Mysteries of the Dragon Gate

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Looming incongruously over the E4 just south of Gävle is an impressive development bearing the name Dragon Gate. We’ve driven past it once or twice a year since moving to Sweden, on our way north from Stockholm during the summer. Even from road level it looks odd, a massive grey non-sequitur, cheap concrete Chinese architecture hulking up out of the forested sides of the motorway. What the hell *is* it??

Finally, this year, we got to stop there and have a nose around. (A very fringe benefit of a driving with a car seat-averse infant.) The place is a spectacular misfire of an investment. Work started in 2004 on what might some day have been a grand Sino-Swedish cultural hub, with a hotel, restaurants, a museum, and – if Wikipedia (Swedish) is to be believed – a Shaolin temple and kung fu school.

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Instead it became a shotgun wedding of reckless Chinese development and painstaking Swedish beauracracy. Fruitful, not so much. The first phase of building was completed in 2008, some of which was accomplished without planning permission. Now, the hotel and restaurant building stand unpainted and grandly unloved in the middle of acres of paved emptiness.

Signs hand-painted on bedsheets hang askew. The restaurant runs on a skeleton staff (full disclosure: we didn’t eat there, terrible missed opportunity). The gift shop, stacked high with kitsch and tchotchkes, is unstaffed and even lacking a cash register (I guess you pay in the restaurant). Outside, the lofty statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin shows compassion by averting her gaze from the epic folly behind her.

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In recent years, there were two attempts at a grand opening for the hotel, both dogged by rumours of the projects abandonment. But the owner – a Chinese businessman who made his fortune in the mosquito repellant business – has so far been content to keep the venture afloat. At the height of summer, such as when we visited, the Dragon Gate can be seen to entertain as many as tens of people, wandering incredulously from one enormously misguided construction to the next. All of them wondering what on earth happened here. Pondering where all those copies of the terracotta warriors might be hidden. And hoping that the plan to install a live panda never comes to pass.

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Warning: Parental Language

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As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.

Three Swimming Elk: Telling Lessons in Swedish

I’ve been slogging my way through a Swedish course on Duolingo. I don’t know whether the French course, say, uses the same examples. But I suspect not.

The nature questions are heavy on Swedish flora and fauna – pines and spruce, wolves and elk. The supernatural ones are lousy with trolls and gnomes.

  • Vi såg tre simmande älgar (“we saw three swimming elk”).
  • Ett fullt troll tittade in genom fönstret (“An ugly troll looked in through the window”)

There are those characteristically inexplicable language course headscratchers. I’m fairly confident I’ll never need to tell a Swede that “a turtle came swimming” (En skölpadda kom simmande). But on the whole you’re less likely to stumble across surrealistic whimsy than you are the kind of thing you expect from Henning Mankel. Antalet mord i staden har ökat: “the number of murders in the city has increased”, indeed.

The most arresting examples, though, sit squarely and morosely in Bergman territory:

  • Hennes moster är döende (“Her aunt is dying”)
  • Din fru kommer att ha tagit alla dina drömmar från dig (“Your wife is going to have taken all your dreams from you”)
  • Gav du henne en rakhyvel? (“Did you give her a razor?”)

And the unbeatable:

  • Det är jag som är Döden (“It is I who is Death”)

For the sake of my emotional equilibrium, I’m not sure I can carry on with this course for much longer…

Winter Light

It took a while to notice what was odd about the light that afternoon. It was 2 o’clock, and we were walking in the Uppsala countryside – well, the village roads around the converted mission house we were staying at.

Tilled field shadows

14:07 on the clock and the shadows were almost horizontal. This was on the 26th of December, so just after the winter solstice. But still, just two hours after the sun’s at its zenith, and the shadows are long to the point of strangeness. See how many times longer this house’s shadow is than its height:

House shadow

It doesn’t seem like much, it’s a subtle effect and barely noticeable, but once you do spot it, these elongated shadows give everything a faintly otherworldly aspect. Fragments of grit throw shades of 20cm and more:

Grit shadows

It was cold then, I thought. We sweated in the sauna, then drank beer and ate barbecued sausages in a hot tub under the stars, and the wooden deck was slippery with frost. Overnight, the temperature dropped to minus 9ºC. But back in Stockholm, and after New Year, the snow has finally hit, and the mercury has dropped to –14, –16, and last night –18. It’s a dry cold though, that lets you keep the heat in your bones even while your face is numbed.

Give me real seasons, give me winters of extremes, of dagger sharp temperature drops and short bursts of daylight, and alien shadows stretching over the tilled fields. Or something like that.

DISCLAIMER: Phone photography only. We need a real camera.

 

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Big Book of Birth, theBaby prep reading continues apace. Just finishing up with Erica Lyon’s The Big Book of Birth. Had enough decent Amazon reviews. But here’s the problem with the panic-purchase: you think it’s a sensible enough book, with clear-headed advice, and then they go and recommend homeopathy.

Just in passing, only as a relaxant during a night-time early labour, but still. Sugar pills. It calls into question the thinking at work. When the author seems strongly critical of a particular drug of procedure – Piton, say – you wonder how seriously you should take that criticism.

The book is written with reference to the US medical system, so there’s some reader refiltering needed there. And it veers oddly between the poles of “know your rights” consumer-speak and nonsensical hippy woo.

Sara’s story

Although I generally consider myself a well-educated consumer, when I got pregnant I didn’t spend much time considering how I would give birth.

Ah, childbirth – the pinnacle experience of consumer society! Check the next testimonial – the “author’s note” is part of the quote from the book, btw.

Dalia’s Story

[Author’s note: Dalia is a doctor.]

These are the details of my empowering birth experience. Four days prior to my son’s birth I had a “Blessingway” ceremony. The women articulated blessings and well-wishes, and we strung the beads together to create a necklace for me to wear during the birth process. While I can’t say with any certainty that this was the case, in my heart I know that the energy we created with the ceremony and with my necklace endured though my labour and gave me special strength.

Wait, what? Dalia is a DOCTOR? Give me strength.

I’m not being so cynical as to discount the benefits of emotional support. But this is a licensed medical practitioner elevating a nice chat with friends into a nebulous mystical energy. And, I’ll go out on a limb and make a statistically-guided guess that she’s also co-opting the trappings of a Native American ceremony. It’s the “while I can’t say with any certainty that is the case” that kills me – right before she goes on to state with blind certainty that oh yes, it was DEFINITELY the case. If Dalia was my doctor, I would not be a happy consumer.

So, this book is a swing in totally the other direction from the previous parenthood book, The Expectant Dad’s Handbook, a British publication that referred to “us blokes” and therefore also made me feel I was not the target audience. (On balance, though, perhaps I would rather be talked down to than fed bullshit nonsense as revelation, so long as the patronising viewpoint was based on y’know, medical facts and not homeopathy.)

Looking forward to finally picking up a parenthood book that isn’t targetted at a specific reader, one that presents unvarnished advice without making its own judgements.

They exist, right?

Beyond SFI

Ellis Island 1892 not Stockholm 2014

I’d been looking forward to signing up for the free Svensk För Invandrare (“Swedish For Immigrants”) course. How great is it, that the government lays on free language courses for new residents? It had taken a while to get my personnummer through, but now that I had it I wanted to get signed up. SFI was closed, but opened again on 28 July, and I thought that was a good time to try and get in early.

As did two or three hundred of my fellow recent immigrants.

It was a sweltering Monday morning, and SFI applicants were streaming through the front door of the building and up the stairs to the third floor registration office. The waiting room was packed to capacity, leaving many of us in for a long wait on the stairs – where it happened to be a lot cooler anyway, I mean, why would you choose to stand in the cramped sweaty quarters of the waiting room when you could perch on blissfully cool mock-marble?

After ninety minutes or so (it’s cool, I went out for a walk and grabbed a sandwich. But thanks, your sympathy is touching) my number was called and I registered my details. Queue another wait for assessment. This time, so that I didn’t miss the docent calling my name, I stayed in the waiting room, where I could marvel at the condensed sweat dripping from metal fixtures on the low ceiling – just like being in a badly ventilated mid-90’s London nightclub.

Anyways, the docent came and we had a brief chat, then she showed me to the computer room, where I could run through the standard tests. This seemed to take a good hour or so, though I was *just* within the time limit. My closing essay (“Tell us about where you live”) was especially wonderful, having all the literary merit of, say, breakfast cereal serving instructions written by a 5-year old who’s forgotten their ADHD meds.

This was followed by an interview with a second docent, wherein I was struck inexplicably dumb. I could barely string a sentence together, and we’d managed to get on the subject of work, which is not a subject I’ve yet got down pat. Docent #2 went to consult with Docent #1, and she came back to say my level was probably slightly above the four grades of SFI.

Lemme stop you there. This isn’t a humblebrag – “gah, all that time waiting and I’m just too goddamn smart for SFI!” I’ve already lived here for ten months, and I’d been casually/lazily studying the language for at least eighteen months before we got here.

Docent #2 suggested I check out Komvux, Sweden’s adult education courses. Svensk som andraspråk grundläggning (Swedish as second language foundation) course picks up where SFI leaves off. And they have the course at Hermods, a school that a Dutch friend recommended as one of the best for SAS courses. It doesn’t even seem to cost anything, but maybe I’m missing something in my clumsy translation of the website.

Dictionary Swedish English, 201 Swedish Verbs, Complete Swedish, Essentials of Swedish Grammar, Rivstart A1 + A2 Textbok ÖvningsbokSee? Told you it wasn’t a humblebrag, I’m still only a decent beginner. And I’m actually wary of going to Komvux and finding out I’m not so skit bra (“shit good”) as I think. Am gonna hit these books again, see if I can work up a bit more confidence and fluency first…