STOCKHOLM. Whenever I used to come here years ago, I was struck by ‘country envy.’ This was the sense, having left the then-derelict Port of Tallinn behind me, with its roving bands of Finnish vodka brigands, that Sweden was somehow superior, cleaner, better kept, more efficient. The moment I stepped onto the T-Bana and rocketed into T-Centralen with its many cute shops, I understood that Sweden was some kind of wonderful paradise, a promised land, where the cinnamon rolls were always softer, the coffee stronger, the Scandinavian people genteel.
Recently though, I have come to learn more about its seedier side thanks to my Swedish friend Jonas, who regales me of life having grown up in the tenements near the harbor, which is now pocked with litter and graffiti, making it look like some sad distant sister to Tallinn’s Linnahall, and reducing my faith in Swedish superiority. This is a neighborhood where the long-faced residents often live alone, watching TV and loading up on polarkaka and tabloids at the local supermarkets.
“But don’t they get lonely?” I asked Jonas, during a recent jaunt to the Swedish capital.
“Oh, they have ways of finding company. It is quite common in Sweden to have a knullkompis, you know,” he answered, as if he was one of those Gamla Stan guides talking about local culture.
“This is like a neighbor that you have sex with regularly, but aren’t together with.”
So it was true. Sweden had devolved into a big Melrose Place, just like Estonia. It was a land of isolated, lonely people seeking thrills. It was no longer the land of morally absolute Lutheran kings. It had become the land of knullkompis. In Estonian, I think the term might be kepivend or kepiõde. Or maybe it’s sõbrad boonusega. Whatever the locals call it, it exists.
I was recently told by a Tartu lady who is more or less my age and has been single forever that the city oozes with carefree sexual encounters. “Really?” I said. “It seems like it’s full of old folks named Aino and Endel.” “Watch out for Endel,” she answered me dreamily, as she was caught in a memory of some regrettable tryst.
I started to look at the people of Tartu differently after that.
I guess that this is now common all over the world. In Stockholm, or Tartu, New York or London, people have come to see life as as a one-time free pass to a vast amusement park. The purpose of life is not to live well, or properly, but rather to get as many thrills as you can get. You may even be married and have children, but that roller coaster on the other side of the park is too fetching. The family collapses and you chase after it in the name of happiness. And meaningless sex.
It sort of disgusts me, yet I must reconcile with it for I also dwell in the world of knullkompis now. Since I am officially single, people keep asking me if I am on Tinder, and someone stopped me in the street because her girlfriend wants to know where I hang out. “At the supermarket,” I told her, naturally. “Sometimes I am also at the kindergarten picking up my child.”
I have sworn off the idea of Internet dating entirely, even if it means remaining solo until the end of my days. I tell myself I would rather be dead before I would let someone select me for a date based on my online profile. Yet I’ve seen Jonas do just this. He likes dogs, so he always picks the Swedish girls who have dogs in their profile pictures. “That way I know we have something in common,” he says.
I admit I have found this mentality sneaking up on me. As I spent more time on my own, I find myself wondering why people would even want to be in a relationship at all. I marvel at politicians or celebrities who marry multiple times, as if this latest one will actually be built to last. Why waste your time?
Better to be alone, I think. Better to curl up in your place with a warm blanket and a good film. Better to keep a journal to absorb your self absorbed thoughts. Better to have some hot cinnamon rolls, some good Swedish coffee. Better to live each day for life’s simple thrills.
And if the neighbor should come knocking, well …