Friday, 14 April 2017

The final fika

It's been roughly a year since my last post. Perhaps you feared that I had been abducted by extra-terrestrials. It's also possible you were certain I had gone into hiding on an island off the coast of Stockholm refusing to ever leave Sweden. There's a big chance as well that you didn't really think anything about it and just spent your time on the internet scrolling through a vast sea of footage featuring fluffy animals doing hilarious things that often, but not necessarily, involve a robot vacuum. Either way, I still feel that I owe you (and myself) the story of my last days in Stockholm. It just took me a long (long, long, long) time to process it all and thus be capable of writing about it somewhat coherently.

Those last days were filled to the brim. There were a lot of "one last times" - one last fika, one last kardemumbulle, one last stroll through my favourite park, one last trip to that cute store with the equally cute shop assistant, one last nyponsoppa... There were also plenty of "I can't believe I still haven't dones" - visiting Stadshuset, Skovskyrkogården and even more museums, sampling more so far undiscovered pastries, having Swedish Easter (with branches decorated with coloured feathers and children dressed as even more colourful witches), eating a Swedish waffle, eating a what-the-Swedes-call-Belgian waffle... And, on top of all that, the inevitable freight train of ongoing thoughts, emotions and goodbyes had set itself in motion. 

Many companies in Sweden, including Bonniers Konsthall, are closed on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So the Wednesday before that long weekend everyone gathered for a special fika in my honour. I was prepared to thank all my temporary colleagues for this incredible opportunity. I also knew in advance I was going to get a little surprise or gift. (I am sorry, Jåanna, Sara, Rebecka and Narek - suspicious meetings and hushed murmuring until one of you yells out "SHE UNDERSTANDS TOO MUCH SWEDISH. LET'S GO SOMEWHERE ELSE!" followed by all of you simultaneously going to the kitchen nowhere near lunchtime is not really a prime ninja strategy.) What I did not expect, was that I would be the one getting thanked for my time at Bonniers Konsthall. I was showered with uplifting and heart-warming compliments, both about my work and me as a person. I am not used to getting this kind of praise. The combination of Katya's wonderful little speech, everyone's kind words, the great gifts and the free cake made me feel like I was receiving a lifetime achievement award. It rendered me speechless. 

At first I was afraid I would cry all throughout fika. There were indeed some tiny sobby moments, but overall I was just so happy and grateful to have one last fika with all these wonderful people. So I enjoyed every moment of it and I was able to go pack up with my mascara still intact. A few hours later, after finishing off the last tasks and clearing my desk, I closed the office door behind me and went up the bright red spiral staircase one last time. I stepped outside, into a warm ochre spring sunset. That's when the tears came. That was it. It was really over. Up until that moment, for almost a year, my Swedish internship had been the centre of my life: the application, the paperwork (so much paperwork), finding a place to do my internship, finding a place to live, planning, reading up, preparing, skype meetings, buying warm socks, shopping, packing… and then of course actually leaving for Stockholm and doing the internship. Even when I was occupied by other things, my Erasmus placement was always in the back of my head.

What now? I had no answer for that. So all the energy my brain had previously used on my internship now quickly got redirected into making up terrible doom scenarios. This was it, Cathy. Everything will go downhill from here on. You will return home and there will be nothing for you. You will never find a job that's even remotely as fun and interesting as this one. You will never ever have fika again. People in Belgium will not like you anymore and you will be alone, forever and ever... Forget about kardemumbullar and nyponsoppa. Forget about free coffee refills and gender equality. Forget about fresh air and efficient public transportation. And forget about white snow. From now on you are condemned to Belgium's toe biting ash grey slush and it will be the perfect metaphor for the drag of your daily life.

It took a sleepless, snot filled night and a lot of understanding nods and hugs from my patient friends to somewhat recompose myself. I managed to force the doom scenarios into a far off corner of my brain and I enjoyed every moment of my last week in Sweden. However, the sadness and fear were never absent. They slyly yet continuously nibbled on my thoughts, giving a sad undertone to everything I was doing. And that's ok. As Cecilia said during my farewell fika: "You're sad? Good. That means it was worth it." She was right, of course. It doesn't make saying goodbye easier, but it did help me accept all the bad emotions. They were, after all, testament of a fantastic time. 

Feeling overwhelmed and lacking words at my farewell fika means that I never got to say a proper thank you to everyone. And even now, I know I can never find the words to express what this experience meant for me. But I want to give it a try anyway.

First off, a big thank you to all my ‘senior colleagues’ at PXL, especially Corry Hermans, Jochen Didden, Sarah Awouters and Lieve Cuypers, for all the support and encouragement. Maarten, Bert, Jef, Pascale, mom, and all my friends and family in Belgium: thank you for missing me while I was gone, it’s greatly appreciated. Bart, without you this adventure would not have been possible. Anton, my dear friend, your willingness to answer every question I have, no matter how ridiculous, should be honoured with an award. Kriss, you may have had your doubts about Sweden, but you never ever doubt me and for that I adore you. Nordin, my thanks for everything - always. And of course, to everyone at Bonniers Konsthall, I am forever in your debt for welcoming me, teaching me, supporting me, trusting me and inspiring me. Wiggle cats, Jåanna, Rebecka, Sara, Cecilia and Narek, you fantastic women and man at work, you were the best team ever. In fact, Marvel should make a superhero movie about us. And finally, Katya and Yuvinka, I could not have asked for better mentors. You made me feel at home from the first moment I arrived. You helped me, encouraged me, laughed with me, cried with me and believed in me. You both did everything to make sure I could make the most of my internship. But above all: I am proud and so grateful to have you both as friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Ska vi gå på museet?

Tourist offices in Stockholm distribute a special map dedicated to the city's museums. With over 80 museums it does come in pretty handy. I knew in advance I wouldn't be able to visit all of them, but I put the map on my fridge, designed a plan of action to visit as many as possible, and then failed miserably at following through. I still managed to tick 35 off my list, plus countless galleries which aren't even on the map!

With quite a few museums undergoing extensive reconstruction and some others hibernating through the dark months, it might not have been the most ideal time for me to be in Stockholm. However, renewed government regulations encouraged all museums to drop their entrance fee right when I arrived, which resulted in a bit of semi-heated debate, and a very exciting time for most museums. I very much enjoyed finding myself in the middle of all this.

The usual museum suspects are all present, just like in Belgium. The art students, with a constant hint of panic in their eyes as they roam around finding inspiration for their next paper. Your friendly neighbourhood hipsters, improving every single piece of art by adding the perfect instagram filter and just a hint of hashtag. The tourists, armed with audio guides and on the constant look out for another selfie opportunity. Art theorists, rocking their bug eye glasses and matching retro hairstyle, index finger and thumb glued to the chin as they mutter about nothing in particular to nobody in particular. And of course, the pensioned couple, who feel all that modern art is way too rock n roll for their taste, but still visit every Sunday because the museum cafe has a great coffee and cake deal.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were also a lot of other people wandering through the cultural landscape. People from all different backgrounds, ethnicity and age seem to have found their way to the museums. Perhaps they are lured in by the public programs, tailored for everyone and anyone, as museums go through a lot of trouble catering for all possible target groups.

And while other countries are still busy arguing about whether or not children belong in museums, Sweden holds special baby tours to get them all hooked as young as possible. Mums and dads on parental leave have plenty of time to join stroller tours. Toolboxes, special programs, quizzes, dress up parties and treasure hunts are guaranteed to give moms and sons the perfect day at the museum, and nothing says father-daughter quality time like constructing a glitter infested miniature farm house together. In case you're still not convinced: I did not see a single chocolate fingerprint on the Rubens, there were no bite marks on the ancient artefacts and the one time I saw someone touch something they shouldn't, it was, indeed, a grown up.

Some museums were a bit disappointing. When I visited one of the more popular museums for tourists, the gift shop turned out to be more interesting than the actual exhibition space. And after being thrilled for weeks about finally seeing one of my favourite art works in real life, I might have been more than a little bit cranky when it was impossible to get a good look at it because they placed another piece right in front of it.

In general though, most museums turned out better than expected. The exhibitions are designed with great care, they're welcoming and they offer something for every type of visitor. Oh, and they all have foldable chairs you can drag around so you can sit down wherever you want. On top of that, many of them are worth passing by just for the amazing architecture, the great surroundings or the scrumptious cakes in the café. If you're ever in Stockholm, you should definitely take some time to visit a museum. Or two. Or thirty-five.

Vi ses


Saturday, 9 April 2016

Keep repeating - it's only paper.

Even at a great workplace frustration seeps in once in a while. Not everything always goes as planned, and sometimes things do unfold as planned but it just turns out the plan wasn't all that great. The good thing about being responsible for your own schedule means you usually can step away from tasks when agitation gets a hold of you. Still, it did take me a while to realise this, and it took me even longer to actually put it into practice.

On good days I enjoy hearing the Swedish chattering around me and I take pleasure in using my limited vocabulary to decipher the topic of the conversation. On bad days it makes me feel like an outsider, lonely and a bit unwanted. Almost everyone in Stockholm speaks fluent English and they are terribly helpful, so it's not like I actually ever encounter real problems. But still, not speaking the language makes me far more vulnerable than I thought it would. I can't imagine how horribly disconnected people who can't resort to any mutual language must feel when they arrive in a foreign country.

Frustrations come, and they also go again. There is usually always someone around who can help. (Except for the IT-guy. He just mysteriously appears and then dissolves again and nobody seems to know where he actually comes from.) I just need to remember to open my mouth and actually ask for assistance, but I have already gotten a little better at that.

But then the day came when no amount of venting to my dear cohabitants of our island-of-desks could prevent a mental breakdown. Ironically, but perhaps typically for me, it was about the lamest tasks of all: printing. It seemed to be the simplest job I had gotten my entire internship - print out emails with all their attachments. Sure, there were a lot of emails, but it was still just a matter of clicking one button a few 100 times. How foolish I was.

See, not everyone thinks ahead when they send mails with attachments. Oh, the exotic file types I have seen! And even pdf's don't always work along... Pressing one button quickly turned into manually opening almost every attachment, battling faulty files and soothing an overheated printer. The hours went by, lunchtime was approaching fast and I still was nowhere near the end. A new error message cheerfully popped up on my computer screen and it was immediately followed by an unannounced tear rolling down my cheek. And another one. I tried to wipe them off quickly and tell myself I was being stupid, but before I knew it I was having a full-blown sobbing session in the middle of the office.

My sweet colleagues quickly ganged up on me with comforting words, hugs, appropriate hot beverages, pieces of orange and cardamom buns. For a long while I was only able to answer them with snorting noises, wheezes and weird whiny sounds. There I was, the globetrotting adventurer, bravely travelling all alone to an unknown city in an unknown country with a language, a currency and pastries I was not familiar with, working day in day out alongside some of the most inspiring people I have ever met - and now I was blowing snot in their direction over the most stupid thing ever. This was it. I would now forever be known at Bonniers Konsthall as that failing intern who cried because she couldn't handle a few prints.

Katya was notified of her malfunctioning intern and took me into her office to calm me down. As I tried to explain myself I felt so ashamed. But it started to dawn on me that I seemed to be the only one who thought my breakdown was ridiculous. No one was laughing or rolling their eyes. Katya said: "It's not worth crying over. It's only paper. Nobody is going to die if printing them takes a bit longer. If this doesn't work we just need to figure out another method." The words echoed in my head and slowly started to make sense.

It's only paper.

Nobody is going to die.

It is only paper.

It's only paper.

It's only paper.

It's only paper.

It took me some time to pull myself together and I didn't go anywhere near the printer again that day. Katya suggested a new plan of action which required less printing and gave me more time. I began to feel a little less ashamed of breaking down over some unknown person carelessly sending in both Apple and PC-only files in one and the same e-mail. Instead, I got a bit angry at myself for not speaking up when I realised I couldn't print it all in time. The combination of stress, lingering sadness over leaving soon and the shame of not being able to handle a simple job probably stopped me from doing the most logical thing. But still, I could have and I should have just opened my mouth.

This was probably the most horrid day of my internship; but it also turned out to be the best. It was the day I learned that it was okay to fail sometimes and to admit I was overwhelmed. I learned that asking people for help or advice didn't necessarily mean I was bothering them. And I realised part of the reason I felt so good at Bonniers Konsthall was because I was surrounded by wonderful people who also allowed me to feel bad once in a while. And of course I got that delicious cardamom bun.

As Katya told me later that week, everyone gets stressed once in a while, and supporting each other through those downs is also part of working in a cultural institution. So next time you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed, don't try to handle it alone. Gigantic problems can shrink really fast when you share them with friends. And remember the mantra.

It's only paper.

Nobody is going to die.

It's only paper.

It's only paper.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Södermalm. Probably the best malm in the 'holm.

Did you know that the city of Stockholm expands over 15 different islands? I found it a very amusing idea at first that I was crossing four entire islands by bus to get to the office every day.

Eastern Södermalm, map, 1674

The island I live on is called Södermalm. You might be familiar with it as the location of Stieg Larsson's Millennium/Dragon tattoo girl-trilogy. Due to its many hills it's the place to be for the best views over Stockholm. Apparently it is one of the most densely populated areas of Scandinavia, but to me it still feels like a very lively area in the countryside because there are so many parks, green areas, playgrounds and open squares around. It also never feels crowded, unless you decide to go to one of the many designer brand pop up sales.

Södermalm is sometimes also referred to as Sofo or hipster central, thanks to the many handsome bearded men who inhabit the area and make a living by selling specially brewed coffee, locally crafted thingy-mc gee’s or homemade organic ecologic vegan gluten free hotdogs - or of course by grooming the beards of the other locals. Everyone on the island is, aspires to be or has been the owner of a gallery at some point in their lives.

When I first arrived here I felt like I had stepped into a giant caricature of the real world, but I quickly grew fond of the area and I learned the locals were much more colourful and divers than I first thought. I am not the only one who likes it here: the large amount of people who want to live in Söder are pushing the housing prices up steeply and quickly. As a result, soon the things that attracted them to the area in the first place might be disappearing, as the circle of urban life tends to go.

Södermalm wasn't always home to the hip, the privileged and the artsy. It used to be a working-class area, expanding vastly during the rise of industry in the 1800's, and the area has not lost that vibe yet. Across the street from my studio flanked by two bistros, people still live in original wooden houses without modernised water works (and according to some, the original inhabitants might also still be around). Just a little further down the street, the futuristic Globe, the largest hemispherical building on Earth, is rising above the city skyline, on the border of a suburb that to me looks like an endless series of replicas of Pippi Longstocking's Villa Villekulla.

Most of Stockholm seems to be constructed this way - oldest, old, newer and newest are built next to and on top of each other without any concessions, excuses or attempts to assimilate. In many ways it seems to work better than any other urban development plan I have seen. It also means you can only describe Stockholm by using a lot of opposites. In Stockholm, turning a corner often means stepping from the 16th century into the 23rd. The traditional semla exists alongside new and trendy semmelwraps and wienersemlor. And yes, not everyone agrees with these modernisations and eccentric occurrences. Muttering, disagreeing sighs and even outrageous yelling happens. But in the end both 1800 wooden houses and the gigantic Globe stand right next to each other, and every morning fans of the traditional semla ride the bus together with semmelwrap eaters. And I love it.

Vi ses


P.S.: If you want to see more of Södermalm, you can find some additional photos in this album.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

There's no place like art

I haven't written that much about my internship at Bonniers Konsthall itself, and I hope that doesn't give anyone the idea that it's boring. I just seem to have the tendency to only write about things after they have passed and I have had some reflection time. Furthermore, most things I do at Bonniers Konsthall are a bit confidential so writing about them would result in rather vague posts.

But here is something I can tell you: I love it here. I love the work I do. Even the so called boring jobs, like administration, are quite interesting and enjoyable because they often offer insights in the institution specifically or the Swedish cultural field in general. And when handling incoming mail mostly means opening packages with publications from museums all over Europe, it feels more like a daily birthday party than work, even if I am not allowed to keep the books.

Talking about books, Bonniers Konsthall owns a very interesting collection of reference material. Every exhibition is preceded by a period of extensive research. You don't always get a chance to see this, but at Bonniers Konsthall visitors can actually rummage through the research collection and get a little peek behind the scenes or take a look inside the brain of the institution.

The wonderful thing about the selection on the shelves here is that it brings so many different kinds of books together - books you would never see standing next to each other in regular libraries or bookshops. Information and inspiration come from everywhere: fiction, non-fiction and science fiction; classic literature, poetry, fairy tales, and philosophy; yes, even science, math and history. Browsing through the reading material will 100 percent certainly result in new ideas and insights - consider yourself warned. I worked a lot with the reference material and I constantly had to fight the urge to sit down and read every single book in the room.


The books are awesome (and I haven't even mentioned the great view over Stockholm from the room they're stored), but the best part about Bonniers Konsthall are the people. Every single person here is intelligent, passionate and a teeny tiny bit bonkers - like all the best people are. It's great to listen to all their stories. Everyone is helpful and they happily make time to answer any question I have, and also to listen to my stories.

I am not a morning person but I happily roll out of bed every weekday knowing what's ahead of me. There's no place like Bonniers Konsthall and I feel privileged and grateful to be part of it, even if it's just for a short while.


Vi ses


Thursday, 24 March 2016

Biologiska by day and by night

Biological museums are normally not very high on my must see-list. I am usually a bit disappointed when I visit one. However, at the teachers’ fair the director of Biologiska museet convinced me that I would not regret visiting his museum. He was right.

Biologiska museet features large dioramas filled with stuffed animals, depicting the Nordic wildlife. There is more though – and this is what got me hooked. Established in 1893 the museum itself is an illustration of a time long gone and it has quite an interesting history. You don’t like stuffed animals and you couldn’t care less about history? The backgrounds of the dioramas, painted by Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors, are stunning. So is the building itself: architect Agi Lindegren got his inspiration from medieval Norwegian stave churches. Stockholm has many beautiful buildings, but you won’t find any that look even remotely like Biologiska.

It's this specific combination of biology, history, art and architecture that gives Biologiska its identity, and luckily it's run by people who are very aware of this. Biologiska regularly invites contemporary artists and designers to exhibit in the museum, which makes for great . My first visit was on an evening after work, when the museum opened its doors for great lectures by artists Katja Aglert and Dominic Redfern. We could also go see the dioramas. However, the exhibition area has no electrical lighting so we were given torchlight to go and explore! There is something very special about wandering through a museum in the pitch dark. It makes you feel like a proper wilderness explorer in no time. Biologiska by night looks a bit like this (but less blurry. I am sorry for the horrible picture quality).

And by day, you ask? Good question, I say.

Vi ses


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

There and back again

The days are getting longer, but my time here is growing shorter and shorter. I am starting to worry about my return to Belgium. I am not all that happy about it, in fact. I might be going home, but I am also leaving a home behind.

I think only keeping up to date about Belgium through newspapers has painted the bleakest picture possible of the country in my head. However, I did find things here that I was really missing back in Belgium and I am not at all looking forward to parting with them again. No, I am not just referring to semlor; I am talking about a more caring and social society where there is time and space to raise children, where culture still seems to be considered valuable, where drinking water is offered for free in public places, where nature and urban life can coexist and where coffee refills are often free of charge.

There are some things I can take with me. For example, my newly found self confidence, a portion of love for own person, some self reliance, tons of inspiration, some networking skills and a more kaleidoscopic view on life, which, all combined together make for a rather different Cathy than the one who left Belgium this winter. And that has got me worrying. How will "new me" fit in in the old setting? Or will I fall back into before-Sweden mode once I hit Belgian ground?

Whatever will be, will be, I guess. For now I am going to enjoy my Swedish home and Swedish self (or Cathy-Pippi, as one of my friends says) as much as possible for as long as I still can.

Vi ses