Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I'm a raccoon lover.
Actually, I've been on a raccoon kick since I came to Portland, but I have a problem. The raccoons hide from me. It's probably some kind of conspiracy. Maybe the raccoons know I'm crazy about them. Maybe they're afraid I'll creep up on them and cuddle them to death. All I know is that everybody sees them but me.
"Raccoons are such a pain in the ass," everybody says. "They are vicious, they tear babies to shreds." But listen, I'm tired of locals badmouthing the coons. I think they're adorable. They look like burglars sponsored by Armani - I wouldn't mind adopting one. Then I'd walk it along the river or treat it to a latte at Starbucks.
You see, we don't have raccoons in Denmark. Actually, we don't have a single animal that can kill you, or even scare you. Maybe that's why I'm on a raccoon trip. Because I'm from the least scary country in the world.
Sting is in town. He has brought his old friends from the Police. They are playing in the middle of nowhere, better known as Vancouver, Washington.
We're 10.000 listening to them on a warm summer evening. Sting has a grey beard now. It makes him look like an expressionistic painter. He sings all the songs you'd expect him to sing, except for God Save The Queen.
Sting is a great vocalist, and the band ain't bad either, but the music doesn't move me. It doesn't make me dance. The only time I get excited is when they do De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da, maybe because it's the only song where I understand the lyrics.
Being a highly cultured person I also went to Shakespeare in the Park the other day. Not in Central Park, but in Portland's own Washington Park - a far superior place, since there's a gorgeous view of Mount Hood, the least lethal volcano in North America.
We were about eight people who had arranged a picnic with goat cheese and strawberries. The park was nice; the spectators were dog owners, old timers with barbecue chips, and a few crack addicts.
At 7.30 Julius Caesar started. It was well acted but I was deeply shaken by the fact that it took place during the US Civil War. Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't Julius Caesar Roman? Or did he really mutter You Too My Son Bruce? before he was slaughtered by Yankees?
Sometimes I marvel at the American ability of turning the classics into Disneyland. One thing is that you put a McDonald's next to the Spanish Steps in Rome. Do you also have to fuck with Bill from The Globe?
An old writing student of mine has just become a Reverend.
Since he's American, he hasn't done anything as overrated as studying or reading the Bible. (Who has time for that?) He just printed out a form on the Internet and now he's a Reverend with the power to marry people.
"It's a cool thing to do," he told me. "I've already married several of my friends. Not in church of course but out in nature. You know ... in deserts and under the Burnside Bridge."
He continued: "I don't charge them anything. They just have to cover my expenses."
I shook my head at his ramblings but then he showed me the site online where you can become a Reverend in ten minutes.
For a time I thought of signing up, too, but then I decided against it. I found another site that's much more interesting. I'm becoming a brain surgeon. I only need to follow one weekend course. Next Monday I start operating on random students in my class.
I'm so glad that I work in the US. You guys make education fun!
My favorite beggar in Portland is a cute old lady who begs outside Whole Foods in the Pearl district.
She is such a nice old lady that you simply have to empty your pockets when you see her. She is small and frail like a good beggar should be. And she always wears the same blue rain coat. If she's in bad health she's not obnoxious about it. The old lady evokes the same feelings in me as the raccoons. I want to cuddle her, I want to show her my country. Maybe she's never been anywhere but Whole Foods?
Yes, that's the kind of emotional reactions I get when I see people in need. I want to help her because I'm Absolutely a Very Nice Person.
The first times I saw my beggar I always gave her money. She would smile that grand motherly smile of hers and I would picture how she would go back to her soup kitchen thanking that nice "young" man with the weird accent for the warm meal she was getting.
But the other day my world was shattered. As always, I went into Whole Foods to buy a soy milk and one of those tofu spreads that are supposed to be healthy. I was in a great mood but suddenly I saw her. Not outside Whole Foods, but inside. My beggar was pushing a huge cart with French foie grass, Norwegian salmon, and Italian Chianti. She was not wearing her usual rain coat but a foxy dress the same color as my sun burn.
I got unbelievably angry, but instead of shouting at her I followed her around the store hoping to find a dark spot where I could wrestle her to the ground. But before I could show my true nature, the old lady stopped in the cheese section and sampled a piece of Havarti.
"Do you like it?" the clerk asked.
"Who in the hell wants Danish cheese?" she hissed and bought some Gouda.
I went out of Whole Foods seething with anger.
I have all the respect in the world for real beggars but the next time I'm giving money away, it's going directly to the raccoons.
Monday, July 14, 2008
I just gave birth to my first American child.
Now, some of you might think that I'm talking about something as unimportant as kids - you know, the ones who run around the house begging for Lego. But no, I'm talking about a thing of much more importance: my first novel in English.
Yes, I just got The Tsar's Dwarf in my hands. My translated novel comes out in the US and Canada October 1st, and since I'm the writer, my publisher was gracious enough to give me the first copy from the printer in China.
When I got it I started to cry. Yes, I'm not afraid to admit it, I wept like a moron, my tears flooding over the pages and the gorgeous cover. I started to browse through it, pretending I was an average American reader. You know, the type who walks into Barnes & Nobles to get the latest from Stephen King but walks out with a historical novel from Denmark.
The Tsar's Dwarf is the story of a Danish dwarf who is given to the Russian Tsar Peter The Great as a gift. She is brought to the Russian court where she falls in love, is humiliated, and treated like a toy. It's a funny but gruesome story about human dignity. At least, that's what it says on the cover, so it must be true.
"Oh my God," I suddenly thought, "I don't want to obsess about it, but I sure hope my book will do well. I mean, my countryman Peter Høeg sold 1.8 million of Smilla's Sense of Snow. I know I'm not as good, so I guess I'll settle for 1.7"
Then I started to get depressed (as we all do when faced with something as overrated as the real world). Why? Because I've read that the average Scandinavian novel sells about 822 copies in the US. So that's probably a more likely number for my book as well.
I mean, who in their right mind wants to buy a Danish novel anyway, except for Viggo Mortensen and a few farmers in Iowa?
You never know though.
Hans Christian Andersen's career wasn't too shappy and Hans Christian and I have the same translator. Tiina Nunnally translated Andersen's fairy tales for his bicentennial in 2005 and she did Høeg's Smilla as well, so maybe some of their success will rub off on this small time writer.
And hey, maybe Oprah will adore it.
Yes, maybe Oprah will ask me to come on her show, so I can talk about how you get in touch with your inner dwarf?
Yes, all these thoughts went through my head.
But since I'm in the US, I know it's important to dream big. Actually, one of the biggest gifts the US has given to the world is The Fine Art of Promoting Yourself to the Point Where It Becomes Almost Nauseating.
So I've started to practice this art - an art that's very un-Danish. In Denmark you're never allowed to tell any one you're good. If you do, you'll be executed in the main square by a red and white firing squad.
But since I've started to teach in Oregon, I've learned to think of myself as a genius with a weblog, even though everybody knows I'm a bumbling idiot.
Part of the problem is that I smile too much.
No one respects a writer with a sunny outlook. You have to be a tormented soul with a food fetish. And you have to brood when you look into the camera. If you don't, you're not an artist, just another TV anchor.
If you want to read The Tsar's Dwarf before October 1, you can buy the book directly from Hawthorne Books as early as September.
The book has wonderful blurbs from Pulitzer prize finalist Joanna Scott and Man Booker finalist Sebastian Barry etc. And hey, the novel is out in Danish, French and Portuguese as well.
A novelist is allowed to dream, isn't he? Even if it's only about fame, fortune, and fornication.
Friday, July 4, 2008
When I came to Portland a few years ago, I liked the city immediately. From the second I got off the Max and looked around, I felt that Portland had a laid back vibe. People seemed friendly, the overweight cops smiled, and no one vomited on me.
One of my first days in town I saw a sticker. Keep Portland Weird, it said.
"What a great slogan", I thought. And within a few months in the Rose City, I found out it was true. Portland is weird. It's edgy the same way an age challenged hippie is edgy. Portland even has something as un-American as bike paths. And hey, it's a city that reads. What more can you ask for if you're into weird?
I have a confession: Being Scandinavian I don't care much for American cities. You know what they are like: Big places with deserted down towns, melancholic muggers, and shiny bank tellers that swallow your credit card. But Portland has parks with happy squirrels. It has Farmer Markets and Portland State University with its backed up toilets - Portland rocks.
However, the weirdest thing in the city is something that the locals take for granted: It's how polite people are. Portland, Oregon is the kind of town where people will apologize if you kick them in the groin. Some people might argue that the natives are passive-aggressive, but that's not the case. They're just passive.
"I love the Pacific Northwest," a New Yorker once told me. "It's the easiest place in the world to take advantage of people. If you cut them off in traffic, the Portlanders just smile."
Yes, Portland is pretty amazing, especially to a Dane who is used to his rude homeland. In Denmark people walk into you without apologizing. In Portland they start to apologize five minutes before they walk into you. Here your personal space begins thirty feet away. The Pacific Northwest is a place where people don't touch each other unless they have a written permission.
The other day I was in a gelato joint. By coincidence, my left index finger touched the fingers of the girl who was handing back my change. She screamed as if she had been sodomized by Greeks.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"We touched," she said, her face flushing with anxieties.
"Maybe you should work with computers," I suggested and spilled my gelato over her sneakers.
Yes, Portlanders are seriously weird. When they ride their bikes they think they're making a "statement". They believe they're part of a vast underground movement on a mission to fight everything on four wheels. Hey, in Denmark we just ride our bikes from point A to point B.
Once I got caught in a Critical Mass demonstration. I thought I was going for a joy ride with strangers, but suddenly we were surrounded by police. A few militants held angry speeches accusing the Portland pigs of everything from killing commuters to overthrowing the government in Bolivia. At one point, a man on a skateboard threw a soda pop at a police officer who looked like Nancy Pelosi. I got the hell out. Just think if I were thrown out of this fine country for hanging out with riff-raff demanding the death penalty for driving a Toyota.
Anna Bannanas on NW 21 is another of your ultimate Portland experiences.
It's the kind of cafe you could have stepped into in the late seventies, dark, seedy, with a Quaalude kind of atmosphere. Most of the customers are either gay or look as if they have auditioned for a death metal band. But everybody's friendly enough. As I said before, Portlanders are always friendly, even if they want to mug you.
On the wall, there are your run-of-the-mill T-shirts for ill adjusted rebels: Friends don't let friends drink at Starbucks, one of them screams. There are also newspaper clippings everywhere. A year ago it was the kind that told you that the world is fucked - that George Bush is a Martian, and that Lou Dobbs wants to kill all illegal immigrants with his bare hands. Now Anna Bannana's seem to have lightened up. But it's still the kind of place that makes most sense if you're on drugs.
I'm not but I just love this café. And it doesn't hurt that I was introduced to a 75 year old turtle the other day. It climbed around on the Art section of The New York Times, taking a dump on Angelina Jolie.
"Is that your pet?" I asked the proud owner, a regular who took pride in his pet's bathroom skills.
"It's the love of my life," he said and got teary eyed on the porch of Anna Bannana's.
Another cafe that's typical for Portland is Palio in the South East. When you walk in, it's quiet as a library. The people who hang out at Palio will rather spend time with their lap tops than with you. It's the kind of place where you don't dare raise your voice. If you do, everybody turns around like stressed out senior citizens.
However, Palio is a great cafe. I would recommend it to any nerd. They have wonderful cheese cakes, good savory tarts, and an odd collection of dictionaries. They come in handy if you want to look up a word in say, Malaysian.
Yes, at Palio everybody seems to be cramming for a test. A nasty part of me always wants to creep up on somebody and scream, D MINUS, but I don't think that joke would go down well with this crowd.
So how do we sum up, Portland, Oregon? It's not easy because there are a lot of Portlands. There's the corporate downtown where caffeine is the religion. There is the Pearl if you like to be taken for a ride, there is Belmont with its cute cafes and its many thrift stores (they might call it something else, but I know a thrift store when I see one).
Maybe I could sum it up with a lie I've heard several times - Oregonians telling tourists that Portland is beautiful. That's not the case at all. San Francisco is beautiful. So are Paris, Copenhagen and Prague - Portland is not. However, it's a great city nevertheless.
As everybody knows, Portland has been named the second most livable place in the US, and I totally understand why. It has naked bike rides, it has water fountains enough to drown all birds in Oregon. It has Powell's, one of the coolest book stores in the US (the place even has a Danish section with cook books from the sixties. What more could any connoiseur ask for?)
Actually, Portland has many great things going for it. It has Poetry In Motion on the buses - you know, small signs with excerpts from poetry collections no one has ever heard of. I love it. Give the passengers soul food instead of buses on time. You rock my world, TriMet.
I'm also impressed by the many neighborhoods that look like lush botanical gardens.
So here's to you, Portland.
Thanks for being good to me. And keep being as weird as you want. You definitely have my permission ...