Monday, June 2, 2008

The Only People in the Room

Mr. Flossie and I got off the plane in Sweden and were queuing to get to arrivals and customs when I suddenly shut up. I had been talking in a normal voice and realized that no one around me was talking at all, or they were talking in very low voices. We found ourselves whispering—in the airport! It is hard to describe how surprising that is to an American. The eerie calm continued in restaurants, stores, even on crowded streets.

I read about half of Middlemarch during the trip, while Mr. F was at his conference, and on the cover of my copy of the book there is a quote from Virginia Woolf: "The only English novel written for grown-up people." I started thinking of Sweden as a country for grown-up people. No one once spontaneously yelled "WOOOOO!" on the street, like they do in College Town. In contrast, back home the other day, Mr. F and I were at a table outside a coffee shop when four women sitting thirty feet away outside a bar were screaming and laughing so loud we had to flee.

I am obsessed with the Scandinavian welfare state and asked everyone about it. "I'm happy with it," said Saila, who is actually a Finn. "The government takes care of the old, young, and sick, so that women--who used to do all that labor [ed. note: for free]—can work." She did complain about the high taxes, though: "Thirty percent of my salary." Mr. F and I looked at each other with narrowed eyes. Thirty percent is what we pay! But of course we have that lovely war we are financing, so we don't get all those frilly extras like health care.

Saila also said that Helsinki women have a reputation for not really caring about their appearance and eschewing makeup and high heels and being "unfeminine," which I thought was cool. Maybe they're too busy doing things like, oh, being president (Finland has a female president).

At dinner one night in Stockholm I asked Eva, Mr. F's colleague, and her husband Per about the Swedish plan to introduce a female silhouette to go along with the male lighted crosswalk signs (which recently circled the Interweb as a quirky news story). They laughed but kind of shrugged and Per said, "Swedes can't help it—in every public policy discussion the issue of gender comes up."


And then we were back in O'Hare where the airport news channels were blaring some my-penis-is-bigger-than-your-penis rhetoric about how certain candidates will Never Surrender in Iraq, Never. In my country—which in many ways is a lovely place to be from—we tend to talk and act as if we're the only people in the room (who matter). USA: fuck yeah!! Wooooo!

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