The Pursuit of Crappiness VII: Stock-holming me back.
February 16, 2015
I don't like spiders. I never have. I got bitten by a big one in Kenya when camping, and it changed the shape of my face. I respect and appreciate them as a necessity in this world, but the role they serve in nature does not extinguish the fact they are gigantic hairy scary things. Sweden is a deceptively large country, and when you view it on a world map, you are reminded at it's size - starting in the south like a blob of chewing gum, sticking in thin pieces to Europe's mainland, and then stretching up into the arctic with little company but Norway, Finland and Northern Light tourists. Most of Sweden's population are based in the south. Cities like Malmo, Gothenburg and Stockholm appear like little pacmen on an atlas, staring up in surprise at the overwhelming mass of dotted forest land above them. When I stood underneath a gigantic metal spider outside the Moderna Museet in Stockholm on February 14th, I also felt like a little pacman, overwhelmed by the surising mass immediately above me. Even with the date in mind, there was no romantic feeling - just a fear of mine emphasized to a ridiculously large extent. Spiders leave me in a curious predicament: I wouldn't want to experience a real one as large as Louise Bourgeois' famous sculpture, but I wouldn't ever dream of a world without them either. Crappiness comes in all shapes and sizes, and seeps into all corners of our daily lives. Mrs Bourgeois sums it up perfectly in one of her simple yet poweful pieces - a small picture frame encasing a sewn message: "I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful." She was an incredible woman; creating the gigantic spider (entitled 'Mama') when she was 92, the peak (yet still not the end) of an outstanding body of work influenced by the passing of two world wars, the boom of world population, and the highest achieveing century in human history. If she had indeed been to hell and back, no one could doubt over a century of historical low points as her references.
Her work is simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish. Seeing the collection of her work was like floating through a 60 minute dreamscape, where her dark thoughts were exposed through the harsh Swedish light of the Moderna Museet's sky windows. That is the irony of nightmares: they can only be documented through being exposed, yet can only exist in the first place through losing oneself in darkness. With this in mind; Sweden seemed to be the perfect place to present a definitive expose on Louise Bourgeois: it is a land born of overwhelming darkness, with sunshine-filled days outnumbered and surrendered. The summer lasts just under a quarter of the year, with sun and moon dished out in complete disregard of balance. Some northern parts of Sweden have constant 24-hour sunlight - just as bad for your sleep patterns as endless night. Their darkness is an invitation for dreams and nightmares to exist in waking life, and for the everyday citizen to question waking life itself. As I walked through Gamla Stan and Sodermalm (Sweden's historic old town & now-trendy old working class district, respectively) I found myself truly questioning reality. If I had been there in November (where one local informed me the city usually experiences a mere 4 hours of sunlight...across the entire month) I would have felt entrapped in a Bourgeois painting - a gloriously crappy yet equally spellbinding experience. Nightmares do not get enough credit - yes, they appear crappy, but they remind us of what we hold dear, through bringing to light what we fear losing most. I had a nightmare in Sweden, but equally had one of the nicest slumbers I have given myself to in eons.
Let's stay on this issue, because sleep is a serious issue in Sweden. The sales assistant I spoke to in a boutique in Sodermalm was clearly concerned by this, and said he (and most others he knows) took vitamin D pills through the harsh winter months and had special bulbs which emmit the equivalent to sunlight - crucially in the mornings on waking (fatigue and sleep disorders are a growing problem amongst Swedes) and it's no surprise that fewer nations drink more coffee. According to the International Coffee Organization; in 2012 the average Swede consumed an impressive (and slightly worrying) 7.32 kilos of the caffeine bean...with the EU average being oh so slightly less, at 4.83 kilos. Coffee drinking is usually fostered through a culinary tradition known as Fika. Like tapas or afternoon tea, this is a chance to meet with friends and family, to chat and delve into each other's lives and most importantly to bond - a major need when facing such long dark winters together.
But coffee and imitation light bulbs are clearly not enough, with an increasing level of swedish adolescents facing alertness issues during school. Their 16-19 'college' equivalent is called Gymnasiet, and with a lack of mental exercise from a lack of vitamin D, the idea of concentration as strenuous gym training might not seem far-fetched. I have been in classes were I have nodded off, but that was due to two things: the occasional boring teacher and the occasional food coma caused by over-carbing at school dinner. For swedish students, these two issues would come a definite second - there is a school in the northern town of Umea, who have now installed full spectrum lights in seven classrooms in order to increase sharpness in students' concentration. In other words: they're literally shining a light on Sweden's next generation of stars, in order to stop the daytime turning into a waking nightmare, and to ensure their dreaming is kept to what career they would like to pursue. Some might say, "why live in the north of Sweden between September and March?". Well, there is the outstanding national beauty highlighted by Aurora Borealis - a stunning night canvas if ever there was one. Many may then say "well if you are born and raised in an area, there's no other choice". Both might be true, but whichever side of the fence you elect to mentally graze on, there's no denying that with such an overbearing and endless night sky, the more you tend to look up the more you tend to feel down.
According to Swedish scientists: the overproduction of the Melatonin (the hormone that causes drowsiness) is a pressing issue facing future generations. Melatonin is something that can be a blessing and a curse depending on the time of day and context. For example: drowsiness can be a wonderful sensation on a Sunday evening in front of an extremely forgetful Channel 5 movie, or when staring out of a train window at sunset. This type of drowsiness provides the perfect horizon for inspiration and creative ideas - the tipping point where dreaming is combined with a glimmer of conscious thought and awareness (an experience which has spawned many a world-changing invention). On the other hand, drowsiness in a more consistent state can impede us from experiencing the former, and can make life feel like one giant wave of crap. The swedish authorities are concerned by this, which is why they have invested in the 'Daysimeter Device' - a contraption which monitors a person's exposure to sunshine, and adjusts their apartment's light accordingly (essentially a battery charger for your body, which also tells you when you are drained). For such an efficient and innovative nation such as Sweden, the government are taking no chances when it comes to "decreased performance" (maybe that is why I came across a bar called 'SOFT Kok', which looked so depressing inside that the authorities may shut their doors at any time). Even though I have only walked on swedish turf for the grand total of 48 hours in my entire life, I do know how this can be a prolem (natural light deprivation not impotence). The mind is the most powerful tool the earth has ever seen, and as sweden have shown, we will go to any lengths to protect it: by tricking the body into recieving what it thinks is natural light, instead of letting nature affect the bodies of those most-northern souls in the way it has always done. When I visualize Sweden, I visualize a huge Bourgeois canvas: a nation created through dreams which have the power to remind each citizen of the happiest and crappiest of human capacity.
Never have I visited a land that lights you up internally, by depriving you of the external light. The swedish people are second in the world ranking at English as a second language, and they practise 'Lagom' - a societal code of conduct where one must blend in appropriately without exagerrated displays of emotion. I found this to generally be the case, and this may seem a somewhat crappy and slightly draconian way of life, but all it did was highlight that most times people display extreme or exentuated emotion in public, they are being anything but themselves. Overreacting and trying to catch everyone's attention actually serves to hide the attention seeker's true emotions to onlookers - with the Swedish, you don't get a sense that anything is masked just because it is more subtle; they are just comfortable enough to showing you their true self - without the emotional fireworks. They are beautiful in their directness. An example of why this is a great virtue is their approach to dietary needs. My girlfriend is coeliac, and suffers pain when eating wheat. She highlighted that she often struggles in England to find bar and restaurant staff that are helpful and understanding. When I arrived in Sweden on a later flight to her, we skipped across the road to an eaterie for at first, the waitress (although perfect at English) seemed quite abrupt - polite, present and engaged yet nothing more. As soon as we sat down, and asked her about gluten, she was knowledgable and honest, and immediately pointed out the dishes on the menu that were not only gluten free but dairy free and nut free. In England, you often get the false smile and over-politeness, and then it withers away by the time you take off your coat. In Sweden, their 'Lagom' may make you feel uncared for, but as they keep their engagement with you and their words are heartfelt, you get the sense that the initial crappiness of the encounter will undeniably turn to one of respect, trust and crucially: interactions with strangers that feel real. Maybe this is why The Bridge is such a gripping series: Sofia Helin's character Saga initially seeming blunt and negative, yet so much more relatable and real then 90% of the characters seen on British and American TV.
Just like the Swedish waitress we encountered, once you see truth (the full spectrum of a person's dark and bright light is exposed) and you can't help but warm to their openess. I have met people like this in the UK - most are of older ilk. On first meeting them they appear to be fed up and moany of disposition, and they say what they think and don't overthink what they say - by the end of the encounter you feel are usually smiling that you've been priviledged to experience such a raw insight into someone's head space. In Sweden, I felt like if I spent enough time with each and every person, I would have felt a crappiness on another level - and made a lot of friends in the process (what a shame I only got 10 hours with Saga and through a laptop screen). After less than two days, I will put my hands in the air and surrender: i've fallen in love with Sweden (perhaps even Scandy-land) and their people. I can't wait to re-visit for what I hope will be a truly crappy experience of the highest order: summer and the severe lack of night (lord - just think of the people I'll meet up north, overbleeding with vitamin D). My wont is that I will be reminded that the most obvious element to blame is not always the right one: people see endless night and think of it as awful, yet constant sunlight will do just as much damage.
I am planning to pass my motorbike test this summer, and will map out my route to Sweden for 2016. The roads will be hard and long, and basked in sunshine, and I will aim to find the grumpiest and therefore most genuine Swede that I can. So long as they have gluten free Semla cake and don't tell my what happens in The Bridge season 2, I'm sure we'll get on like a house on fire. And if it's their house that's on fire, they'll appear blunt at first, then proclaim in fluent english "hey, it's only a house. We'll go to Ikea and buy another one" before pouring me a tenth cup of (amazing) coffee and asking me about my awesome nightmares. They may be a nation running low on vitamin d and running high on melatonin, but they're in a far healthier state than us in body and mind. If we Brits want to kickstart our mental and emotional health, it's about time we viewed the world more like Swedes: raw honesty at the risk of appearing crappy. It's all rather simple: stop holding yourself back by performing the art of happiness, and start seeing the world through a Louise Bourgeois painting, and practising the art of crappiness. Alter your mental diet, and start making swedes one of your five a day. Start travelling to hell and back, and let me tell you, it'll soon appear rather tasty.