Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wikileaks: No Alarms, No Surprises

The political and diplomatic worlds have been reeling in the wake of a quarter-million pages of confidential US government documents being leaked. Everyone has had an opinion about some part of it.

I hope I'm not alone in thinking this, but I'm not sure what all the controversy is about.

My reaction to every so-called revelation has been, "Duh. I knew that. Everyone knows that."

These documents don't so much announce anything new as they do confirm everything we have always suspected.

It turns out that what we tend to believe is the hidden truth actually is the truth.

It's kind of reassuring in a way.


In case you didn't know, the bottom-line suggestion of all the leaked information is that Americans in positions of power are assholes who think they run the world. They talk about other countries and leaders behind their backs. American leaders always think in terms of how America can use situations elsewhere toward advancing American interests. But you certainly must have already known that was true.

Another tidbit unearthed in these documents is that everybody thinks Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is nuts. A lot of people, including leaders of neighboring countries, live in fear that he's erratic, unreasonable, and might do something unpredictable or dangerous.

Wikileaks file room: arrow shows the pink folder
of fake documents invented to embarrass Iran,
whose reputation was impeccable before this.
Maybe it's a bit unforeseen that this belief is held even among some regimes we may think of as being not particularly friendly to the US. It's at least interesting that you don't need to agree with the United States to believe Ahmadinejad is off-balance.

The topic of Iran is where some of the responses to these leaks have gotten entertaining.

One of Ahmadinejad's top advisers, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, told Der Spiegel that he thinks the leaked documents are fake and the US government released them intentionally. Now that would be a surprise. For me, that's further confirmation that the leadership in Iran is, how do you say, "unique."

The reporter actually asked him, "Do you question the authenticity of the more than 250,000 documents?" Not exactly, he responded, "When someone wants to suggest something, they include fake information with real information so as to create a certain impression."

Why, that's the most shocking thing I've heard since Sarah Palin condemned Julian Assange's "sick, un-American espionage efforts."

Naturally, the habitually-unaware Mrs. Palin seems to also have been unaware that Mr. Assange is Australian. He was born un-American. I swear, somebody needs to change that lady's Twitter password.

Secret communications were also unearthed which indicate that Nicolas Sarkozy is the big shit in France and he has surrounded himself with "oui" men. Everybody wants to please the handsome French prime minister with the super hot wife. Nice job, little man.

I knew this was true when I was in fourth grade and I realized that the rich, good-looking kids weren't living like the rest of us. What was true at St. Margaret Mary School in Louisville apparently continues to be true at the highest levels of French government.
Julian Assange on a recent trip in Sweden

News flash! Canadians don't really like being America's little brother. They think Americans are scam artists with guns.

But still, they want to be invited whenever the big English-speaking countries get together to do stuff; stuff like deploying troops, sharing intelligence.

And why not? Canada is the third most populous English-speaking country in NATO, after all. What?! Canada is in NATO? There's your front page story!

Some things we still haven't learned about Canada: Do they have a president or a prime minister? Can you name him or her? Whose queen is that on their coins? That's what I thought. So sad. Nobody knows anything about America's li'l bro.

The $3.00 way to get out of talking
about politics when traveling. 
Despite all this, I have a feeling Canadians would prefer their current arrangement with the United States to any alternatives.

The truth is that Canada is a huge, awesome country that goes largely unnoticed internationally. And because they're so cozy with America, nobody's gonna start any shit with Canada. The scam artists with guns below their unsecured southern borders are the best thing that ever happened to the Great White North (John Candy notwithstanding). The cost of securing their gigantic borders and maintaining an army proportionally sized to Canada's population and land mass is essentially unnecessary.

Besides, Canada's secret existence makes it easier for American travelers around the world when things like George W. Bush come along. Just slap some red maple leaf flags on your luggage and no Europeans will lecture you about American foreign policy.

A casual, candid shot of Vlad on a normal day.
Someone with a camera just happened to be there. 
Did you know that Vladimir Putin is like the Godfather in Russia? News to me. Even though he's not officially in charge anymore, it's clear that he's still the man. The leaked cables referred to Dmitry Medvedev as "Robin" to Putin's "Batman." Now, if Batman was really in charge of Russia, you'd have my attention. Instead, again, we learned what we already knew: Medvedev is Vladimir Putin's little bitch.

Nothing happens if Putin doesn't like it. And when certain things do happen, the people who did them won't be trying anything like that again.

Just like the Godfather, if you're lucky, he'll make you an offer you can't refuse. But usually, I wouldn't expect an offer. Just know which dark arts you're not supposed to be dabbling in – journalism, for example.

Putin Huntin'
Did you suspect anything less from the dude who organizes photo shoots of himself riding horseback with his shirtless Russian muscles glistening in the sunshine? (Some photos suggest he's even too much of a real man to use anything over SPF-5.)

Here's a shocker: Afghanistan is a certified mess. If someone is in the Afghan government, they're probably corrupt. If someone is in their army or police force, they're probably corrupt. If they're in the Taliban, they're probably corrupt. If they're from Pakistan or working with the Americans or just in Afghanistan on vacation... shit, if someone is the president of Afghanistan they're probably corrupt.

I was gonna say all these Taliban guys are corrupt,
but I don't recognize the one with the pot of chili.
I had no idea. I was under the impression that international meddling in Afghanistan always turned out well.

However, according to this shocking new information, Afghans don't typically pop out the champagne and crumpets when a foreign army shows up. How rude! And I thought the Vietnamese were ungrateful.

Speaking of excursions of that nature, it turns out that people in the United States armed forces don't always act respectably toward other cultures and it's possible that sometimes – just sometimes – when they're under extreme pressure and away from their families for years at a time – they behave in inappropriate ways.

"Let's see here... A-H-M-A-D-I-N-E-J-A-D-D-DDDDDD...
Shit, I hate this thing. Can we just call Washington?"

Honestly, I have to say, the biggest genuine revelation in the release of all these diplomatic cables is that people still communicate using cables!

How do you even send a cable? What is that anyway? Is that like a telegram or something?

I mean, I presume "sending a cable" is a secure means of communication. As many people may not know, the US government has its own parallel Internet which is completely separate from the public, civilian Internet. Still, its obvious why diplomats, the Pentagon and the State Department wouldn't just use phone calls or emails.

Well, we might learn something here after all.

It turns out that a cable may not actually be a "cable" at all. It's an old timey word from the days when a secure line of communication actually was a physical cable. These days, while they are still called "cables," they are actually secure, encrypted messages which are sent electronically.

Genuine US Embassy cable obtained by this
website during a lengthy investigation
What is certainly not shocking about all of this is that people are freaking out for absolutely no reason. That's to be expected.

Perhaps I should say it more clearly: the main reasons people are freaking out (the stories I mentioned above) are not revelations at all.

I'm still waiting for something to get leaked that is not what everybody always thought was true. I'm still waiting to hear something that surprises me... Like, parents actually do understand. Or that one of KFC's secret eleven herbs and spices is Soylent Green. Or that you can get pregnant by just kissing... but not if do it standing up... or if you're wearing jeans.

Next they're gonna tell us that Sweden and Switzerland really are the same country. Again, no surprises. Most people already think that's true.

Oh, and by the way, the prime minister of Canada, since 2006, is Stephen Harper.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Badminton is a Real Sport

Am I the only one who is uncomfortable around naked old men? Oh, everybody is? Cool. That's what I thought.

Nonchalant coexistence with naked men in places like public showers may be a rite of passage among Europeans, but my American roots – with all the faux-Puritanism instilled therein – are simply not prepared for it.

Shit, honestly, I've never really been comfortable in a room full of naked women (you know, like in a so-called "gentlemen's club").

Of course, I can only imagine what that must be like. Being a true gentleman, I have certainly never patronized any establishment of such ill repute. Especially not on New Year's Eve 2006. And I certainly wouldn't know the names of any of the entertainers, like Jade, for example. You're barking up the wrong tree with me, mister.

All that aside, I was invited by my Swedish friends Iida and Erik to play badminton on a recent Sunday afternoon. This was during October when it wasn't yet freezin'-ass cold outside. I expected that we'd set up a net or just hang somewhere outside and hit the little birdie around.

Being American, the badminton games I'm familiar with had always occurred with the backdrop of a smoking grill, a cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a crying baby and the avoidance of a neighbor who wasn't invited. The games lasted about ten minutes before a neighbor who wasn't invited or a weird cousin totes harshed the vibe.

That's not how they roll here. Oh me. So naïve to the ways of the Swedes.

After gathering some racquets, towels and supplies at the apartment, then taking a train, then a bus, we ended up at a huge badminton facility in Stockholm.

It was news to me that a huge badminton facility existed on this planet. Neptune? Maybe. But this planet? I had no idea.

Stockholm's badminton facility as seen from above. You know, in case someone in an airplane or space ship wants to stop in for a quick match.
The place had no less than thirty professional, full-size badminton courts available for hourly rentals. These courts are reserved days or weeks in advance, and when we arrived, the building was packed and bustling with at least a dozen matches already underway. In fact, at the turn of the hour, most courts had a new group of people waiting for the switch-out.

While it seemed that a lot of people were there to have fun or get some exercise, some of these turkeys were super serious about badminton. By "super serious" I mean deathly serious.

These people were athletes – assuming stances, wearing game faces, playing intensely, hitting with accuracy and ferocity, and getting genuinely upset when they didn't execute every maneuver perfectly. Others were so serious that they were doing a half hour of drills and grueling reps ("reps" – that's sports talk) before the games even began. There was even a Biggest-Loser-Bob-style coach shouting instructions and encouragement at a team of aspiring mintonites ("mintonites" – that's a made-up word).

For someone like myself, who doesn't get much exercise and only wears non-full-length britches ("shorts") for the purposes of swimming or sleeping, an hour of organized, indoor badminton is a lot of work. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun.

Iida and Erik knockin' the birdie around.
It was one of those moments (like watching The Pacific on HBO) that makes you realize what a generation of mouse-pushing pussies we all have become. Sitting in tropical rain for a month with a thousand other assholes, eating cold food out of cans, waiting to go into indefinite combat against an insane enemy whose troops are best known for trying to kill you at all costs (believing that dying in the process is an honor). No thank you. I have no need to test my mettle that way. An hour of badminton has already successfully located my so-called mettle.

By now, I'm sure you're wondering when everyone in the story will be getting naked. ("Seriously, dude, where are all them naked men you teased us with in the intro?") I understand that concern and I'll get to it. Now.

Okay, so after everyone plays badminton, there are these public showers that are like, well, public showers. I gotta say that there are times when I'm not completely comfortable in a shower when I'm by myself. I mean, there are usually other people in the next room and, well, I'm like totes nekkid. Don't get me wrong, I like being clean, but I find washing my person to be an intensely intimate matter. I wouldn't invite anyone to join me unless... well, shit, unless I had at least had met them before. There are other prerequisites as well.

In any event, through ignoring my surroundings and looking at the floor a lot, I survived the public showers at this badminton arena, then made my way to the next Scandinavian rite of passage: the sauna.

Nordic people "taking a sauna" is almost as stereotypical as Irish people "tossing back a few pints" or Germans "making some party." However, despite being in my second year in Sweden, I had not yet indulged in the local sauna custom.

Let's pause for a minute. Sorry. I just have to acknowledge that I realize the proper name for the badminton birdie is "shuttlecock" and there are literally dozens of jokes I could be making about that word, naked men in the sauna, and more men in the main hall whacking it across the room for each other, trying to beat their friends off the scoreboard... HOWEVER, this is a very high-class website and I would hate to denigrate its reputation as a repository for respectable, scholarly articles. So let this sentence be the last in which the words "cock" and "whack" will appear.

Appointments with the full-service badminton racquet doctor are unfortunately not covered in the Swedish national health care program.

If you've ever been... Cock! ... Sorry. If you've ever been in a sauna in America, you know that the most offensive thing you could possibly see is manboobs. Why, I'm feeling a bit queasy myself, just thinking about such a hairy sight. I must warn you, dear reader, that sheltered North Americans have truly seen nothing compared to what awaits in a genuine Scandinavian sauna. Let's just say I kept my towel on and my eyes down. Not every other gentleman was so courteous.

It's really kind of a trade-off. The sauna feels great and you totally get the sensation that both weight and toxins are sweating out of your body, but any comfort that the steam brings you is countered by the unease of not being able to look anywhere but down. And inevitably there is always going to be someone in there who wants to talk. Ridiculous. Swedes never talk – not in the train, not on the street – so why are they suddenly so loquacious when they're naked?

My Swedish isn't perfect when I'm relaxed and willing to be chatty, but get me in a sweatbox with a bunch of naked creeps and it really deteriorates quickly. My only real observation was that Japanese men are much more fearsome in South Pacific combat scenarios than they are in Swedish saunas.

I've gotten a bit off track with this story, but what I meant to say was that some Swedish people are really serious about badminton – which I've learned is a lot of fun and not just played without rules at barbecues – and that Americans are uncomfortable being naked, but Swedish people seem to dig it. And the showers: what's so wrong with a curtain? I have it on good authority that there's an Ikea near here. Y'all need me to pick up some drapes for ya? I can do that. My gift to Sweden.

Okay. Good talk. See ya out there.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Devil Wears Merona

There's a popular saying in Sweden. "Det finns inga dåliga väder, bara dåliga kläder," which, although it doesn't rhyme in English, means, "There is no bad weather, only bad clothes."

How strange. I totally could have sworn that this weather really sucks. Apparently I've been misinformed. It's my clothes that are the problem.

I still have so much to learn about Sweden.

As a person who sold or gave away nearly all my earthly possessions and moved to Sweden with only a single bag, my wardrobe is naturally comprised of just a few simple items.

While I do have a few great vintage plaid shirts from classic brands like Penney's and Kresge (aka the "K" in Kmart) – some from my father's closet when he was my age and others from Louisville vintage shops like Hey Tiger and Acorn – most of my clothing can track its pedigree back to a few main sources: H&M, the Gap, and a couple items from Target. It's all what those in the fashion world call "basics."

Despite H&M being a Swedish company and there being a location on every other corner in Stockholm, I've found their clothes to be surprising un-warm. My winter coat is a Merona from Target and it, too, seems more suited for the type of winter familiar to people in Kentucky or Rhode Island.

And although I love my gloves – a pair of mittens made from recycled sweaters (also from a Louisville shop, 15 Ounce, and built by a Canadian company called Preloved) – they're not exactly ready for Scandinavian winter.

(Honestly, I'm not turning into a fashion blogger. I promise that in my next article I'll be back bitching about fonts and about how Princess Madeleine never calls me anymore.)

Today while walking through a swirling blizzard, I must have looked like I was trying to hide from someone. With my hands propped up against the sides of my face as barriers to the flying precipitation, I found myself conspicuously leaning forward, walking as quickly as possible to escape the weather and equally rigid to not let down my guard against the elements.

There are now four ways you can tell that I'm not Swedish. I think it's cold. I feel cold. I'm acting cold. I look cold.

This type of behavior cannot be sustained. As I have many times in past years, today is the day I dedicate myself to this cause: I refuse to be cold.

Time to layer on the multiple pairs of socks and long underwear. Time to invest in a serious, Swedish-made winter coat. Time to get some clothes that make me feel protected enough to walk on the Moon.

The devil wears Merona. I need to be warm.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Immigrant

A lot of what makes for good writing is having the time to write.

After spending most of 2009 in Sweden, I’ve been back in America since December. Since being Stateside, I’ve realized that I just haven’t had the time or inspiration to write as much or as often as when I was in Sweden. Certainly, those who follow my articles on this site have noticed the same thing.

Frankly, it's hard to write about life in Sweden when you're not in Sweden.

The long road back

In January, I applied for a Swedish residence permit, a process that can take many months – after you finally complete the stack of paperwork and apply – to get an answer.

Legal residency has many of the benefits of citizenship, but is a softer, less permanent version of it. For many immigrants, residency is the first step toward becoming a Swedish Citizen. But for me, I am simply an American citizen who would like to live in Sweden on a longterm basis.

While I have been going through the residence application process this year, I considered writing periodic updates about my progress, but honestly, every time I attempted to sit down and share it, the experience was too nerve-wracking to put into words.

Typically, I prefer to write about things I know about, things I can research, or things I think may be of interest to readers. Applying for Swedish residency, while it was a unique, titlating and potentially life-changing experience, it is largely one in which the main character is in the dark about what’s happening in the story. The entire process is your classic “don’t call us, we’ll call you” experience.

Now that my application has been fully processed, I can more comfortably spill the beans about the whole adventure. Grab a snack.

Residence permit process

To become a legal resident of Sweden, one must apply at the Swedish Embassy in their home country. My home country is God’s Great United States of America (you may know us as “the bad cop”) and our Swedish Embassy is in our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC.

As you can imagine, the paperwork one must fill out is quite comprehensive. Obviously, like any country, the Swedes don't want a bunch of unsavory characters moving into their country.

As much as any country wants to be hospitable and diverse (Sweden has welcomed more Iraqi refugees than any other nation), they also want to maintain a comfortable environment for the native population. The goals of ensuring economic vitality and security for the country are always primary.

To that end, the Swedish immigration authority, Migrationsverket, wants to know everything about you when you apply: who you are, where you come from, who is related to you, who loves you in Sweden, who is related to them, how many times you’ve been to the country, why you visited, how you'll support yourself, how much money you have, where you will live, if you really think you can live without Mexican food or high-quality peanut butter, and detailed explanations of why you would possibly want to live in complete darkness for five months out of the year... especially if your home country is open 24 hours, you can take your gun to church, and the place is so plentiful, well, the oceans are practically filled with oil.

Louisville: featuring buildings by Michael Graves (the
pink tower on the right that looks like a cash register)
and the last structure ever designed by Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe (the short, 6-story black box at the
front and center).
Despite the careful and meticulous nature of this process, from what I’ve heard, it is downright friendly in comparison to that of legally immigrating to the United States. I’ve read horror stories of families being split up in America due to immigration problems or as a result of painstaking investigations.

In my case, throughout the whole process, I felt like the Swedish officials I dealt with were on my side. Whereas US Immigration agents often seem to be portrayed as adversarial – even going to some lengths to “trick” applicants – it seemed the Swedes were there every step of the way doing everything they could to help me succeed.

I didn’t have to sing the Swedish national anthem. I was never forced to eat a jar of lingonberries or smell any pickled herring. I was never asked a single question about Olof Palme, that creep from True Blood, or Agnetha Fältskog. There were no games, no memorization, and no history tests.

Hurry up and wait

After submitting my documents to the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC, in January, there was a silent period. This quiet zone can last several months and there's no way to know how long it will be. For me, it turned out to be two and a half months.

Not knowing what was happening – or what was going to happen or when – was rough. I got really restless during this time.

Finally! Someone to pray for me.
I mean, who has the time anymore?
Now I can just SMS it!
At first, it was awesome to be camped out in America without a proper job or responsibilities, but after a while, the novelty of temporarily living in Louisville again began to wear off. I was beginning to gain back the weight I had lost last year in Sweden (did I mention the food in America is amazing?) and I was realizing that living without a plan can be as unsettling as it is freeing.

Waiting around to find out what’s going to happen with your own life ain’t easy. It prohibits you from making longterm plans, from seeking regular work, from building relationships, from buying a car, from entering into anything like an apartment lease or an annual cell phone plan.

Essentially, nobody wants to make an investment in someone who is possibly leaving in a few months. It's hard to just wait and see what's going to happen.

Luckily, I have some amazing friends who made this entire period a lot easier for me. I never would have made it through with my sanity in check without them.

We'd like to meet you

In late March, I finally received notice that I was being called in for my immigration interview. Heja Sverige! At last, something was happening! Now I just had to set up an appointment with the Swedish Consulate for my interview.

There are more than thirty offices of the Consulate General of Sweden in the United States. The offices are located in places as cold as Alaska and as warm as the Virgin Islands; as expected as New York City and as surprising as Raleigh, North Carolina. The closest one to my hometown of Louisville is the office in Chicago, just four and a half hours away by car. I picked that one. My interview was scheduled for early April.

A secret patch of Swedish soil

The Swedish Consulate's office is a nondescript space of no more than six small rooms on the nineteenth floor of a downtown Chicago office tower. To enter, you walk in through one of those electronic glass doors that is always locked unless an important person activates it for you from the other side. (Further proof that all Swedish people are vampires: they have to invite you in.)

Outside the Consulate's office,
post-interview in Chicago
The tiny lobby is lit by fluorescent tubes and decorated with framed portraits of the King and Queen. A coffee table is stacked with magazines and books about Swedish life (all beautifully photographed and designed, of course). Seating is provided for four or five guests and a doctor’s office-style sliding glass window is on one wall, through which reception is offered and forms are passed.

I really wanted to take some pictures of the space for the purposes of sharing them here – if I ever actually got around to writing this article – but more importantly, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my chances of making a good impression. Hence no photos of the inside of the office.

I was told that the Swedish Consulate's office is technically Swedish soil, so it felt reassuring to be back. (I’ve also been told that whenever a Van Halen song is playing, you’re technically in America, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.) The inside of the office actually did feel notably more Swedish than Andersonville, Chicago's Swedish neighborhood.

And coincidentally, within the same few blocks of the consulate's Michigan Avenue office, South Africa, Spain, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Japan, Italy, Pakistan, Ireland, Turkey, France, El Salvador, Switzerland and several other countries also have consulships. It's like a bureaucratic EPCOT Center.

Interviews are my specialty

I love the idea of interviews. 60 Minutes is my favorite TV show. I always think the best magazine articles are the ones in which the writers simply coerce the subjects into telling their own stories. Vanity Fair comes to mind. I have even published thirteen editions of my own magazine called K Composite that is comprised almost entirely of interviews of my friends.

Watching SVT's live Internet feed of
the Swedish Royal Wedding in Kentucky
by hooking the Mac up to the TV. 
What I kind of don't love about interviews is being on the receiving end when I'm trying to get something. Job interviews are probably one of the things that make me feel the most uneasy.

For some reason, when I have run for political office in the past, being interviewed on television or for the newspaper barely fazed me at all. It was exciting and invigorating, and the same goes for being interviewed for my music.

Once the interview becomes one in which my performance will be subject to approval – one in which there is an invisible, unknown line between acceptable and unacceptable answers – all comfort goes out the window.

So despite my interviewer being very friendly, helpful and accommodating, this interview was anything but relaxing. I have dreamed of living in Sweden since the first time I visited more than ten years ago. Now I have awesome friends and loved ones in Sweden, and my chances to really make it happen have come down to this one interview. Oy vey.

The best advice I could give to anyone reading this, who may also be going through the process, would be to just try to relax. It's easy to get carried away with the thoughts of how devastated you'll be if it doesn't go well, but that should be the farthest thing from your mind. I tried to remember that as I walked in.

In the hot seat

The interview itself is kind of a blur when I think back on it. It took place in a small office with big windows. I was seated beside a desk where a 50-ish Swedish woman was facing both me and her computer. The screen was in my field of view, framed by the backdrop of a foggy downtown Chicago morning and the smaller buildings outside the window.

After a brief introduction, she opened a blank Word document and began the interview. The Q-and-A was conducted in English and while I spoke, she converted everything I said into a narrative story in Swedish. I understood almost all of what she typed. It lasted about 30 minutes. Maybe less. When we were finished, she asked me to sign a form, and I was on my way.

On a couple of occasions during my visit to the office – when I expressed thanks, greetings or farewells – I spoke Swedish to her and the other people I encountered in the office. They always answered me in English. I knew it! The Swedes really are trying to keep Swedish to themselves!


Metric of course. Those are mid-70's
at night at mid-90's during the day.
The humidity is a different story,
In mid-May, about a month after my interview, I received word that my application for Swedish residency had been approved. Helt otroligt! Weeks later, when I received my US passport in the mail with my Swedish residence permit affixed into it, I honestly could not stop looking at it. It remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life. Naturally, it's my prized possession.

When I arrive back in Stockholm in a couple weeks, I'll apply for my personnummer and settle into life in Sweden. Just in time for the cold, dark winter.

I've been told that no one ever moved to Sweden for the weather or the food. I believe that (though Louisville's weather this summer hasn't especially been ideal). However, there are plenty of other reasons to go.

This ain't a reality show or a diary, so I won't bore you with the fascinating, sexy details of my personal life. Suffice it to say that I'll miss a lot of amazing people in America and a lot of great food, but I'm immensely excited about being surrounded by Sweden and within arm's reach of the people and places I love there.

Tack så jätte mycket to everyone who helped me start this new chapter in my life. It is with great humility and honor that I accept this opportunity to be fake-Swedish.

Now somebody give me a job!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Block This Application: Life After Social Networking

I recently deleted my Facebook account. Although it occurred to little or no fanfare, it was a long time coming.

Facebook was a nice way to stay in touch with people near and far, especially given that my life has been spread across two continents in recent years. But the site ultimately became more of a burden than a joy. It seemed every login in was followed by a marathon of clicking "ignore" to a dozen different requests.

Who is this person? Why do they want to be my friend? How is it possible that I don't know, since we have 67 common friends?

Bill Gates acknowledged in the New York Times that he once had a Facebook account, "but every day 'ten thousand people tried to be my friend.' He said he spent too much time trying to decide 'Do I know them? Don’t I know them?' Ultimately, he said, 'I had to give it up.” Amen, Four-eyes.

That megarich supernerd was right. The number of daily requests wasn't ten thousand for me, but it was enough to contribute to the overall feeling that Facebook was more of an imposition than a convenience.

Several months ago, before I escaped the whole thing, I tried to establish some boundaries on Facebook. By grouping my "friends" into categories, then limiting access to particular parts of my profile based on those groups, I hoped to customize my experience in the site into something tolerable – to make it what I wanted it to be.

For instance, my contacts in the "Actual Friends" category could see everything on my profile, whereas my contacts in the "People I Know" group had limited access. Still another group called "X" included people I had met only once or were business connections. You know, people it may be nice to stay in touch with but also people who I don't want up in my personal business.

Before this, I had already been limiting my own access to excessive or annoying updates by hiding other people's updates from my view. This happened on an ad-hoc basis whenever someone bothered me or wasted the space. Pictures of your baby? Hide. ... Three updates in an hour? Hide. ... Constant nonsense about Lost, True Blood or Twitter? Hide.

After a few months of limiting access and grouping people into boundary-specific sets, it turned out that much of the problem wasn't with all these people. The problem was with me.

I was simply not adapting well to the idea of all these people being mixed together nor my new role of patrolling and maintenance.

I had this same adverse reaction to my first cell phone sometime in the mid-90's. In a technological homage to Muhammad Ali, I threw my cell phone out the window of my car while crossing the Ohio River on the Clark Memorial Bridge. (I know, I know, that story about Ali throwing his gold medal off the same bridge isn't really true, but it seemed like an apropos watery grave for such invasive devices.)

In so many words, the Internet has really screwed up how people interact with each other. While it has made people much easier to find it has also made people harder to lose.

In place of letter writing which used to take days – or even phone calls which were natural conversations – Internet communications are delivered in a second. As soon as something is sent it is delivered. There is no pause between sealing the envelope and waiting for the reply. And on a site like Facebook, many of these personal notes and interactions are on public display. (Maybe people felt the same way when mail delivery began on trains insead of horses, or when the first public announcement kiosk was put in a town center.)

It is also entirely possible to build an online relationship that doesn't actually exist in real life, or at least one that doesn't translate when it goes face-to-face. People have different personas online than they do in person. People say different things online and the way they say them is open to more interpretation, not only from the recipient but from a wider audience of associated people.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone is on Facebook for a different reason. Each person brings their own ideas and expectations of how people should behave when they join the site.

Do I really want to be "friends" with someone I went to middle school with and haven't seen since? Do I need to be in contact with everyone I meet on tour? Do I give a shit if someone I worked ten years ago with just refinished their deck? Do I want to see pictures of their bratty kids with chocolate on their faces? Do I need all the negative energy in my life of constantly having to say "no" to people?

If someone adds me and that person's reasons for being on the site are different than mine, it opens up a whole can of worms and explanations. Before all this, we could have just been two people who peripherally knew each other and said hello when we happened to meet. Now, if I say "no" I feel bad and the other person feels offended. If I say "yes" out of guilt, then I feel like I've been coerced into doing something I didn't want to do, and the other person might feel like we're actually friends. Jesus, who even knows what the other person thinks?

As my friend Bob said, there's no way to know what's in the unwritten social contract that any particular person has with you when they add you as a friend.

Therein lies one of the biggest pitfalls of this kind of networking: use of the word "friend" rather than "contact" or "connection." Truthfully, that's what most of these people really are.

Being a member of a social networking site introduces and entirely new set of questions and decisions into your life. It makes a lot of identical information about you available to your friends, your peripheral acquaintences, your significant other, your business contacts, hell, sometimes even your parents or your exes. The fact is that I have distinctly different relationships with all those people. I have a different and unique dynamic with everyone I know. To think that all those people should be privy to the same forum is absurd and inherently unnatural.

The ease with which people have become comfortable divulging and sharing personal information is alarming. Not me. I will thank you to mind your own affairs, sir.

The average person doesn't have more than a handful of true friends. I know for sure that a very tiny percentage of the hundreds of "friends" I had on Facebook are actually people that I could comfortably go out to eat with.

It has been said that any friend will help you pick out furniture or find a new apartment, but a true friend will help you move.

Perhaps that's the way it should stay. I still have a phone, an email address, a mailbox and a face. Those always worked for me before. Maybe I'll have a change of heart at some point, but for now, Facebook is not for me.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sigvard Bernadotte: Design Prince of Sweden

(This article on the life of Sigvard Bernadotte is Part 2 of 2. See the earlier story of his battle to be reinstated as a prince at this link.)

While Sigvard Bernadotte may not have left our world as a prince, he is commonly referred to as the "Design Prince of Sweden." That title is perhaps even more honorable because it hails his contributions and accomplishments rather than simply a name someone can be born with.

Bernadotte is one of the few people born into the Swedish royal family who was able to carve out a name for himself and to have a direct, lasting effect on the daily lives of ordinary people.

While you may never have known his name or face, you are likely familiar with his work as a graphic artist and industrial designer. You may even have a piece of his work in your home.

During Sigvard Bernadotte's career as a graphic and industrial designer, he amassed an impressive and influential body of work, the products of which – calculators, can openers, flatware, radios – have found their way into literally millions of homes and offices around the world. Under the shadow of his fight to regain his royal title, Bernadotte blazed his own way, building a reputation and legacy as one of Sweden's most famous and revered designers.

The clearest indication of his global impact is the simple fact that many people who are familiar with the Swedish Royal Family recognize the royals only by their titles – such as King Carl XVI Gustav – yet they are unaware that the family's last name is Bernadotte. Sigvard Bernadotte arguably made the Bernadotte name more recognizable as his own than it is for the royal family he was denied a place in.

Hard to believe, I know, that some dude who basically drew pictures of tea kettles for a living could have been so influential. Maybe if you've ever burned your hand on ugly, crappy, old tea kettle or had something slip out of your grip you can appreciate the work that goes into making the simple things in life more livable.

Bernadotte's ubiquitous 1957 Virrvarr pattern has been
used on everything from countertops and cutting boards
to blankets from Sassabrassa to American floors by Formica
From an early age, young Sigvard was influenced by his great uncle, Prince Eugén. His great uncle was recognized as much as an artist as a member of the royal family. Eugén became known as the "Painter Prince" and earned a stature as one of the top artists of his day. (That day was a reeeeeally long time ago. The Painter Prince lived from 1865 to 1947.)

Sigvard recalled his great uncle's example in a 2002 interview with the now-defunct but nonetheless gorgeous Stockholm New Magazine, saying that Prince Eugén's attitude of making his own way in the world was an unforgettable early inspiration.

Eugén reportedly advised Sigvard's father, Gustav VI Adolf, to not feel bound by his nobility. "Gusti, look at me. I've done quite well for myself," he proclaimed, implying that a man could be whatever he chose in life. Amen to that, brother. Don't let the man keep ya down, Siggie.

A sampling of kitchenwares
designed by Sigvard Bernadotte.
Click images for larger views.
Young Sigvard took this sentiment to heart post haste. At age 16, he became the first member of the royal family to ever graduate from high school. Apparently it didn't take much to be an overachiever in that family. He was born in 1907, so we're talking Class of '23 here.

Within a few years he had upped the ante to become the first Swedish royal to graduate from college. He earned multiple degrees at Uppsala University, studying art history, English and political science. As he had grown up the Duke of Uppland, it was somewhat notable that the local duke had graduated from the local university.

Being among common people quickly became a theme of his life. From there, Sigvard was off to studying theater in Munich. (Slow down, dude, you're making us all look lazy!)

After a couple more years, Sigvard was working as an apprentice under famed Swedish artist Olle Hjortzberg, famous for designing the 1912 Stockholm Olympics poster.

Hjortzberg can be credited as a significant, early influence toward Sigvard's eventual focused and discplined style. Stockholm's Aftonbladet newspaper described Sigvard's style in a postmortem retrospective by saying "His idiom was tight and stylish." Hjortzberg's trademark style was just that.

At age 23, after leaving his appreticeship under Hjortzberg, he began sharing his time between crafting silver pieces for Georg Jensen in Copenhagen and directing films and doing set designs for MGM in Hollywood.

He didn't have to do any of this stuff. Being born into royalty, he could have just as easily sat on his royal ass in Sweden. He wasn't a prince in Germany where he studied drama. He wasn't a prince in Denmark where he designed silver. And he certainly wasn't a prince in California where he worked on films. Come to think of it, after he married a commoner in 1934, he wasn't a prince anywhere.

Finally settling down a bit at age 43, Sigvard Bernadotte teamed up with Acton Bjørn to establish the cleverly named Bernadotte & Bjørn industrial design studio in Copenhagen. That was 1950.

As Scandinavia's first company dedicated exclusively to industrial design, you can't really understate what a ground-breaking and influential move this was. The recognition that Scandinavian countries now enjoy as design capitals of the world can be traced back to this forward-thinking move. It seems only appropriate that Swedes and Danes collaborated to make it happen.

Bernadotte & Bjørn specialized in what has been described as "functionality with a human element." They were very much inspired by American ideas and practicality, but brought a refined simplicity to their work.

The company grew with Sigvard dividing his time between design work and actively pursuing clients. Whether the items were kitchenwares for Husqvarna, flatware for Scandinavian airline SAS, bowls for Rosti, radios for Bang & Olufsen, it was functional objects that were his greatest joy, so he sought clients whose products were used in everyday life.

In 1953, Sigvard published a book as an homage to the craft he so loved. Almost as cleverly named as his company, his book Industrial Design was also revered for its simplicity and beauty.

Before long, Bernadotte & Bjørn expanded to establish branch offices in Stockholm and New York. The firm boasted an impressive list of international clients – clients who became as known for smart design as Bernadotte & Bjørn themselves. Having produced everything from tables and chairs to eyeglasses, if you had the money, you could conceivably outfit your home entirely with Bernadotte & Bjørn designs.

His reputation was so solidified by the early sixties that Sigvard became president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design and served in that capacity for nearly three years. He also co-founded the Society of Swedish Industrial Designers.

After fourteen years of innovative collaboration with Acton Bjørn, it became time for Sigvard to strike out on his own again. He did that in 1964 by establishing his own design studio in Stockholm. Again, a real joker with naming things, he dubbed the studio Bernadotte Design AB. ("AB" stands for "aktiebolag" and is the Swedish equivalent of "corporation.")

Bernadotte Design continued cranking out the goods and Sigvard continued his hands-on approach. His house of designers was said to have enjoyed his constant involvement, and the new company quickly covered the ground from classical dinnerware to the logo of the Marabou chocolate company – as omnipresent in Sweden as Hershey's is in America.

To chronicle his life's adventures, he published another book in 1975. This one, Krona Eller Klave ("Heads or Tails"), was his autobiography. The book debuted when he was 68 years old, though he would live another 26 years after its publication, barely slowing down before his 2002 death at age 94.

Sigvard Bernadotte's designs have proven to be timeless. The practical sensibilities he brought into his designs for usable, everyday items still balances the lines between retro, modern and futuristic. His classic silversmith work is represented in the permanent collection New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even now in 2010, manufacturers are producing new items based on his designs. Swedish eyewear maker Skaga has just released a beautifully simple line of eyeglasses from Sigvard Bernadotte's drawings from the 1960's.

I need a new pair of glasses and I think I found just what I'm looking for here. How amazing would it be to be able to use one of Sigvard's designs every day to see my own design work with more clarity? Now it's just a matter of deciding which ones I want and then saving some dollars and kronor.

Current Swedish Princesses Madeleine (left)
and Victoria (center) at the opening of a 2008 event
honoring Sigvard Bernadotte's design work.
Despite decades of fruitless appeals to his nephew, King Carl XVI Gustaf, to restore his princely title – some would say being a "royal pain in the ass" – recognition and appreciation from the current royal court is not entirely absent.

In the summer of 2008, both current princesses, Sigvard's great nieces, chaired the grand opening of an exhibition of his lifelong work in pioneering Swedish industrial design.

The exhibition at the Sofiero Park in Helsingborg displayed "a wide range of Sigvard Bernadotte's rich and multifaceted designer efforts... drawings, silver objects from Georg Jensen, typewriters from Facit, kitchen furniture from Formac, housewares from Moderna Kök and Rosti, and filmed material." The event was covered by Life Magazine.

The princesses' brother has also doled out the acknowledgments. Following in his notorious great uncle's footsteps, the current Prince of Sweden, 30-year-old Prince Carl Philip, is now working in graphic and industrial design.

In an interview last year with the magazine Hus och Hem ("House and Home"), Carl Philip's style was described as modern, simple and timeless. The article contains a gallery with images of Carl Philip's and Sigvard's tablewares.

Sigvard Bernadotte's 1966 flatware designed for
SAS Scandinavian Airlines (It's true, they really
used to hand out knives during flights.)
Presumably during a break the prince was taking from driving absurdly fast, interviewer Stefan Nilsson asked the inevitable question, "Is Sigvard Bernadotte is a role model?" Carl Philip complimented his great uncle, "He created many great things. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to talk to him about design because he passed away before I decided that I would become a designer."

Nonetheless, one could easily draw a parallel between Prince Eugén's influence being passed to his great nephew Sigvard, and that in turn, being passed to Sigvard's great nephew Prince Carl Phillip.

Some of Carl Philip's notable work is a set of silver tableware for Swedish cutlery house Mema/GAB, the first new set of silver the company had produced in 30 years. Great Swedish design will live on in the royal family, it seems.

Aftonbladet has a small gallery featuring highlights of Sigvard Bernadotte's life and work on their site.

If you haven't yet seen the earlier story of Sigvard Bernadotte's battle to be reinstated as a prince, it is still available at this link.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Word on the Street (and why it isn't "sorry")

The Korean language has seven different levels of familiarity that can be used when a speaker is addressing someone. These "honorifics" indicate the distinct relationship the two people have with each other. In particular, the way someone would address a senior citizen is different than the way one would speak to a student, peer or salesperson.

These levels of familiarity can differ even within a single conversation. In any language, the phrases a police officer uses when addressing a citizen are dramatically different than the words that civilian choses in response.

Koreans take the idea of honorifics to extensive measures in their language, and this is a drastically more complex version of what we are accustomed to in the western world.

The German language, for example, essentially has two basic levels of respect, the polite ("Sie") and the familiar ("du"). Similarly, Swedish has just two forms ("ni" and "du"). However, in everyday Swedish language, the polite "ni" is being used increasingly more rarely.

While its obituary has not yet been completely readied for publication, the slow death of "ni" has been underway for some time. I first learned of its decreasing usage on a Swedish language instructional program that was produced more than fifteen years ago. The program was on a cassette tape, if that gives you any idea of how long "ni" has been on its way out the door. As far as I can tell, "ni" is still around and I've heard people use it, but it exists now largely as a term of respect used for and by elders.

My impression is that English is one of the world's most casual languages, based on its widespread usage, its relentless reinvention through the production of popular slang, and because it has already reached the point of having just one level of honorific address ("you").

In English, the familiar "you" can be softened and customized with extra words of respect to create the feel of something more polite. For instance "you're next, sir" or "here you go, ma'am" are a lot more reverent than simply using "you." In isolated instances, such as addressing a judge or member of royalty, other additional (but rare) English terms may be used, like "Your Honor" or "Your Highness."

Despite the prevalence of casual language in the United States, it's still pretty hard to imagine someone reasonably trying to get an American police officer's attention as informally as "Hey, you!" More likely, an "Excuse me, officer" would be an appropriate start, with the familiarity of "you" being acceptable only after a friendly conversation is underway. But this may have more to do with the public's relationship to law enforcement than with any overarching social norms that would be acceptable outside of that dynamic. I've noticed that the relationship between the police and the citizenry in Sweden is much less stressed or adversarial than in the US, if adversarial at all.

Some may see the decreasing use of polite forms of address , whether in Sweden or the United States, as an increase in casual attitudes toward life and society. When someone is more familiar with their surroundings, they are more apt to be forward. It's true that a lot of boundaries have been brought down and a more level field of commonality has become customary since the formality that definitively separated classes, races and genders as recently as the 1700's.

Still, simple politeness can go a long way.

In August of last year, I was walking around, exploring the Kulturfestival in Stockholm. The center-city streets were lined with booths selling regional foods and stages featuring musical performances by every genre imaginable.

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg, August 2009
As I turned a corner to walk through what is usually a busy intersection at Gustav Adolfs Torg, I was shocked to find the entire plaza filled with thousands of people. It was mind-blowing to suddenly see so many people because, from around the corner, I hadn't heard any of the noises you'd typically expect to find a crowd of people making. Thousands of Swedes were standing in complete, respectful silence, attentively facing a huge stage upon which the Royal Swedish Opera was performing with a full orchestra.

No one was shouting, hooting, hollering or even talking loudly. Nary a "whooohooo!" was heard. Only once was an unreasonably audible motor vehicle noticed. Coming from Kentucky, where outdoor festivals tend to be rowdy free-for-alls, I couldn't help but feel, as I made my way into the center of the crowd, that the eerie silence among thousands of people was truly surreal. This was the largest public display of politeness I had ever witnessed.

Stockholm Midnight Marathon
on Götgatan, August 2009
Later that night, the populace let its hair down while cheering on runners in Stockholm's Midnight Marathon. The race snaked through the rainy city on blocked-off streets. The entire route was lined with clapping, shouting Stockholmers - even cheerleaders and DJ tables - reveling and encouraging a mass of athletes from every level.

Despite all the courtesy that comes in the form of hushed reverence for occasions like a free outdoor performance of the opera, one big difference that many Americans notice about Swedes when they visit Stockholm is that every single person seems to believe they own the entire sidewalk.

On any given day, if a Stockholm sidewalk is full of people and an American is heading directly toward a Swede, it is easy to determine which one is American: the one who gets out of the way to allow the other to pass. If nobody backs down and a horrible collision occurs, you still have a second chance to determine which character is from the United States: the one who apologizes for bumping into the other.

Perhaps Americans apologize too much - not just for simple infractions like walking in front of someone who is looking at items on a grocery store shelf, accidentally bumping into someone, or building a heartless military empire of capitalism on the shoulders of the world's impoverished - or maybe Swedes just don't feel it's necessary to apologize for the minor casualties that everyday life in a big city can produce. These bumps are inevitable. Somewhere in the middle is perhaps a reasonable balance.

After about a year Sweden and other parts of Western Europe, since I've been back in Louisville, the politeness and hospitality in Kentucky have been overwhelming. If you've gotten used to expecting everyone to be quiet and respectful in a different way, all the outward graciousness can seem absurd if not excessive.

Aside from the pervasive politeness, bump apologies, door-holding and you-can-go-first mentality, complete strangers in Louisville will make eye contact with a nod or even a verbal "Hey, how ya doin'?" when passing on the street. It's Annika Norlin's worst nightmare of Stockholm insecurity.

In a 2006 column in the Stockholm City paper, columnist Sakine Madon described being antisocial as one of Stockholm's "strict norms." In the column, which was quoted on The Local's blog back then, she wrote, "Start a conversation on the tube or bus? Never! I'll leave that to nutcases or country bumpkins or foreigners who haven't blended in with the capital's strict norms."

In places like Kentucky, a lot of legend has been based around ideas like Southern Hospitality. In reality, my hometown of Louisville is geographically closer to Canada than it is to Memphis (583 km to Windsor, Ontario, versus 619 km to Memphis, Tennessee, see map). But regardless of its geographical proximity to the Great White North, Kentucky is often considered part of the American South.

I've been fascinated with the Culture of Apology for some time now. My website chronicles these apologies in realtime as they appear on news sites around the world (see "Apology Central" under the headlines on the front page).

Whether it's a shamed politician confessing to a room full of reporters with his shamed wife standing off to the side, or a major corporation issuing a statement over how their racy new commercial was not intended to demean any particular or obscure ceremonial rituals of the Navajo tribe nor any persecuted minority of Americans with Fat Ass Syndrome, these apologies are endlessly entertaining.

As a boy raised in Kentucky, here's how polite I am: I was recently at my parents' house, and even though no one else was home, when I went to the bathroom, I closed the door behind me and locked it.

I'm sure there are plenty of people ("gentlemen") reading this who feel like it's perfectly okay to pee with the door wide open if nobody else is in the building. Well, that's not how I was raised, sir. I always take this precaution just to be polite in case someone comes home.

Okay, well, maybe part of it is politeness and part of it is a morbid is fear being caught with my pants down.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

These last few images are in 3D and can be viewed with red-blue anaglyph glasses. You can get a pair free if you order my 2001 album Nashville Geographic. Amazon has used copies as low as 86 cents.

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg


Monday, February 01, 2010

Malmö's Turning Torso

At the southwestern tip of Sweden, just across the strait from Copenhagen, Denmark, lies Sweden's third most-populous city, Malmö.

Malmö has a population of a quarter-million residents, sitting in an urban area of about 635,000. These Swedes, in the province of Skåne (pronounced Skoa-neh), speak a crazy dialect of Swedish called Skånsk. It sounds like a hybrid of Danish and Swedish.

Skåne was actually part of Denmark at one time, but to the surprise of some, that changed somewhere around 1658. Sometimes news takes a while to spread. On a clear day, Malmö and Copenhagen are visible from each other's shores. The Öresund Strait which separates them is just 4 km (2.5 miles) across at its narrowest point.

Today, the countries are joined by the Öresundbron, a relatively new bridge and tunnel network which opened ten years ago this summer. At a cost of more than $3 billion, this highway and railroad connection was completely financed by a company jointly owned by the Swedish and Danish governments at no expense to the taxpayers. (That was $3 billion when dollars were actually worth something. Today it would be in the neighborhood of $5.6 billion.) Vehicles pay a toll to access the crossing and the project is expected to be paid for by 2035.

Before the ribbon was cut on the bridge ten years ago, ferries were the primary means of moving people and vehicles between the two nations. But on July 2, 2000, trains carrying King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (the King's cousin) met on the artificial island of Peberholm about halfway between the crossing. A ceremony there officially opened the span to traffic which now amounts to nearly 30 million crossers per year.

Like almost all European countries, Denmark and Sweden share an open border. Travelers are not checked or required to stop when passing from one to the other.

For decades, Malmö was most easily recognized by the image of the Kockumskranen, a monstrous, seaside gantry crane which could move 1,500 tons of freight to and from ocean cargo ships in a single lift. In the late 1990's when plans were announced to remove the crane, a local movement began to establish a new icon for the city.

That movement resulted in the unique, twisting, 54-story apartment skyscraper which towers above the city today. A picture is truly worth a thousand words when talking about this piece of modern architecture.

As the tallest building in Sweden, the Turning Torso was competed in 2006, rising 190 meters (623 feet) above the harbor and offering sweeping views of Malmö and neighboring Denmark, weather permitting. 147 residential rental apartments make up the bulk of the building, filling the 14th to 52nd floors. Offices and conference space make up the rest.

The Turning Torso was designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His long list of impressive credentials includes the 2004 Olympic Stadium in Athens, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the new PATH railway station at the World Trade Center site in New York.

His work is laden with flowing, sweeping curves and clearly displays his training as both a sculptor and civil engineer. The Torso is based on one of his earlier sculptures and, in fact, other pieces of his artwork decorate the interiors of the tower.

Polaroid of the Turning Torso, August 2008
Calatrava is also the designer of the now-on-hold Chicago Spire, a much more imposing swirling tower that is intended to be the new tallest building in the United States. Financing problems have plagued that project. Calatrava now has a lien filed against the building, claiming the developer owes his architectural firm more than $11 million.

Calatrava's twisting building designs present a laundry list of uncommon construction challenges. Reckon that's why they pay him $11 million to draw pictures all day. Aside from the top and bottom floors, the floorplans for most tall buildings and skyscrapers can be identically configured and repeated throughout the building.

Generally speaking, the 4th floor and 23rd floor of a building – and all floors in between – are the same shape and have the same layout. In swirling designs such as the Turning Torso and Chicago Spire, because of their bending and curved silhouettes, the dimensions and shape of each floor are unique. That is illustrated fairly well by looking at the building from above, as in this satellite view of the Turning Torso.

Perhaps more compelling than the outward appearance of the Torso are some characteristics of what it the building actually does while quietly watching over the harbor. The building's developer and owner, HSB, participates in a program called Detoxifying the Construction Business which influenced many of the materials chosen during construction. The Swedish mindset of conservation and efficiency no doubt also had an effect.

To that end, Turning Torso is outfitted with an active recycling system that converts tenants' discarded organic waste into biogas to fuel some of Malmö's city buses. And not only does the Torso generate energy for buses, but the building itself is powered entirely with locally-produced renewable energy.

Picnic with Emma at Västra Hamn, August 2008
In addition to the unveiling of this distinctive, new tower, the area of Malmö surrounding the building, Västra Hamn ("Western Harbor"), has undergone a remarkable reinvention in recent years. Less than a decade ago, this neighborhood didn't even exist in its current form.

A major effort to reclaim the shoreline has essentially erased a run-down oil port and industrial zone which previously occupied the space, and transformed it into a modern seaside residential area. Today, large, open, green fields give way to rocky beaches and pristinely clean water. Malmö's residents as well as tourists flock to Västra Hamn's beaches in the summer.

A long, shoreline promenade was also installed during the neighborhood's redevelopment and has proven to be popular at all times of the year. In the summer it is populated with people of all ages. The walkway is dotted with small shops and a few vending carts offering ice cream, coffee and snacks.

Västra Hamn includes a number of other notable tenants who have moved into the area. It is home to Malmö's City Archives, the Media School, the World Maritime University, an ice skating rink and sports center.

I have visited the area several times in the past couple of years, both during the summer and winter. In 2008, my Swedish friend Emma (who lives in Malmö) and I rode bicycles from her apartment to Västra Hamn to indulge in an oceanside picnic on a crisp and perfect late summer afternoon. (Some readers may know that I fancy myself a semi-professional picnic planner.) That sunny day was just a few weeks after Emma and I had visited another famous skyscraper, the Empire State Building, with our mutual friend Wictoria. Good times. The Turning Torso, if located in New York, would be that city's 71st tallest building.

Maggie developing a Polaroid of the
Turning Torso in August 2009
Last summer I was at Västra Hamn again when my buddy Maggie from Louisville was visiting Sweden. On an unusually hot day last August, we enjoyed a refreshing swim in the crystal clear water. Emma was out of town that time, but she was nice enough to let us trash her apartment and socialize with her capricious cat, Skrållan, while she was away.

The first time I laid eyes on the Turning Torso in February 2008, the weather was as swirling as the building itself. In freezing rain, I scoped out the tower from every angle. When you're standing on the ground looking up at the edifice, it truly does not look like it should be standing. The sweeps and angles it takes seem just a little too drastic. I have heard that residents have reported the upper floors swaying a bit in the wind, but most tall buildings do have some flexibility.

Not everybody drops in on the the Turning Torso in the same casual and relaxing ways I have. The building made news in August 2006 when, like an extreme sports version of Philippe Petit, the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner parachuted from a helicopter onto the the top of the building, then jumped again to the ground. A video of that craziness can be seen at this link.

Now, I'd like to invite you to enjoy these handsome photographs from my visits to the area:

Some of these additional views are from the HSB Turning Torso website. The site is in Swedish, but worth a look whether you can read it or not.

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