For years, my body has been trying to coerce me into fleeing the winter: Mainly by displaying signs that I would not stand a chance of surviving for 5 minutes without the amenities of civilization. And yet I am back in Sweden amidst newspaper reports of the record cold lasting for another 3 months and my fingers gradually go numb from the cold. Luckily, Sanna, a friend of Margot and Lisa has taken in upon herself to usher me trough Swedish culture and explains that they have a term for that: Yellow Fingers. “Because”, she explains, “without blood circulation your flesh turns yellow”. I must not be alone, I think to myself and it kind of helps to… take the pain away? Meanwhile, we walk by Swedish tabloids that feature a crude illustration of a blue arrow of cold air sweeping across northern Europe, only confirming that going to Sweden in January is a strange choice to make.
There is a sense of familiarity at my second visit and with the girls having extended their social circle since my previous visit, we can take our musings about cultural differences, timid Swedes, taking numbers, butter knives and symmetry to the next level. Because one of the best things about spending time with the international crowd really is to laugh about the perks of each other’s culture. Did you know that Australians shower with a friend to conserve water? Sure, as a German I am forever damned to listen to accusations about the world war and, curiously, a stereotypical German named “Günther Schneider”, but the Swedes carry many difficult burdens themselves: “Everybody thinks were are porn stars up here”, Sanna says. “Slim and slender, blonde ones”, I helpfully add and she nods.
Having been there before, I somewhat know my way around and I get to look forward to certain things. For instance, Gothenburg’s Haga district has a café in which I would basically like to live. It works particularly well as a contrast to the ice and the cold since it is all gloomy, wood paneled and smells of cake. When you wait in line for the bathroom, you can help yourself to some grapes and sitting by the window, looking through the smudged glass onto some backyard makes you feel like complaining about the winter is suddenly within the realm of possibility. Liam flies in on my 3rd day there and with the girls in university, I take him to the café for lunch. We stand in line, order our sandwiches and get them on warm plates. “How pleasant”, Liam remarks “the Swedes have it all figured out”. It is not before I get us some cold water in warm glasses that we realize that all dishes just came out of the dishwasher and aren’t heated by default. “Well, you have a certain idea of Sweden, right?”. Now it is me who nods, enthusiastically.
I have a habit of trying to read everything written out to myself in order to test if I can say it. Stumbling through the city I would pick up on every “fassadengöring” that comes my way and while the others have begun shrugging it off, Pete is excited about my enthusiasm for this very odd language and goes out of his way to teach me new things to say. Nevertheless, the 14 different ways of saying “very good” were hardly of much utility in everyday dealings with the Swedes. We are having lunch in a public market and I almost manage to capture the heart of a Swedish girl working at the fishmonger’s. She stares at me, and confused by the sudden attention from the opposite sex I pose the question of what I should do now. “Start a conversation!”, is the clear response from the others. But even if I knew how to say more than “mycket bra”, would I want to be friends with the fish girl? Does she have a cold handshake?
On the way home, the Spanish flight attendant waves me into a window seat by the emergency exit. “I need you to sit there.”, he goes. “Why is that?” “We need someone to sit at each emergency exit, otherwise we can’t fly.” “But there are only 6 exits!” “We are 12 today”, he explains, pronouncing it One-Two. “And usually 5 people don’t show up”. “Is it always like that?”, I ask, suddenly concerned for the economic viability of the Easyjetset. He shrugs, “In January, yes. Why do people fly to Sweden in winter?” I settle into my seat and ponder the question. Festivals for smoked eel? The infamous licence to dance (which has been called in question)? Getting a receipt for everything? It may not make sense at first thought, but Gothenburg is both oddly comforting and fun. ¡Adelante!