Part 1. Don’t get too comfortable.
New Zealand was a pretty rough country. Most people think of verdant hills, sheep, the near-total absence of a military, cows, happy-go-lucky locals, and sheep when they think of New Zealand and all this is true but man, it’s a hard place to find work as a foreigner.
New Zealand is rich in natural resources.
We had unexpectedly crash landed on the in New Zealand after an unfortunate episode involving a retired Pakistani-Sabahan warlord. Taupō was great in many ways. Located central to the North Island, Taupō is roughly equidistant to Auckland and Wellington. It was an ideal jumping-off point for excursions into the scenic Northlands, the vineyards of Hawkes Bay, the wild trails of Tongariro, and visits to Fiona’s mad hillbilly family in the Waikato.
Locally, our veranda boasted a million-dollar view of the sunset over Lake Taupō. Plenty of great restaurants where the staff knew us by name and menu item. And who can forget our local friends, Jo, Simon, Sally, and a little ways up the road, fellow Beijing veterans Mark and Karen? Unfortunately, like so many things in life, it is hard to do much in Taupō without money.
Fiona managed to find full-time work more or less straight away. She covered maternity leave for a teacher at a school even further into the countryside than we already lived. I manned the house, spending the day cooking, cleaning, planning our wedding, and thinking about writing. Over and over friends and fellow educators assured us, “A male teacher will be snapped up so quick! You’ll be working before you know it.”
There’s a punchline here, I’m sure of it.
Weeks and months passed. No snapping happened. For interviews, I traveled further and further out from our home base. At one point it seemed that we might have to compromise on our Kiwi bumpkin values and relocate to Auckland. Yet even there, I sat countless interviews, granted false assurances of “sure things” and “calls back by the end of this week” but without one single job offer.
By May, I was teaching part-time at an English language school for young foreigners. Every afternoon, the following lesson for a mixed group of listless teenagers from the Pacific Islands and ridiculously wealthy, incredibly disinterested Saudis. “Repeat after me: this is a pencil, this is a pen.”
Fiona and I love New Zealand. We want to call it home one day. But we were sick to death of being poor, working at dead-end jobs. We had given NZ a fair shot, just like I had given the USA a chance all those years ago.
We finally decided the time had come to call The Man. Our Teacher Pimp.
“Hey there you two! I’ve some terrific placements for you to consider. Have you ever heard of a place called Backwardistan?”
Our TP, Andy, is a sweet guy. He’s the hokey, somewhat rotund wacky neighbor character from innumerable sitcoms. He’s a businessman first; successful placements are his bread and butter. Knowing this, we have to do a bit of homework with every offer he sends our way. Backwardistan was immediately off the table.
“You okay with a Slovak-only-speaking workplace?”
“Their national currency isn’t recognized by most of the world but…”
“Yes, there’s been an ongoing military coup. That’s why the school’s perimeter walls are built so high.”
“Well, I’ve got this job in Sweden. There’s another one in Qatar. The Sweden school has been around for 25 years, great curriculum, small class sizes. The Qatar school Fiona remembers, as she worked there back in ’08.
“Both want to hire you tomorrow.”
Qatar offered a generous salary. Fiona had finished her previous assignment with the school on good terms. The only part that didn’t fit was the grade level. They wanted me to teach babies. I can’t handle babies.
We knew far less about Sweden. Only that it was in Europe and the garrulous head of school was over-the-top eager to hire us. Some place called “Malmö,” once a cornerstone of the Scandinavian shipbuilding empire, nowadays struggling to reinvent itself as a tech industry capital that’s “practically in Copenhagen.”
Pictured: Not Malmö
What they hey. Let’s cross one more continent off our list.
Part 2. Välkommen till Malmö, Sveriges.
Let me tell you about Sweden. There’s this couple. Every time I disembark from my bus, the same couple is at my stop. Every time. He always leans against a pillar, smug look on his face. She alights from her bus. Their eyes meet. Suddenly, no one else exists on that platform. She floats over to him and he embraces her, their lips meet in the sort of fiery, frenzied kiss you only see in European countries. Every time, it’s like she just returned from a stint of administering aid to sub-Saharan Africa, or possibly serving time for a crime she did not commit, and he patiently has waited for many long years, thinking of her by day, dreaming of her by night.
Except that this encounter happens every afternoon around 3:30 pm.
Every single afternoon.
From the bus station, I browse the outdoor produce market. Tonight I’m thinking… artichoke and celery root bisque, Norwegian salmon with fresh dill and whipped potatoes, maybe a bit of ice cream with caramelized apples. More on the food later. Let’s talk about the merchants. Roughly half the vendors speak Swedish, the others Arabic, thanks to Sweden’s open-door immigration policy. I find it’s easier to haggle with the Arabic guys.
If you want to see a Swede get bent out of shape, start a conversation about immigration.
In the US, my polite liberal friends jabber on about melting pots and rich tapestries and the American Experiment and their friend Carlos though they have a hard time remembering if Carlos is from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, or Canada.
My friends on the right prophesize dark days when Americans might one day speak more than one language, and explain with furrowed brows that such a plurality of cultures will inevitably bring about the demise of our pure American society.
Sweden too has its political left and right, though the spectrum is wider, ranging from self-described communists to smiling fascists. Talk about immigration though, and the lines disappear. Everyone hates the immigrants, and Swedes won’t sugarcoat their feelings. They’ll straight up tell you about how these dirty, disrespectful refugee scumbags are wrecking the country. Corrupting the youth. Crowding the bus station. Trying to impose Sharia law. Not learning Swedish. Probably up to something right… now.
Left, right, and everything in-between
Part 3. Folks.
Shahab was the first friend I made in Sweden. He left Iran when his currency trading enterprise collapsed, thanks to economic sanctions from my country. He’s been in a holding pattern in Malmö, waiting for Denmark (with its far more draconian immigration policy) to allow him in to live with his Danish girlfriend. Shahab cooks a mean rice pilaf. On any given night, his apartment fills with smoke and santoor players. He suffers from late night ice cream cravings.
Pepper Republik I met through the Couch Surfing network, or maybe it was MeetUp. Pakistani by birth, Brooklynite by design. He owns the world’s most magnificent collection of durbans and rocks a mustache that could destroy lesser mustaches, if he had an ill-wishing bone in his body. We both enjoy micro-brewed beer, so we drink together whenever possible. His partner, a soft-spoken Swedish photographer, plays “straight man” in the odd couple.
Linda and Birgitta are our saviors out here. They are caring friends, eager to show us what Sweden has to offer. They are the only level-headed people we work with and, defying the Swedish “non-confrontational” stereotype, they are unafraid to speak their minds. Maybe it’s because they’re not typical Swedes. Perhaps it’s because they’re not British.
We are friends
British Bob is every twit from London you ever met. He lived in our flat for a couple months when he was having a hard time not being homeless. He’s eternally working on his Masters thesis. He’s sort of male groupie, following legendary musicians around the world and taking their picture. Except that he calls himself a photographer, not a groupie. He really likes to remind people he’s a photographer. It’s hard to have a conversation with British Bob where it does not come up that he is a photographer. He’s extremely health conscious and won’t eat foods with any real ingredients. He says he used to be obese, which is hard to believe when you see him dressed every day in a slim-cut paisley shirt, rocker jeans, and elevator boots. He just wears that around the house, always dressed to the nines, because whatever. Maybe Steve Vai will show up.
Chicago Bob is every dude from Chicago you ever met. He runs the only really American bar in town. More a man cave than a bar. His self-assured smirk lands him in the beds of strange women most nights of the week. He is a dispensary of unsolicited advice on the subject.
“Tell you what you should do, bro. Dump the chick already. Lookit’ her. She’s clearly nuts. Am I right?”
“You should stick with it, bro. You get past 35, and pickings get slim. Chicks only get crazier. Something about their hormones.”
“My buddy over here, Greg, he’s a mess. Told him, ‘Bro! These Swedish chicks! They’ll ruin ya!’ You think he listened? Lookit’ him. He’s a mess.”
Chicago Bob, like his friend Greg, like 99% of the other Western expat males in Sweden, came to Malmö in the same fashion. The sad sorry saga begins with a Swedish girl he met back in his home country, or possibly while backpacking through Argentina, or drunk at a Moon Party in Thailand. They fell in love. She said she wanted him and no one else because no one had ever made her feel that way before. Next thing he knows, he’s moved his entire life to their little love nest in some town rich in ö’s and å’s. He starts to unpack his suitcase. She begins throwing things at him, breaking the plates, screaming about how he’s a shit and she never wants to see him again. His life has been a wreck ever since.
One of my local friends, Drunk Olaf, once told me of Sweden’s role in World War II.
“So, the Nazis were just rampaging shit, yeah? And Adolf Hitler is all like, ‘Hey Scandinavia, you’re next,’ yeah?
“The Danes, they were all like ‘Rawarr! Vee are Vikings, you shall not pass!’ and the Luftwaffe took Copenhagen in like ten minutes or something like that.
“So the king or whatever of Sweden is like, ‘Okay listen Mister Hitler. You can’t invade us. We are neutral and we don’t want any of your making war. So we mean, like, if you were to march through our country, we’d just have to pretend not to see you.’
“And that is how Hitler conquered Norway.”
“So,” I replied, “It’s like Sweden collaborated with the Nazis under the guise of neutrality?”
“No no no,” he retorted. “It just that we are a very meek people. We’re like wimpy vikings.”
Exhibit A: pacifier tree
Exhibit B: even their wildlife is sensitive
Everyone is abnormally tall. Even for me at 5’11”. Apparently, that’s 183 cm to the rest of the world, just in case you were curious.
I used to think the Swedish language was like that Muppet chef. Now I realize it’s more like a drunk who’s getting over a crippling addiction to pharmaceuticals. Maybe that’s why I found it easy to learn. It reminded me of wilder years.
Malmö makes Portland look like the town you lived in before Portland. Free earplugs at concerts. Hair metal with cello. Prog rock that advances from Tortoise to Yes to what Kiwis affectionately call a “hot mess.”
Gypsies. Gypsies everywhere. Not those hipster gypsies (hypsies?) you see in Phish lots and Burning Mans, but real deal, Big Fat Wedding-having, Ferrari t-shirt wearing, braided goatee-sporting, 12-year-old gyrating gypsies.
Part 4. The day-to-day
We are definitely in northern Europe. Triangular houses and separate lanes for the motorist, cyclist, and pedestrian? Check. Pensioner on a recumbent bicycle smoking a pipe? Super check.
Want to spend a day cycling? How about a week? A month? Want some company on that ride? Finding an organized ride or organizing one’s own is crazy easy out here. Fiona and I spent our few sunny weekends riding the southern coastlines of Sweden and Denmark.
We are definitely in Sweden. Among other clichés, there’s IKEA. IKEA, along with Volvo, Ericsson, H & M, and Skype, is a cornerstone of Sverige life. Moreover, Malmö is IKEA’s world corporate headquarters, so the joke about everyone having the same coffee table is well worn.
I know I’ve seen that chair somewhere else…
Shopping at IKEA happens in stages.
- Wow. This place is huge! Such cool design concepts! I can choose from a shopping cart or a plastic handbag. Whoa, are those meatballs?
- This is neat. It’s like walking through a carnival maze full of fun things I can take home! I’m full of meatballs and feel like I could spend all day here.
- I came here for bed sheets. Why do I have a colander, ceramic vase, and wire mesh rubbish bin? How did I upgrade from a handbag to a cart? Why is my stomach growling? Do I need more meatballs? And where the hell are the bed sheets?
- How have five hours gone by? They didn’t even have any nice bed sheets. They were all covered with some kind of garish pattern… dolphins or asparagus or something, I couldn’t tell. How do I get out of this stupid place?
- I hope this place burns to the ground, just so they learn you can’t trap people in a building like this. I keep walking towards the exit signs, but there’s no exit. Only more cheese graters and lint removers.
- In the name of all that is holy, why do they only have three registers open? There are like, 20 registers, but I’m standing behind seventeen billion families in one of three lines and everyone has apparently decided to furnish their house today.
- I am never returning to that god awful place again.
- Hmm. This bookshelf is missing an obscurely shaped screw, and this pillow doesn’t fit into any pillowcase… except for the ones I found at IKEA. Damn you IKEAAAAAAAAAA!!
MAXI ICA is where one goes for groceries. I was in the baking goods section, shopping for pancake ingredients. Carefully, I mouthed the words on the labels.
“Bikarbonit.” Sounds like bicarbonate. As in, bicarbonate soda. Baking soda. Sorted!
Just then, a man of vaguely Central Asian descent approached me.
“Eh-excuse me,” he began, pointing to a photo of bules, the cinnamon buns that are popular around these parts. “Do you, ah, know the things I must get to make these?”
I smiled and shrugged, “Sorry man, I’m new here too. Still learning my Swedish.”
“Ah yes!” he smiled. “It is so hard! Good luck my friend! Good luck!”
The exchange gave me a boost of confidence. At least I don’t look like a confused foreigner in the grocery store anymore. Now if I can just figure out which of these twenty varieties of flour is self-rising…
The typical neighborhood grocer has an entire section for just cheese. Another section for just sausage. Another, just smoked and pickled fish. It’s the end of summer, so I was only half surprised that it took me ten minutes to fully survey the seasonal tomato section in produce. Did you know that Sweden raises more varieties of tomatoes than of Swedes right now? Half of them are locally grown in Malmö, and most are organic.
It follows then that I’ve been cooking a great deal. Experimenting. Ever since I quit smoking last February I am able to taste food. Lamb tastes like lamb and beef tastes like beef. Cauliflower and broccoli taste different. If these seem like no-brainers, you’ve probably never been a hardline smoker.
Another great thing about Sweden? Sexual liberation. I’ve seen more side-boob action in my neighborhood park than I’ve seen on the internet. Incentive to make the most of the great outdoors. Fiona and I compete for who can spot more public side-boob.
I understand now why Robert Crumb left the United States to make Europe his new home. The subjects are so appropriate to his drawing style. My lazy Saturdays are spent in a warm café slowly working my way through the three cups of drip coffee brewed so strong as to produce the lovely tiny yellow bubbles round the rim, and through the window, I’d see Crumb’s people walk past.
Her, with the long, thick legs that could power a bicycle that could power a generator that could power the world if we could just get over fossil fuels.
Him, with the porous nose and thick rim glasses and mustache that’s so post-post-post hipster ironic he’s not sure if it’s still ironic or not.
Her, with those elbows that beg for Crumb’s cross-hatching.
Him, with those short shorts and gargantuan galoshes that scream “Keep on truckin’!”
Part 5. How working overseas Is sort of like a zombie flick
I was in a bootleg DVD shop somewhere in China — or what is Malaysia? Or Vietnam? Can’t be sure. So there I was, scanning the titles. Came across an entire row of zombie flicks. “Zombie Massacre,” “Zombie Rampage,” “Night of the Living (etc).”
A good hour or so must have passed, me reading over those DVD covers, trying to make sense of the poor English-to-Chinese-to-English translations ripped from the IMDb website, carefully weighing options.
Should I get the one about the zombie Nazis terrorizing the ski lodge, or the one about the zombie prom? Maybe both. Fuck it. They’re only a few bucks each. Not like this is Best Buy.
Like I said, time passed. I know time passed because by the time I settled on the one about Nazi zombies in the snow, Fiona had made a run of the entire store, paid for her selections, and was ready to get ice cream.
This got me thinking. Why do I find zombies so damned fascinating?
That was circa 2010. As I close this epistle from Sweden, after having lived and worked in Lebanon, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, and New Zealand since just 2005, the answer finally occurs to me.
I’m afraid of zombies.
First, consider the zombie. This is the single most terrifying movie monster and why? Because you cannot stop it. You cannot stop it because there’s never an “it.” Only “them.” And no matter how many brains you separate from bodies, there will always be more of “them.”
Second, consider the real world. What do we most fear? Becoming one of “them.” Not the dead, but the living dead. One of the shuffling masses. Brainlessly attending to our duties, never stopping to ponder exactly what it is that drives us to shuffle.
Third, consider the relevance of zombie lore to the real world. According to the Romero model, once bitten by a zombie, you become a zombie. According to our deepest fears, once snagged by a mortgage, spouse, children, career path with room for advancement (not necessarily in that order), we become a zombie. How to escape? Do as they do in the movies. Keep on moving.
Ever since I learned how to pack a suitcase, moving has been my method. Girlfriend getting weird and attached? Leave the country. Job sucks? Leave the country. The premise of every zombie movie is that eventually the protagonist will find an Eden, free of zombie influence. It never works out. The same is true in life.
Having said that, Fiona and I have done better than most zombie movie characters. We haven’t died like suckers, our guts pulled out while we’re still alive to watch it happen. We haven’t let anything drag out, waiting for the infection to take hold, but too proud to acknowledge the inevitable, thus endangering those around us. At the same rate, we haven’t done a full-on suicide blitz, running at the hordes with a Molotov cocktail.
Instead, we have stayed on the down and low. Sure there have been a few risky episodes. Me cursing out a certain head of human resources. Fiona throwing a rack of magazines at a certain horrible person. On the whole though, we’ve maintained stealth mode. And when necessary, we pull the ejector switch.
Without getting into too many details, the time came to bail out of Sweden. When you’re outrunning zombies, comfort is death.
“Hi Andy. It’s us again. You still got that gig in Backwardistan?”