The Party Mountain 
I love the new place. It has four rooms, an amazing view over the city and it’s easy to walk to work on foot without getting lost. My mother’s house in Helsinki is twice bigger but it isn’t the same. It’s about ten minutes from Hornsgatan and from the ferry to the small islands. I only found out after I had signed the lease that it is also a walking distance from the nearest bar. Not that I plan on drinking more than two cups of wine per week but if you plan on having any social life you need to be near a bar. There are some very good places to drink in Hornstull but they all close around midnight. Anyway, the neighbours are okay so far, even though I just met them.
The house comes with everything including Wi-Fi, dishwasher, washing machine, a patio and a small hedge maze in the garden. Yes, a hedge maze! Imagine how cool it will be for Halloween. A maze of dead ends leading nowhere, freaking out visitors. It can be just a fun way of getting out in nature — minus wild animals and blood-sucking mosquitos. I unpacked and settled in. The room is large, with high ceilings and massive windows. It was freezing inside, even though it was hot outside. There’s a fireplace but no firewood.
I’m sure my landlords were concerned about me being an early twenty-something when they decided to rent their property out. They should have asked if I smoked or had pets or liked tattoos or piercings or any other thing that people tend to worry about. Nowadays a young woman having her own place and being able to pay the rent on time is not so shocking anymore as people thought it was when it first became fashionable. Not that I have the place to myself, I have housemates.
Stockholm is full of small worlds full of nice people, which I call secret cities. It becomes much more enjoyable when you get in on the knowledge of exactly where to go. And if I say to friends back home: “Please don’t visit, cuz then you’ll never leave”, they come. They just want to be there when you’re there.
I didn’t know that Södermalm was a well-known place for young people to go out. I thought it was just going to be a quiet place, so I was surprised when I arrived. Another good thing about living in Södermalm is that it’s close to central Stockholm. You can take the metro or bus from Södermalmstorg square or Slussen and you’ll be in central Stockholm in 10 minutes. I think it’s very easy to travel around Stockholm because the metro is very well connected and there are lots of buses, too.
It’s Friday evening and there is a late summer heatwave. Beautiful sky, clear and delightful weather. I had some sugarcane rum and started walking towards the city. Looking at the city down hill, mountains afar, the wide waters and the bridge in an afternoon orange radiance, soon my head was light. Then I saw this car that just pulled over, doors sprang open, kids jumped out and sprinted into the store while yelling in kid-language, much like dogs too long housebound at once set loose. The mother disembarked much later and gave an almost apologetical smile.
Now we’re sitting at a table in a bar that I’m told is expensive and my new friends are buying me a cocktail and telling me how exciting it is to be here. I listen to them and watch their lips move. Sometimes I’m confused and don’t know if they’re speaking Swedish or English. We talk about Södermalm because that’s where we are and we talk about work because we all have jobs now. One girl says, “Maybe I’ll be an investigative journalist.” Another says, “Maybe I’ll become a star.” The third one, the one who’s drinking straight gin, says, “Maybe I’ll just drink till I’m dead.” We all laugh at her joke but we know she’s serious. She doesn’t like Swedish people as much as she likes us from elsewhere. She has come here to die but instead she finds friends.
We see two men who look just like film stars standing near the bar talking to some pretty girls and someone whispers, ‘The girls are probably actresses.’ This is what happens in Södermalm: people go up into restaurants wearing silk suits; women spend hundreds of pounds on dresses; young men flirt with young women; middle-aged men flirt with middle-aged women; big companies have parties in enormous venues for big executives; skinny women sell food out of small vans; pretty girls walk round in black lipstick wearing short skirts; tall men walk around with small dogs on chains; fat men walk around with thin women on their arms; tall thin women stand by shops waiting for boyfriends to buy them ice-cream cones; short plump men shout at tourists and try to sell them postcards; Finnish girls make friends with Swedish girls; men in jeans sit in bars and drink beer; young people spend life’s savings to become rich like the ones who got rich already; middle-aged people watch football on big screens and scream when their team win or lose; middle-aged women wear clothes that show off their bodies; middle-aged men wear suits with bow ties; everyone drinks alcohol and has a great time. There are parties in Södermalm, for sure, but Södermalm is a lot more than parties. I’m just beginning to realise this now.
“I’m going to get another cocktail,” says the woman who likes expat people, but then she says, “Actually, no. I have bottles of vodka at the hotel.”
We go back to the hotel to drink after our friends have left but we don’t really mind because we’re quite happy together. There’s something with the key cards so we go to the reception. The receptionist doesn’t mind either because he’s used to people making more of a fuss. He knows we’ve been drinking because we’re drunk, he knows we’ve been dancing because our shoes are wet, he knows we’ve been partying because it’s very late, but he doesn’t care at all, he just smiles and hands over the key cards and wishes us a good time. The room has a window facing the outside and two single beds each side of the window so we can talk all night if we want to.
We have the hotel TV on with volume so low it’s almost muted, and have ourselves loosely strewn across the beds, surfing through news channels, occasionally stiffening up to take a swig of improvised screwdriver.
Some prominent politician just died. He was in his mid-60s, looking perfectly fit, giving an interview on a live show, and just collapsed. We didn’t see the collapsing part, just the news.
“Look on the bright side, if the plague doesn’t kill you, something else will. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free and the truth is that we all die soon enough.” The woman who has come to die uttered a stream of half slurry prophecy half mumbled motivational quote.
Oh yeah, by the way, there’s a plague going on everywhere, but in Sweden things are fine, maybe more on that later.
Another TV segment is on, talking about how “Swedes avoid small talk” with awkward reenactment of neighbours or bygone acquaintance awkwardly running into each other.
“I don’t think it’s the cold talk itself that’s uncomfortable” — “or the pleasantries people easily pull on, we are definitely capable of that.”
“Yeah, why should it be natural to barge into other people’s private lives?”
“And act as if you were old friends, or pretend to be interested in something like the weather, or in need of a summary of the state of the other person’s wellbeing — all assuming now it’s the time to strike up and build a deeper connection”
“I guess it’s just carried over from the evolutionary imperative, people have to get along, form alliances, find mates. They have to do it somehow.”
I’d like to be able to ask and answer meaningful questions.
It is also possible that most readily provided answers are implicitly “rehearsed” — a story that you tell, with the same motifs and same embellished words that it becomes entrenched as the memorised answer, ready to be given at the prompt of a question. Like answers about technical facts, they are made available through retrieval from memory, rather than introspection.
When we think about others, and portray them in our minds based on our own impressions about what they are like, and put them in a box, they become like characters in a dream. When you are dreaming of other people, none of them are real, they all come from your brain, made up from your conceived feelings and memories about them.
When we rehearse answers about ourselves, these answers become very “mechanical”. There is a contradiction between what is summarily answerable and what is deeply personally true, on questions of the self-narrative domain, bland questions like “Tell us about yourself…”
“Things in general too. Most people talk about topics that are easy to talk about, and the things we know almost nothing about are the easiest to talk about.”
You might want to talk about lexicography, philosophy of language, and the boundary between lexical knowledge and world knowledge, but where most people can also insert themselves into the talking is saying that they have a cousin who was good with languages in high school.
“I thought we would argue about what is true — but empirical questions, the ones that have a truth value, are to be resolved by data from laborious lab work. If we ask “Does vocabulary affect perception”, that is a question that can be defined by parameters in an experiment — the experiments involve a lot of hard work, then, at the end, you will know more. There’s not much to talk about, in terms of substance, away from evidence — and evidence takes effort to gather, and that effort creates a barrier. But without substance, what we have is simply opinions flying around.”
General topics, the ones that don’t have to be backed by effort, can be discussed by your friendly neighbourhood armchair philosopher. If you present a lecture on linear algebra, with 200 pages of proof and equations, it easily bores the audience to death; but anyone can jump in and join a panel to talk about AI and ethics or the impact of machines on social issue. The more armchair, the broader the audience and more popular; the more specialised and effort-dependent, the more lonesome the pursuit. That’s the paradox of what we are able to talk about and what we are qualified to talk about.
“Perhaps we’re just not good at talking about anything that means something…”
I’d like to cultivate the ability of inducing and having meaningful discussions instead of repeating trite opinions that have no real grounding other than sentiments. But I don’t know how our usual ways of talking would facilitate thorough contemplation or deliberate reflection. It also takes skill to veer the conversation towards substance — but that could also dry up the momentum for talking, why argue about something that can be resolved by checking Wikipedia?
“Maybe, we are more qualified to discuss personal struggles, like living situations, hobbies, emotional states, interpersonal affairs… Once it becomes a larger topic it’s just opinions vs. opinions. Therefore, I’m more skeptical about meeting friends through a meeting of minds.”
“Well, you shouldn’t alienate people just because they are not expressive enough I’m not as smart as I would like to be. Maybe up to level of armchair philosopher, no more. There are different virtues, being nice and kind is a virtue, “somebody not too bright but sweet and kind”. Like if i upheld my standards for friends i used to have I would be all alone. That’s undesirable. Sometimes getting connection and deep understanding with people requires work. Also debates on truth and deep stuff is a serious mental effort and you have to make people take you seriously first, to be worth the trouble. You can’t randomly approach people and ask if they think e.g. incrementalism is applicable to urban planning. Maybe most people don’t have a need for deep connection, if there’s no depth.”
Occasionally I imagine how comical it would be in a world where people are intellectually astute about personal matters, while being extremely direct and calm about it, like thinking out loud lucid well-organised thoughts most of the time about desires, reservations, resentment, and everything…
“I mean, there are definitely issues in private lives, formidable issues, and people are deeply troubled by them. Often we even share similar troubles, we just can’t talk about them.”
That’s the society we find ourselves in, we are either too oblivious or too inhibited to get to the real stuff. We rarely even put descriptive words to sentiments like “my work feels pointless” or “the vastness of knowledge is overwhelming”, let alone think about and discuss them.
When your discourse environment is enamoured in layers upon layers of oblivion and inhibition, at some point it just becomes exhausting. Event a fragment or an instant of the cogent articulation of truth about the human experience can be refreshing.
“Trivial socialising is opium for the mind, it just masks the struggle.”
But at this point I doubt mostly non-trivial socialising exists. You need to spend time on the trivial to get a spark of the meaningful. If I don’t spend time with friends, it makes things increasingly trivial over all…”
“Yeah, you gotta have some wining and dining to lubricate the occasions of get-togethers… And you need these occasions to facilitate bonding. You have to spend time together every once a while. What does it mean to have friends, isn’t it that you contact them, they contact you, and you do some activities together in a social context?”
“The connections need some ‘maintenance work’ on a recurring basis, like they have a half-life, if you don’t see your friends in 3 or 5 years half of them are no longer your friends, your relationship decays to that of strangers. Worse than strangers, it’s now tainted by the unspoken bad blood of decay.”
“You know this concept of ‘propinquity’? Something like when social psychologists try to find out why people become friends or form relationships — it turns out, it’s not what we would think, common interests or values and all that, those of course help, but just plain proximity, like when people live down the same corridor and see each other often — dumb factors like that.”
“Maybe in all of this we are less conscious and self-directing than we’d like to think we are.
“It’s rationalised afterwards, first you have the necessity of running into each other often, that sets the tone for your evolutionary subconscious, that you need to get a long. Then your mind fabricates this outlook, that you feel you have a shared future, you unknowingly adjust your evaluations of the other person accordingly, so that there’s no dissonance. ”
But who is a friend that brings you luck? Perhaps it’s only in retrospect, the ones who meet and are able to work together have achieved something, then you attribute backwards to the relationship to say that it led to the success. Hedonism buddies that come and go, there are thousands of people you meet, and perhaps not even consciously, you see them as candidates, with whom there may or may not be something to develop long term, the question always looms in the background: “Is there a future?”
“But then it’s probably all interactive, like after you consciously decide there is no future any more, you start to find evidence of faults and cracks to support that outlook.”
It doesn’t even have to be that. Out of sight, out of mind. Distance makes division. When you no longer get together, the necessity dissolves, without you thinking about it. Sounds grim. I know. You build a castle of sand on the beach and when the waves come it all washes away, by the next tide it will be as if nothing had ever been there at all.
Our efforts and memories and experiences of the past dissolve and fade away. The tenuous bonds we had built might at any moment start to vanish. All the thousands of words and thousands of moments and thousands of steps we had once shared might one day count for nothing.
The tracelessness upsets me.
It’s not that the past doesn’t exist — we would rather be unburdened by the past, wouldn’t we? The past is done, and cannot be undone… the chance we were given was spent. In the past, we often entertained vague promising feelings about the distant future, about some far, far away time yet to come, by then, things will be magically good. Each of those future dates inevitably arrives, and passes, only for us to realise that not a thing has changed.
“Who knows? I’d like to be optimistic.” I’d like to think we can relate deeply by sharing reflections and dreams, and there can be connections that transcend time and distance, and that everything isn’t just operating mystically and mechanically on some evolutionary or cosmic level without us knowing.
We’ll see, we’ll see. What will be, will be.