A man can stand a lot as long as he can stand himself. He can live without hope, without friends, without books, even without music, as long as he can listen to his own thoughts. — Axel Munthe, Swedish writer
‘Rosa and Josue, this is Urs and Gudrun. Urs is Swiss and Gudrun is German, but they currently live in Sweden.” It was a long introduction, but I had to be careful so as not to repeat my faux pas from the day before, when I’d introduced our houseguests to a neighbor by saying, “These are the Swedes.”
“We are not Swedish” had come the fast reply from Gudrun, after which Urs had shaken his head with the disconcerted amusement of one reacting to a child who had made an impolite observation.
I first met the “not Swedish” couple in 2006 at an exhibition of David’s photography in Zurich. Then, in October 2007, David and I journeyed to our new friends’ place on Swedish soil for an annual art festival. After a week of hibernating in the town of Vickleby (five miles from Mörbylånga, a small village that is home to the worst pizza in the world), the four of us spent ten days traveling around Italy. We invited Urs and Gudrun to visit us in San Diego, but the politically minded pair had vowed not to return to the States until Bush was out of office. The moment Obama’s victory was declared, they booked their tickets.
When we bought our place, David and I imagined the extra room downstairs might serve as guest quarters. But soon after we moved in, I fell in love with a sizable corner desk, and in no time the entire space was tricked out as my office/sanctuary.
I made sure that David gave full disclosure to Urs and Gudrun when he offered our home. In an email, David explained that we have no coverings on the floor-to-ceiling windows. He attached photos of the futon, located in the middle of an open space that includes the kitchen, David’s home office, and two seating areas. He also mentioned that the four of us would be sharing the downstairs bathroom and would therefore have to coordinate our showers. Our friends were fine with the setup, responding that everything sounded wonderful and they couldn’t wait to see us.
“You know what just occurred to me?” I said to David while we were unpacking groceries the afternoon before Urs and Gudrun were to arrive. David shrugged and waited for me to continue. “The four of us don’t have to share a bathroom — you and I can use the shower in our room. I know it’s irritating to squeegee the glass, but it’s only a few days, and it just makes sense. I mean, we do have two bathrooms. Why not use them?”
David agreed that this was a good plan. We’d stopped using the shower in our bathroom a week after moving into the place because we preferred the design of the curtained tub in the second bathroom, and all that post-shower squeegee-ing is a pain in the ass. Even though the glass-enclosed stall is visible from our bed, it had been years since we’d thought of it as a “shower.” I was pleased with my observation; I wondered if David felt as magnanimous as I did at the idea of sacrificing our preferred bathroom for the sake of our guests’ comfort. It’s not an easy thing to break one’s routine, especially for one as obsessive-compulsive as me. With this in mind, I had a newfound appreciation for all the friends and family who have put me up over the years, a list that includes Urs and Gudrun.
After they had arrived and learned that they would have a bathroom of their own (I even cleaned up my office to allow them room for luggage, dressing, and hiding out when necessary), we spent that first evening catching up over a bottle of wine and David’s simple-but-tasty Italian dish of spaghetti, zucchini, and white pepper. I had forgotten about our friends’ unfavorable opinion of their resident country. As they reminded me — using current examples to support their seasoned stance on all things Swedish — I wondered if perhaps their pride had more to do with being Swiss and German than not being Swedish.
This was Gudrun’s first visit to San Diego. I was excited at the prospect of giving her and Urs a positive impression of my hometown. David and I planned an itinerary that included the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, breakfast at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest, the Botanical Garden and the Prado in Balboa Park, and Hacienda de Vega in Escondido, among some of our other favorite spots.
“Swedes have no fashion sense,” Urs said while we waited for the museum to open. “Like her,” he gestured at a frumpy woman across the street. “She could be Swedish.”
“You can’t talk to Swedish people about anything,” Gudrun said while we noshed on corn chips at Hacienda de Vega. “I went to a neighbor’s party, and they all sat in a circle, an actual circle, like children in school.”
“It’s true,” added Urs. “If you ask a question outside of the weather or something else that is very surface, they don’t answer you.”
After I offered Gudrun a sip of my margarita, she asked, “Did you know that Swedish people drink milk with dinner?” My jaw dropped in disbelief. “Really, they do,” she insisted. “You could be out at a nice restaurant, and someone will order a filet and a glass of cold milk, the way you might order wine. It’s very normal there. Whereas, anywhere else, you order milk and they look for where is the child.”
On their last day here, I asked our friends what had been the highlight of their stay, and they both agreed it had been the spontaneous gathering on our terrace, the evening Rosa and Josue had appeared with a bottle of wine and the six of us enjoyed the rare balmy evening discussing art, philosophy, and our respective cultures. “That was the best thing about San Diego?” I asked. “Don’t you do that with your friends at home?” Then Urs and Gudrun said they had no friends in Sweden. “None?” I asked. “How can that be?”
I remembered something Gudrun had mentioned a few days before: when working on television projects, the couple spends long hours with many people. One of the reasons they moved to a tiny island town off the coast of Sweden was to get away from others during their downtime. I guess it made sense that they’d chosen someplace where they wouldn’t be tempted to socialize. In Sweden, they’d found a refuge not only from a major source of strain (people at work) but also from any subconscious desire they might have to build relationships that could lead to a sense of obligation or stress. Maybe they’re more Swedish than they realize.