I Went to Scandinavia
I had a week off. I decided to leave Germany. I booked plane tickets. I packed a bag. In the bag I put six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, five tshirts, one sweater, one button-down shirt, a pair of gym shorts, a pair of long underwear, a copy of The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, and a copy of Miami, a Flip videocamera, my passport, my cell phone, a 2 oz. bottle of hand sanitizer, my toothbrush, a bottle of vitamins, a bottle of zinc supplement, a cup, and a hefty amount of Konsyl psyllium fiber supplement. I was going to Scandinavia.
I didn’t know much about Scandinavia, other than that it was socialist, expensive, and cold. A couple years earlier I’d been published in a short-run magazine called Gustaf, and had limited contact with its editor Audun Mortensen. We’d met briefly in New York and emailed infrequently since then. When I contacted him upon moving to Berlin, he told me he’d been living with his girlfriend, another writer, Victoria Durnak, in Stockholm. He encouraged me to visit and said I could stay with them in their two-room apartment. I asked if he knew anywhere to stay in Oslo, and he seemed not to. I posted on my Facebook asking if I knew anyone in Oslo who wanted to host me for two nights. A few days later I received an email from Kenneth Pettersen, a poet who I’d never talked to as far as I could remember, but somehow seemed a constant in the internet literary scene. A month later I arrived in Rygge, took an hour bus ride through the gray Norwegian countryside, half asleep and flipping through DeLillo stories.
Upon entering Oslo, the scenery changed dramatically. Cranes hung across the sky, like the entire city was under construction. There were buildings coming up everywhere, skyscrapers looming over the damp clouds and foggy ocean. Kenneth met me at a subway station, which took me longer to find than it should’ve, after I paid the equivalent of $40 for a 48-hour pass, after I paid the equivalent of $30 for the bus from the airport. He took me to his apartment, which was a room with half of a kitchen and a bathroom with heated tiles. I had trouble keeping my eyes open and we made small talk, mostly about literature and blogs. He took me to a bar, where I bought a $40 fish and chips and Aass beer. I said something about how I didn’t understand how the money worked and he mentioned wages. He said he worked at a kindergarten.
We drank our beer, then another, and another. There was some sort of a event happening at the bar, hosting an airline company, and a pilot sat in the corner of the room, getting progressively drunker, while his slicked back hair changed directions. He was sweating in a sports coat, tie, jeans. People were silent, drinking from pitchers and then all of a sudden very loud and laughing and then silent again. The bar served Sam Adams and Brooklyn Lager.
I felt a little drunk. Kenneth’s friend showed up and I asked him about America’s Funniest Home Videos, a press that they were starting together. He talked about art and distribution. I peed a few times. Every time I returned from the bathroom, they spoke in Norwegian and I grinned looking at the taps. After a while we left. Kenneth’s friend walked us to an art house venue and disappeared. Inside, two young women read poetry in Norwegian. Everyone looked in shape and happy and had amazing bone structure, almost exactly the same-looking, dressed for a night in Williamsburg. I went to the bathroom and had another beer as the poetry ended. A band came on. A woman wailed non-word sounds and another violently whaled on a violin, while two men sat at a table messing around with computers and soundboards. Kenneth said his friend was the one in the glasses, but both men were wearing glasses. At one point, his friend took off all his clothes as the vocalist screamed. He fell to the floor and the song stopped. We walked home and watched YouTube videos until Kenneth wanted to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up early while he got ready for work. I wandered around the tiny apartment and went on his laptop. I typed on the keyboard, noticing a number of differences and misplacements. I filmed some things in his room, then slept for a half-hour longer. In Olso, I rode the subway to the Edvard Munch museum. It was raining and I looked at paintings, then wandered around some greenhouses in a park across the street. I walked to the Operahuset and climbed up some steps to the roof, listening to the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me soundtrack. I cried a little bit and felt water on my face. I stared at the ocean.
That night we went to a museum and watched films by a Chinese artist who played American pop songs over Chinese looped video clips with subtitles of the lyrics Google-translated into Chinese and then Google-translated that Chinese back into English. We walked on a dock and then to the bar and ate $40 fish and chips again and drank for a while. At Kenneth’s apartment, I asked to interview him regarding his life, recent poetry book—one that I could not find in any bookstore I visited, nor could I read due to the language barrier—and the forthcoming small press. I felt extremely tired, or maybe it was the alcohol, but the interview strayed and I couldn’t think of the questions I’d written down and when I read them from the paper I’d scribbled on two days earlier, I failed to fully comprehend what I’d written.
In the morning, I went to the Vigeland Sculpture Park and peed in the wooded area. My boots were hurting my feet, and it was still raining. I took an express train to a different airport and looked at $5000 bottles of cognac. I sat on an airplane.
The airport in Stockholm is called Arlanda. I remember this because my roommate in 2009/10 was born in Sweden and his laptop password was “arlanda1.” I texted Audun that I would be a little late and found my way around the airport. I exchanged some Norwegian krone for Swedish krona and took a $40 train from the airport to the central station. I flipped through a copy of Audun’s latest poetry book, Aaliyah, which Kenneth had given me the previous night. Many of the poems had English titles, and that was all I could read. A few, though, were in English and were extremely funny and exciting. I read them several times each.
jon mcclane sier
it’s not a system
it’s a country
you’re talking about people
a whole country full of people
sitting at home
scared to death in their houses
so if you’re done with your little nostalgic moment
maybe you could think a little bit
and help me catch these guys
just help me
an appointment with me
because the moment
she misses one
she is no longer
From the window of the train I could see an Asian male sitting on a bench. I thought he didn’t look like what I’d remember of Audun—bowl cut, large rounded glasses—but we made eye contact and I understood it was probably him. We smiled and shook hands and walked to a subway, talking in low voices. I bought another $30 ticket, good for eight rides, and then we were at his apartment. I took off my boots slowly. Victoria was in the kitchen making pizza and said her hands were dirty. I did a sort of distanced greeting gesture and sat down on the floor. There was a foldable bed in the corner, similar to the one I’d slept on at Kenneth’s.
Victoria is the author of the novel Deep Shit, Arkansas and said her grandparents lived there, and it was very cheap and they seemed wealthy. I imagined Norwegians living in Arkansas and remembered that I always forgot that state existed. I drank a couple beers and ate pizza and then Audun poured several cups of wine. I was falling asleep sitting up, not wanting to say how tired I was and how swollen the lymph nodes in my neck were, an indication of danger for me, an imminent cold or infection attacking my vitals. Victoria’s novel had a hole in the cover, a black circle, which in my mind kept growing from the time I opened it in Kenneth’s apartment, earlier that morning. Eventually we went to sleep and I dreamt that my parents were in Sweden and that I was bitten by a tarantula.
When I awoke, I could barely open my eyes. I thought that I was having a third relapse of mono, but said nothing. We ate breakfast, an assortment of hot oatmeal, almonds, some sort of seeds, pears, bananas, yoghurt, and then I forget. We talked about literature, and Audun asked me if I wanted to go to some bookstores with them. We went to three bookstores, each several kilometers apart, it seemed, and I read the DeLillo/Easton Ellis conversation in the latest issue of The Believer. We ate at a vegetarian buffet and ate a lot. I’d had two coffees earlier and was still shaking a little. I never mention how much caffeine effects me and even pretend in my mind that it doesn’t. I had a cup of tea after the meal and started to fall asleep. I don’t remember anything we talked about. Audun asked me if I liked to nap a lot and I shrugged. Victoria and I exchanged words. After the meal we started walking and I felt like I was losing my shit. I felt dizzy and couldn’t keep my eyes open. Someone seemed to express concern and asked if I wanted to go into a furniture store and sleep and they would pick me up later. I said no, and we went to another bookstore. I bought a postcard and looked at a large photograph book for almost the entire time. It was almost 5pm so we went to a bar.
The bar had ping-pong, and Audun and I played for over an hour before we bought drinks. I started to sweat a lot and felt better. I could not focus my eyes on the ball but hit it consistently and with decent precision. Victoria read at a table. I drank cider and watched other people play ping-pong, then other other people. After a while, we went back to the table and all played some more. I thought about interviewing Audun and Victoria and decided against it. I filmed them playing, my eyes blurred against opposing blue and red lights and I thought about Star Wars and they were playing Star Wars.
I thought about how maybe I would lose my shit and then sat down for a little while. I don’t remember what happened next, but we passed a building called “African Touch” for the second time that day and we all said “African Touch” many times after that. We were at a pool bar, and I ate peanuts, enjoying them for the first time in my life. Band of Horses was playing over the speaker and I remembered driving to that song, “The Funeral,” in high school, crying a little. Victoria and I played pool for an hour while Audun looked at his iPhone. I drank more cider. We went to another bar filled with teenagers dressed up for Halloween. I slept.
After another similar breakfast (except this one also had mangoes), I took the map they’d given me and went out into the sun. For the first time, I thought about the architecture in the city. It seemed old and established, unlike the careening modern displays invading Oslo, and it reminded me of eastern Europe, or western—Paris, Prague. I took a subway and a bus and arrived on an island in the west of the city. I looked on the map and found the area marked Djurgården. It was green and orange and yellow, and my heartrate decreased as I wandered through the foliaged hills, littered with old mansions and a national heritage mill on moss-covered boulders. I walked along the water and put my hands in the ocean and picked things up. I put in my iPod and listened to The Mountain Goats. I listened to Sweden, Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg, and The Zopilote Machine. I got lost in the woods at one point and thought about bears. I filmed many things on my camera and felt healthy and touched my neck and felt my lymph nodes were still very swollen.
I met Audun and Victoria back in the city. They were speaking in Norwegian. They spoke in Norwegian a lot with each other throughout the weekend and I grinned and my mind sort of flatlined. We went to another buffet, smaller this time, and Audun suggested we see the new Justin Timberlake movie. We walked through the busiest part of the city to the movie theater and I thought I would lose them and they spoke in Norwegian and I said “African Touch.” The movie was short and funny—time ran out on clocks on people’s arms who were stuck at the age of 25, and time was their currency. It seemed moralistic. Justin Timberlake played poker and Amanda Seyfried ran in very high heels. There were a lot of cars. Audun said the movie was really bad. We went to a bar and a song I’d heard in a cab in Munich called “What The Fuck” played on the stereo. I bought us all drinks. Later, at a party I tried to buy three beers, but the bartender gave me five because she couldn’t make change for my 100 krona.
The next morning, I hadn’t really slept. Daylight savings had ended, and I coughed a lot. Victoria asked if I was getting sick. I didn’t know what to say, so I said I wasn’t. We walked to a breakfast placed and I ate a cheese and mustard sandwich, yoghurt with granola and berries, drank a coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. We talked until it was time for me to leave. I hugged them and took a $40 train to Arlanda.
In the airport I finished the books I’d packed and played Tetris on my iPod for several hours. The plane was filled with children coughing and I hid my head in my sweater.