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Swede Life

There is no such thing as a weird human being; it’s just that some people require more understanding than others.— Tom Robbins

I gazed out the rain-streaked window and watched a colorful collection of birds peck at the verdant grass in search of worms and fallen berries. I felt responsible for the weather, as if I had somehow enticed the clouds to follow me from Amsterdam. “I’m so sorry it’s raining on your big day,” I said, feeling guilty for telling a half-truth; I was sorry for my friends, but I was stoked for myself — I love the rain, especially when the emerald-green landscape pops against a backdrop of gray clouds. As beautiful as it may have been for me, the rain was bad news for the artists of Oland, Sweden. Our friends Urs and Gudrun were participating in Sk ö rdefest , the annual harvest festival that draws a million people, even the king (and I don’t mean Elvis), to the long narrow island off the southeastern coast of Sweden. David and I had timed our European vacation to correspond with the three-day event. During the festival, hundreds of artists throughout the island, including our friends, display their work in small, makeshift galleries erected in their own homes. The first and most

celebrated day is called Konstnatten , or “Art Night.” On this evening, art lovers drive around the island from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., looking for the orange pumpkins that mark festival participants. Many of the artists engage in a certain amount of good-humored pumpkin one-upmanship, using the largest pumpkins they can find or arranging the harvest fruits in original ways. Rather than follow the tradition of this Swedish island community, Urs and Gudrun chose to mark their home gallery in a way that expressed their own creativity, passion for minimalism, and un-Swedishness (he is originally from Switzerland and she from Germany). In lieu of a grand pumpkin pageant, they opted to signal art-peepers with two giant orange weather balloons tethered at the end of the driveway.

Though our friends were disappointed by the meager turnout, they were not surprised. They had explained to David and I that, in their experience, Swedes do not consider photography to be art. Urs pointed to a spread in the local newspaper, an article featuring two artists with color photographs of their work. The watercolor paintings were reminiscent of the kindergarten creations I have seen gracing the doors of my sisters’ refrigerators. Urs was presenting the story as proof of his theory that Swedes have unsophisticated taste. Behind his huge, circular red specs, Urs rolled his bright-blue eyes. “This is scheisse ,” he muttered. The word, which sounds like “shy-sah,” is German for “shit.” Urs says ” scheisse ” with greater frequency than my sister Heather says “actually.”

To celebrate the festival’s completion, Gudrun had made reservations for us at what she called one of the island’s “fancier restaurants.” I was optimistic about dinner — so far, everything Gudrun had cooked for us at home had been exceptional. I had attributed this to a combination of her kitchen prowess and the fine quality of her ingredients (grass-fed beef, locally grown produce, and water drawn from a crystalline aquifer).

“If the quality of food in Sweden was a person,” Urs said while driving us to dinner, “then he would be short, just above toe level. It’s scheisse .” I got the feeling he was indulging me — like a four-year-old, I would repeat his foreign curse words each time he muttered them, relishing in the attention I received when I tested their fun-sounding naughtiness on my tongue. “Yeah, shy-sah ,” I said. “Like totally merde . But I don’t believe that, Urs, not for a minute. And, anyway, I’m going to eat at a real-life smorgasbord!” I was tickled by the idea that I would be dining in the traditional Swedish style.

The restaurant was located in a hotel. Once inside, we waited as Gudrun spoke to the hostess in Swedish (Gudrun speaks German, English, Swedish, and French; Urs is fluent in Swiss-German, German, English, and Italian). I followed my party to the dining room, which was cavernous, like a small airplane hangar. We ordered a bottle of wine from our server, whose sing-song-y cadence reminded me of the Swedish Chef from theMuppets.

In America, “fine dining” is rarely used in the same sentence as “buffet.” Apparently, getting all dressed up and going to a white-tablecloth-and-silverware version of Soup Plantation is akin to four-star dining in the Swedish backwoods. Though I frequent first-rate sit-down-and-serve-me-with-a-smile restaurants like Laurel, the Prado, and Bite, I am not incapable of appreciating a good Sizzler experience.

After making a toast to the orange balloons for holding up despite gale-force winds, I followed my posse into the small room by the lobby where all the food was kept. I grabbed a simple white plate and assessed my options. The room was set up like a church-lady potluck. Three of the 20-something dishes were available warm — the rest were casseroles, coleslaw, and potato and macaroni salads. A few of the cold dishes I had mistaken for ambrosia were actually mayonnaise-y fish dishes. I stabbed a medallion of pork from a hot tray and spooned up some of the potatoes au gratin to accompany it. So that I could enjoy the full smorgasbord experience, David, my trusted guide, led me through the jungle of fish and mayo, after which I selected forkfuls from three “safe” dishes.

To avoid hitting any of the other diners in the head, I held my dinner directly in front of me as I wound my way through the tightly packed tables and back to my seat. After taking the first few bites, I leaned back in delight, pleasantly surprised at the tastiness of the random fare I’d piled on my plate. It was then that I noticed something was not quite right about the space around me. High up on the walls were plaques, onto which stuffed animals — and not the plush kind — were attached. Reindeer heads, hawks in flight, owls perched, and on one high shelf, a light brown, squirrel-sized rodent posed on its hind legs with its little arms raised in the air like a charging bear. “The Swedes lovebirds,” Urs said, following the line of my open-mouthed stare to the dead animals overhead.

Mimicking my friend Jen’s response to all things peculiar, I let out a falsetto “Huh.” “So what’s with the walls, then?” I gestured to the smooth blond wood and Mexican-restaurant-colored tiles. Gudrun shrugged. “Okay, then, what about those disco balls?” I pointed to the five giant balls that spun and glittered above us.

“They have sometimes events here,” Urs said. As if that explained everything. I was about to let the matter drop, but there was one more thing I needed to know. “Why is there all this plywood beneath us?”

Gudrun smiled. “Ah, so,” she said, as if I’d finally touched on a subject that made sense to her. “That is because we are sitting on top of a pool.”

I searched her face for any indication that this was some kind of German sarcasm. But she only smiled and gestured at the built-in lockers I hadn’t noticed before, and the rectangular shape of the wood below.

I looked across the table at Urs and Gudrun, both of them sporting crooked, we-told-you-Swedes-were-strange smiles, to which all I could say was “Huh . “

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