When Swedish minimalism is the last thing you want

How long can you go without swallowing? It’s actually a surprisingly long time. How about if you’re really dehydrated and desperate for a nice long drink of water? This week I’ve discovered that again, the answer is “a surprisingly long time”.

Ten days ago I came down with some kind of fluey virus thing. This is relatively normal for me – I get one every six months when my body decides it’s had enough and it’s time for me to stop working flat out every day and most evenings.

However, this time it’s a new variety. The lymph glands in my neck have swollen up to the size of duck eggs, I’ve had the aching all over and the sweating and being slightly delirious (primarily manifesting as dreaming insanely complicated spaceship parking games inspired by reading Iain M Banks before going to sleep). But my head has been surprisingly free of snot and there’s been no cough.

I didn’t bother going to the GP about this – I knew that they’d say “It’s a virus, drink plenty of liquids, get plenty of rest and take ibuprofen”. And that I’d have to beg and plead with the nurse even to be allowed to have an appointment to get that extremely self-evident advice. I had plenty of food in and, thankfully, not too much work to deliver (my body is clever like that – it always picks a week when I can actually be ill without worrying about clients).

Then on Wednesday I got a sore throat. “That’s odd”, I thought. Because I haven’t actually spoken to anyone throughout this entire thing – I’d cheerfully throttle whoever gave it to me and I certainly wouldn’t want an old person to have to deal with this. So where has an additional infection come from? I got out the throat spray that I bought on my last trip to the UK (the Swedes, for some reason, feel that if you’ve got a sore throat you should put up with Strepsil variants and nothing else), and thought no more of it.

That was until Thursday, when it started to get painful to swallow. I thought again about going to the GP. They do a drop-in time every day from 10.30 to 11.30 “for infections”, which has always conjured up images of everyone sitting in the tiny cramped waiting room producing interesting strains of cross-infection as they cough and sneeze all over each other. But it was 11 am and I wasn’t dressed and the GPs is 20 minutes’ drive away, and I did actually have a deadline to make.

“I can go tomorrow”, I thought. “It’ll probably be better by then anyway”.

Big mistake. Big, big mistake. By the evening it was really painful to swallow. Like, really really fucking painful. Like whole body wince painful. During the night I managed about five hours’ interrupted sleep, punctuated by taking a variety of painkillers that did absolutely nothing at all, and spending a good part of the intervening time the wrong side of the verge of tears. Many were the occasions upon which I berated myself for not having gone to the doctor’s the previous day. Especially in the morning, when I got up at 8 am, as dehydrated as a 3000-year-old mummy, only to find that it was a bank holiday.

(I do vaguely remember discovering this last year. Despite the fact that Midsommar is the main Swedish festival of the year, they don’t actually celebrate it on Midsummer’s Day. Instead they wait until the following weekend. To me, that’s missing the whole point of it. If you’re celebrating the longest day of the year, surely you do it… on the longest day?! And actually, if they had done they’d have had lovely weather, instead of grey skies and torrential rain. So nyer.)

So anyway, I finally worked out that there was a clinic open – but not until 5 pm. More self-recrimination. Fortunately I fell upon a combination of painkillers and other things that reduced the pain somewhat (primarily super high strength Sudafed, again imported from the UK because the Swedes only have plant-based medications for use against sinusitis. WTF? Have they ever actually had sinusitis?)

Finally the time came that I could set off. The directions said that I had to go to the grey building on the hospital site. Now, fortunately, I have had to visit said building before, so I knew where to go. But this is another case of Swedish small-town mentality. Because you were probably born at this hospital, you of course know which of these two blocks is “the grey building”. Except if you weren’t, of course, in which case, presumably, fuck you:

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One of these is “the grey building”. Answers on a postcard, please.

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So anyway, I got there. I went in. There was, surprisingly, no queue. I was seen immediately by a pleasant enough nurse. I explained that I wanted a stronger painkiller as I was having major difficulty in swallowing. She didn’t actually physically examine me, but she did take a swab from the back of my throat, which was only moderately agonising, and read my temperature, which was, surprisingly, normal.

After a few minutes’ wait, she came back and said that I didn’t have an infection, but that it was probably a virus. Big shock. She suggested I try Strepsils. “Or why not a warm drink with honey? And ibuprofen or paracetamol are usually quite effective.” I explained again that I really wanted a stronger painkiller as I’d been taking ibuprofen for more than a week and it wasn’t having much of an effect. She said, “but we haven’t found any infection”, as though that was an answer, and I realised that once again a ‘healthcare professional’ was hearing what she wanted to hear rather than what I was actually saying. Presumably ‘Cocking a deaf ‘un’ and ‘Treat the patient like a 5-year-old’ are major modules in Swedish medical training.

So that was that. I drove back home, climbed back into bed (where, despite having a normal temperature, I immediately had to wrap myself in a towel to soak up the sweat) and have been suffering moderate agony every few minutes since. Still, at least I’m no longer berating myself for not having visited the GP. Instead I just call that nurse a bitch.

Interestingly, the job that I’d had to deliver the previous day was a research application for a project studying Swedish doctors’ reactions to a political decision to open up medical records for patient access. Apparently in pilot studies doctors were shocked to discover that this led some patients to question the doctor’s treatment strategy. Or alternatively to check that what they’d said during a consultation was actually entered into their record. Because despite Sweden’s apparent feminism, this is still an enormously backward, paternalistic society in many ways. My feeling is that this is at the root of the hideously long waiting times here. If Swedes were a bit more bolshy then they’d make so much fuss that this kind of delay – in a wealthy country like Sweden? – would be a thing of the past. Instead, it’s the doctor-patient relationship that’s a historical relic.

 

 

 

 


Answer: It’s actually the white and blue one. Yes, really.

I can’t believe you think this is butter

This week I offended a client. I didn’t mean to, I just had to tell her that I couldn’t translate any more of a particular type of text. And it wasn’t the obviously offensive – I don’t do nuclear, or anything to do with the armed forces, or asset stripping, or even intensive farming. No, it was a menu. A Swedish menu. Because the problem with Sweden, even more than its incredibly Victorian attitude to patients’ rights (i.e. you haven’t got any and should simply do what Doctor says)… is the food.

Sure, they make all the right noises, and pretend that they understand the importance of good ingredients. But – visits by the likes of Jamie Oliver notwithstanding – that’s simply not true.

And here’s the perfect illustration. In fact, here are two illustrations. First, the butter section of a supermarket in a small market town near our place in France (population of the entire municipality: 2,553). In this town there are three supermarkets, plus a variety of other food shops, including the best traiteur I’ve ever visited in my life.

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Even if you can’t make out the details, you can certainly see that there are a wide range of varieties and brands. And if you can see it close up, you’ll see organic butter, Breton butter, Normandy butter, butter from Charentes-Poitou, butter with sel de Guérande and sel de Noirmoutier, plus a range of unsalted types, including something called Buerre Devilloise, which I didn’t spot while I was there but will definitely be trying next time.

And second, the butter section of a supermarket in a largeish town near our place in Sweden (population of the entire municipality: 83,191). In this town there are a number of relatively small supermarkets, but this is one of the two biggest.

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I haven’t cheated and taken a photo of only part of the shelf – this really is it. And actually, the Milda (bottom right) isn’t even butter. It’s cooking margarine (that’s Stork, if you’re a Brit).

So in Sweden you can get the following: Salted butter. Extra salted butter (and something that’s extra salty in Sweden is really fucking salty). Unsalted butter. Organic butter (salted).

And that is it.

You can’t get organic unsalted butter.

You can’t get unpasteurised butter.

You can’t get artisan butter.

You can’t get any kind of butter from a region.

What you can get is SMÖR (which, coincidentally, is not entirely unlike the Swedish word for “lubricate”, and that’s about what you’d want to do with the butter in these monopolistic packets).

Because when you can’t even get good quality in such a basic ingredient as butter, the rest of your cuisine doesn’t have much of a chance. And in Sweden, notwithstanding the odd star chef, actual authentic contemporary cuisine is characterised by overly fussy presentation and poorly selected, badly combined ingredients. About like Britain in the 1970s, say.

For example, the dish that made me decide I really really couldn’t stand translating any more Swedish menus was as follows, at an (ostensibly) authentic Italian restaurant:

Pasta, chicken, red pepper, curry and peanuts in a cream sauce.

Now, by my reckoning, that’s at least Italian, Indian and Thai cuisines in a single dish.

Because in Sweden, “fusion cuisine” means “scrape out the contents of the dustbin and slop it all onto a plate”.

Now let’s really take back control

I don’t believe “My country, right or wrong”. I’m not a jingoistic supporter of the England team in football tournaments. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m not at all proud of Britain’s colonial past.

Don’t misunderstand me – there are some things about the country that I’m proud of. The sense of humour, proper pies with a complete pastry enclosure and a good filling (and of course steak and kidney pudding, which is clearly ambrosia with added gravy)… The British plug, which you can plug in safely, in the dark, without the slightest struggle, unlike the stupid bloody continental things. Maps; you don’t realise how lucky you are to have the Ordnance Survey until you’ve tried to navigate through another country with a “map” that was clearly drawn up by a halfwit after an extremely alcoholic lunch.

But the thing that makes me proudest to be British – and which has always done so – is how, as a nation, we have always been able to show a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. You only have to read the Sharpe novels to appreciate how tough the British army and its followers were. You only have to watch the “World at War” episode about the Blitz to admire the resilience and determination of the population as a whole.

And that’s what makes it all the more soul-destroying to see social media filling up today with people confirming that they’re OK, or changing their Facebook avatar to a Union Jack.

A few people have been killed by someone in a car. I admit, it’s sad for them and their families, but it’s hardly a national disaster. And someone else has tried to attack London… using a knife.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. One man. With a knife.

Every year in Britain about 25,000 knife offences are officially reported, and about 1700 people die on the roads. Many of these are not accidental. But we’re not all changing our Facebook avatars over these. Why not? Are people killed by terrorists worth more than those killed by random nutters or ex mates or alcohol?

“But it’s terrorism”, is of course the answer that will be given by the Daily Mail reader in the street.

Well here’s a thought. Today, after the ‘terrorist attack’ on Westminster, which would make these terrorists happier – sober, minimal reporting of their efforts or a wave of hysterical reaction? Aren’t they most likely to be sitting now looking at their computer screens and grinning at the Union Jacks gradually taking over their friends lists?

If you really believe that terrorism is war, then surely you’re just encouraging the enemy by giving any credence to the fact that these attacks really constitute threats to us all as a nation?

Whatever happened to the good old British stiff upper lip? Or are we so weakened by reality TV and Starbucks and wet wipes that we just don’t have one any more? What would Churchill have made of us?

 

So, yeah, I’m fine, thanks. I’m like really traumatised because I have actually travelled through London in the past couple of years, so it was like *really* close, but I’m coping. Just about.

“Look it up” – or why we don’t have a word for “to internet”

 

The other day I was listening to the Escape Pod podcast with the lovely Alasdair Stuart, and he made a claim – I can’t now remember what – then said “Go on, look it up”.

And of course I knew that what he didn’t mean was “go to the library and look it up in an encyclopaedia”. What he meant was, “get online and check the veracity of my words there”.

Which reminded me once again that we don’t have a verb for “to internet”.

I mean, yes, you can Google something. But what if you don’t need to go via Google? What if, instead, you click on a bookmark or type straight into the address bar to take yourself to Wikipedia? What if, like me, you “look stuff up” every day, sometimes hundreds of times a day, using dictionaries, terminology resources, EU legislation and so on – all of which you have permanently open in browser tabs? Am I “looking up” or “tabbing”?

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But then of course looking stuff up isn’t the only thing we do online. We also use social media, waste hours on Bored Panda, try to beat our own records on Sporcle, watch Netflix, flirt on Tinder… And you can’t describe all of those things with a single verb.

It’s that very versatility which makes it impossible to neatly describe the activity. When you “watch TV”, that’s all you do. If you “use the phone” – at least in the old-fashioned sense of an instrument for calling someone who will then turn out not to be at home – again, that is all you can do with it. But the fact that the internet is more of another world than a piece of technology means that it’s difficult to limit the purposes to which we put it with one nice tidy term.

One thing I’m sure that none of us is doing is “surfing”. I have never “surfed the web” in my entire 25+ years of online existence. I’m sure it’s a term invented – and used – by people who would, in a previous life, have called a radio “the wireless” and cars “horseless carriages”. The kind of person who might have used the term “information superhighway” in cold blood.

And anyway, “surf” is such a misnomer. Even if you’ve got a reasonable connection speed, there’s nothing remotely graceful or linear about your progress through/across/in/on the internet. Hopscotch might be more like it, but even that usually involves having some kind of idea where you’re going. My feeling is that if you plotted most people’s online activities, the best description of their movement style and content would be “buggering about”.

And that’s my suggestion. If has the merit of being logical, descriptive and – above all – accurate.

So next time I go to say “I’ll just look that up”, I’m going to make the effort to be truthful and instead say “I’m just going to bugger about for a bit”. And when, 45 minutes later, I snap out of my digitally induced stupor and find that I’m deep into an article about how gecko tape works (it’s fascinating stuff… look it up) then at least I’ll be able to say that I meant to be there all along.

2017 – what a great year!

Well 2017 has been a much nicer year than 2016, hasn’t it? Nobody famous has died, nobody political has said or done anything silly, the climate’s been a bit chilly but nothing unexpected for the time of year, and there’ve been no terrorist attacks. Shame about Leicester, but you can’t have everything.

And no, I’m not deranged, I just live in the real world. Well, OK, the real world with a spot of footy. Since I chose toward the end of last year to stop using Facebook, I’ve saved myself vast amounts of utterly pointless stress and worry. I’ve also gained masses of time to spend on things that are far more relevant to me. Now I live my life, not the life of some constantly connected mid-Atlantic neurotic.

My life involves cleaning up cat poo and cat sick and removing fur from everything. It involves giving myself a severely strained elbow while using a crowbar to demolish two ceilings. It involves eating wonderful food and drinking a bit too much wine and never being able to resist just one more piece of cheese. And dessert. And yes, coffee too, thanks. It involves taking on far too much work because the subject’s so interesting, but I always get it delivered on time, somehow. It also involves – as of December last year – at least 10 minutes’ yoga practice a day, which has actually averaged out to be slightly more than 20 minutes every day, even when I had the flu. And it will continue to involve doing something new every month throughout this year.

My current monthly project is free writing, to a series of prompts set on a writing course two years ago that I hadn’t previously even had the time to look at. I’ve written stories with titles like Paradise, Leaves, Cloud dancing, and Fruit party. And I’ve discovered that my idea of the short story is one in which at least one person dies a violent and unexpected death.

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Fruit party? But where are the bodies?

But that’s OK, too, because my life involves learning things about myself. Not about someone I’m never going to meet who lives half way around the world and who I’d happily treat to a violent and unexpected death if I ever had the chance.

The only thing I miss about my Facebook existence is keeping up with my friends. It’s just not as convenient via email. But convenience is a small price to pay for living my own life.

 

Hello real world

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It’s been…. 2016. Those of you for whom it’s been a bad year will understand. I assume there must be some people – like Nigel “lightning rod of doom” Farage who’ve had a ball in 2016.

But really, has it been that bad? Compared to other years, I mean.

Because if you’ve even remotely been paying attention, you already knew before this year that sea life is dying out, that the obscenely rich are still getting richer, the polar ice is melting, the far right is on the rise in much of the world and that our own waste is choking us.

So my feeling that this year has been really rather dire comes, then, not from a reasoned weighing up of the state of the planet, but instead from the various channels that bring information to me on a daily basis. And they’ve been hammering away at death and disaster all year, from Bowie through Brexit to Trump. Admittedly I did actually seek out information about Brexit, because it directly affects me, but I never much liked David Bowie’s music, and I’m hoping very much that Trump will just turn out to be a damp squib – and of course if he isn’t I’m very unlikely to know much about it other than a sudden bright light.

And this trickle of depression from elsewhere has been bothering me, particularly as I’ve also had my own real concerns to deal with. But you know what it’s like. You don’t have time to think about this stuff. You just go on through your everyday life, tweeting and liking and hearting stuff, posting pictures of your food and telling people you’ve never met – and probably wouldn’t like if you did – more intimate things than you’d ever tell your best friend.

But over the last few days a few things have suddenly come together and forced me to take a closer look at my use of social media.

  1. I watched the latest series of Black Mirror. And just the first episode was enough to make me extremely uncomfortable about my unquestioning tapping of the “Like” button.
  2. I translated a report about social media use in journalism, which went into some detail about security issues, the tl;dr version of which is that your social media use pins you out and lays you open to examination like a medical specimen.
  3. A Facebook group for freelancers that I’ve been a proud member of pretty well since the start – and whose raison d’être is standing out from the run-of-the-mill groups where you just get whinging and complaints about unreasonable clients (answer: you’re a freelancer; you’re the boss; fix it) – has imploded into a series of petty squabbles and name calling. This has upset and disappointed me enormously, mainly because for several years now I’ve known that the answer to our problems as a species is mature thinking rather than juvenile reaction. And here are members of even this group behaving like a bunch of toddlers.
  4. But my reasons for reassessing my online presence are not all negative. Because another group – not on Facebook – that I’ve also been a member of for several years is running a couple of challenges this month. One is a “choose your own goals” thing that they do on a regular basis, and which I often intend to take part in but rarely do (largely because I waste too much time on Facebook). And the other involves doing yoga every day. Now this ties in perfectly with my current yoga practice, which is getting to be quite regular because I’ve got a foot injury and can’t do much else in terms of exercise at the moment. So I’m combining the two challenges and doing yoga and some other things – and also keeping off Facebook for those four weeks.

So that’s my thinking. I’m off Facebook, at least for this month, and – I sincerely hope – quite possibly for good. Instead I’m going to spend my time living in the real world, being present in my own life, writing words that are meaningful to me and trying hard to maintain Tree Pose for more than 3 milliseconds.

10 years later

23.06.2026

Dear Leave voter,

Well, it’s been ten years since you voted to take Britain out of the EU, and I wonder: how do you feel about that choice now?

Because I remember watching the results come in on the night and hearing how “traditional Labour voters just aren’t feeling like the current system is working for them”. And thinking, every time, that that was about the saddest thing I’d ever heard. To me it beggared belief that someone in Sunderland could imagine that their ills had been visited upon them by the EU rather than the consistent and cynical asset stripping of the country by the Conservative party. That people in South Wales – the biggest recipient of EU spending per head in the country – could believe that they’d be better off without that funding was something I simply couldn’t understand. But you presumably could, because you voted to leave.

So, what was it that you understood? Because I pictured a number of pretty dire things happening, and as I watched those results come in I simply felt utter, utter despair.

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But presumably you foresaw the unprecedented run on the pound that happened during the first two weeks after the Leave result. And you were sanguine about that because you’d also predicted the apparent economic upturn that then lasted for the remainder of that first year. During that period there was much talk about how much more cash the UK would have for things like the NHS, and that resulted in a small consumer-led boom.

And then the things that all of us on the Remain side could quite clearly see coming did indeed start to become manifest. Negative economic news began to be the norm. Nissan and the other car manufacturers withdrew from the UK. Why would they stay when there was no longer any market advantage to being in the country?

The City of London, which was, after all, a major driver of the UK economy, lost its position as the most important financial market in the world when the Brexit negotiations failed to secure the “passporting” rights it had previously had under the EU, and after about five years Frankfurt had completely taken over, with a concomitant nosedive in the financial sector.

Food became more expensive as EU subsidies were lost and some of the labour to cheaply pick the crops disappeared back across the Channel. Many farmers even went bankrupt in that horrible period before those hideously expensive internal subsidies were set up.

The EU did – as it had made clear it would – penalise the UK in every possible way during those leave negotiations. The single market became a thing of the past, and the markets that had previously been available to small and medium-sized businesses were no longer there. So yet more companies went to the wall, with yet more jobs lost. And yes, some companies managed to negotiate new markets in places like China. But even the Chinese preferred to deal with a larger economic bloc.

Overall, you see, I’d say that things became much worse for the ordinary Brit. The manufacturing industry disappeared completely; the removal of EU labour laws meant still more zero hour contracts and pitifully-remunerated jobs; housing became still more of a luxury, and even today, the UK has higher food prices than anywhere on mainland Europe. And the NHS that you were so worried about? Smashed up and sold off to Tory chums of the Tory government. Now you need expensive private health insurance to give you even minimal cover for hospital visits, and with wages being lower in real terms than they were before the referendum many people simply can’t afford that.

But you couldn’t see that coming, could you?

And one more thing that you apparently couldn’t see coming… the number of refugees and immigrants changed not at all. The immigrants already in the country had to be allowed to stay, and the UK continued to be a Mecca for ill-educated, low-paid foreigners to fill those jobs that no British person could afford to do. The only thing that changed was the ethnic make up of the immigrants; now they’re more likely to come from Thailand than from Poland. Consequently there are far more non-Christian, non-white faces behind hotel reception counters and serving in shops. Of course first there were what became known as the Refugee Wars, in which the French took a very gleeful attitude to simply waving refugees across the Channel – after all, why would they bother to stop them in France, inside the borders of the EU? But I’m not sure I believe that story that the French set up special trains from Nice and Marseille straight to Calais. Or that canny Frogs were doing a roaring trade in leaving old but well-insured boats handily positioned along the north French coast.

But then I’m out here, looking in. Just like I was before the referendum. I thought that the EU was the way to go, and I’ve done what I needed to do to make sure I stayed out here. And from here, the UK looks like even more of a sinkhole of exploitative employment practices and unbelievable gaps between rich and poor.

And yet that’s not quite what you wanted, is it?

If I remember correctly, you kept wittering on about taking the country back.

About making Britain great again.

About a return to the days of the Empire.

Only, after ten years, I’m wondering exactly when you’re going to start on that?

Because at the moment you seem to be struggling just to survive.

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