The Unbearable Lightness of Sweden

pic of sweden sea

One of the more interesting lessons I learned about living abroad is that, no matter what your experience of the country in question, it claims a portion of your soul and becomes a part of who you are so that, when I don’t make it back to northern Europe for a few years, I start longing for things I never knew I loved – the smell of snow moments before its dry flakes appear in the sky; a sun that’s too lazy to move from the horizon but instead waits distractedly for clouds to hide its face; forests so thickly green they retain centuries of rain. And as we cross the Öresund Bridge from Denmark into Southern Sweden it doesn’t feel like coming home, exactly, but the feeling is one of warmth and familiarity; kind of like putting on a favourite sweater or a thick, comfortable pair of socks. And driving through familiar suburbs I remember days and moments and feelings and a time where I was lost and had to look for myself in foreign-sounding parks and on streets and squares where my feet clocked endless miles as I walked in search of direction and meaning in a city I’d never heard of until, by chance, I found myself living there with a man who had somehow become my husband and children who – bizarrely – belonged to me.

And on this recent trip to midsummer Malmö I was made aware of something else, too – how lightly people live in this stylish, wealthy part of the planet. In a place where everybody has everything one is allowed the luxury of believing human beings to be inherently kind and inherently good. The world up there is gentle, and while it’s not without its problems, life makes sense and justice – for the most part – is a concrete, dependable concept. Behind triple-glazed windows its citizens are shielded from some of the harsher realities of the world; facts of life we South Africans are not at liberty to ignore because they knock on the windows of our cars while we wait for the lights to change and huddle under blankets in doorways through the wet Cape winter. And – especially as I grow older, less certain and more acutely aware of the contingency of life and how, at any moment, everything I love could be taken from me – I understand the seductiveness and the temptation of leaving this school of hard knocks with its illogicality and relentless sunshine to merge, instead, with the soft greyness of Europe or elsewhere; to live in a place which cares for its people; where you aren’t looking over your shoulder all the time and it’s not always a pleasant surprise that your car is where you left it.

I understand in a way I didn’t before why people make this choice, and in a way I envy their ability to leave and put Africa behind them because, God knows, there are places to spend your days that are easier on the psyche. Where not everything is political; where at any given moment you are not wondering when the house of cards will come crashing down; justifying your (obviously sado-masochistic) decision to return when you could have left for good. And as I swam in Sweden’s warm, clean ocean where the scariest thing I might encounter is a pair of beautifully groomed swans and cycled through greenly manicured parks where the flowers are changed along with the season I wondered to myself why I couldn’t find peace in the wonderful peacefulness of this place; why – like so many others have done – I couldn’t surrender to its beauty and grace but had to fight so hard to return to a country I have no right to love as much as I do, nor will ever love me back.

And – truth be told – I didn’t want to go back to South Africa this time. I loved the summer sun, hotter than I’ve ever felt it; not like the burning spear sun of Africa, but like a thick, warm blanket, both delicious and a little too heavy; I reveled in the long, sultry, champagne and salmon-filled evenings and the sophistication of the supermarkets and the cleanliness and how courteously people drive and how you can cycle everywhere and how good the water tastes and that soon it’ll be time for the annual round of crayfish parties and for picking mushrooms in the forest and the trees in the parks will be set alight with the colours of autumn. And yet I continued to experience a sense of mutedness; like swimming underwater or walking through thick fog. A feeling – for better or worse – of being somehow removed from reality. Like the ‘real’ world was happening elsewhere, on some other part of the globe. High Level Road as you drive towards Sea Point. And I suppose this is why – as much as those climes charm me – as I gazed out of the aeroplane window and saw the blue of the African sky and the ugly façade of Cape Town International Airport I felt unexpected tears prickling my eyes and, from nowhere, a sob rising in my chest. And for this reason, I guess, I am destined to stay here on this ship as it veers, off-course, into scarily unchartered waters and hope, like the rest of my kind, that somebody, somewhere will save us.

Five Things I’ve Learnt About Fannies

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One of my favourite places in Sweden, Ribersborg kallbadhus.

 

If you want to get rid of body image-related fiemies in a quick way, a very good place to start is a Swedish sauna. And it’s one of the reasons, when I lived here, why I insisted on taking South African friends saunering – even when they would really rather have done just about anything else than walk around buck naked amongst foreign strangers. Because, let’s be honest, we grew up with some mightily messed up ideas about nudity and our bodies. When I was it school it was normal to go into the toilet cubicle to change for P.T. lest – God forbid – your peers got a glipse of your bits. Never mind the fact that we all had the same damn bits. It was also school policy to run random underwear checks (seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up) to make sure the young women of the nasie had the requisite commitment to their country (or something) to wear the prescribed nylon broeks – in my high school these were maroon – which covered the tops of your thighs and went practically up to your navel. Because if you were voor-op-die-wa enough to wear Woolworths panties, for example, you were definitely on a slippery slope to moral decline, the kind which would end in an anarchy our country could ill afford.

So, we’d stand in a long line and someone (usually the P.T. teacher was given the unenviable task) would move down the line and lift our tunics to see which girls were committed members of the volk and which were contributing to South Africa’s moral decay. And amidst this Calvinist-inspired hysteria about the showing of skin, the only naked bodies we saw – aside from our parents whose privacy we regularly invaded – were the Scope girls with stars on their boobs and the odd, contraband porn movie from the seventies which was usually so grainy you could barely make out what anybody was doing. And it was from this deeply conservative upbringing that I arrived in Scandinavia and discovered the most interesting contradiction about this nation and ours. In South Africa, especially back in the day, it was quite acceptable to leave a party so drunk you had to walk with one eye closed, get in your car and drive home. It was also okay, at said party, to partake in any array of recreational drugs which – amongst certain friends, anyway – were used and exchanged freely. Sometimes it was as harmless as a joint, but I’ve been to a braai in deepest suburbia where caps of acid were offered on a saucer as if they were chips and dip until everyone was so high they stopped talking to each other and instead moved anxiously from room to room, in formation, like llamas.

But while this kind of heady licentiousness was kind of par for the course, don’t – whatever you do – take off your clothes. Because that’s bad. In Sweden, exactly the opposite norm prevails. While drinking even a little bit and driving is darkly frowned upon, and drugs are so bad they’re not even mentioned in polite company, you can feel free anytime to go starkers – and people do. Find yourself in town and suddenly the sun came out and you want to tan? Go for it! Discover you forgot to wear underwear that day? No problem! Nobody cares. And that’s the truth. And this is why the sauna experience is such an important reminder – especially for us women who manage to develop some very funny ideas about how we’re supposed to look – that bodies are just bodies, and while their shapes might differ, they are more alike than different. I remember the feeling of fear the first time my Swedish friend, Teresia, took me saunering, of having to strip down completely and walk across a sizeable changing room and into a sauna full of naked people. And then, when it got too hot, walking out with my bare bum facing everyone and strolling down a quay where, 50 metres away and in full view, naked men walked down their own quay and we all cooled off in the cold November sea before doing it all again.

And realising, with amazement, that I was the only one who felt uncomfortable. These women – old ones, young ones, bigger ones, smaller ones – were completely at ease with their physical selves. And nobody was perfect. Even the ones who were thin in clothes stripped down to reveal wobbly thighs, knock-knees and droopy boobs. But nobody cared. Nobody even looked. They chatted and laughed and sweated and swam and showered and lathered and bent down to pick up their water bottle without a moment’s self-consciousness. It was a beautiful thing to observe, and it changed the way I saw and felt about myself. Seeing these bodies in the cold light of day – zits on bums, stretched nipples, bony knees – reminded me that the perfection I demand of myself is unrealistic and unattainable, that nudity is not sexual, it’s just nude, and that there is a zone of self-acceptance you can enter if you choose. Not that I always get it right, but being amongst sisters who were that at ease with themselves meant that some of their togetherness rubbed off on me. I wanted to take the freedom I felt in that space and bottle it so that I could access it on days I felt iffy and like I didn’t quite make the grade. Instead, I will share some things I discovered which I think are important to know.

1. Most Women Have Outies…

Based on no scientific research whatsoever, I would say that less than 5% of women look like the ones in porn movies. So, please can we stop this insane trend towards standardising our fannies? There is no ‘right’ look. And, by the way, men don’t give a crap, they’re just happy to be allowed in.

2. …And Ordentlike Bushes

Ja, you get the odd landing strip but, for the most part, woman go au natural, true story. We’re bushy. A lot of us don’t even deal with the hair that creeps down the thighs. And while it’s not my best look, I think it’s fabulous that there are women who genuinely don’t care. So, while some of us walk around feeling slightly skaam about the fact that our lady topiary isn’t always as perfectly trimmed as it could be, it’s good to know that neither is anybody else’s. And anyway, who has the time?

3. At Some Point You Lose Your Pubes

The only Brazilians I encountered belonged to women in their sixties who didn’t really look like the type to be having crazy sex which led me to the assumption that the pubes went of their own free will. So, instead of waxing and shaving everything away, maybe we should enjoy the fact that we have hair down there. It means we’re not old. Yet.

 4. Fannies are Not Beautiful (and that’s okay)

 Neither are the bodies they’re attached to. Real bodies have bumps and stretch-marks; remove the Spanx and the Wonderbras and women have pot-bellies and hips and boobs that go south. Its okay. Life is not a freaking beauty pageant. And the people we try to emulate, the actresses and the models, are amongst the saddest, most messed up people alive. Let’s be strong and healthy and do fun, interesting things rather than worrying whether one labia minora might or might not be slightly longer than the other. It’s not what you’re going to think about on your death-bed which means it’s not important so don’t think about it now.

5. Fannies are like Feet

They differ from each other, but less than you’d expect. And when you see them a few inches away from your face they’re much less mysterious than we’re led to believe. They’re just a part of our bodies, and while they are used for sex it’s not like we have sex all the time. Mostly we just put them in undies and go do the grocery shopping. So let’s stop fixating, be happy we have one that works and get on with our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Carnivals and Gardens

The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and home to Cape Town.
The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and back home to Cape Town.

When you live in a country like South Africa, which has experienced – and continues to experience – change on a massive scale and where the disaster zones of many other African countries ruled by liberation governments hang over us like a panga ready to strike us into economic oblivion, conversations about where it’s good to live versus where it’s not so good to live become commonplace. And even more so for those of us who are thinking about leaving or thinking about coming home or have come home already or never want to see South Africa and Mrs Balls chutney again. And these debates go back and forth led by words like ‘lifestyle’ and ‘crime states’ and ‘education’ and ‘future’, and they are discussions which can go on endlessly without ever reaching conclusion because fundamentally they are personal and emotional, and more often than not our decisions are based on instinct and circumstance and what feels right for us versus what doesn’t.

But something I have been thinking about lately, and which is not often taken into account in these conversations – but which I believe to be true – is that different places/countries have a different energy (to be a bit shoo-wow and tie-dyed of a morning) which either resonates with ours or doesn’t. And we’ll insist on being practical and citing ‘facts’ as to why we live here versus there or there versus here but I think it boils down to something else. Like we pick partners and friends who ‘click’ with us, we choose the place we call home in much the same way. I have only lived in South Africa and Sweden, but since it would be hard to find two countries more diametrically opposed, I think they’re pretty good examples to use. I’m negative about Sweden sometimes because I was unhappy there, but I also love the country and larger Scandinavia in the way one does when a place has been your home. You can’t live somewhere for a long time and not have it become a part of you.

And I’m also more critical of it than is fair – out of defensiveness – because so many people are aghast that I left a place where everything is ‘perfect.’ And it is kind of perfect in a lot of important ways, but it wasn’t perfect for me. To employ a metaphor, Sweden is like a magnificently manicured garden full of beautiful flowers. There are water fountains, comfortable places to sit and good things to eat. People speak politely in muted tones and the air smells of freshly brewed coffee. You’ll never get lost because there are clearly demarcated paths, and the garden is ringed with stylishly decorated, very high walls that you’d never be able to scale. You are safe and you are secure. You are also walled in. For some people, the walls are a small price to pay for all that comfort. Why would you need to leave when everything is right there at your fingertips? It’s very nice there; very nice indeed.

South Africa is more like a huge, gaudy amusement park where nobody has checked the safely standards of the equipment in a long time. People climb on the rollercoaster and they feel the sun and the wind on their faces and it fills them with a delicious kind of joy, knowing that an any given moment the little car they’re strapped into could careen off the tracks and go sailing into the ether, taking them with it. But, damn that ride is fun. And it seems to go on forever. And everyone is smiling as they go around and around, and life is uncontained and open-ended and there are no barriers and the possibilities are endless. The amusement park smells of dust and oil and boerie rolls and beer, and clowns fall off barrels and people laugh and it’s colourful and in-your-face and totally unpredictable.

And I can understand why people choose the manicured garden. It’s a great garden, as gardens go. But the amusement park has a wildness which can be quite irresistible. Because you might fall off, but you also might not, and in the interim you are having such a damn good time. And objectively, it’s impossible to say which place is ‘better’. South Africa is awesome for some things, and other places are awesome for others. It’s just about what works for you, and where you feel comfortable and ‘right’. Once, about half a year before we moved back to South Africa, I was given a voucher for my birthday to visit an astrologer/healer. He was an African-American who must have been close to 80, and he’d been living in Sweden for most of his life. From his small, warm apartment in the suburbs he read to me my chart, and then out of the blue (not knowing I was leaving) he said something interesting and surprising. He said, ‘I have to tell you something – if you stay in Sweden you’re going to get sick.’ And I knew exactly what he meant. The country’s energy and I were not a good match.

Now when I go back on holiday I’ve learnt to wear one of those ‘balancing’ bracelets (whether they work or not is anyone’s guess) because, even though I’m really happy to be back and seeing good friends and swimming in the warm sea and enjoying the long days of summer, I experience odd physical symptoms – dizziness, disorientation and a vague sense of not getting enough air. I never feel this way in South Africa. And maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I think it’s something else. It’s the walls and the safety and the lack of spontaneity and madness. I’m just more a clowns and rollercoasters kind of person. And we’re all different like that. And sometimes I envy the garden folk their sense of belonging and wish I shared it because all that tinny carnival music can get noisy when you’re feeling tired, and you’re so busy dodging coloured balls there isn’t much time for reflection. But mostly I love the chaos and the freedom it affords. And that, if the mood takes you, you can fly right up to the sky.