Friday, June 6, 2008

A---, Sweden

A--- waited for me outside the turnstiles of his metro station, but having never met each other, I walked right past him without recognition and sat on a bench outside. It took a few minutes of mutual waiting and eye-contact dancing before he ventured to ask if I was waiting for him. Yes, I suppose I was.

A--- cut a boyish 18-year-old figure, sporting a shaved head, shapely eyebrows, dark eyeliner and bright pink eyeshadow. White dress collar and a hint of black tie spied out from under his thin white tee-shirt, stained with a political message scrawled sloppily across it in black magic marker. He was certainly friendly enough in our short walk to the apartment complex, which had the aura of a place overwhelmingly inhabited by the elderly. Crisp, golden birch leaves covered the path underfoot.

He had moved out of his staid parents' house and into this tiny Stockholm commune just a few months prior, when he'd begun his university studies in aesthetics. A--- seemed to reject everything "mainstream," from his choices in housing, roommates, lovers, clothing and field of study to binary gender definitions to eating animal products to household chores to throwing out trash to paying for public transportation. Why push only one boundary when you can push them all simultaneously? He was just 18, embracing his own definition of freedom -- one in some respects far freer, in others more restrictive, than my own, nearly 10 years his senior.

Opening the front door and the apartment door without a key, A--- welcomed me unceremoniously into their home. I removed my shoes though there was nowhere clean to step. Bathroom and kitchen were the only escape from the one room we would share. Tall, full bookshelves lined the far wall; on the other was painted a gigantic, fantastical mural that extended across the room and wrapped onto the wall adjacent to the kitchen. The opposite wall was a large bank of windows unbroken by curtains, underneath which sat the computer station, an old leather recliner, and piles of non-functioning electrical equipment. The majority of the space was taken up by "the bed," a cobbled-together collection of mattresses on the floor where we would all sleep. I placed my suitcase between the electrical junk and the chair, next to the end of the bed where I decided I would be sleeping.

Perpendicular to my hosts.

A--- made clear over our lunchtime conversation just the type of people they refused to host anymore: couples (they made awkward bedfellows) and Germans. The latter were so pedantic, he said, refusing to share the bed and instead seeking refuge (I'm not exactly sure where, between the stacks of magazines, piled empty tetrapaks and food remnants) on the kitchen floor. Those that acquiesced to the bed insisted on using their own bedding or sleeping bags, clearly another no-no. So my clean sheets stayed in the suitcase, and I was thankful that I had packed cold-weather pajamas -- a full-body mental and physical armor (for the German in me) from the crumbs, dirt and flecks which had gathered under the comforters in the cracks between the mattresses.

It was only for two nights, I reasoned with myself. How often does one have to opportunity to pick the brains of Swedish love anarchists? That night before bed, A---, his current lover and I debated theories of economic power, individualism and the optimal role of the family and the market.

I made my part of the bed, dressed and breakfasted quietly before leaving my sleeping hosts early Sunday morning. The single room was baking in the morning sunshine and the smell of their farts -- testament to the previous night's cabbage and carrot stew. Under a clear sky, the air outside was frosty, filled briefly with the sound of a departing moped having difficulty starting on the sidewalk, fading into the rolling wheels of the small suitcase dragging briskly behind me to the metro stop. The path's adjacent, glacial boulders and carpet of fallen leaves had already transported me home.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

X, Germany

"Excuse me, do you have 50 cents for the telephone?" he bent over and disingenuously asked the American male in black skinny jeans and black hipster glasses. X had entered the train seconds just before.

No one would help. His begged entreaty may have seen better luck if two other homeless people -- one unenthusiastically selling the homeless newspaper and one, obviously mentally disturbed, guided through his haze by yellow paper-cup torches in each hand -- hadn't gone through the wagon between the previous stop and where X boarded. X may also have improved his chances if it weren't so pungently clear he'd recently ingested a kebab, likely purchased for 2 euros from the Turkish place just below the stop. He fills the wagon with the strong smell of raw onion and a faint undertone of coconut oil. (Hair tonic perhaps? It is unlikely he has smeared his dark skin with Hawaiian Tropic.)

X sits down across the aisle from the hipster and his German companion, sighing resignedly.

Below his gritty tee-shirt collar, his chocolate back leaks through the cheap weave of the white fabric, giving it a bluish tinge. His perfectly-formed earlobes draw taut circles at slight angles to his large head. The train enters a tunnel, and X catches his reflection in the darkened window. Unabashedly, he examines his face. He frantically wipes at the corners of his mouth with both hands, then looks back into his own eyes calmly.

Starting, as if he's forgotten himself, he looks around the wagon nervously -- the hunted look of those riding black, without tickets. At the next stop, X follows the hipster off the train.

Monday, May 19, 2008

N-----, Spain

N-----'s place was far, far cleaner than that of most single men I've known, though that morning's tiny razor-mown facial hairs still clung to the edges of the bathroom sink and the better part of the kitchen was taken up with paint, concrete mixing buckets, tools, drapecloths, machinery.

"It's for my business," he explained on our hasty four-room tour.

Perhaps blinded by the crisp whiteness of the delicately embroidered linens on the large guest bed or the cool white interior of his immaculate, empty refrigerator as I slid my perishables inside, I didn't realize I had landed solidly in a mature bachelor pad until I went through the cupboards looking for cookware for that evening's meal. To the left of the range, I discovered three-deep rows of canned corn, canned beans, and jars of asparagus. To the right, a "spice cupboard" with oil, vinegar, salt and oregano. Behind door number three, I found two of the largest cans of tuna known to man and a half-used bag of flour. That was the full extent of N-----'s pantry.

I eventually uncovered an expensive set of matching pans, not sure N----- had ever christened them. The silverware drawer contained the single stirring utensil -- a beaten-up wooden spoon. His war on cooking extended to not owning an electric kettle or even a coffee maker. In fact, I only saw him turn on the gas burners to light the charcoal for his nightly water pipe.

After years on the can-opener diet, N----- had lost a taste for fresh food. Despite it already being the height of both strawberry and aspargus season (thanks to Spain's warm weather, I was going to experience the highlight of my European summer twice!), my host abstained from the dinners and desserts I prepared nightly. The exception to this no-perishables rule was pineapple; my second day he cleaned the fruit ripening on the counter and placed its yellow body naked on a plate in the fridge, keeping company with my groceries and N-----'s 12-pack of Coke.

This simplified lifestyle exuded both confidence and a charming masculinity, from the carefully-selected products in his toilet kit to each room's bold yet unitary color scheme. N-----'s two hobbies are the seemingly contradictory shisha smoking and mountain climbing, his living room walls lightly yellowing around photographic trophies from his exploits. Thoughtful and comfortable, N-----'s life nevertheless lacked a degree of nuance, not unlike his command of spoken English.