Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Odd Stranger (pt 4)

Did you ever have that thing at school where you accidentally called the teacher "mum"? All the other kids laugh and it's embarrassing. It's way worse when you call someone else "mum" though. Like that police officer. Or the magistrate. Or your cellmate, Frankie. I usually find the best way out of these is the tragic route: pause, and follow up with "I never knew my real mother". Don't say that to your real mother, though.

I don’t think I ever knew the real Malmö, Frankie. Malmö isn’t a city that rewards the lonely. Some places do. Paris is the city of lurve, but the flipside of this is that being lonely becomes an integral aspect of any visit to the place. We can never measure up to the romance of Paris, and the city is wonderfully, gorgeously deliberate about this disappointment. Berlin subsumes loneliness, making us aware of the smallness of our suffering and the inconsequential nature of a brief moment without friends or loved ones, before cheering us up with all the other things invented to stave off despair.
Malmö does none of these. If anything, it reminds me of London on a miniscule scale. It offers polite indifference to my miserable solitude. It recognises me with a clenched-teeth smile. I don’t think I should have come here alone. Sure, it’s a pretty city, and its inhabitants are obscenely beautiful in a way that I, as an Australian, can’t begin to comprehend. And its name obviously throws a bone to all those hardcore umlaut fans. I’ve often thought Melbourne’s loss of “most liveable city” status was largely due to its lack of umlaut action. But all of Malmö’s loveliness only makes things worse.

I did have my photo taken for a Swedish magazine. Being forced to recite the labels of the clothes I was wearing was a humbling experience, mainly because I had to check each label as we went along. The journos were lovely kids, though.

The most meaningful human contact I have here is with an old man at a table outside a nondescript pub. I’ve hit a minor crisis point, having covered much of the city on foot and not finding a toehold anywhere. I’ve exhausted my mental resources trying to find a way into the city, and been saddened to discover that all said mental resources could come up with is the purchase of this miserable dessert pizza slathered in cream and Spanish onion. The look on the face of this woman says it all.

Good times, good times. So I just stop, and sit down at an outside table. The old man at the next one along says something to me in a good-natured way and I gesture to him my lack of Swedish (I can’t describe this gesture, but it’s kind of like the “no speaka English” shrug which was rightfully banished from the Australian comic repertoire around 1991). He idles over and asks where I’m from. He knows Australia; this I gather from his battered English. His friend’s brother’s girlfriend lives there. In a big city, like Stockholm.
He’s a nice guy, in a sodden, standoffish way. Even the drunks here, it seems, are defined by a politely distant formality. It’s not the distance I saw in others who stopped to chat with the guy – they offered the tight-lipped curt blokeiness I recognise from home, the carefully macho pose outlined with quick nods and regular silences which reminds the listener that the conversation isn’t too close, and can be terminated at any time. Old drunks are often granted familiarity, comrade-status, but are rarely allowed to think they’re anyone’s friend. I guess I shouldn’t characterise him as an old drunk. I have no idea of his age.
When I begin to inquire about this man’s story, he tells me that his father’s brother is the richest man in the world, and that I must have heard of him. I nod, though the name he gives me is nothing like Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei or whoever’s pouting from the cover of Forbes these days. I ask if my new drinking partner is from Malmö and he shakes his head before informing me that his mother’s mother is Astrid Lindgren. This is a name that I do know, and will get to know better in the next half hour. He tells me a lot about Astrid. How her novels such as Pippi Longstocking (or Pippi Långstrump, as she’s known here) were the greatest fantasies the world has ever known; of her time as a teacher in the DDR; of the award she received in those years in Moscow; how she was never a socialist and how no one knew her age when she died in 2002 (if she really died, he cryptically adds). This is interesting, but every time I try to steer the conversation back to his own life, I’m met with a blank stare, even a jolt. Each time, he bounces back with more details of Astrid’s life, non sequiturs all.

Something smells fishy here, and I ain’t talking about Astrid’s recipe for Gravlax Surprise (note: gravlax is literally translated as “entombed salmon.” For what it’s worth). I have no idea if he was really related to her or if he just knew a lot about her. What did hit me, though, and leave me with a terrible ache, was the way he seemed to be filling some void with these stories, unwilling to talk of his own life, only throwing random facts of another person’s history forward at whomever would listen. And the pain came not from pity, but recognition, since this is a lot of what I do for a living. I don’t know anything about the guy, really, but I imagine him staving off a monstrous loneliness in Malmö by trying to create some kind of narrative which will give him a place within it. And all he is met with by all is indifference.

Hey Frankie, did you ever watch Battle of the Planets when you was a kid? Now that was a good show. Every time that came on I’d go abso-freakin’-apeshit (on the inside). But what really got me, years later, is finding out the truth about the cartoon. It turns out that it was an American edit of a Japanese show called Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman. Not just an edit, really: the US version took the footage and remixed it to create an entirely different story, more suitable for Western audiences. The whole “planets” deal, for starters. The original didn’t feature any space travel, for instance, which is why BotP featured excursions to strange remote worlds which looked suspiciously like Earth. More bizarrely, the character of Keyop, known for his creepy Tourettes-style verbal tics and nonsensical vocal eruptions, was completely different to the original, in which he made total (if sometimes profane) sense. And of course there’s arch-nemesis Zoltar: in Gatchaman the villain was a hermaphrodite, but in the US the character became two completely different villains, so as not to confuse the poor kiddies or their bible-belted parents.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. It’s just that sometimes I think that writing about yourself is like watching an episode of this show. The amount of editing that goes on, and the fact that you’re second-guessing your audience, well, you’ve walked a mile in your own shoes and there’s no way you want to foist those stinky old goobers onto someone else. So you pretty it up, make with the funny and possibly add interstellar travel as a major structural component, even if it doesn’t quite add up. You might be depressed in Malmö, but nobody wants to hear about that, so you splice some Astrid Lindgren into your footage and try to cover up the seams.

Dang, he’s gone off to sleep right when I was gettin’ to the good bit. That ain’t like Frankie.

So, obviously, it’s really me I’m writing about here. And of course, it probably helps when Lindgren Jr. does find the odd stranger willing to listen to his story for a little while, so thank you too, reader.
Hey, did I mention how ridiculously good-looking everyone is here?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yo bro! Malmo right now is still sunny but winter is coming so too are the gorgeous coloured duffle coats and lil winter boots. Very noice! I am saying "noice" a lot here, my Aussie accent will be at least half way to Copenhagen by the end of the week. I think... I do not feel like too much of a tourist here as the area we are living in is 50% immigrants I think. Lots of lil middle eastern boys running shops an what not... an 11 year olds... there are many...