• Driving Away

    Date: 2014.11.20 | Category: Consumerism | Comments: 2

    What could be more exciting than a new car? Now that the holiday season is almost upon us, I’m sure those ubiquitous Lexus commercials (you know, the ones featuring luxury autos bedecked with gigantic bows) will be all over the TV soon. On “The Price is Right,” there’s no prize more valued than “a new caaaaaaaar!” And “new car smell” is so popular that simulations of it are available in sceneted oils, candles and air fresheners.

    carI, on the other hand, find the idea of trading in my 2002 Prius for a shiny new auto to be… well, sad. Yes, the car is 12 1/2 years old. The acceleration is, to put it kindly, poky. The steering wheel is so worn that it feels pebbly to the touch. I had it detailed for the first time about a year ago, but the interior still bears stains. It’s got dents and scrapes a-plenty, and while it’s possible to listen to music or podcasts from an iPhone, it requires plugging the phone into a cassette adapter. Oh, and the sound system’s on-off switch doesn’t work, so you have to turn the volume all the way down if you don’t want to listen to the radio.

    Despite all that, though, I love the car’s familiarity. I know all of its quirks. I love its small size and tiny turning radius, so appropriate for city living. I also love the fact that it’s long since paid for and insuring it only costs $500 a year. Because we make a lot of short trips, the mileage isn’t as high as you’d expect from a hybrid–usually we get around 35 miles per gallon–but overall, it’s been extremely cheap to maintain and run.

    But now, the trusted mechanics at Art’s Automotive, who have been caring for the Prius for a decade, have informed me that the car has reached the point of no return, where the repairs will become increasingly expensive. Because Joe and I share the one car (an advantage of living in a walkable community with good public transit), reliability is a must. We don’t have a second car to tool around in while one is in the shop.

    And so I find myself researching new autos. I am definitely a Toyota fan, but considering how little we drive (the Prius only has around 98,000 miles on it despite its advanced age), another hybrid probably doesn’t make sense. If money were truly no object, I’d buy a Tesla Model S, but I’d have to have enough cash to bathe in a la Scrooge McDuck before I could feel comfortable spending that much on a vehicle. We’ll probably wind up getting something dull but practical like a Corolla.

    The Prius is only the third car I’ve ever owned; the first two were a couple of Fords (a new Escort and a used Taurus) that vexed me with their unreliability and need for repairs. I was glad to see them go; I think I traded in the Escort, and donated the Taurus to charity (it wasn’t running, so it had to be towed away). But there will be a tear in my eye when I have to say goodbye to the Prius. I would happily keep it for a few more years, were it possible; I had at least hoped we’d make it over the 100K mark. No matter how many cool new features our next auto has, I’m sure it’ll take me a while to stop missing that little blue car.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • The Bad Seed

    Date: 2014.10.18 | Category: Movies, Personal | Comments: 1

    Earlier today, Joe and I were discussing the “bad” things we had done in our youth. I mentioned that two transgressions stand out in my mind as the epitome of my youthful trouble-making. (It was a more innocent time; I can only imagine someone a couple generations younger than I am claiming their worst misdeed was dipping a classmate’s pigtail in an inkwell.) Both are related to motion pictures.

    1. Dustin Made Me Do It: Today’s tweens may be devoted to Justin Bieber or One Direction, but I was infatuated with a middle-aged Jewish man: Dustin Hoffman. When “Tootsie” opened, I skipped school to take the bus to the Movies at North Kent so I could attend the very first showing of the film. Yes, I got in trouble, but on the plus side, the film is a classic that still holds up–I saw it again not that long ago and it’s hilarious and touching. What if I’d ditched class to see something like “Yor: Hunter from the Future”? My crush on Dustin was long-standing–a couple years earlier, my parents had allowed me stay up super-late to watch him win the Best Actor Oscar for “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

    Cat_People_1982_movie2. Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline): I came of age in the post-Marilyn Monroe era, when there were two preeminent female icons: Farrah Fawcett and Natassja Kinski. The latter was famous for being the subject of a Richard Avedon photograph in which she posed with a snake. Generally I was allowed to see any movie I was interested in–because I was insanely nerdy, I usually wanted to go see whatever Siskel & Ebert were recommending, which was usually along the lines of “My Dinner with Andre” or something directed by John Sayles–but the only film I recall being strictly forbidden to see was Kinski’s starring vehicle “Cat People.” Perhaps because it had a theme song by one of my favorite singers, David Bowie, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” or maybe because it was helmed by another one of my favorite auteurs, Paul Schrader, I decided I simply had to see “Cat People” immediately. I recruited my best friend James to take me, and we saw it the night it opened. Unlike “Tootsie,” I’ve never seen “Cat People” since then, and I don’t recall anything about it–just that my mother was very upset with me for having disobeyed her. It was probably not all that great. “Tootsie” endures, but who remembers “Cat People”? Maybe I should try to track it down one of these days to see if it’s shocking.

    Drugs? Alcohol? Sex? No thanks–for me, it was all about the movies.

  • They’ve Got Magic To Do

    Date: 2014.10.03 | Category: Theater | Comments: 0

    The first real rock concert I ever attended was by a band called The Tubes. They were playing at the Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium, and I was a fan of their hits, but I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, the San Francisco-based group put on a wild show featuring costume changes, dancing girls, stunts, smoke machines, bondage gear… at one point, lead singer Fee Waybill came out dressed as his alter ego “Quay Lewd,” wearing platform shoes and a fright wig. The scent of marijuana hung heavily in the air; I’m sure my parents would have been shocked had they known what sort of debauchery was going on in downtown G.R. that evening (luckily, I turned out OK–hi Mom & Dad!–though perhaps this formative experience partly explains why I eventually moved to the Bay Area and adopted “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” as my all-time favorite musical).

    Because I didn’t know any better, I assumed that what I had seen was a typical rock concert. When I attended other shows, I was crushed to realize that the average gig’s “visual spectacle” consisted solely of guys standing around on a stage playing instruments and singing. Where were the acrobats? Why was everyone wearing jeans and T-shirts? Where was the glitter?

    I wonder if anybody whose first experience with musical theater happens to be “Pippin” is similarly confused when they realize that not every musical includes magic tricks, a granny on a trapeze, knife-throwing, pyrotechnics, trained animals and balancing acts, not to mention genuine Bob Fosse-choreographed jazz hands. I’ve spent 30 years as a theatergoer, and I’ve never seen anything like “Pippin.” The storyline, about a young prince’s coming of age, is pretty ordinary, but the production itself is an eye-popper. I can imagine that “Pippin” could be done by high school drama clubs and it would be a pleasantly low-key show, not unlike “The Fantasticks,” but the Tony-winning Broadway revival adds so much over-the-top circus craziness that you probably won’t even notice the rather blah plot (unless you think about it on the ride home, at least).

    The title character, played by Matthew James Thomas with the charm of a young Michael J. Fox, is the son of Charlemagne (John Rubinstein–the original Broadway “Pippin” way back in 1972!). He’s been away from the kingdom to receive an education, and like so many modern-day grads, he’s now convinced that he needs to do something Big and Special with his life. He decides to become a warrior like his stepbrother Lewis, but that doesn’t work out so well. (At one point, Pippin has a conversation with the decapitated head of one of his foes.) When Pippin gets caught up in an anti-tyranny demonstration aimed at his own father, he kills the old man and takes over the kingdom, only to learn that it’s not so easy to govern an empire. Finally, he meets up with a young widow and her son and spends some time living the simple life on a farm.

    See–nothing special. And yet this show provides nonstop entertainment. Not for nothing is the orchestra pit covered by a net, though these performers are so agile that I doubt anyone ever falls into the string section. Even Lucie Arnaz, stepping in for Tony-winning Andrea Martin in the role of Pippin’s grandmother, performs a showstopper of a song while swinging on a trapeze with the grace of a circus vet.

    Heading the troupe is Sasha Allen as the Leading Player, making her mark in a tricky role that requires her to grab the audience’s attention even as people are doing backflips around her. She’s got a killer set of pipes and enough charisma to pull off the part that made Ben Vereen a star (Watch Ben perform “Magic to Do” from the original production, which was obviously very different from this revival… they kept the jazz hands, though). Sabrina Harper is a hoot as Pippin’s conniving stepmother. As for the acrobats, magicians and circus performers… well, it’s often a real three-ring circus up there, and no matter where you look, someone will be doing something to make you gasp and applaud.

    “Pippin” is one of those shows that really gives you your money’s worth, even at full price, but a few of the performances have discounted tickets available on Goldstar. If you’re looking for some escapist fun, don’t miss it.

  • It’s Funny Because It’s True

    Date: 2014.09.12 | Category: Internet, Meta | Comments: 0

    ‘I Let Everyone Down’: A Blogger Apologizes For Not Posting In A While (from the Onion’s hilarious site, Clickhole)

    After more than two weeks of radio silence, blogger Dylan Tafferty has finally issued a public apology for not posting in a while.

    “I cannot tell you how ashamed I am,” Tafferty wrote in the latest entry on his blog, The Tafferty Take, where he writes about a variety of subjects for an audience consisting of mostly friends and family…

    As far as giving any sort of explanation as to what drove him to neglect his blog for a two-week period, during which he failed to comment on such major events as the Emmys and his big dentist appointment in late August, Tafferty had this to say:

    “I’ve just been really busy with work and family stuff,” he wrote. “That’s not an excuse. It’s just a reason.”

  • The Kindle Is Back!

    Date: 2014.09.10 | Category: Consumerism, Travel | Comments: 1

    mykindleWell, it took almost a month, but my long-lost Kindle is finally back home. It arrived today via FedEx (billed to my account–I’m don’t yet know how much that’ll set me back, but at least it’ll be cheaper than buying a new device).

    I’m not sure how much my social media campaign helped, but at least I did get put in touch with a real live person in Central Baggage who responded promptly to my emails. My biggest piece of advice for somebody who is trying to retrieve a lost item from an airline is simply be persistent. Don’t let them forget that you exist. I hope it goes without saying that you should also be polite (after my initial flurry of Tweets and postings, I let everything play out behind the scenes). Everybody at Virgin America with whom I dealt after I posted my blog entry was pleasant and sympathetic.

    Twitter seems like the best way to get in touch with companies–most of them nowadays have social media teams that check their @ mentions frequently. I only have about 350 Twitter followers, but a couple of them were kind enough to retweet my initial complaint, which expanded its reach. You should also check out travel troubleshooter Christopher Elliott’s list of contacts in case nothing else you try is getting results.

    And most importantly: never get off a plane without checking and double-checking that seat-back pocket! I know that from now on, I’ll do just that, no matter how eager I am to disembark.

  • “Welcome to Sweden”: End of Season Binge Watch!

    Date: 2014.08.29 | Category: Sweden, TV | Comments: 2

    Virgin America update: I received an email from Central Baggage stating that they would look for my Kindle during an inventory on Thursday, which was yesterday, but I never heard anything back. I sent them another email, so we’ll see what happens. Was my social media shaming for naught?

    Despite the fact that NBC renewed “Welcome to Sweden,” they seem to be giving the show the brush-off. It was pre-empted on Aug. 14 for the two-hour “Last Comic Standing” finale (I lost interest after the great Joe Machi was eliminated!), then two episodes (#6 and #7) were aired on Aug. 21, the eighth episode was not aired at all (NBC posted it on its web site), and #9 and #10 both aired tonight. Sorry, but that is not the way a network treats a show that it has a lot of faith in. Maybe Season Two will air in the middle of the night, after “Last Call with Carson Daly”?

    Anyway, since I’d missed last week’s episodes due to jet lag and readjustment to Pacific Time, I decided to binge-watch the back half of Season One. But first, a correction: my brother points out that Hassan (Bruce’s Iranian friend) was likely using Misbaha and not rosary beads, as I speculated a few weeks back. I had never heard of Misbaha. The more you know…!

    “Parents/Föräldrar”

    evert-taubeBruce’s parents pay Bruce a visit, and he meets them at the Evert Taube statue. I was there last summer, and took a photo. That’s Stockholm’s City Hall in the background.

    Surprise surprise–Bruce’s folks are clueless, unpleasant Americans. “You’re not blonde!” exclaims Bruce’s mom, Nancy, to Emma’s mom, Viveka. (Lena Olin may not be blonde, but I’d classify her hair as “very light brown.”) I’ll admit that I’ve heard that question myself a bunch of times. I always say my dark-haired ancestors came from France to Sweden hundreds of years ago, which I recall my mom telling me once. But seriously folks, not all Swedes are blonde.

    Not one but two Gevalia coffee ads aired during this episode! If we Swedish-Americans are the only ones still watching “Welcome to Sweden” at this point, I can assure Gevalia that we already know all about their product.

    Bruce’s folks visit Viveka and Birger at their summer cottage, and Bruce’s dad Wayne asks Birger if it’s safe to be so far out in the country. “What would happen if you had a heart attack?” THIS IS CALLED “FORESHADOWING,” PEOPLE. Birger assures him that he’s “healthy as a…”–he can’t think of the final word. “Horse?” Wayne adds helpfully. “No, as a nut,” replies Birger. That would be “frisk som en nötkärna,” by the way. Which literally means “as healthy as the kernel of a nut.” Hey, it’s really no stranger an expression than “healthy as a horse,” right? I love the way Birger struggles with the English language. In another scene, he tries to tell Wayne about his career as a captain who worked for the “kommun.” That means “municipality,” but Wayne assumes it means “communist,” and Birger just goes along with it.

    There’s also a subplot about Emma thinking she’s pregnant, but no, it turns out she’s just gaining weight. (Maybe she’s eating too much candy?) Oh, and Wayne thinks all the men in Stockholm are gay, but they’re just European… until he inadvertently winds up in a gay bar.

    “Homesick/Lagom”

    Bruce has decided to try and act more Swedish. One of the things he tries is walking with Nordic poles, which are indeed very popular in Sweden. Emma thinks he’s depressed and sends him to see Viveka, who is, of course, a therapist, leading to one of my favorite lines on the show so far: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between ‘depressed’ and ‘Swedish.'”

    ABBAmuseumAubrey Plaza, best known for playing April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation,” is for some reason obsessed with Bruce and follows him to Stockholm. He takes her on a tour of the sights, including Skansen, the Vasa museum and Old Town. She hates them all (I’m not sure if Plaza is like this in real life, or if they’ve basically transferred caustic April to the world of “Welcome to Sweden”). They wind up at the ABBA museum, which she also hates, and Bruce gets in an argument with a guy about which one ABBA song was pretty good. (The guy is played by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, as himself. Bruce doesn’t recognize him; thus the “humor.”) Bruce finally remembers the ABBA song he likes: “Disco Inferno” (which, of course, was actually performed by Philadelphia’s The Trammps).

    Bruce meets Björn later in the episode when he tries to resurrect his career as a “celebrity money manager,” this time catering to Swedish celebs. In one odd scene, he meets with Swedish author Björn Ranelid in a coffee shop. I must admit that I did not recognize Ranelid, but once I saw his name in the credits, I thought, “Oh, that guy”–I’m an avid Eurovision fan and he competed (unsuccessfully–he finished last) to become Sweden’s entry into the contest in 2012 with the song “Kärlek” (“Love”). Seriously, watch it. It’s cray-cray. Plus, he looks like the male version of the Tan Mom. (Ranelid once told a reporter, “All healthy people who are out in the sun will become sunburned. I am not so vain as others who hide in the shadows to resemble French aristocracy.”) And keep in mind that the guy is an author; it would be as though Michael Chabon popped up on “America’s Got Talent” to speak-sing his way through a disco number with a bevy of dancing girls gyrating behind him.

    Björn Ulvaeus stuns Bruce by telling him that he doesn’t need to hire someone who can make him more money, because he already has enough. (This is true to his character–he could have saved many millions if he’d left Sweden for a tax haven like Monaco. But the guy loves Sweden.) Amusingly, Björn’s “office” in the episode is the replica in the ABBA museum; tourists gawk as he meets with Bruce.

    Bruce revisits the café from the horrible, cringe-worthy semla incident in “Get a Job/Farthinder” despite the fact that he had promised to shun it forever. The same cashier (Swedish actress Madeleine Martin) is working there. Bruce decides to stop being “lagom” and asks for 10 sugars in his coffee. He was committed enough to Sweden, however, to turn down client Amy Poehler’s offer of $300,000 to come back to the U.S. to straighten out her tax problems. Naturally, once sensible Emma finds out that the jobless Bruce has the chance to make $300K in three months, she tells him they should go. Based on everything we’ve seen in this show to date, Bruce’s money-manager skills are abysmal, but maybe he suddenly becomes hyper-competent once he’s back on his native soil.

    “Breakups/Förhållanden”

    Bruce rents “Tootsie” from Emma’s uncle Bengt’s video store, and Emma dares call it “cheesy”! No way! Bruce rightly defends the greatness of “Tootsie,” a film that definitely holds up more than 30 years later. Emma’s globetrotting ex-boyfriend Marcus shows up to couch-surf for a few days, and Bruce develops a man-crush on him. Understandable, because Marcus is everything Bruce is not–competent, caring, charitable. Emma reassures Bruce that she doesn’t want to get back together with Marcus because he was her first boyfriend, and “your first boyfriend is never the one. You have to try a few to know who the real one is. When you’re young, you’re stupid.” Bruce later repeats these words of wisdom to Viveka when she asks him if he’s jealous of Marcus. For some reason, Viveka, who complained earlier in the episode about Birger’s lack of spontaneity and a sense of fun, takes them to heart and decides to end her long marriage–apparently Birger, that silver fox of a sea captain, was her first love. When she tells Birger she wants to break up, he has a heart attack on the spot. (See, I told you: FORESHADOWING!) Of course, Marcus knows CPR, and Birger survives to be taken to the hospital. When Bruce enters his room, Birger curses at him and tells him he wishes that Bruce and Emma had never met. (Birger will probably cheer up later, because there’s a Dala horse next to his heart monitor, and as we know from a previous episode: “That’s a Dala horse. It makes me happy when I’m sad.”)

    In one of those “sad scene set to a melancholy pop song” montages so common in TV shows, Bruce decides to leave Sweden while Swedish singer Amanda Jenssen’s “Illusionist” plays plaintively in the background. Tears!! Woe! Will Birger survive? Of course, anyone who only watches “Welcome to Sweden” on NBC will have no idea about any of this going into Thursday’s show, since this pivotal episode was relegated to the web.

    “Separate Lives/Saknad”

    Bruce is back in the U.S.A. and orders the most American thing he can think of at a diner (two apple pies and a cup of weak coffee). Meanwhile, everybody who watches this on NBC and doesn’t bother following “Welcome to Sweden” on social media, which is probably 99% of viewers (“WtS” has just over 2,000 followers on Twitter and 6,300 on Facebook), missed the link to Episode 8 and is exclaiming, “WTF is Birger doing in the hospital?!?! And why is Viveka going out on the town in full cougar regalia?” (I have to say, though, that Lena Olin looked hot in her cougar get-up, despite the fact that Emma accused her of looking like one of the “Pantertanter” (literally, “panther ladies”–the Swedish title of “Golden Girls”). Viveka and Emma wind up at O’Leary’s, a sports bar in Gamla Stan. And we see more Gevalia ads; gee, why nothing from IKEA and H&M?

    For obvious reasons, I loved this line from Amy Poehler, explaining the dubious investments she’s made without Bruce around to advise her: “I started my own record company, which was creatively satisfying but financially a bust.” Preach it, sister.

    “Home/Återförening”

    These last two eps were so plot-heavy that there wasn’t much time for beautiful Swedish scenery or new cultural tropes to discuss. My favorite thing about them was that with Bruce in the U.S., there was tons of dialogue in Swedish. My least favorite things: the nonsensical Aubrey Plaza subplot, and the even-more-nonsensical attempt by Bruce to buy a ticket to Stockholm. Supposedly Amy Poehler bought up all the tickets to keep him in the U.S., so he winds up routed through Bolivia and Switzerland. I realize it’s supposed to be comedy, but c’mon, all you’d have to do is buy a ticket to Oslo or Copenhagen, or even Frankfurt or London, and catch a connecting flight to Stockholm. As for the Arlanda escalator in the climactic scene, I’m pretty sure it must be in a domestic terminal because I’ve never seen it before.

    All in all, I’d give the season a B-, but I’ll definitely be looking forward to season two, mainly for the awesome Birger and Viveka, the scenery, and the hope that Bruce (now that he’s admitted he loves Sweden and all things Swedish) will be less of a clueless jerkface. Greg Poehler could stand to learn a thing or two from his big sis about how to create flawed, occasionally unsympathetic characters without crossing the line into being too unlikable, not to mention coming up with situations that are hilariously funny, improbable, and yet somehow make perfect sense (i.e. the ongoing Pawnee/Eagleton rivalry on “Parks & Rec”). And while I love her as April Ludgate, for God’s sake no more Aubrey Plaza on this show.

  • Dear Virgin America, Please Give Me Back My Kindle

    Date: 2014.08.26 | Category: Books, Travel | Comments: 2

    Update: 15 minutes after linking to this post on Twitter, somebody from Virgin responded to me, stating that they “forwarded [my blog post] to our Central Baggage team at HQ” and that I should hear back tomorrow. Stay tuned…

    There is nothing more tedious than trying to shame a company via social media, but the reason so many people do it is because it usually works. The company that ignores you or gives you the runaround via phone or email is suddenly ready to lend an immediate helping hand if you start posting on Twitter and Facebook about your bad experience. Will it work for me? I don’t know, but I’m gonna give it a try!

    The culprit: Virgin America Airlines. I recently flew round-trip from SFO to JFK on Virgin. On my outgoing flight, I did something really stupid that I’ve never done before: I left my Kindle in the seat back pocket. Seriously, I’m the kind of person who never loses anything! And yet somehow I lost the Kindle. I had been reading Lee Child’s Never Go Back on the plane, and was at around 80%. (Luckily, I have the Kindle app installed on my iPhone and was able to finish the book.)

    Kindle 3Now, this is an old Kindle, though it was state of the art when Joe received it as a gift in October of 2010. He passed it along to me when he eventually bought an iPad. Truth be told, I still prefer reading books on paper, so I didn’t use it a ton, but I always brought it along when I traveled. (Though I always bring a spare paper book in case of emergency; I’m reminded of that “Modern Family” episode where Jay Pritchett’s Kindle is accidentally destroyed in the airport right before he is to board a plane to Hawaii.) Besides the Lee Child book, I had the first two Gillian Flynn novels and some other “airplane reading.”

    When I got to our apartment in New York and discovered the loss while unpacking, I immediately called the lost and found number listed on Virgin America’s web site, and left a message with my cell phone number. When I didn’t hear back, I filled out an online form on Virgin’s site. That generated a case number (140815-000165), but I never got a response. Finally, at the airport for our return flight, Joe asked an agent at the bag check to see if the item could be located. She took down his cell phone number and said she’d call us at the gate and somebody would bring the Kindle to us if it was found. (He offered to go to the lost & found, but we were told that was not possible.) We had gotten to the airport two hours early so I figured there was plenty of time. It turns out the agent called us as our plane to SFO was taxiing down the runway. Good news! They had found the Kindle! The agent hadn’t called earlier because “time got away from me,” but at least they had it, right? Though it would have been super convenient had we been able to pick it up there. Now it’s a continent away.

    I tried calling Virgin “guest services” again, and was transferred again to the lost & found voice mail where I left a phone number, though at this point I suspect there’s .0001% chance anyone will actually retrieve the message and call me back. So I’m resorting to this.

    While Googling “Virgin lost and found,” I discovered this Wall Street Journal article; sounds like Julie & Tony had a much easier time of it than I have:

    Julie Del Santo and her husband Tony left an iPad onboard a Virgin America flight to San Francisco from Palm Springs, Calif., earlier this month… Twenty minutes after leaving the airport, she got an email on her BlackBerry from the airline asking her to call the local baggage office… The direct number was answered even though it was after midnight. After describing the device, she had Virgin America ship it FedEx to her office. “That was a class act,” she said. From past experiences with airlines, “it’s like pulling teeth to get something back.”

    “We are seeing fewer phones left behind, but a lot more iPads and Kindles,” said Tim Thornton, director of airport operations and guest services for Virgin America… Kindle electronic readers are easier to reunite with owners than iPads, airlines say, because they often aren’t locked with password protection. That means email addresses can be retrieved. And carriers say Amazon has been cooperative at contacting owners based on serial numbers.

    Since Virgin has had my Kindle since Aug. 12, I don’t think anybody’s bothered going to Amazon to see if they can find us based on the serial number. Is it because it’s an old Kindle and not a shiny new iPad? I guess I could just throw up my hands and say “forget it” and buy a new one, but I’m the sort of person who tends to use things until they no longer work (I drive a 12-year-old car, for instance–I’d rather spend my money on other stuff, like, say, trips to New York). So Virgin, if you’re reading this, please, please return my Kindle. I’m going to call you out on social media, but if you help reunite me with my lost property, I’ll thank you. And probably suggest that other folks who lose something on a Virgin flight try resorting to social media rather than going through the usual channels.

    Special thanks to publicist David Brown at Simon & Schuster, who gave me a 600-page spy thriller called I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes while I was in New York. Despite the fact that it weighed a ton, I toted that thing on the plane with me and spent almost the entire flight from JFK to SFO reading it. Never have I been more grateful to receive a giant doorstop of a book. I highly recommend it, though if you’re considering it for your next airplane ride–which you should–may I suggest the Kindle version?

  • Looking for Sweden in New York

    Date: 2014.08.19 | Category: Sweden, Travel | Comments: 0

    Unlike the past two Augusts, I’m not in Sweden–I’m in New York, so at least I’m closer to Sweden (only six time zones away!) than I am when I’m home in California. I decided to see if I could find a touch of Sweden in the big city.

    mysterious1. The Mysterious Bookshop: Looking for Scandinavian thrillers? There’s a special section devoted to Nordic authors at this TriBeCa bookstore, now the last of its kind (i.e. an independent mystery bookseller) in the city.

    2. Gudrun Sjödén: The Swedish designer sells “eco-conscious clothes meant for the mature woman,” in the words of the New York Times. There are a lot of airy tunics and wide pants; I figure that by the time I’m officially “mature,” I’ll have a whole wardrobe of Sjödén fashions–if I can afford it. They’re a bit pricey, but the quality’s good and I have gotten plenty of wear out of the items I bought in Stockholm. This was my first visit to the New York boutique; I hit the sale rack in the back and found a couple tops. Not sure if it’s coincidence or the start of a “Little Sweden” retail district, but I spotted two other Swedish retailers within a half block of Sjöden’s SoHo store: Boutique Acne and, surprisingly enough, Fjällräven, the purveyor of outdoor gear best known for their ubiquitous Kånken backpacks, carried by every Swedish schoolchild.

    3. Sockerbit: Swedish lösgodis store, which basically means you choose from a selection of small candies in bins, scoop ‘em up, and place ‘em in a bag. Sockerbit, located in the West Village, charges $12.95 a pound for its colorful imported wares. I was hoping to find some of the round Swedish candy-coated mints I love, but no such luck; I wound up purchasing a few chocolate items, skipping the popular-with-Swedes salty licorice and sega råttor (gummy rats). There are also some Swedish grocery items, like mustard and lingonberry preserves, for sale, as well as Marabou candy bars.

    4. Fika: I stopped by the midtown outpost of this Swedish coffee chain when I was here last year but the loud music sent me running out the door empty-handed. When I saw they’d opened a branch on the Upper West Side, I stopped by, and to my delight, there was no music playing at all. It was blissfully calm in the midafternoon. Sandwiches are named after Swedish cities, like Göteborg and Lysekil; I wonder if this is so the staff can quickly spot a Swede? No one not from Sweden would ever pronounce “Lysekil” correction (lee-suh-sheel, more or less). I was rather confused by the name of the sandwich I ordered–Burträsk (bewr-tresk)–until I Googled it. Turns out it’s a small town in the province of Västerbotten. There was Västerbotten cheese on my (delicious) sandwich. Mystery solved! I might go back tomorrow for some Princess cake.

    swedishcottage5. The Swedish Cottage: I often make a point of walking past the Swedish Cottage on the western side of Central Park, despite the fact that it’s not all that Swedish-looking. It’s used as a marionette theater now, but was “originally constructed as a model pre-fabricated schoolhouse, and became Sweden’s entry in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia,” according to the park’s web site. “After the exhibit, Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted chose the rustic building for Central Park.”

    6. Red Rooster: I was fortunate enough to dine a few times at midtown’s Aquavit restaurant during the tenure of Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson. (TV cooking-show fans may recognize him from “The Next Iron Chef” and “Top Chef Masters.”) His current project is Red Rooster in Harlem, and while it does offer Swedish meatballs, the menu primarily consists of Southern comfort food. I had cornbread and catfish, which are not Swedish in any way, but they were very tasty. Anyone looking for actual Swedish food should check out Smörgås Chef, where Joe & I dined last year. And Aquavit is still around, though the prices are at what I consider “expense account level.”

    7. Scandinavia House: Not much going on there now, but they frequently show Scandinavian films and have exhibits and lectures during the non-summer months. They always show the official Scandinavian nominees for Best Foreign Film a month or so before the Oscars.

  • “Welcome to Sweden” Mystery Solved!

    Date: 2014.08.09 | Category: Sweden, TV | Comments: 0

    Thanks to the Stockholm Visitors Board for helping me ID the mystery location in Thursday’s episode of “Welcome to Sweden.” It’s Fjällgatan in the Södermalm area of Stockholm.

    Stockholm - Fjällgatan

    The reason it looked familiar is obviously because I’ve walked along this beautiful and historic street many times, but only during the day–and I don’t think there’s any denying that it looks a lot more glamorous at dusk. I had actually poked around this neighborhood a few times on Google Street View but don’t think I would have made the connection without the help of @VisitStockholm, since the colors are so washed out on Street View!

    The yellow building is Sofia Småbarnsskola (preschool).

    “Fjällgatan” means “mountain street,” and it is indeed high up, with some spectacular views. Take a look courtesy of 360Cities, which is the next-best thing to being there and enjoying an ice cream at Fjällgatans Kaffestuga.

  • “Welcome to Sweden”: A Double Dose

    Date: 2014.08.07 | Category: TV | Comments: 2

    I really, really disliked last week’s episode (“Get a Job/Farthinder”) and finally forced myself to sit through it again so I could take notes on it. If “Welcome to Sweden” had been “Welcome to Poland” instead, I probably would have bailed on the series at this point. And yet, those little glimpses of Stockholm sustain me through the awfulness.

    semlaThings I hated:

    Semlor (delicious cream-filled pastries) are out of season at the time this episode takes place (summer). They are traditionally served during Lent, but in recent years, they have gotten so popular that they turn up earlier and earlier. Still, you would really have to hunt to find a café serving semlor in the summertime. I’m not saying such places don’t exist, but it would be on par with trying to find a store selling candy canes and fruitcake in July–it’s highly unlikely.

    Bruce behaves like a jerk to almost everyone in this episode: the beleaguered man in the employment office, the woman at the Swedish equivalent of the DMV, the woman behind the counter at the café, his best friend (who loses his job because Bruce can’t drive a car with a manual transmission). I don’t care whether or not he behaved like a jerk toward Gene Simmons, because I can’t stand Gene Simmons. And yet, Simmons’ cameo was probably the high point of this episode. Go figure.

    Dala horses turned up in three places: the café, Bruce and Emma’s kitchen (on a potholder), and the employment office.

    “Nollvisionen” (“Vision Zero”), referred to in the DMV scene, has been adopted by San Francisco. The goal is an end to all traffic deaths by 2024. Maybe if we all get those self-driving Google cars…?

    FarthinderBruce laughs at the “Farthinder” road sign. It warns you that there’s a speed bump or similar traffic-calming device up ahead. “Fart” means “speed” in Swedish. It never occurs to me that words like “farthinder” are funny because I grew up with these words and they don’t register as odd or humorous. I remember that during one of my trips, a Swedish celebrity had just broken up with his girlfriend, and one of the tabloids bore the enormous headline “SLUT” (the equivalent of “It’s Over”). It took me a minute to realize why my American traveling companion found this so hilarious.

    The boat scene is agonizing (callback to Bruce’s seasickness in Episode One), but at least we get a nice glimpse of one of the most beautiful parts of Stockholm, the quay near the Grand Hotel (Blasieholmskajen). That is indeed where many sightseeing boats depart. I read somewhere that one of the passengers on the boat is Greg Poehler’s real-life father-in-law.

    Blasieholmskajen_2009

    On to tonight’s episode, “Fitting In/Vänner” (“Friends”). This episode is much better, despite the fact that it starts with Bruce joking that Emma and her friend sound like the Swedish chef. That would have been enough to get me to dis-invite him to all parties henceforth.

    Perhaps one of the reasons I preferred this episode: there is so much Swedish dialogue. Americans are introduced to the following Swedish words: slipmaskin (a floor sander) and utbränd (burned out–a concept I wrote about a few years ago). There’s also a callback to Episode Two when Emma’s mom says that one of the only Swedish words Bruce knows is “bågsåg” (a bow saw or “Swede saw”).

    I noticed in the past two episodes that Bruce’s Iraqi friend Hassan is always shown carrying rosary beads. Since less than 1 percent of Iraqis are Catholic, according to Wikipedia, perhaps that is why he left Iraq for Western Europe.

    There are some fantastic scenes of Stockholm, including great shots of the Opera near Kungsträdgården (the King’s Garden) and the island of Skeppsholmen, where the boat af Chapman is docked. The only location I couldn’t recognize was the one below. Click on the images to enlarge:

    wts1 wts2

    I think it might be in Kungsholmen or Södermalm? In any case, it looks familiar. I’m hoping my aunt or my parents, who are in Stockholm at this very minute, can help me out.

    Bruce calling Emma’s friend Lisa and Emma’s mom, using Google Translate to help him “speak Swedish,” is him at his most charming, but the spa scene is just as icky as the café scene in Episode Four. High-end spas are expensive–you’d think Bruce (who was too broke to buy a semla last week) would have thought twice before deciding to take his girlfriend’s mother for a day of treatments. The 5000:- (which she winds up paying) is equivalent to about $700 U.S.

    Did Ace of Base really have the most successful debut album of all time? Of course, I had to look that up, and while they’re in the top 10, they were bested by the all-American Guns ‘n Roses.

    Emma notes that Swedes are proud of Ola Rapace, the actor who appeared in “Skyfall” and was henceforth known as “James Bond-Ola.” This nomenclature is something I’ve always found pretty funny–the thing celebrities are best known for becomes part of their name. If your name is Erik and you appeared on the Swedish version of “Survivor,” “Expedition Robinson,” you would be known forever after in the Swedish media as “Robinson-Erik.” It would be as though we knew Kelly Clarkson as “American Idol-Kelly.” That said, I doubt any Swedes have ever referred to Rapace as “James Bond-Ola.” He’s successful for a wide variety of movies and TV shows, and also known for being married to original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” actress Noomi Rapace (they divorced in 2011). Americans may also recognize him from the Swedish “Wallander” series, which has been shown on the “MhZ WorldView” program in the States.

    The shoe scene at the party is a bit uncomfortable, but funny. Yes, Swedes make you take your shoes off. It’s sort of surprising that Bruce wouldn’t have been clued into this by now, since he’s lived there a few weeks. I follow this tradition in my own home, but I don’t make our guests remove their shoes. In Sweden, it’s expected; here, it’s considered kind of annoying.

    DALLASBruce’s parents, played by Illeana Douglas and Patrick Duffy, are introduced at the very end of the show. Douglas is 49 years old. FORTY-NINE. Poehler is 39. For pity’s sake. The “reveal” of Duffy is a surprise that must have delighted the many Swedes who watched “Dallas,” which was wildly popular in Sweden. I would occasionally watch “Dallas” when I wanted to hear people speaking English (I never once watched it when I was back in the U.S.). This was a long time ago–nowadays there are numerous Swedish satellite channels seemingly devoted to airing reruns of American sitcoms, reality shows, talk shows and dramas. I just checked the listings, and if you were to flip through the channels at the moment I am writing this, you could catch “The Nanny,” “Frasier,” “90210” or, God help us, “Wife Swap.”

    For more “Welcome to Sweden” chat, don’t miss Slate writer Jeremy Stahl’s recap (he critiques it each week with his Swedish wife).

    Note: Next week, there’ll be a special two-hour episode of “Last Comic Standing.” “Welcome to Sweden” will return on Aug. 21.