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Gothenburg, Part 1 – Helmet-Head, Butt-Hair and The Book of Daniel

Sweden is weird. The whole thing. Weird. Gothenburg is on the southwest side of Sweden. It’s weird, too. It was a summer in 1985. The nighttime temperature felt the same as the daytime. Although, in summer, there’s not much nighttime to be had in Sweden. The natives were very quiet. Just about everyone drove a very well maintained Volvo.

Well, it seemed weird to me.

One Swedish cultural characteristic I quite liked was women were not considered second-class citizens. Women were as close to equal footing to men as you could get at the time. This could have been a  hallucination but I believe I  witnessed a peculiar level of cooperation and respect between husbands and wives.  More often than not, it was the husband pushing the baby carriage.

Remember, this was the mid-1980s where, in the States, a working woman in the corporate world was usually a secretary. Her job was to have all the men at the management level squeeze her bottom and listen to them tell her what she needed to do in order to get a pay raise. In a lot of cases, a woman was stuck being a school teacher. Her job was to babysit the students, have the student’s fathers as well as upper management squeeze her bottom and listen to them tell her what she needed to do in order to get a pay raise. Sometimes she was relegated to being a housewife where she had to babysit the children, have all the men in the neighborhood squeeze her bottom and listen to them tell her what she needed to do before her husband got home. And, once her drunken husband came home, her job was to get beat up by the hubby and listen to him apologize the next morning even though, as far as he was concerned, it was all her fault.

To me, these options don’t sound uplifting. The positive side was police could easily identify perpetrators of most local crimes by dusting the woman’s bottom for fingerprints.

Then there’s Swedish food.

If you’re from The States and you need to lose some weight in a hurry then consider Sweden as a practical first option. The most popular dish there is called “Surströmming” which is Swedish for “War Atrocity.” The smell could sterilize frogs within 100 paces. Surströmming, from what I could understand at the time, is herring that has been fermented for a few years in fifty ounces of pickle juice containing sixty five hundred tablespoons of salt. Oh, the natives will tell you the smell is deceiving and that Surströmming really is delicious.

They’re lying.

Let’s say you’re an American and you are used to a standard American diet of: 

  • Fat burgers 
  • Deep fried Oreos wrapped in bacon 
  • Cheesecake with chocolate sauce + whipped cream + caramel sauce + ice cream + fudge + peanuts  
  • Baked potatoes with butter + sour cream + chili + cheese + salsa + more butter + pepperoni + guacamole 
  • Chocolate-coated doughnuts with glaze that’s an inch thick and covered with M&Ms + Snickers bars + sprinkles + coconut pralines
  • “Milk” shakes made with six pounds of  sugar + extra sweetener + brown sugar + burnt sugar + maple syrup  + sucrose

Now, let’s say you’ve just woken up in Sweden and are starting down the barrel of a plate of Surströmming for breakfast. Your eating habits are gonna change.

If Surströmming doesn’t flip your pancake then you can try their moose balls (sautéed in snot), fishballs made of rubber, smoked sheep’s head (no, I’m not kidding), fish paste (still not kidding) or pudding covered in pig’s blood (not kidding here, either). Eat any of the above and those extra pounds will be going away mighty fast because you won’t want to go near food for months. The smell of toast from your neighbor down the street will make you violently ill.

The country pretty much screamed, “Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder.” Everything was way too neat and orderly. Grass was precisely edged. No litter. Not even a gum wrapper. Multiple empty and pristine trash cans on every street corner.  Meticulously cleaned shop windows.  The official psychiatric diagnosis from the World Health Organization as it relates to the Swedish population is as follows:

“Dear People of the Swedish Persuasion Who All Live in Sweden Except for Those Who Don’t,

“Y’all have, like, the worst case of CDO, like, ever. CDO is a lot like OCD except the letters are in the correct order because it’s Sweden and it has to be correct. I’m serious. All you people got issues. Besides, your whole country is, like, weird.

“Maybe you should start taking drugs.

“We gotta go back to sleep so let us know how it’s working out for you.

“XOXO, W.H.O.”

The natives wore tucked-in wrinkle-free shirts. All pants (including jeans), skirts, shorts and dresses were all ironed and fitted. Hair: perfect. Baby’s hair: perfect. Beards were edged with the same tool they used for the grass. The teenagers didn’t even have zits.

There was a dichotomy between Swedes being very shy and being really good looking. Some stereotypes are fact-based such as the one about Swedish women. I mean….whoa. Stunning. Yet, quite reserved. Even the heterosexual men looked ridiculously handsome but, again, demure to the point of stupidity.

Hell, if I looked that good then I’d be passing out resume pictures to strangers and knocking on random people’s doors and saying, “Aren’t I cute?!?!”

There are some things folks might not like about Sweden. I’m told Swedish winters are brutal and dark. Additionally, you’ll have no idea where you stand with any Swede because he or she will never tell you. The government is solely dedicated to taxing its citizens back to the stone age. Conformity was definitely the form and I think that was what I found weird. I felt surrounded by benign robots. Granted, I live in the US where we all act like fools but it was a little unnerving watching obsessively shy people look and act the same.

However, all these potential negatives are categorically mitigated by “fika.” Fika is, in fact, a magnificent gift from God. It’s a national tradition that will compel me and my most excellent Better Half to relocate to Sweden. It’s a simple equation. “Fika” = “Coffee Break [or something close to that].” I think Swedes do this twice a day and it is not negotiable. It’s not an American coffee break where you run down to a cafeteria, grab some coffee from a vending machine and a package of doughnuts that died of old age five years ago just so you can run back to work.

Uh-uh. No way. You leave work. You sit down somewhere, drink good coffee, eat a pastry and chill for awhile. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. You could be a heart surgeon performing life saving surgery on a five year old. The kid’s life may be important but he or she ain’t fika. Fika-time is gone-time. The child may bleed out in the operating room all alone because the parents left for coffee, too. Little Lars or Astrid may be dead but everyone will totally understand because well….fika.

In the mid 80s, Sweden was somewhere in the process of being a socialist state. The Riksdag is Sweden’s national legislature. I think the Riksdag is somewhat like the drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket.” If you want a happy life then just do what you’re told, be as inconspicuous as possible and don’t get caught with a jelly doughnut in your footlocker because if you do get caught then the entire country has to do push-ups. The Riksdag felt strongly about providing free health care, free college, free collective bargaining, free housing and free unemployment insurance to all its citizens. The Swedish government was able to provide these free perks by, of course, taxing the hell out of everyone and everything. One native told me, with a straight face, the tax rate was close to 60% on any income. Once I got up of the floor, I asked him how he felt about that. His view was was, well, it may seem high but it’s really for the best. Swedes seemed pretty understanding and generous to a government that views them not so much as citizens but as ATMs.

Socialism’s track record over the past hundred years leaves a little to be desired. Socialism is the Detroit Lions of political systems. Off the top of my head, you’ve got the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Cambodia, East Germany, Poland, North Korea, Egypt, Venezuela, India, Cuba, Hungary and Nicaragua. You’re 0 for 12 right there. Throw in almost every country in Africa plus the rest of Eastern Europe and you’ve got a serious dumpster fire on your hands.

However, if Socialism can work anywhere then it’s in Sweden. Swedes seemed pretty good at going with the flow, staying within the lines and never complaining about it. I guess it’s called “Stockholm Syndrome” for a reason. We’ve all seen the signs in some office that says, “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” Well, that’s actually true in Sweden. Cheered them right up. During a wedding ceremony, the bride and the groom don’t say, “I do.” They say, “Thank you, Sir, may I have another?” And, if you want Socialism to work then it would really help to have all the citizens ask, “Thank you, Sir, may I pay more taxes?”

I mention the taxation because the person I was hanging out with in Gothenburg, Daniel, was very bitter about the whole thing. He really had his undies in a knot about it. Conversions between the two of us usually started something like this:

Me – Hey, Daniel, how you do…..

Daniel – Why do I work like hell just so this government can waste my money on a buncha deadbeats?

Me – I’m fine. Thanks for asking.

Daniel – People don’t wanna work? Fine. Don’t work. Leave. Right? I work my ass off so these people can go to college for free. And, what do they do?

Me – I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.

Daniel – Steal car stereos. They take my money so they can sleep all day and steal car stereos at night.

Me – Well, maybe it’s a trade they learned in college. So your money wasn’t totally wasted. Look at the bright….

Daniel – Take MY money….

Me – So, come on over to the good old USA of American, where Amber waves her grain and….

Daniel – Americans all suck. Buncha sheep. Idiots.

Me – And, we think highly of you, too….

Daniel – Sweden’s going down the toilet….

Me – Speaking of excrement, did you really dump little what’s-her-name?

Daniel – Yeah. She just wanted me for my money.

Me – Sounds like Sweden. Did you know they take 60% of your earnings? Isn’t that rid….

Daniel – I don’t wanna talk about it.  

He was better once he got it out of his system. The annoying aspect of all this who-ha was Daniel was quite rich and really didn’t work much.

Even though he lived in America until the age of eleven, Daniel believed, with extreme fervor, all Americans were twits. He was bitter about this. He was bitter about everything.

Besides bitter, Daniel was condescending but had one resounding quality:

He had Bruce Springsteen tickets for both night’s concerts.

As far as Daniel’s passions went, Bruce ranked a distant second to a local football team called Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna Göteborg Änglarna. That was the name. I don’t have any clue, either. Sweden’s weird that way. The team logo wasn’t much help. It was a badly drawn picture of either a lion with multiple tails or Satan or Bart Simpson running somewhere looking to stab something with his knife.

This ridiculous drawing was revered by the locals in general and Daniel in particular. I laughed out loud the first time he showed it to me. It remains a sin for which I’ve never been fully forgiven.

We’d met in the States a few years earlier while he was on some sort of work visa which I never understood. His charmless girlfriend knew my girlfriend. He and I sort of hit it off. We had a good natured back and forth.

“Yew lack it here ‘n America, doncha boy.” I enjoyed egging him on.

“Loser Americans suck. Whole country. Sucks.”

“You’re just jealous because we get all the good drugs here.”

“Yeah, but this place still sucks. Go back to your bologna and mayo on white bread with a slice of Velveeta. Right? What concert are you dragging us to? John Denver? Pat Boone? The Monkeys? Music in this country sucks.”

“You’ll see. Oh, and I have just one word to say when it comes to Swedish music.”

“What?”

“ABBA.”

“Shut up.”

It was a Bruce Springsteen concert we attended and, four hours later, Daniel was a convert. From then on, we took care of each other in our home countries when it came to Bruce concert tickets.

Anyway, Daniel liked me and the feeling was somewhat mutual. Daniel was supremely full of himself. Psychotically so, actually. However, he could be very charitable and kind when it suited him.

His charitable urge must have struck because he went on an extended aid trip to distribute food to an impoverished part of Africa. He returned to Gothenburg about three weeks before my visit. There was a Jen and a Victoria, both aid workers, who were tagging along with us to the concerts. Their presence was affecting Daniel’s behavior. He was being suspiciously attentive and respectful. No swearing. Very odd. Plus, he hadn’t yet gone into his standard primal whining about socialism ruining his life. Completely out of character. He had adopted their middle-American accents. I figured he had designs on one of the women. Perhaps, both. So, I wrote it off.

I couldn’t make much sense of Daniel’s new best friends. One had long brown hair that covered the entirety of her derrière and the other had an unfortunate hair-cut in the shape of an American football helmet. I wasn’t sure which one was the Victoria and which one was the other thing. I labelled them “Butt Hair” and “Helmet Head.” They went out of their to look unattractive although they didn’t succeed. Neither wore make-up or jewelry. Neither had seen a hair stylist ever, probably, and they were both dressed like crap: over-sized sweatshirts, long jean skirts and sneakers.

Daniel and the girls never strayed more than a few inches from one another. They kept an invisible three foot barrier between them and me. Another reminder that my life had always been spent outside looking in.

Butt-Hair was 6′ tall, slender and statuesque with military-perfect posture and stride. Her facial expression indicated she hadn’t been to the bathroom in a month and a half. She reminded me of Nurse Diesel from the movie, “High Anxiety.” While we walked, she maintained 360 degree surveillance and scowled at people she didn’t approve of. I had a feeling she was one of those people who devote their waking hours announcing someone’s sins before they’re actually committed. When we stopped to talk, she’d cross her arms and lean back while her eyes continued their anxious look for suspicious activity. She smelt funny, too. Floral body spray mixed with Lysol.

She spoke in a very fast monotone but had perfect grammar. I thought she might have been in the army. It seemed pretty clear she wanted me to step back about 400 yards which was fine because she really was stinking up the place. Her eyes continued darting around looking for someone to kill which didn’t exactly exude much warmth. She would occasionally give me a look as though I just pooped on her cat.

Was she feeling threatened? Paranoid, maybe? Angry? Hard to tell.

She’s probably constipated.

I thought that. I didn’t say it.

Helmet Head clearly had issues. With the hair cut, she was 5′ 3” or so. Her sweatshirt was eight sizes to large. The sleeves extended well past her hands. And, she was happy. Way too happy. Bubbly, giggly, energetic and eager to participate in any conversation even ones where she wasn’t actually invited. Her naïveté was nauseating. She showed signs of being a little light in the lobes. Anything approaching irony, acerbity or sarcasm flew way over her head probably because she was too busy being happy and nice and loving and Buffy Cheerleader and “I’m so cuuuuute” and Up-With-People and caring. It was way too much and I had the very strong urge to tell her, “Just shut up, Cupcake, because you are absolutely killing me.”

“The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” My father once told me that. It was applicable here because she was trying to exude so much positivity that it was negative. Something was seriously wrong with her picture. The eye of this girl’s hurricane was jet black. I looked at her wide-eyed wonderment and joy about every last thing, her laughter at jokes that weren’t funny, her golly-gee speech and concluded her dark side was something of which I wanted no part.

Besides, in my observations, people aren’t really that happy unless they’re supremely stupid or highly medicated. I was thinking she may have been coked-up big-time because coked-up people can be unbelievably and annoyingly happy.

That’s another one of my observations.

An additional observation I had at that time was, when it came to Helmet Head, Butt-Hair and Daniel were extremely deferential. As a rule, Daniel interrupted you after you’d gotten one word into your sentence in order to explain that whatever you were about to say was wrong. But, when Helmet Head spoke, Daniel politely listened while Butt-Hair’s steely-eyed intelligence gathering increased to Def-Con One.

Among the three, Helmet Head seemed to be in charge. Anything she said went unquestioned and all decisions went through her which I considered unfortunate because any decision she’d make would be fatally flawed by the fact that, as far as I was concerned, she was a thoroughly free associating, hyperactive two year old.

Instead of walking, she liked to skip. I didn’t like that. During one of her cutesy diatribes she actually said, “Okee dokie, Smokey.”

I didn’t like that, either.

Another observation: Bringing up the subject of their Africa trip was verboten. Whenever I asked about it, I got 2 seconds of silence before receiving a way too casual one sentence answer and a sudden topic shift. I couldn’t even find out what country they were in.

Something, I guessed, didn’t go as planned.

My mind, as it truly enjoys doing, wandered as we walked. I started thinking about what may have happened:

Maybe, while in Africa, one of two lucky ladies got unexpectedly pregnant.

Helmet Head was probably so annoying that no one could take it anymore and they threw them all the hell off theiir continent.

Maybe they’re both pregnant.

If they are pregnant then they may as well skip the maternity ward and give birth at the local psychiatric hospital so the kids can immediately go into family therapy.

These women are really weird.

Maybe they don’t know who the father/fathers is/are.

Maybe it was a threesome. Then, again…

We meandered around the city until we came across a large statue of a very muscular and chiseled Poseidon standing proudly in front of some university while holding a large fish in one hand. In the other hand wasn’t his fishing spear. It looked more like a bowl of cereal. Poor guy had no clothes on. If I remember the Greek mythology correctly then Poseidon was always in a pissy mood. Looking at the statue, I discovered why.

It had nothing to do with his father eating him and then throwing him up. Or, with whatever king told him to pound sand instead of letting him take over Athens. Or, with the guy who stiffed him on the bill after he built a wall somewhere. It had everything to do with his little, itty-bitty, teenie-tiny weenie. The entire apparatus didn’t even qualify as “junk.” More like “waste.” Hell, I’d be in bad mood if that’s what I had to work with.

Dude was known for getting jiggy with lots of nymphs but I can’t image any of them bothering to come back for more.

As we approached, Butt-Hair looked at the statue and said, “Who’s THAT?”

Daniel explained it was Poseidon, “The Greek god of [pause]….”

“The sea among other things,” I chimed in. “Also, the god of attitude problems. And, earthquakes, I think. Definitely not the god of second dates.”

Dead silence but I kept going. “Were it me then I’d have gone with gym shorts. Maybe it was cold the day he posed for this. Pretty courageous to stand there with all his short-comings in plain view. Maybe he just got out of the pool.”

Still, nothing. We kept walking.

Tough crowd. Sometimes they salute. Sometimes the don’t.

We stopped somewhere to eat something horrendous. I asked if we might find a coffee shop after “lunch.” Daniel’s response was, “I knew you were going to ask. There’s a good place near Rydbergsgatan and Kungsportavenyen across the street from the Stadsbiblioteket Gotaplasten.” I’m serious. That’s what he said.

“Jolly good. Let’s all go fika ourselves. That is what one does, yes? Go fika him or herself. Do I have that right?”

Daniel responded, “Fika isn’t really a word. It’s a state of mind. Right? It’s spiritual. It’s a way to remind yourself about real priorities.”

What the HELL are mumbling about?Real priorities?”

“Right-O. Well, as spiritual endeavors go, this sounds completely doable. I’m sure coffee in the ethereal world will help you with those pesky priorities.”

Off we walked to enjoy fika with all its transcendent glories.

So, we sauntered some more. The city was pretty. The pedestrians, although polite, avoided eye contact at all cost. The young ladies peppered me with questions which I politely answered.

With Butt-Hair it was more of an interrogation. She wanted to know where I came from, where I’ve been, what I’ve been up to and why I had made certain life choices. Choices that, based on her tone and inflection, indicated my remarkable level of moral ineptitude.

Helmet Head wanted to know how I felt about life and love and children and candy-canes and flowers and sunshine and happy-happy-joy-joy and just shut up, Honey Child.

“Oh, wow. Look. Cool, cool, cool. Can we go in? This is awesome. How cool.”

That was Helmet Head talking. She then started skipping towards a large church that looked 250 years old. Daniel and Butt-Hair picked up the pace. I continued meandering; glad for the space between them and me. I guessed the church was open based on the fact that Helmet Head barged right on in with the other two stumbling in behind her. As I approached the place, I had a sinking feeling.

I hadn’t set foot in a church, at least a traditional looking church, in a very long time. I went to church as a kid but the experience was overwhelmingly negative so I stopped and decided never to return. The place looked like a version of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I approached waiting for the gate-keeper to leap out of the shadows and onto the doorway to say, “We don’t like yer kind ‘round here, Boy.”

But, no gate-keeper to be found. Just a few dozen people walking around or in the pews.

“Oh, my goodness! So amazing. Cool. Sooooo, pretty. Look at this! And, over here. Doves.”

That was Helmet-Head again. And, well, she had a point. It was gorgeous. Grandiose and gorgeous. But, no doves in site. I wondered if she was hallucinating.

I whispered to Daniel, “Doves? Fuckin’ doves? Where’re the fuckin’ doves?”

Daniel shot me an immediate look of rage. “You can’t talk like that in a church.”

I whispered back, “Well, shit-fuck. Who knew?” I walked back outside and sat at a bench wondering why Daniel, the King of the F-word, would be so frosty about me using it. I sat for awhile, got bored and went back in. I spotted the three of them huddled in the front pew mumbling impassioned praise to their Maker.

Oh…..I see. Right-o. Well, that explains that. My boy got religion.

I had a feeling Butt-Hair and Helmet-Head were of the faith. They seemed to have cast a quite the spell over Daniel.

So, the lovely ladies steered him towards the path of righteousness. Maybe they specialize in lost souls.  Maybe we won’t be bar crawling after Bruce. Maybe we’ll all come back here and recite the sermon on the mount. Maybe he’s just playing the part in order to get in their knickers.

With guys, you never can tell.

We did a quick dinner before the show at the closest thing to a fast food place. I had about given up on Swedish food so I just ate a couple paper plates and the table cloth. Dinner had to be quick because we all had to hold hands for a very long time and pray about….EVERYTHING. And, be thankful. Oh, man, were we ever thankful. Thankful for the extra toilet paper in the public restrooms. Thankful for the matching napkins at lunch. Thankful we weren’t afflicted with hemorrhoids (we had to take each other’s word on that one). On and on and on. Thankful we all weren’t doing 10-to-20 in Rahway State Prison although, having been to Rahway, NJ, I do agree that is something about which we could all be thankful.

Now, I have Catholic relatives who pray before dinner. They pick someone to say Grace and the person who says it does not clown around. Grace takes three seconds and sounds something like, “GodIsGreatFineGreatWhateverBlessThisFoodGottaEatJesusChrist.”

There’s no hand holding. There’s no time for hand-holding or riffing or discussing current events or whatever else is on one’s mind. Just get to the point and then shut up.

With these three, not so much. So, we had to hold hands. I don’t like holding hands with people I don’t know. Nothing to do with germs. It just seems weird. Butt-Hair’s hand was soft and, well, nice. I couldn’t tell you about Helmet-Head’s hand because her grip was so tight that I lost feeling in that hand entirely while she went on and on and on about all those things she was thankful for. And, it was a long laundry list.

Honey, might be quicker to list the things you’re NOT thankful for so we can, at least, catch the encore.

Seventy five minutes later, when she was finished, we only had time to pay the tab and rush off to the concert which was at an old, dumpy football stadium that held 60,000 very quiet, dignified, serious-looking Swedes. Plus, a few thousand loud, low-brow, obnoxious Americans of whom I was one.

Actually, the entire crowd was pretty enthusiastic during the shows to the degree that the stadium broke. I’m serious. It almost collapsed. The repairs cost a few million Krona which the Swedish government funded by raising taxes.

Springsteen must have been very proud.

Breaking the stadium really wasn’t Bruce’s or the audience’s fault. It seems someone decided it was a good idea to build this football stadium on clay soil which is fine as long as the pillars holding up the stadium are embedded in the bedrock under the clay soil. Well, that little detail slipped past the crack engineering team and the pillars only extended down to the clay.

You see, this is why Socialism works in Sweden. The government can do a complete horseshit job on a project and no one will say a word other than, “Thank you, Sir, may I have another and would you please raise my taxes?”

It took a while but we finally found our seats. I ended up between Butt-Hair and Helmet-Head and stuck for a conversion starter. Fortunately, Bruce hit the stage.

There’s not a lot of froo-froo with Springsteen. There’s no elaborate introduction to his concerts. No dancing elephants, no laser light shows, no bubble machines. He and the band just walk in stage. Bruce’s entire concert preamble consists of the following:

“One…two…one…two…three…four!”

And, off they go to fuck up your stadium.

—–END OF PART ONE—–

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