Hotel Helen is open

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„Helen, I am waiting for new blog content!“, I was texted last night. Give them an inch and they’ll take an ell, eh? I gathered lots of content, actually, but time is a ridiculously scarce ressource right now. Maybe because I spent the weekend in Amsterdam, am travelling to Sweden this next weekend and along the way opened Hotel Helen for the public.

Yes, Hotel Helen, or Domicil Lux if you’d like, was busy these last nights. On Thursday, my friend Svenja and her husband Burak came to visit as they were travelling through Dizzel International Airport.

Before I met them, I attended a gathering of the Dizzel Business Club where they talked about just this airport that has over 22 million people in 90 minutes’ radius and no less than 700 departures and arrival every day. The only thing that impressed me even more at that meeting was that the gender balance was totally off with about 5 % of the attendees being female. I guess working in Swedish business contexts has spoiled me (despite the fact that even we don’t usually come up to more than 30 %).

Svenja and Burak’s impression of Düsseldorf was very interesting to hear. I’ve gotten used to quite some things by now but they looked at the city with fresh eyes and – closing the circle to the above paragraph – stated, „This place feels very masculine“. They thought that because there is a disproportionaley high number of men’s outfitters, many men on the streets, a lot of cars and I added that I actually think the architecture is somewhat male. How can architecture be male, you’re wondering, and how can this gender studies graduate say something this un-gendery? Oh well, I don’t t know, come to Dizzel and see for yourself!

The next guest was Anna. When we were holidaying in May and talked about school with her not being too fond of history, I said next time she has to write a history exam, I’d help her study for it. No sooner said than done, I got an email with the subject line „History exam“ and on Friday night, we sat going through Hitler’s ideology. That’s one way to spend a Friday night. Personally, I have lots of objections to how and what students are taught in history in German school. Like at her school, they started the A-Level preparations with the late middle ages, to then move to displacement after 1945, continue with the 1870s and then teach about Hitler. You don’t have to be a historian to figure out that that is widely confusing. (Also, since ages we are taught every fricking detail of Hitler’s sick thoughts but the prelude, the Weimar Republic, is often neglected.)

The last topic in their A-Levels will be ”myths”. No more info on that. What’s that even supposed to mean? It’s like saying, „We’ll study war. Won’t tell you which one, which time period and who against whom.“

The next morning, I interrogated her on ideology at the breakfast table when my former co-workers‘ cousin from Denmark arrived to check in at Hotel Helen for the night. I handed her the keys and an extensive manual („the grocery store is here“, „the tram leaves here“) and dashed off with Anna to the central station to take the train to Amsterdam. Amsterdam! Excuse me but how wonderful isn’t Amsterdam? I don’t know if it is the kamikaze cyclicsts, the super crooked houses, the beautiful water everywhere or the fact that one of my favorite cousins lives there – but I really like the city. We also had great luck with the weather which was both good when we strolled through town on Saturday and when we visited the Rijksmuseum on Sunday because bad weather would’ve meant huge crowds, I guess.

I have been wanting to go to that museum for a while. It is a Dutch national museum dedicated to arts and history in Amsterdam, founded in 1800. The building itself is absolutely lovely and the collections are impressive. If I find some time, I need to study the Dutch more because it is certainly marvelous how a small nation managed to produce so many outstanding artists during their Golden Age and to attain such global significance. My cousin told me that the Dutch East Indian Company was the most valuable company that ever existed, even by modern standards.

So finally I got to see The Nightwatch. Actually, it impressed me less than The Milkmaid, The Jewish Bride and the Swan which was the very first painting the museum acquired. It is quite peculiar how I recognized lots of paintings and I am still not sure if my arts education was simply very good or if anything from that time looks alike and I just thought I recognized it.

We made a point out of paying attention to small funny details in the paintings. My cousin even photographed every drunk person in the art, I think he’s planning to make a drunkard collection or something.

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Helen meets the Night Watch

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You can even get The Milkmaid as a playmobil

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Love and appreciation in this painting

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“It seems a little extreme that they would have flown off the ship like that”, said my cousin

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A happy bat!

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Cousinquote. “His outfit makes me slightly uncomfortable”

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Even the baby is tipsy, huh?

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The ceiling in the museum’s atrium

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Cousin and I play Maarten and Oopje. Rembrandt painted the marriage portraits of the newly-weds Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit in Amsterdam in 1634, when he was twenty-eight. They are most wanted and least exhibited Rembrandts in the world.

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Cousin and his university

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I thought this was art, too, but apparently they just marked the spot where you should put your bins, with “household garbage”

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This is Anne.

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The Wu-Tang Quarter of town.

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“Om ett barn heter Tina, varför måste man ge det ett nytt namn och kalla det Zahara bara för att man har adopterat barnet från Afrika? Det är som om jag kallade dig Vättern.” “Men jag vill hellre heta Tingstädeträsk då.”

“Köpenhamn är lite som Stockholm, det är fint men man vet inte vad man ska göra där.” “Va? Det stämmer ju inte alls, Stockholm har Stadshuset och Skansen och Vasamuseet…” “Du är en sån pensionär.” “Nej, jag är Stockholmsambassadör!”

“Om du är så upprörd, skriv en insändare då.” “Nej, jag måste göra nåt större. Kanske twittra.”

“Visst räknar man fem glas champagne?” “Per person?!”

“Auf Schwedisch heißt Batman Läderlappen.” “Zu Batman habe ich geforscht! Im Folterkontext.”

“Das Wort fika ist gleichzeitig ein ett-Wort und ein en-Wort. Die wollen einen fertig machen mit ihren Artikeln.” (Kollegin, die angefangen hat, Schwedisch zu lernen:) “Aber ich lass mich nicht fertig machen! Ich lern das einfach auswendig!”

“Det är så många nya ställen i Stockholm nu. Jag kände mig som en lantis!”

“Düsseldorf is not that bad. It has museums. And…grassed areas.” – “Are you in sales by any chance?”

Maj

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Photo: Bokbloggen

With all due respect for non-fiction, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better for me to read fiction. I’ve always loved a good story, it somehow gives more to one’s soul to immerse oneself in an author’s world than to further educate oneself on the snow lepards in Kirgizistan. But that’s just me, maybe you’re super fascinated with snow lepards.

Currently, I’ve started reading ”The Secret History” by Donna Tartt because after the ”Goldfinch” I felt I need to read everything Tartt ever wrote. Which is, actually, just two more books. Unfortunately, ”The Secret History” is a little creepier than it’s bird-centered sucessor (or maybe I just have a way too lively imagination) so at night, I first cannot stop reading and then I am so spooked, I have to take up the book I recently finished reading and re-read it to calm down. This book has zero creep-risk while at the same time being absolutely masterful. I feel I need to tell the world about this outstanding accomplishment in contemporary Swedish literature. Enter MAJ.

The trilogy about the Northern Swedish housewife Maj begins shortly before World War II and ends thirty years later. “Giving birth”, “Care for one’ own” and “Life at any cost” – the entire book series is all about what Maj should cook for dinner and when she should clean the windows. How, on earth, can 1500 pages on domestic chores spellbind the reader?

It’s because between the worries about infant care and fika baking, the drama of our grandmothers unfolds. This book lends its voice to a marginalized majority; without probably even wanting to, this book is a fierce advocator of feminism – because it is through the life of Maj the reader sees that women did not get to choose 70, 60, 50 years ago. Not their husbands, not their education, not the number of children they want to have. Not even what they would serve when hosting a dinner because society’s expectations were very clear even on that.

 This generation raised today’s people, and those who follow behind need to read Sandberg if they want to understand why Maj’s home is still such  a loaded political and feminist scene. Dagens Nyheter

The three books about Maj became a real page-turner for me, the words have „an immediate flow which the reader is sucked into without resistance“, as the critics wrote. Sandberg’s narrative is complex but not complicated, and somewhat hypnotizing.

The book combines Maj’s perception with her husband’s thoughts and the author even talks to her protagonist, „– am I writing correctly about you now?“, she wonders in the middle of a sentence, embodying the ambiguity of the story, the character, the times.

 This is a highly elegant novel, so linguistically driven, so heavy with rage, at the same time personally and politically indignant. Göteborgsposten 

What is particularily impressive is how the author did not choose to make Maj a heroine that you just simply must love and identify with. Instead, she is contradictory, sometimes very chicken-hearted, well-meaning and confined by her own inner conflicts. A real person, so to speak. When reading the three books, you smell the food from her kitchen and you see her going through town, she is so very real that I would not have been surprised if she’d sat in my living room one day.

 And the angst  is so heavy that the lines almost give way. Fokus  

With her, I marched through the history of the 20th century, from food ration coupons to newly established housewife gymastics classes. Not in Stockholm, but in Örnsköldsvik, observing the all too often overlooked North of Sweden. The story is so well-researched that it becomes hard to believe ist author is only in her forties. You think she personally was around to witness the kitchen proceedings – no, to cook these meals herself, to have these conversations during the war, to decorate her home in 1950s style.

 What impresses the most is the ability to build excitement around a life that on the surface appears to  be fairly uneventful . […] That kind of novel that occupies the reader, with characters who creep close and stubbornly linger in the mind after you have (reluctantly) closed the book . Svenska Dagbladet

Despite her tendency to irritate the reader, Maj wins a place in one’s heart, she is trying to do her best, after all, and it is heart-breaking to witness how contact with her own family reduces with every year that goes, how her few friends die, and how she and her husband have no way of reaching out to each other.

Kristina Sandberg who authored this skillful story was awarded the most prestigious Swedish literature prize, Augustpriset, in 2014 for her work. The jury motivated its choice as follows: „Some life journeys remain invisible. With her epos about housewife Maj, Kristina Sandberg shows that a whole odyssey can be contained within the walls of a flat in Örnsköldsvik. A fragile and wounded family life in the wellfare state is depicted with distance and empathy.“

When you close the book and Maj slips from your grasp, you wonder: Are you going to be okay now, Maj?

And while it feels as if Maj loses something when being translated, I still sincerely hope that these books will published abroad, too. We need them, also – or even more – in Germany.

 

Almost famous

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Last week, I got a Büchersendung, that’s a package sent at book rate. I do order stuff but I was certain not to have ordered a book because I always buy them at my local book store now to support the Dizzel booksellers.

When I opened the package and found the title to be “Lost heart – found dog”, I was even more sure that I’d never order a book like that and it only gradually dawned on me that this was a complimentary copy. I am featured in this book!

In 2014, freshly arrived to Hamburg, I was about to become homeless and when all normal attempts to find housing proved futile, my friend Ingrid and I designed a bulletin that we put all over town. This led to all kinds of things, emails from romantically interested men, some apartment offers and a rather crazy lady who started texting me all the time.

A while ago, a journalist contacted me and told me she was writing a book about funny notices she’s found all over Germany and if I’d be up for telling her my story. Of course I was. So half a year ago, I told her my story and gave her all kinds of material and last week, I got the result. I don’t want to be mean, but I was not impressed. Not only did the book have spelling mistakes (really?!), it also simply copied everything instead of refining it, and worst of all, she wrote that I’d lived in Sweden “because like many Germans, Helen is besotted with Sweden’s Bullerbü, elks, Villa Villekulla, all this nature, so cute and peaceful”.

Okay, what?! I have always thought Bullerbü was way too uneventful, I don’t even like elks (I prefer reindeer), Villa Villekulla is definitely too colorful for true Swedish style, and the last time I spoke to the media about Sweden, it was about burning cars, so much for peacefulness. Talk about being misunderstood! If anyone falls victim to the thought of me being besotted with Sweden, I’d like to refer you to my co-workers and friends who, I believe, can attest my very differentiated, possibly even critical, perspective on Sweden. One that has much more to do with the public health system, national branding and the Swedish intelligentsia than with elks…

 

Post-party

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Friday was the first day at the office that wasn’t frantic activity in the post-production of our big event. There is so much round up work to do after each event that it busies three of us. Writing thank yous, editing photos, compiling a follow-up report for our magazine, sending bills…And our next event is just around the corner! In nine weeks, the highlight of the year is happening which entails lots and lots of work. Currently, I’m trying to get our invitation ready because for this event we even send our real, pretty paper invitations.

So before we leave the jubilee behind us helt och hållet here’s a picture parade for you!

We did a workshop for our volunteers to find new ideas for the organisation. I put out small thank yous for all participants. You can tell, I really like gold.

 

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“Jag har träningsvärk. Kan du tycka synd om mig, tack?” “Ja. Jag bekräftar dina smärtor.”

“Varför måste alla filmer vara så negativa?” “‘En gång i Phuket’ var ganska positiv!”

Friendship Week

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Still recovering from the weekend – but in the best way: this Monday afternoon, my dear friend Michelle came to see me for the first time in Dizzel. The sun welcomed her with 30 degrees (we’ve had that weather all week and we measured 33 degrees in the office three days in a row) and the one and a half days she was here and I was off work, Dizzel felt like a holiday! We ate all our meals on my balcony (like the first time it’s been used), had ice cream, wandered through the nice parts of the Old Town and Michelle helped me put up curtains. Let me tell you, my bedroom, now complete with the Pax and the curtains, looks like a whole new room. I love it! We did more “tantsaker” like crocheting, buying fabric (she will make me kitchen curtains because she’s the best) and taking care of plants, but we also took advantage of the opportunties Dizzel offers and went to the Kommödchen. It’s a nationally renowed cabaret theater and we learned that it is extemely popular, we barely got a seat even though we were there 90 minutes earlier. We saw a fun show, it was like theater, just much funnier. The same day I saw Michelle off, I went to Duisburg in the evening to meet Tabea who was celebrating her birthday in Germany- a real friend week so far!

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“Vi lägger chokladen här så kan Helen få den när hon får psykbrott.” – “Mycket smart!”

“Jag saknar praktikanten”. “Men jag är ju här”. “Ja, men han var roligare”.

“Hen var tråkig”. “Man ska inte kalla folk tråkig”. “Vad ska man kalla dem? Oengagerad samtalspartner?”

“Hur många är ni som ska ut?” “Tre”. “Tre gringas som ska till 80tals-klubben!”

 

The calm after the storm

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It is over. Months of preparation, planning and commitment, now it’s all over and done. And it went so well.  I got to meet new great people and see some familiar fantastic faces again. Everyone on the team was doing a fabulous job, the guests were very satsified (“exceeded the expectations”, “such fun”, “I want to get more involved with the organisation now”) and everything worked the way it should.

The aftermath was also, eh, powerful. Despite not having had much to drink, I woke with an intense headache that would not go away and felt pretty half-dead for the entire Sunday. But it definitely was worth it!

It also means that summer is really, actually over. Our summer intern is leaving, the end of summer event was the jubilee and it’s getting dark before 8 p.m. Melancholic, as most summer endings.

The Dizzel charm

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When someone tells me – and that happens – “Let’s go to the Old town!” I instantly have these horror scenarios of the infamous Bolkerstraße before my inner eye: bachelorette parties parading in silly costumes, drunk village youth staggering on the cobble stone and one beer and burger place next to the other.

But today, my co-worker took us all to Hausmann’s which is on the other side of the Old Town and which is in such a charming location that it partly reminded me of my childhood days in Heidelberg-Neuenheim. We were there for our intern’s farewell dinner – he is already leaving and it makes us sad. Luckily, he’s still here for two more days, helping us with the jubilee celebrations, but we decided to already do all the goodbye stuff today because we won’t have a moment of peace for the next 53 hours, that’s for sure.

My first work duty tomorrow morning is to buy helium balloons with the intern, something I have been looking forward to for months now.If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for helium balloons. I will buy a large 1 and a large 5 and maybe some more. It will be a wonderful shopping spree!

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Today, we drank to our intern and gave him some goodbye presents, among them a ‘letter of reference’ in which I among other things wrote, “Han visade även upp sin utomordentliga researchförmåga när han efter bara några veckor upptäckte handledarens privata blogg och bidrog till att alla kollegor på kontoret nu kan delta i Helens liv i bild och text” and “Kollegorna misstänker att han egentligen har skickats hit av Region Skåne då han har jobbat väldigt aktivt med upplysning om södra Sverige. Kollegorna fick ta del av utförlig information om både kultur, historia och det skånska språket”. We’re going to miss him!

After the first bottle of sparkling wine literally exploded in my co-worker’s hand, we found another one that we safely opened, thus preparing for the singing rehearsal I forced the other to have. At the jubilee dinner, we will – of course – be singing songs and we don’t all know all songs so we practiced a little. Our assistant who has just started learning Swedish was very sceptical and when we introduced a song as the national anthem, failing to mention that it was just the melody of the anthem, she said, “Am I getting this wrong or is the anthem seriously about ‘cola and rum’?!”

Yesterday was the big Pax day. I had to work from home because the Pax builders were supposed to arrive some time between 7 am and 2 pm. I could not sleep that night because I was so excited and after a while I wondered if I was crazy because I cared so much about a piece of Ikea furniture. My friend Emily reassured me though, “A PIECE OF LIFE CHANGING FURNITURE!”, she texted, in caps. Working in a home office in a living room completely full of clothes and shoes was quite special. And now I own a Pax! Everything is orderly and even has lightning. It makes me as happy as helium balloons!

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“Jag behöver få vatten i mig. Jag känner mig som en vissen blomma.”

“Ebba von Sydow är gravid!!!” – “Jag vet, jag hörde redan från kollegan att det var det första du sa när du kom in på jobbet imorse.”

“Bara i Tyskland har de en karatär på barnteve som är ett deprimerat bröd”. – “Vi har ju snippan och snoppen…” “Det är för att vi är moderna!”