Dialects

I am writing this at a coffee shop in Naperville, some 45 minutes outside of Chicago. It’s ten o’clock, and I have already experienced two tipping incidents. One was more of a moral pondering at breakfast at my hotel. I like to consider myself a basically nice person, and I accept that tipping is a way of life here, and the waitress was very nice. And yet: is it morally justified to tip the standard 20 percent when the coffee was horrible? When the coffee and the cappuccino was weak, disappointing, letting me down just when I needed it the most? I sat there, paralyzed in the face of this decision, and then I decided that I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. She got 15 %.

I then moved on to the coffee place next door which is the kind of hipster looking-place where the coffee is brewed in what mostly resambles a laboratory. Still, I took nothing for granted and leaned closer to the nice woman behind the counter and whispererd: “Your coffee… it’s pretty good, isn’t it?” She answered confidentially: “Yeah. It is.” Me: “It’s not… weak, is it?” Her: “No. No, it’s pretty good.” And it was! And I forgot to tip! It was one of those modern ipad-paying-things and I signed with my finger and then I couldn’t press “complete transaction” and she did it for me, pressing “no tip” in the process. Sure, I paid seven dollars for the coffee, but still! It was worth a tip! I apologized so profusely that she started looking at me sort of strange. “No, you’re good”, she kindly assured me some ten times. Coffee does not bring out the most normal side of me, assuming that there is one.

Anyway. Naperville. After ten days in DC I was quickly reminded that you can’t live in most cities in the US without a drivers license. Everything in Naperville is ten minutes away by car. My publishers office, a cinema, the train station, a restaurant I was thinking of visiting. And everytime I think: “Well, that should be a nice walk” only to discover that it takes some two hours to walk there. And I’d probably have to walk by the high way to get there.

Naperville is fourt-largest city in Illinois (I have a feeling this doesn’t say much), it’s the wealthiest city in the Midwest and the eleventh wealthiest in the nation, voted second best city to live and ranked amongst the nation’s safest cities by USA Today and Business Insider. It is also the home of my American publisher, Sourcebooks, and a great independent bookshop, Anderson’s. When my first novel, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was published in the US, my publisher had this great competition called Readers, Recommend Your Bookshop, where readers could vote for their favourite independent bookshop who could then win money. Anderson’s won. As soon as I’ve finished this great cup of coffee, I’m going there, and then I’m visiting Sourcebooks. They are working on the English translation of my next novel Pine Away Motel and Cabins, and I am of course thrilled to hear more about the plan ahead.

I have also thought quite a lot about dialects these past days. The thing with dialects is that while I can’t consciously adopt them, I tend to pick them up without thinking. This almost always leaves to embarrassing situations where it seems like I’m mocking them by suddenly talking, for example, like an American teenager. I learned this when traveling for a month in Ireland. And even if you manage to keep up the dialect during an entire conversation, without slipping sarcastically back and forth, it can still lead to social awkwardness, like the time I was having a nice Guinness at a bar and everyone suddenly realized I knew absolutely nothing about rugby. I tried to excuse myself with a “I’m from Sweden!” but then older man beside me wasn’t having it. “Why are you talking like that, then?”

But I have been in the US for almost two weeks, which means that my English is getting more and more fluent and the Swedish accent weaker and weaker. And I have to adopt some dialect, right? Apparently my subconscious have chosen to go in the All British direction.

Today, in the elevator:
Janitor: “So how you doin’?”
Me: “Oh, quite well, quite well, thank you. And you?”
Janitor: “Goin’ pretty good so far.”
Me: “Splendid day outside, isn’t it?”
Janitor (leaving the elevator): “You have a good one, now.”
Me: “Have a good day!” (At least I managed not to add “my good sir”, but my tone implied it).

This also makes most people guess I’m from England. A drunk/high guy outside a grocery store a few days ago asked me where I was from and guessed England. I answered said I was from Sweden. His comment: “Donald Trump likes you guys!” Me: “Eh. I believe you might be thinking about Norway…”

American service industry workers

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how much I love the people working within the US service industry? Theirs is a hard and ungrateful job, as shown repeatedly on Not Always Right. Everytime I visit this country I am fascinated by the experience of having people behind a counter or at a bar or restaurant actually meet my eyes, smile, ask me how my day has been and reply cheerfully that their day is going great, thank you very much. I know, I know, it’s all superficial and yes, I know that the statistical likelihood of their day actually going great is very small, as shown repeatedly on notalwaysright. But it’s still very refreshing. I mean, disinterest and impoliteness is superficial too. In Sweden, a normal transaction involves “was that it?” and “do you want a bag?” and no eye contact. It feels normal to me when I’m at home, but it’s always jarring when I’ve recently been to the US. I always end up behaving like a cheerful idiot, at which point the poor woman behind the counter is looking slightly terrified that I’m a maniac.

Anyway, I went to this shop yesterday, and was served by this teenage girl who looked completely expressionless the entire time, moved with the speed of a sloth and didn’t make eye contact the entire transaction. There was a lot of wrapping to do, so I stood there, fascinated, as she very slowly went through the moves. Now, this didn’t bother me at all. I am, after all, Swedish, and I’ve worked behind a counter too, so I’ve both experienced and shown apathy. But then, when she had almost finished wrapping everything, she suddenly looked up and said:

“Did you use to listen to Amy Winehouse?”
“Eh”, I said. “I guess? Sometime?”
“I saw this documentary about her. It’s on Netflix.”
“How… nice?” I said, suddenly feeling almost Brittish in my uncomfortable politeness.
At this point she had finished wrapping my things, and bagged them. But she just let it sit there on the counter while making eye contact with me.
“And was it … a good documentary?” I said.
“Well, yes. I mean, it wasn’t wow-good or the best thing I’ve ever seen-good. But it was interesting. So sad, don’t you think, with all that talent?”
“Er, yes”, I agreed quickly, and she nodded a little sadly and handed me the bag.

See what I mean? Even the apathetic teenagers behind the counters are interesting in this country.

Georgetown

It’s Saturday, and I’m having brunch in Georgetown. Georgetown is a part of DC that’s so expensive that it looks like a small town in a movie or, say, Gilmore Girls. Every store either sells antiques or expensive clothes brands. All the houses are small and charming, some in bricks, some in wood, many painted in cute pastel colours, and all the streets are shaded by perfect trees of the kind otherwise mostly seen in unrealistic architectura design proposals. The street lamps – charming, of course – has large flower baskets in splendid lilac colours. The interior design stores are so expensive that normal people have to chose between a lamp and rent, but don’t try to find them through google. If you google home decor or interior design in Georgetown you’ll not be given a list of stores. You’ll be given a list of interior designers who’s just waiting to “help you realize your dreams”.

It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, the perfect place for brunch, except that this part of the town is so rich that the waiter came as close to being unpleasent and indifferent as any American service worker can. By now I’ve been in the US for so long that I automatically said “thanks”, “thank you”, “how’s your day going?”, “thanks” about a million times before I noticed that he was barely responding. I felt like I was trying to make a French waiter like me, and we all know how meaningful that is. Anyway. I got my revenge by only tipping him 15 percent. Moahahah. In your face. That will teach him!

Afterwards I sauntered through residential streets where all the car looked so black and shiny that they probably came with their own Secret Service agent. This being DC, they very possibly might have. A paranthesis: a friend told me that he was once having dinner at this restaurant when he suddenly found himself surrounded by older white men. And they in turn was accompanied by men with guns. My friend was new in DC at the time, so his immediate thought was that he was in the middle of some sort of mafia meeting.

And no. I will not go there and make the obvious joke on the similarities/difference between the mafia and politicians. I’ll leave that to you.

The Big Hunt

No, the title of this post is not about my dating. The Big Hunt is this great divey bar on Connecticut Ave. They have three floors, an outdoor patio where you can smoke, and an underground comedy club in the basement. Long after I have forgotten all my dates in the DC, I will always remember this evening, and most of all, I will always remember Phil. We might never meet again, but we’ll always have The Big Hunt.

Anyway. The underground comedy club looked exactly as you would expect an underground comedy club in the basement of a divey bar to look. There was a bar, of course, a few rows of cheap folding chairs, a microphone with terrible, slightly too loud sound and a brick wall in the background. The comedians themselves were of mixed quality: some great, some not so good, and several hilarious moments. And then there was Phil.

Phil arrived early and sat at the front row long before all the other seats were taken. Who does that in a stand up comedy show? The answer: Phil. Phil does that. But he looked so cute and innocent that I just thought it was because of some sort of naive ignorance. He was there with his old childhood friend, who will forever be known in my memory as Poor Jim. Poor Jim looked like a 45 year old ex-marine. Phil looked like a pre-school teacher. He had thick, boyish hair, sneakers and shorts of the extremely nerdy kind.

Well, you know how it is at stand up shows. Some poor sucker has to sit in the front, or someone makes the mistakes of making eye contact with the comedian, and then they have to answer questions and good heartedly endure being made fun of. The kind of jokes that are inevitably followed by the comedian saying things like “No, I’m just messing with you, you’re a great sport” while the rest of the audience feel intensively grateful that it wasn’t them. Let’s take another, harmless example from the evening. Jen made the mistake of applying lip gloss and thereby drawing the comedians attention to her, so in due course we knew that she worked as a realtor and practiced yoga. And that was pretty much it. A completely normal interaction. Allright. Back to Phil.

The comedian is right in the middle of a divorce joke, and turns to Phil and Poor Jim and asks off-handedly: “So are you guys single, dating, whatever?” He clearly expects to launch right on towards his joke. But no.
Phil (loud and happy): “We’re exploring!”
Poor Jims stone face got if possibly more stone facey.
“You’re together?” the comedian asks disbelievingly. Poor Jim does not look like a man who “explores” things with other men. Phil looks like he’s still living with his mother.
“No, no”, says Phil, still amazingly happy. “We’re straight.”
The comedian eventually gets back to his joke, but as you can imagine he cannot let this go. “Exploring? Exploring?! What the fuck does that even mean?”
At this point I’m still feeling bad about Phil. I thought he just accidently said some weird thing in the heat of the moment. But I underestimated Phil.
“So I’m dating this girl”, he tells alls of us in his loud, happy voice. Me, the comedian and the rest of the audience are of course wondering why the hell Phil is telling us this.
Phil: “And she used to be a sex worker.”
The comedian looks like he lost control over this joke.
Phil: “So she’s teaching me things.”
Comedian: “You’re dating a sex worker?! And she’s teaching you things?!”
Phil: “Yeah. So I’m exploring!”

The comedian made brave attempts the rest of the evening, but no matter what he did he could never really reach Phil’s levels. Next time he turned in stead to a 25 year old who worked in fund raising. Safe, comfortable jokes in DC.

PS. By a happy coincidence I took a photo of the stage and the brick wall, so Phil’s shorts is immportalized in a photo. Notice all the empty chairs? That’s where all the smart people don’t sit.

Power and resistance in the US

Few things illustrate the parallell history of the US as clearly as visiting the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential exhibition the day after a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. At the second, you walk through generations of oppression and resistance; in the first, you walk through the generations of older white men that’s partly responsible for it.

It is a crazy collection of portraits. The absolute majority of the white men looks like the bad guy in a political thrillers. “I wouldn’t trust that guy at all”, I whispered to my date. Considering yesterday’s visit, that also feels like an empirically sound conclusion. In one portrait a group of white men, several of them former presidents, are laughing hysterically together. “You know, nothing good has ever come from so many old white men having so much fun”, I said. “They had probably just voted to restrict the voting rights of black people or limit abortion for women.” My date did not have a comment on this, but I’, sure he agreed with me.

Another reflection: whatever happened with the tradition to make busts? I’m guessing that a certain group and class of people still have portraite paintings made of themselves, but do anyone make busts anymore? I decided on the spot to become really rich and have like twenty busts of myself made, and then give them to all my friends and family for Christmas and birthday presents. I told my date about this too, and again, for some reason, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. This showed a lamentable lack of energy and enthusiasm. I removed him from the list of people who would be getting a bust when I was rich and famous.

It quickly became very clear that democratic presidents were a little more willing to experiment than republican ones. This was especially clear with the crazy portrait of Bill Clinton, placed as it was between two generations of very, very traditional Bush:s. Clintons was much crazier than the sight of Obama in a green bush, and much more strange than the modern and colourful portrait of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy one was possibly my favourite, or the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For some reason the painter was obsessed with his hands and painted like three pairs of them. One pair was even smoking.

I am afraid I did not like the portrait of Obama. I wanted something more powerful. Possibly something like a fuck you-sign.

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