swedish winter (“Trolltider”).

**Through a combination of my out-growing the age group and a few weak years—or, maybe, my out-growing the age group and becoming more discerning. I do know that “Julkalendern” had gone from one of the high points of the year to “blah” before I hit my teens.

There we have one side—I have fallen so far behind in Swedish* cultural connections that I might almost be a foreigner. The more so, as many of the younger generations will not share even my old connections, being too young, too uninterested in the old, or drowning in too much content—much unlike my situation, with the two public-broadcast channels, no private ones, and no Internet.

*I am much more up-to-date with e.g. the U.S., and I suspect that I would find some common ground even in Sweden based on U.S. references, but that is not the same. My connection to Germany, too and in this specific regard, is weaker than the U.S. connection, as I do not watch German TV broadcasts and as Internet TV has much less German than U.S., or e.g U.K., content.

Then we have the other side—the horribly heartbreaking side.

Those actors, TV hosts, whatnot of yore? Dead, dying, or old as Methuselah. (Or so it feels.)

Today (November 13th, 2022) I learned of the death of Sven-Bertil Taube, who was of considerable fame in his own right, but was also the son of Evert Taube—a true legend within Swedish culture, in general, and music, in particular. Here we have two effects that make the death the more depressing. Firstly, Sven-Bertil’s status as the son made me associate him with a younger generation.* Secondly, he spent considerable efforts on keeping his father’s legacy alive. The total lifespan of the two, going by Wikipedia, stretches from 1890 for the birth of the father to 2022 for the death of the son. Even allowing for some time for Evert to get started, this is a roughly hundred-year era that has just ended.

*Relatively speaking, as he was already middle-aged when I first encountered him. A related problem is that my image of various familiar Swedish faces is dominated by my time in Sweden and that this image has not been updated by seeing continually older versions of the familiar faces. That these faces are now several decades older still takes me by surprise, whenever I re-encounter one.

But Sven-Bertil Taube is by no means the only death, only the most recent in a very long and often saddening list. That Astrid Lindgren and Martin Ljung are gone is not remarkable—they were old* when I first encountered them as a very small child in the late 1970s. But what about Magnus, Brasse, & Eva**, who were young and hip when I first watched their teach-children-to-spell-and-count show in the 1970s? Two dead, one in his eighties. Arne Weise? Lennart Swahn? Hasse & Tage? Etc. Etc. Etc. Of course, I did not necessarily have strong feelings about all of the dead. They range from the likes of Astrid Lindgren and Martin Ljung, who truly meant something to me, to those (I will not give names) whom I might have even slightly disliked, but who had, in some sense, “been there” for most of my life—in the comparatively small entertainment and television world of little Sweden, the chances of encountering certain faces and voices a few times a year, merely by turning on the TV, were large. (And this looking at, say, actors and singers. Those actively hosting TV shows, reading the news, or even being a hallåa*** might be encountered on a weekly or daily basis for years.)

*At least, in my perception of old at the time.

**Who illustrates that not all deaths are very recent. She died very prematurely in the early 1990s, despite being the youngest of the three. Still, it gets worse with every year, as the deaths accumulate.

***The closest English approximation, after a brief search, seems to be in-vision continuity announcer. This group was comparatively long lived in Sweden, and did add something, when done correctly.

A particularly sad example is Marie Fredriksson, who died a few years ago. I was never that big on Roxette, but she still managed to leave an early impression of young, energetic rock-star—and Roxette was the new Swedish band, replacing Abba. It feels like yesterday; it was not.

(On the upside, knock-on-wood, Per Gessle is still alive; and, as a counterpoint, Abba released a new album just a few months ago.)

Now, much of this is recognizable even to non-emigrants my age. Early childhood heroes, in particular, tend both to have a disproportionate impact on the child and to be at risk of death after some 40–50 years. Certainly, many in the U.S. resp. U.K might have had a feeling of almost personal loss after the recent deaths of Betty White, Angela Lansbury, or the Queen. (All highly popular and with careers going back to before the birth of most of the rest of the population.) But I have no continuity, no replacement, my connection is dying out as the old greats die.

Then again, this text is not truly about lost cultural connections and dead TV stars. They add to the true meaning, but they are not it.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of the above quite a few months ago, and have taken the death of Sven-Bertil Taube as reason to belatedly finish the text. I have, however, not verified that all that was true at the original time of writing still is true.

Excursion on classics:
A general tendency seems to be that humans are biased to consider those works classic that they encountered at the right age. (This age can vary depending on the field, but is usually fairly low.) An interesting example, and one overlapping with an older text on traditions and Christmas, is the Swedish Christmas tradition of watching the Disney show “From All of Us to All of You” (in my late 40s, I still find a way). My father, now in his 70s and maybe born a little too early to catch the tradition as a sufficiently young child, prefers another re-run: a black-and-white short with reading of “Tomten”.*

*A well-known Swedish poem, set in midwinter, dealing with a tomte (roughly, brownie; but “tomte” is also found in the Swedish name for Santa Clause—Jultomten). who does his work while philosophizing over life, death, and how human generations come and go in so mysterious a manner. For the short, this is wrapped in a sweet little frame story of a grandmother (who does the reading) and her grandson (who listens intently), and complemented with a live action tomte during the actual reading.

Excursion on German TV:
Why do I not watch German TV? I tried it in my early years, but the quality was usually quite low (decidedly lower than in e.g. Sweden, despite much bigger budgets and viewer numbers), there was too much advertising, and any non-German show was dubbed—in a crime against both the original makers and the audience. Not worth my time.

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November 13, 2022 at 9:39 pm

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Tearful visits

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An unexpected side-effect of my visits to Sweden was a mixture of sorrow and nostalgia that had me on the verge of tears for most of the first few days in Kopparberg.

The largest reason was the respective deaths of my maternal grand-mother (2012) and mother (2017): This was my first visit to Kopparberg in a good many years and seeing their graves for the first time made their deaths real in a different manner. The effect and the feeling are hard to put in words, but imagine knowing that -X degrees is cold and then actually being exposed to -X degrees.

Moreover, seeing old places and things stirred up a great many memories of the two, some of which had not entered my mind this side of my move to Germany in 1997 (or even earlier). I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about them and our past history after their respective deaths, but memory is a tricky thing and there was so much that was simply not available without the right prompts. This especially when it came to older memories, from when I looked upon them as kind and caring figures through the eyes of a child, before the eyes of a teenager took over and turned them into annoying adults who just got in the way. (An unfortunate side-effect of my moving to Stockholm to study in 1994, and then to Germany, was a reduction in contacts, limiting my ability to look at them through an adult’s eyes and leaving the teenage view quite strong even twenty years later.)

Other deaths contributed too, especially as I went through old photos, including one or two that actually showed my parents and all four of my grand-parents at the same time—a meeting that must have been quite rare, as my paternal grand-father died when I was one or two years old and as all three families lived a good distance from each other. Of the six, only my father remains. (My maternal grand-father also died prematurely in 1982; my paternal grandmother more reasonably in 1994.) Then there were photos of Liza, the family dog, who had to be put down when I was a child, a cousin who died in his twenties, and his (also dead) father. (This not to mention a great number of less emotionally loaded dead people, e.g. a great-uncle that I had only ever met a handful of times.)

Then there were a lot of nostalgia and resurrection of memories in general (as opposed to those dealing with relatives). As the recurring reader knows, I have a weakness in this area and there were a great many triggers to process in a fairly short time. (See e.g. [1], [2] for some prior discussions.) This especially with an eye on the reason for my visits: My mother’s house was being sold, and I had to decide what of my childhood and teenage possessions I wanted to and realistically could bring back to Germany and what must ultimately be lost. Ditto remaining things from my mother and what she had kept from my maternal grand-parents. (More on this in a later text.)

Other areas of nostalgia and a feeling of loss were common, e.g. through what in the village had remained the same and what had changed over the years, including the closing of the school that I visited as a child, the one bookstore, and one of the two grocery stores (specifically, the one my mother and grand-mother always used). Generally, Kopparberg was quite small to begin with and has been heading downwards for decades—the current population is around three thousand.

In many ways, I had a few weeks to process emotions, make decisions, reach closure, etc. that others might have several decades for—as would I have had, had I remained in Sweden. (While I do not regret the move, especially as Sweden has been going downhill since then, I often wonder how my life would have turned out, had I stayed.)

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November 19, 2019 at 8:44 am

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My baby book

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Among the things that I brought from Sweden was a “baby book”, a sort of scrap-book with pre-printed tables and sections to be filled out by my parents on my behalf, apparently gifted (in its empty state) by my paternal grand-parents and aunt. In addition, it contains a few photos, post cards, an early letter from my maternal grand-mother, a painting* labeled “ca 3 år” (“approx. 3 years”), and some similar objects.

*Water colors and chalk. Very abstract and with signs of impressionism. A long tear, mended by tape, defies the restrictions of the two-dimensional format and exemplifies early symbolism, how possessions, relationships, life it self, can be so easily torn asunder and need mending. And to think that I never managed better than a C in art during my school years…

Most of the contents of both the book and this text are likely only interesting to me, but a selection of observations:*

*The order is usually that of occurrence in the book; some minor grouping based on topic has taken place. Unless otherwise clear, claims refer to what the book says. Dates without a year refer to 1975.

  1. I was born on January 19th, 1975, at 15:19 (give or take, I assume) in Avesta, Sweden.

    (At the time of writing, October 7th, 2019, I am almost twice as old as my father, the younger parent, was at the time of my birth. And, oops, today is actually his birthday, better take a break and contact him…)

  2. At the time, I was 51 cm and 3660 g (almost exactly 20 inches and 8 pounds, respectively), but I grew rapidly and hit 100 cm and 19.1 kg at 33 months. Going by a chart* that I found on Wikipedia, the 100 cm correspond to almost the 95th percentile, which I know that I exceeded considerably for some parts of my remaining childhood.** The weight is well above the 95th percentile, which also continued to be true for a long time.

    *Note that this chart need not be correct for Sweden and that particular time. The percentiles likely give the right general idea, however.

    **A few class photos (that I also brought with me) have me towering over some of the other children. I slowed down in my early teens and topped out at 191 cm or roughly 6’ 3”.

    A brief note is given for my sister at one week: 52 cm, 3100 g. (She might then have been taller relative her age for some period. This did not last.)

  3. I laughed for the first time on February 19th, babbled on March 2nd, and said my first words at ten months.
  4. My first tooth came on August 13th, 1975, and first steps on January 3rd, 1976, i.e. shortly before my first birthday.

    (Other entries deal with sitting up, standing up, etc., including one claiming that I could walk if held in both hands at around 9 months, and another speaking of running (“springer”) along walls and furniture at 10 months. The aforementioned first steps might have been the first unassisted or unsupported, but all-in-all the claims do seem a little inconsistent to me.)

  5. I had my first bout of croup on October 10th, apparently even being hospitalized out of town.

    From memory, this disease caused me a lot of problems when I was a small child, especially when we lived in Landskrona, with its (at least then) polluted air. My parents even had some type of steam generator that was supposed to relieve the symptoms. (Whether it did, I do not remember.)

  6. There are lists of presents for my first Christmas and birthday. Most of the gifts are depressing from a child’s perspective, including toothbrushes and socks.

    Exceptions include a toy train that I actually remember* playing with on the day it was given; a toy telephone** that I at least remember having for quite a few years afterwards, but I am uncertain whether I played much with it; and a kids armchair (? “fåtölj”) that I used quite a lot at a young age (but had actually forgotten entirely until viewing a few old photos during my visits to Sweden).

    *This does seem a bit early and I cannot rule out that another train was given at a later time, and that I remember the later train. However, if so, the other train cannot have been more than a year or so later, and I have no recollection of owning two (until a much later addition of a Lego train).

    **One of those with wheels and rolling eyes.

    A separate entry for 7.5 weeks mentions my beloved penguin (cf. parts of [1]) as “first toy” (“första leksak”). It is also a good example of how I seem to have built emotional bonds with objects and people the more strongly the younger I was: at age 44, during my visits, my disappointment when it could not be found was horrible, far worse than any other material loss of my adulthood. (An upcoming text will deal more with topics like choosing what objects to keep, but the penguin would have been the number one by a mile.)

  7. The name of the family dog, repeatedly mentioned, was not “Lajsa” (as I assumed as a child) but “Eliza”, often abbreviated to “Liza”. This matches an adult suspicion of mine: I cannot recall having ever encountered a(nother) “Lajsa”, and if the “z” sound in “Liza” is dropped to an “s” sound, the pronunciation matches. Exactly this type of drop is likely with a native Swede, as Swedish has almost no “voicing” of its consonants—and if the parents did not drop it, the child might not have perceived the difference anyway.

    In my vague recollection of what my mother has told me, the breeder gave every dog born in the same litter a name beginning with the same letter (presumably, “E” in this case). This could explain the unexpectedly English name as a means to increase variation.

    An interesting coincidence is that her name matches “Eliza Doolittle” of “My Fair Lady”, my favorite musical, while there are quite a few similarities between me and Professor Higgins.

  8. At a little past nine months, my vocabulary is stated to consist of three words: “mamma”, “pappa”, “mpa”. The last is claimed as a mispronunciation of “lampa” (“lamp”), which seems an odd priority for a child. I suspect that my parents misinterpreted a random combination of those few sounds available to me; alternatively, that I understood more words but were unable to physically pronounce them.* (And, obviously, babies do not say “mamma” at an early age because it refers to their mothers—mothers are called “mamma”, “mama”, “ma”, or similar, because this matches the first things that babies can say.)

    *I remember or have been told about at least two other pronunciation issues from when I was a little older: Mispronouncing my own (original) given name “Per-Erik” as “Pejke” and turning my then favorite dish into “makok o vorv” (or something very similar), instead of “makaroner och korv” (“macaroni and sausage”). Both involve comparatively tricky tongue work and repetitions of sounds.

  9. An entry for two-and-a-half years claims that I would know all “everyday words” (“vardagsord”) and that there would not be many minutes of silence in the day. The first part is consistent with my later life (I have had an unusually large large vocabulary for my age as long as I can remember), but the second surprises me: While I do recall being more talkative and sociable when I was very young, I have been anything but for most of my life (extensive writings notwithstanding). As to the reason and exact timing, I can only speculate, but my main candidates would be (a) a natural drift towards greater introversion or lesser interest in small-talk as I matured, (b) a series of negative events* between roughly five and eight. I do note that I was a bit of a misfit with my age peers and occasionally shy even before these events, however.

    *In a comparatively short time: my parents divorced; we moved to another town, losing me the local friends; my maternal grand-father died (the paternal died when I was one or two); Liza, who was very dear to me, had to be put down due to illness; my best (human) friend in the new town moved away; and I had to go to school, which was not only boring but an environment that was in many ways hostile to me. To boot, my sister turned quite horrible around this time, likely as her own reaction to events.

  10. The next entry for two years and eight months also deals partly with vocabulary, described as “infinite” (“oändligt”; definitely hyperbole), and phrasing: “a mixture of fantasy and phrases from books” (“en blandning av fantasi och fraser från böcker”). I state for the record that I could not read at the time, although I might have spent a lot of time on picture books and similar. If the claim is literal, it must refer to what I had picked up from others reading out loud (parents and children’s TV?). It could conceivably be metaphorical, in that I might have had a “bookish” way of expressing myself.

    It also deals with my reactions to the birth of my sister: Originally, negative, then very positive. (And extremely negative in the long run, after the events of the previous footnote. I do recall that we had a good relationship prior to them, but afterwards …)

(There is very little content after this entry, be it because the baby years were considered over or because of the natural switch of attention and effort to my sister.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 7, 2019 at 9:27 pm

A few thoughts around Christmas and myself

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Some semi-random thoughts that have gone through my head the last few days:

  1. Christmas is one of the rare cases where I can feel a certain degree of loneliness: Normally, I am perfectly happy on my own;* however, the mixture of the family-centric holiday and a fair bit of nostalgia (cf. the next item) puts matters of family on my mind. Even so, it is only partially an actual (fleeting) wish for a family—the bigger part is a feeling of being too different and/or of having (in some sense) failed at an aspect of life.

    *For as long as I can remember, I have preferred books and TV (and later e.g. the Internet) to people.

    This is radically different from my thinking on regular days, where I tend to view the prospect of children and the associated responsibilities and problems with abhorrence, while being ambivalent* or even negative towards the idea of a wife. The one prolonged exception to this was a period of a few months after my mother’s death, when I seriously contemplated looking for a wife, likely as a reaction to the shrinking of my “old” family. (I postponed this until my sabbatical, but the urge was long over by the time that I finally was able to begin this, long delayed, sabbatical.)

    *I like the idea in principle and would be very happy, should “Miss Right” stumble into my arms; however, my experiences with women, current divorce rates, whatnot, make me seriously doubt my chances of finding someone with a sufficient long-term compatibility that we will both be happy for the duration—not just a few weeks, months, or years. Most women turn out to be obviously incompatible quite soon. (Going into the why would double the length of this text, but I stress that compatibility is not an absolute value judgment—it is a statement about how well two or more entities suit each other.)

    As for “being too different” (etc.): This is something that I normally consider irrational—I live by my own standards, not those of others. However, when I am exposed to how large the differences are, as with e.g. Christmas, it can be hard to not feel “off”.

    More generally, Christmas appears to bring out a similar contrast in life or a feeling of “being on the outside looking in” among people with no or little family. I can only imagine how it is for those who actually are lonely to begin with…

  2. Nostalgia is by its nature bitter-sweet, being a longing for something lost and (usually) unrecoverable. Mostly, for me, the positive parts outweigh the negative, either be it through pleasance of recollection or through the opportunity to learn something about myself. Christmas appears to be different, because my main Christmas memories (cf. a text from last Christmas) are so far back that I was a radically different person (e.g. at age four, while I am now closing on forty-four), and I am not just faced with my-life-as-it-used-to-be but with myself-as-I-used-to-be. While I would not wish to go back and lose what I am today, I do have a strong feeling of loss, as if I had had a little brother who died or as if I somehow could look back into a past life* with the knowledge that this past incarnation was dead.

    *I do not actually believe in past lives, but the idea is quite useful in this context.

    This feeling also makes me re-evaluate my take on Time Lords (a potentially good further illustration): I watched a lot of “Doctor Who” a few years ago and was particularly fascinated with the idea of multiple (recollected) lives—imagine the understanding and wisdom that could be gained through having lived a dozen-or-so lives, all with a different personality, preferences, skills, experiences, … By now, I fear that the risk of pain would outweigh the positives—imagine having all that nostalgia and “self-death”.*

    *To which at least the extrovert must add the deaths of countless friends, companions, lovers, …, that simply had a shorter life-span—an aspect sometimes mentioned on the show.

  3. I tend to view holidays as “nothing special”*. Indeed, I have ignored almost all holidays since I became an adult—no decorations, no special food, no special activities, no whatnot. My everyday life is good enough as it is, so what would be the point of going through the effort? Christmas and/or New Year’s** is a considerable exception. It is true that I go through less effort than many others;*** however, what I lack in effort must be weighed against the thinking that I usually end up doing. (Also see a much older text.)

    *And did just yesterday claim in an email that Christmas did not feel very special this year, with all the other free time that I had through my sabbatical—it appears that I was wrong.

    **After my parents divorce, I usually celebrated Christmas with my mother and New Year’s with my father, which caused both holidays to take on a Christmas character.

    ***I put up very little in way of decorations (or, like this year, never get around to them at all), have special food only in as far it can be bought ready-made, do not go to church, do not go caroling (not that a Swede would), etc.

  4. When Christmas, other holidays, vacation periods, sometimes even weekends come, most people appear to stop writing and reading blogs, participating in online forums, and similar. This is highly surprising to me: They have the time and energy to do such things on work-days, but when they finally have a bit of spare time and really* should take the opportunity to increase their activities, well, then they decrease them or cease them altogether… Some might, obviously, be stuck somewhere without an Internet connection, but this is bound to be a minority. Some might be more swamped than usually, but how much extra stress does it take to outweigh not having to work?** Ditto those who want to prioritize family—push the freed work and commute hours onto the family and there will still be plenty of time to go around.

    *I assume that most of these enjoy such activities. Those, presumably a small minority, who for some reason force themselves are obviously given a pass. (Then again, if they have to force themselves, would it not be a better strategy to keep the post-work evenings free and reserve such tasks for weekends and vacations?)

    **A sub-category are those who do not have extra days free and just have the extra stress. However, this is again likely to be a minority, and does not explain the phenomenon during weekends, vacation periods and more low-effort holidays than Christmas.

    Each to his own, but, even after close to twenty-five years on the Internet, this still puzzles me.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 25, 2018 at 10:04 pm

A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas (and some personal memories)

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With Christmas upon us, I find myself thinking about traditions* again. This especially with regard to the Christmas traditions of my childhood, in light of this being the first Christmas after the death of my mother.

*Mostly in the limited sense of things that e.g. are done once a year on the same day or in a certain special manner, and as opposed to the other senses, say the ones in “literary tradition” and “traditional role” .

It has, admittedly, been quite a long while since I “came home for Christmas”, as she would have put it, and, frankly, the circumstances of my family had made Christmases at my mother’s hard for me to enjoy long before that. However, while the practical effect is not very large for me, there is still a psychological difference through the knowledge that some possibilities are permanently gone, that some aspects of those Christmases would be extremely hard to recreate—even aside from the obvious absence of my mother, herself. Take Christmas dinner: Even following the same recipes, different people can end up with different results, and chances are that even a deliberate attempt to recreate “her” version would be at best a poor* approximation—just like it was an approximation of what her mother used to make (and my father’s draws strongly on his childhood Christmas dinners). There is simply yet another connection with those Christmases of old that has been cut. In fact, when I think back on the most memorable, most magical, most wonderful Christmases, there are two versions that pop into my head:

*Note that a poor approximation does not automatically imply a poor effort. The point is rather that there are certain tastes and smells that can be important to us for reasons like familiarity and associations with certain memories, and that there can come a point when they are no longer available. I need look no further than my father to find a better cook than my mother, be it at Christmas or on a weekday; however, his cooking is different, just like his signature is—and even if he deliberately tried to copy her signature, the differences would merely grow smaller.

The first, predating my parents divorce, with loving and (tautologically) still married parents, a tree with a certain set of decorations, in the apartment we used to live in, and a sister too young to be a nuisance or even to properly figure in my recollections. I remember particularly how I, possibly around four or five years of age, used to spend hours* sitting next to the tree, staring at and playing with the decorations, and listening to a certain record with Christmas songs**. There was one or several foldable “balls” that I used to fold and unfold until the parents complained, and that fascinated me to no end. I have no idea whether the record and decorations exist anymore, we moved from the apartment almost forty years ago, the parents are long divorced—and I am, obviously, a very different person from what I was back then. With my mother dead, Father is the only remaining connection—and my associations with him and Christmas have grown dominated by those Christmases I spent with him as a teenager. (Which in many ways were great, but could not possibly reach the magic and wonder Christmas holds to a small child.)

*Well, it might have been considerably less—I really had no sense of time back then.

**In a twist, my favorite was a Swedish semi-translation of “White Christmas” by the title “Jag drömmer om en jul hemma”—“I’m dreaming of a Christmas back home”.

The second, likely* post-divorce and living in Kopparberg, where my maternal grand-parents resided, featured a setting in the grand-parents house and the addition of said grand-parents and my uncle and his family to the dramatis personae. Well, the house is torn down, most or all of the furniture and whatnots are gone, the grand-parents are both dead, and on the uncle’s side they started to celebrate separately relatively soon (and I was obviously never as close with them as with my parents or grand-parents). Again, I am a very different person, and with Mother dead, there is virtually no connection left.

*With the long time gone by and my young age, I cannot rule out that some pre-divorce Christmas also fell into this category.

However, memory lane is just the preparatory road, not the destination, today. The core of this post are two, somewhat overlapping, aspects of most traditions that I find interesting:

  1. What we consider traditional is to a very large part based on our own childhood experiences, both in terms of what is considered a tradition at all and what is considered the right tradition. Comparing e.g. my Christmases with my father and mother post-divorce, they had different preferences in both food and decorations* that often (cf. above) went back to their own childhoods. Similarly, U.S. fiction sometimes shows a heated argument over “star on top” vs. “angel on top” (and similar conflicts)—let us guess which of the parties were used to what as children…

    *Although some of the difference in decorations might be based less in preference and more in inheritance of specific objects.

    As for the very young me, I often latched on to something that happened just once or twice as a tradition, being disappointed when the “tradition” did not continue, say when the paternal grand-mother came visiting and did not bring the expected little marzipan piglet.

    Indeed, many traditions simply “run in the family”, and are not the universal and universally central part of, e.g., a Christmas celebration that a child might think. I recall visiting another family at a young age, thanking for dinner like my parents had taught me, and being highly confused when their daughter laughed at me. With hindsight, I cannot blame her: The phrase, “tack för maten och kamraten” (roughly “thanks for the food and the friend”), makes no sense, and is likely something my parents just found to be a funny rhyme—it is certainly not something I can recall having heard anywhere else.

    Even those traditions that go beyond the family can still be comparatively limited, e.g. to a geographical area. Christmas it self has no global standard (even apart from the differentiation into the “Christ is born” and “time for presents and Christmas trees/decorations/food” celebrations). There are, for instance, weird, barbaric countries where they celebrate on the 25th and eat Christmas turkey instead of doing the civilized thing and celebrating on the 24th with Christmas ham. The “Modern Family” episode dealing with the first joint U.S.–Columbian Christmas gives several interesting examples, and demonstrates well how one set of traditions can be weird-bordering-on-freakish to followers of another set of traditions.

  2. Traditions, even those that are nation wide, can be comparably short-lived. Christmas, again, is a great source of examples, with even e.g. the Christmas trees and Santa Clause being comparatively modern introductions, especially in countries that they have spread to secondarily. One of the most important Swedish traditions, for instance, is Disney’s From All of Us to All of You*—first airing in 1960 and becoming a virtually instant tradition, often topping the list of most watched programs of the year.

    *While this might seem extremely surprising, it can pay to bear in mind that Swedish children were starved for animation for most of the remaining year, making the yearly showing the more special. Also note the slow development of Swedish TV, with the original broadcast taking place in a one-channel system, and a two-channel system being in place until well into the 1980s—implying that the proportion of children (and adults) watching was inevitably large. That a TV broadcast of a movie or similar becomes a tradition is, obviously, not without precedent, even if rarely to that degree, with e.g. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” being prominent U.S. examples; and e.g. “Dinner for One” being a New Year’s example in several European countries.

    The entire concept of the U.S.-style Halloween is another interesting example, even when looking just at the U.S. and children (related historical traditions notwithstanding), but the more so when we look at adult dress-ups or the expansion to other countries, including going from zero to something semi-big in Germany within, possibly, the last ten to fifteen years. Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where we have to worry about children knocking on doors and demanding candy, but this might just be a question of time.

    Many traditions, in a somewhat wider sense, are even bound to the relatively short eras of e.g. a certain technology or other external circumstance. Consider, again, TV*: It only became a non-niche phenomenon in the 1950s (possibly even 1960s in Sweden); it was the worlds most dominant medium and one of the most important technologies by the 1980s, at the latest; and by 2017 its demise within possibly as little as a decade seems likely, with the Internet already having surpassed it for large parts of the population. By implication, most traditions that somehow involve a TV can safely be assumed to measure their lives in no more than decades. (Often far less, since many will fall into the “runs in the family” category.) If I ever have children and grand-children (living in Sweden), will they watch “From All of Us to All of You”, punctually at 3 P.M. on December 24th? The children might; but the grand-children almost certainly will not—there is unlikely to even be a broadcast in the current sense. (And even if one exists, the competition from other entertainment might be too large.) Looking in the other direction, my parents might have, but my grand-parents (as children) certainly did not—even TV, it self, was no more than a foreign experiment (and the program did not exist).

    *It is a little depressing, how many traditions in my family have revolved around food and TV—and I doubt that we were exceptional.

    Similarly, how is a traditional cup of coffee made? Well, for most of my life, in both Germany and Sweden, my answer would have been to put a filter in the machine, coffee in the filter, water in the tank, and then press the power button—for a drip brew. However, the pre-dominance of this mode of preparation (even in its areas of popularity) has been short, possibly starting in the 1970s and already being overtaken by various other (often proprietary) technologies like the Nespresso or the Dolce Gusto. The dominant rule might have been less than 30, certainly less than 40 years. Before that, other technologies were more popular, and even outright boiling of coffee in a stove pot might have been the standard within living memory*. Possibly, the next generation will see “my” traditional cup of coffee as an exotic oddity; while the preceding generations might have seen it as a new-fangled is-convenient-but-not-REAL-coffee.

    *My maternal grand-mother (and several other family members) was heavily involved with the Salvation Army. For the larger quantities of coffee needed for their gatherings, she boiled coffee as late as, possibly, the 1990s. While I do not really remember the taste in detail, there was certainly nothing wrong with it—and it certainly beats the Senseo I experimented with some ten years ago.

All of this runs contrary to normal connotations of a tradition—something very lengthy and, preferably, widely practiced. Such traditions certainly exist; going to church on Sunday being a prime example, stretching over hundreds of years and, until the last few decades, most of the population of dozens of countries. However, when we normally speak of traditions, it really does tend to be something more short-lived and more localized. I have e.g. heard adults speak of the “tradition” of dining at a certain restaurant when visiting a certain city—after just several visits… (It could, obviously, be argued that this is just sloppy use of language; however, even if I agreed, it would not change the underlying points.)

Excursion on other areas and nationalism:
Of course, these phenomena are not limited to traditions, but can also include e.g. national or other group characteristics. A common fear among Swedish nationalists (with similarities in other countries) concern the disappearance of the Swedish “identity” (or similar)—but what is this identity? More to the point, is the identity that I might perceive in 2017 the same that one of my parents or grand-parents might have perceived in 1967? Great-grand-parents in 1917? There have been a lot of changes not just in traditions, since then, but also in society, education, values, wealth, work environments, spare time activities (not to mention amount of spare time…), etc., and, to me, it borders on the inconceivable that the image of “identity” has remained the same when we jump 50 or 100 years*. Or look, by analogy, at the descriptions of the U.S. “generations”: While these are, obviously, generalizations and over-simplifications, it is clear that even the passing of a few decades can lead to at least a severely modified “identity”.

*Looking at reasonably modern times. In older times, with slower changes, this was might have been different. (I use “might”, because a lot can happen in such a time frame; and, at least in historical times, there was always something going on over such time intervals, be it war, plague, religious schisms, …, that potentially could have lead to similar variations.)

I strongly suspect that what some nationalists fear is actually losing the familiar and/or what matches a childhood impression: When I think back on Sweden, I often have an idealized image dominated by youthful memories, and this is usually followed with a wish to preserve something like that for eternity, the feeling that this is how the world should be, and this is what everyone should be allowed to experience. While I am rational enough to understand both that this idealized image never matched reality, even back then, and that it there are many other idealized images that would be equally worthy or unworthy, I can still very well understand those who draw the wrong conclusions and would make the preservation a too high priority.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 24, 2017 at 7:37 pm