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.

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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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