A method for the efficient acquisition of girlfriends

A long, long time ago, in a country not so far away, there worked two nerdy guys at a biotech company in Uppsala. Being nerds, neither had a girlfriend, but being nerds, they were sure that the problem could be solved with a little engineering, and so one evening at the lab (where else would they be ?), a plan was hatched.
How do I know all this ?
Because I was one of those guys. And for the purposes of this story, we'll call the other one 'Derek'. Curiously, his mum made the same choice.
Statistically speaking, our best chances were at Snerikes, the popular student pub at the time, so off we headed, engineering the next step in the experiment. What we needed was a table for six with two girls and four empty chairs - a bigger table would make contact harder, and squeezing on to a smaller one would be creepy. That we found such a table with a blonde for 'Derek' and a red-head for me was more luck than judgement, but then chance does favour the prepared mind. The next step was outside my knowledge base, as it required talking to the girls, and it didn't go well, despite trying to be 'interesting' by speaking English (and Scottish). In our defence, it turned out that the girls had met up that evening because a mutual friend was in a coma at the hospital, so they weren't really in a mood to be chatted up. Oblivious to this (and much else), I decided to pretend that I needed a light. Back then I carried cigarettes but no matches for such occasions, but unfortunately there was a night-light on the table, though that conveniently went out when it was violently wiggled about on the way to my cigarette. "Excuse me, but could I possibly bother you for a light ?" And we finally had contact, which continued well until closing time. But what now ? We had no endgame planned.
"We're nerds, so we'd like your phone numbers" didn't sound right,
"We're having a party next weekend, would you like to come along ?" sounded better, and they sounded interested. 'Derek' looked a bit confused but soon realised that of course we were going to have a party next weekend, and now we had 2 guests for it. The rest of the week was spent collecting more guests, and the party was a success. And it still is, as 'Derek' and his blonde have two teenage children, and I'm still good friends with my red-head.
Go nerds !

The Norwegian love-letter

I once met a wonderful girl called Hilde on a bus in Tromso, northern Norway, and we'd been writing to each other fairly regularly for several years, via my parents' permanent address. One day I got a letter from Germany, saying that she was down there and would be travelling north soon, and perhaps we could meet up as she passed Uppsala. Great, I said, and sent off a card asking her for a phone number on which I could contact her and make arrangements. Four days later I got another letter signed Hilde, this time from Oslo, with address and phone number. A little surprising that it was so quick, but more surprising was that it was a love letter, quite unlike any previous missives from the lady.
Ah ha, I thought. Ah ha. Ah ha. This continued for some time, until I could think of other words again. Hmmm, I thought. Oooooh. Gosh. Hmmm (again). Perhaps she never revealed these emotions before because we were so far away from each other, but now thought I should be warned about what she was going to do to me as she passed through Uppsala. Not that I was entirely sure, since the letter was mostly in hand-written Norwegian, and used a vocabulary with which I wasn't really familiar, but the general idea was obvious.
So, I phoned the number in Oslo and asked for Hilde. Strange response.
"Is that the Olsen residence ?"
"Yes, my name is Olsen."
"Ah, good, do you have someone called Hilde staying with you ?"
"I am Hilde."
"Err, Hilde whom ?"
"Hilde Olsen."
Oh, I see, wrong Hilde (they're probably all called Hilde there, I thought).
"I believe a friend of mine also called Hilde is staying with you ?"
"Err, But I got a letter from her with this number in it..."
"Oh, is that Mark Harris ?"
"I sent the letter."
"Did you used to work in Oslo ?"
"Oh dear, I thought you were someone I used to know in Oslo, an Englishman who moved away to Sweden, and I found your address from the Swedish Tax Register."
"So you're the wrong Hilde, and I'm the wrong Mark then ?"
"Err, looks like it."
Pretty bizarre, huh ? And their signatures were indistinguishable, there were a couple of words of English at the bottom of the letter in case I didn't understand the rest, and it was timed almost perfectly. I guess God gets bored in the summer holidays too, and plays games like this. She managed not to sound embarrased during the ensuing conversation, despite the apparent sound of husband and children in the background. My Hilde, incidentally, did contact me later, and visited. She was as sweet as ever, but just as platonic too.

Norway seems to be a good source of stories, or perhaps I just spend a lot of my free time there. Either way, I should share a few more snippets.

Like how I was driving through some verdant mountains in the north when I spotted a beautiful waterfall tumbling down through the greenery, and stopped to photograph it. It was a bit tricky to frame, and I had to wedge myself upside-down in a ditch to get under my tripod. At which point a VW van full of heroic Norwegian men came round the corner, skidded to a halt a little way past me, and came to rescue this obvious victim of some terrible road accident. I'm not sure that they were convinced that I really was healthy, but I was able to pursuade them that I didn't have acute problems.

The Oslo trip

I like the Swedish working habits. By some astronomical freak, two bank holidays both turned up in one week, and so being cool dudes, Pharmacia decided it wasn't worth going in for just 3 days, and closed the Uppsala site for the whole week. Since they'd just given me a car so I could come to work out of hours, I thought I'd better familiarise myself with the controls, and so drove to Norway for the week. The trip was particularly entertaining, with lots of interesting and friendly people to be met along the way.
One policeman was especially friendly, going to great lengths to catch up with me so he could wave at me and get my autograph. And he said he'd like to meet me again sometime. They must be particularly badly paid here, as he wants me to foot the bill. Also, he was driving a dirty 5-year old Saab, and couldn't afford flashy stickers or lights. I think maybe they spent too much on all the nice electronic equipment under the dash. I think it was probably a radio reciever, though it must have been tuned to long-wave, as the digital display was displaying a number too big to be an FM station, and he assured me it wasn't malfunctioning.

And then there was the 2nd red-headed hitchhiker that I picked up. She was very drunk, and spoke almost no English. I battled away in my best Swedish, using most of my stock phrases ("hello", "I'd like a large strong beer please", "No, I'm not that way inclined", "I don't understand Swedish", "I don't understand anything", "Bye" ) and I think that we established that her name was the diminutive form of Margery, which sounded remarkably like Margarine, and that she was "bad because she was thirsty". I think that mean't she was one of Sweden's huge stock of registered alcoholics. When I took a detour to drop her in town rather than by the side of the road, she told me that I was "snaell". This not being a word essential to getting a beer, I didn't know what it meant, but being a Germanic laguage, I thought maybe I was driving too fast, so I slowed down, but still I was snaell. Maybe she wants me to drive faster, I thought, so I speeded up, but to no avail. She then picked up the dictionary that I always had handy back then, and pointed to the word "smaell". Well, it seems "smaell" translates to "spanking". My mind went mushy. Then it became very clear. Horribly clear. Five hours later we arrived in town. Well, it was probably 5 minutes, but it seemed like hours. There she stepped out, said "spanking" a few more times and disappeared from my life. Days later I understood what had happened. It seems she misread the small print of my dictionary, as it turns out that "snaell" means "nice". Trust the Scandinavians to confuse such words. What more can I say ? Well, if you've never been driving at a fair lick down Euroroute 18 with a drunk red-headed Swede sitting beside you waving the word "spanking" in front of your face, well, I can only urge you to try it. It sticks in the mind.

After that, I was quite unfazed by the guy who left me in charge of his hamburger joint while he popped out to find a map for me. My command of Norwegian being even more limited than my Swedish, I was unable even to get the customers to buy me a beer, and could only stall them by smiling and saying "Hello, I don't speak Norwegian".

The first red-headed hitchhiker was also entertaining, but paled beside Margerine. She was a huge lesbian, also drunk, who had had a fight with her girlfriend the night before, and been thrown out of their house, so she was trying to get home to her mother's. She was so big that the inertia-reel seat belt ran out of travel before it reached the clip. Unwilling to admit this though, she dutifully held it a couple of inches away from the clip for the rest of the journey. I don't know if this was for my benefit or that of the police.

Running later than I had intended, I ended up staying in a hideously expensive hotel in Lillestroem, where a friendly local offered to show me around Oslo the next day. Unfortunately his friendliness went further still, culminating at 1am in an invitation to forget about my hotel booking and go back to his place, the wife and daughter, with whom he had a few hours earlier lived, having mysteriously disappeared from his life.

Yes, it was one of those trips that always make me check the mileage on the car, in case I didn't really go, and it was just something in that week-old curry. In this case there were 1500km unaccounted for by the curry theory, so I think it must really have happened. And then there's the bruises.....

The Finnish phantom

It's early Monday morning, and my telephone rings.
"Mark Harris for Symbicom"
"Hello ! This is Lotta..."
Oh good, I know a lot of Lottas, and they range from adorable to unbearably adorable. But which one was this ? I didn't recognise the voice.
"...your neighbour"
I have a neighbour called Lotta ? No, I have no neighbour called Lotta. Neighbour at work ? No, I have no neighbours at work. An unmet neighbour in Norby ? But she sounds like she knows me. I'll play along.
"Hi !"
"Sorry to call you at work, but it's about the translations."
Translations ? I help with translations sometimes, but not recently, and not for people called Lotta. Think, think. Nothing.
"Err, and exactly which translations would they be ?"
"The Finnish ones."
Finnish ? Finnish ? The only Finnish I could translate would be 'Cheers' or 'This appliance must not be covered' (compulsory on electric fires in Sweden).
"Err, I'm sorry, but it's Monday morning and I'm having a bout of Alzheimers, could you tell me a little more ?"
"When we met in Buckingham you asked me about doing some Scandinavian translations for your company."
Ah, Buckingham. My neighbour in Buckingham. No, no Lottas there. And why would I tell her that I needed translations to Finnish.
"Was this in a bar ?"
"No, outside my house. You asked me if I was Finnish. I must have the wrong person. Sorry. Bye"
"Err, wait. I don't think that there are too many Mark Harrises from Buckingham working in Scandinavia, but I'm afraid I still don't remember talking to you."
"It was about five days ago."
"Two weeks ? I was home two weeks ago..."
"No, last week. It must have been someone else, he lives next to me in North End Square. I'd better wait till I get back there. I'm in Finland now.
Sorry to bother you. Bye."
Do I have blackouts ? Do I have blackouts severe enough to somnambulate to England, pick up Finnish girls, and still be back in time for work ? Do Finnish girls hallucinate ? Accurately ? Can I astrally project ? Or am I, as someone suggested, surrounded by an improbability field ?
I have never worked out this event.

Sub-tropical skiing

So there I was, first time on skis, heading down the biggest slopes with everybody else. And doing pretty well, I thought, after barely an hour on the nursery slopes. A pity North Carolina is sub-tropical though, not a good climate for powder snow. More conducive to sheet ice. Which I soon hit, and, adult prodigy though I may be, I soon passed my maximum sustainable speed and fell horribly. Some time later I became aware of big red snow-mobiles, stretchers and paramedics. Rather excessive, I thought, for a little bang on the head, but professionals that they were, they put me through the rigours of a lucidity test. I scored just one, for succesfully guessing my own name, but the rest of the questions were way beyond me. The irony is, when I came round I was actually fully functional immediately, but they asked trick questions like "What day is it ?". Do I know what day it is today ? No. Am I ever sure what day it is ? Did I have the slightest chance of knowing what day it was in the middle of my holiday ? Hardly a fair question. "What is your telephone number ?" followed. Yeah, right, I'm always phoning myself, aren't I ? And I'd just moved and got a new number too. No points there. So one last chance - "Where are you from ?". Ooh, me Sir, me Sir, I can do that one. Except does he mean where originally, where from in The States, or where am I staying in the resort ? Hmm. Just a moment while I construct a nice sentence that covers all these possibilities. But wait, why are you strapping me to this snow-mobile ? Why are you whizzing me off to the clinic ? I'm fine. This is as good as I get. In fact it was a good three hours before the medics realised the problem was congenital, and that they may as well let me go. One of my friends promised to keep an eye on me, and rush me back if I showed any signs of normality.

The art gallery

It was a Saturday morning soon after I had moved to Uppsala, Sweden, and although I had been here long enough to get invited to the party that had rewarded me with a reasonable hangover, I hadn't been here long enough to become as rich as the natives. So I was wearing a ragged second-hand leather jacket and was drinking coffee at the cheapest place in town, which happened to be the city art gallery. And as luck would have it, there was an opening party for a modern art display that day, which meant that a) there were free peanuts to balance my diet, and b) I looked really out of place amongst all the Sunday-bests.

Now I'm rather fond of modern art when it shows some inspiration, but standing in front of a pile of Volvo bumpers before the coffee had percolated my nervous system, I was pretty sure that this example was simply junk. At which point a rather attractive woman came up to me and said "Hurdygurdywurdy ?". Swedes really do say that, it's not just the muppet chef. In fact it's all they say, but the meaning can vary from a simple "Hello", to an extended discourse on Bergman's influence on the suicide rate in Scandinavia. But given our current situation, it was pretty obvious that in this case it must mean "So what do you think of this piece ?", so being as honest as I could, I summoned up my entire Swedish vocabulary and said "Yes, it's very good, yes, yes, very good.". To which she replied "Hurdygurdywurdygurdywurdy". The coffee had now gotten far enough that I realised that I was painting myself into a corner and had to come clean that I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Oh, I'm sorry, but you have such a Swedish name" she said in perfect English.
"Errr, how do you know my name ?"
"It's written underneath."
"Errr, what was that first question again ?"
"I said, Did you make this ?"
Yep, my raggy clothes and dodgy blood chemistry had made her think that I was the sort of person who would pile up a bunch of car parts and call it art, and I had admitted to it in a less than humble way.
So we chuckled and chatted away the morning, and then sort of dated for a few months before we drifted apart again. Since then I've hung around a lot of art galleries in tatty clothes and looking hungover, but it doesn't seem to be a reliable method to meet women. It's better to get a dog.

Language pitfalls

The Swedish language uses two devices that are not registered by native English speakers, viz. pitch change and vowel length. Misunderstanding pitch change seldom causes trouble, but does brighten up the law of public access that states "you may cross private land, but must keep away from any homes", but which sounds to foreigners like "you may cross private land, but must keep away from the garden gnomes".
Vowel length, on the other hand, gets me everytime. The worst example is how "short" mutates into "horny" by just a tiny elongation of the vowel (approx. cawt and caawt). Not good for me being 4ft 6 and linguistically challenged. So there I was in a bar with a friend who introduced me to two enormous, gorgeous, blonde Swedish girls. Excuse the tautology - "two Swedish girls" will suffice. They were late because it was slow walking through the deep snow, and I replied that it was particularly difficult for me because I was so 'short'. Or that's what I thought I said, but the girls looked at me strangely, so I explained what I was talking about by holding my hand a metre and half up and saying "I'm this short". A look of bewilderment (perhaps tinged with awe) crossed there faces, so clearly they needed more context to get my meaning, so I explained how back in England I seldom felt short, but here in Sweden, especially standing next to big Swedish girls, I felt particularly short. I never saw the girls again, and it was days before my friend decided it was time to tell me what I had been telling them...

The following is maybe more cultural than linguistic, or probably just individual, but standing at a bus stop trying to prepare change for the fare, I asked the woman next to me how much the bus cost. She looked at me strangly, thought a while, then said "Oh, do you mean how much does a ticket cost ?". It was very tempting to say "Look, if I wanted to know the price of a ticket, I would have asked that. Now I'm going to be making a lot of journeys with a lot of friends, so can you please tell me how much it would cost to buy the bus !". Instead I said "Yes".

English coffee, Swedish politeness

My mother was an expert in British cooking, and so I can eat and drink pretty much anything, including last winter's mixture of instant coffee and high-fat powdered milk that has been lurking in my skating backpack through the summer. I realise that coffee can taste better, but my roots have led to low culinary expectations, and so I sprinkle this mixture into some boiling water from a thermos and throw in some snow to cool it to drinkable temperatures. I was doing this on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake one bitter winter's afternoon, when a fellow lone skater came up to me and told a sad tale of having been out for many hours and being extremly cold and thirsty, and could he maybe scrounge a little coffee from me. I said that he was very welcome, and warned him about the quality, but he said he was desperate and would be very grateful, so I duely made him a cup. As he tasted it, a strange collection of expressions came over his face, until he suddenly came out with : "Uh this is great, uh, in fact this is so good that I think I'm going to save it for later", and duely poured the coffee into his empty thermos and skated away. I wonder if he's still telling the story too.

Photographs I haven't taken in public conveniences

So there I was, in a public toilet in a park in Cambridge, when I noticed a hole in the wall. No, this isn't another George Michael story, because then I saw that underneath was an official sign labelling the hole as a disposal point for sharps, so presumably they've had trouble with junkies littering the floor with needles. Then I saw that the label was repeated in Braille, and my brain spun. So do they also have trouble with blind junkies littering ? Perhaps even more so, since they probably get through more needles whilst trying to hit a vein by trial and error. But do blind people really run their hands all over the walls of public toilets in case there is a message for them ? Or have I got this all wrong, and do the Braille messages that one finds under restroom labels actually all say "Euuueew, now wash your hands please" ? Anyway, I wanted to photograph this sign, but the booth was too small to get my camera out inside, and I didn't really want to have to explain what it was that I'd done that made me go out and rush back in with a camera.

Similarly in a dilapidated petrol station in Rocky Flats, Colorado, where the sign read that the water was not potable due to Plutonium contamination. Whether or not that was true, I still wanted a picture of the sign, but with a badly fitting door leading straight out to the cashier, again I didn't want to have to explain flashes of light coming out of the toilet (though I could blame it on the plutonium, I suppose). That's why I need a pocket-sized, high-ISO camera.

Have molecule, will travel

I was driving through Sheffield with a large plastic model of the molecule dihydrofolate reductase filling the back seat, as you do, when I stopped for petrol and a tiny little garage in the suburbs, attended by an very old man who was sitting in an armchair on the pavement outside as I drew up. As he filled the tank he peered into the back, and said :
"Is that a molecule ?", I confirmed that it was, and he continued, rather hesitantly, and sort of fading away into thought at the end of each sentence :
"I saw one of those on TV once."
"Apparently we're made up of lots of those..."
"And in turn, the universe is made up of lots of us..."
"Funny when you think about it, isn't it ?"
"That'll be 10 pounds 20 please"
And with that he went back to his armchair to refine his unification theory.

My guess is that he's still telling the story too.

I haven't dined with kings

When intimidated by other people, it's always good for your confidence to be able to say to them, or even just yourself, "I have dined with kings".
I can't do that. But I can say "I have almost dined with kings", which only really works with very slightly intimidating people.

I was in a ski cabin i Lappland, 2 days from the nearest road, when a police helicopter landed outside my window. I tried to think if I had any outstanding parking tickets or had recently dropped any litter, but was pretty sure I hadn't, so came out from under the bed and assumed there had been an accident nearby. But no, they were there because the king and queen of Sweden were secretly making a film about The King's Route on which I was skiing, and would be making a surprise visit. That sounds fun, I thought, and so hung around, but eventually got restless and thought I'd take a quick ski around and catch them later. I was out for an hour or so, in bad conditions, so didn't even have much fun, except when two policemen on scooters came to check me out, parking in front and behind me, like there was a risk of a James Bond style chase, which I must say was very tempting just for the story, but in fact I simply told them I was a tourist. Or possibly terrorist, having not really mastered Swedish vowels yet. And then I skied back to the cabin, to discover that in my brief absence the royal couple had arrived, treated all the other skiers to a salmon lunch, and then gone on their way. It's events like this that explain my self-confidence levels.

American Psycho-something

I like Americans. I love their positive, can-do attitude, and their warmth and generosity towards strangers.
Take my first 10 minutes in the country, for example. Struggling to get the payphone to work, I turned to the Dallas character beside me for help - 6 foot tall, tanned, cowboy hat and Texan accent, probably planted there by the tourist board. When I explained that I was shovelling in money but still couldn't get connected, he pulled out his credit card, swiped it through the telephone, and said "That should fix it. Welcome to America ! ".
And I don't think he was showing off, he just saw a problem but he could easily solve, and did so, an attitude that I saw time and again in the 3 years I've spent in the country.
Even before I left the UK, an American girl I had met twice gave me a list of phone numbers to friends that she assured would put me up if I was travelling through their cities.
So arriving in San Francisco a week later I phoned Michelle, mentioned our mutual friend, and as promised she insisted that I come and stay with them rather than stay at the YMCA, however much fun that is reputed to be.
They were a lovely couple, we had a great evening together, and the next morning they left me with the keys to the apartment as they went to work. Then in good Colombo style, Michelle turned back and said "Oh, just one last thing, my brother sometimes comes by to help out - he may seem a little odd because he suffers from, err, psycho-something, but anyway, don't be surprised if there's someone else in the flat when you come in. Bye.".
Well there wasn't anyone home when I got back from an intensive day on The streets of San Francisco. (Heh, this was 1987, so '70s TV series and songs were fresh in my mind, very fresh, since I had used a phone box that had a notice on it asking for witnesses to the fatal shooting of a previous user.)
Anyway, still jetlagged, I took a nap on the sofa, and woke to hear noises in the kitchen, so I got up to introduce myself. This surprised the brother, who was in the process of drying a large carving knife. Very large, very sharp, very surprised. At which point I remembered that he suffered from psycho-something, and I really wished that Michelle had been more specific about his problem. The optimistic part of me was hoping for psychosomatic, but my reptilian bits were screaming psychopath. Tense hours passed (according to reptile-me, possibly only seconds) during which many more 70's TV programs passed through my head and adrenal glands. Then the brother put down the knife, and said "Hello, who are you ?". I explained, and everyone lived to tell the tale.
It's funny how a 10-second event from 30 years ago can become a page-long story, but those seconds did take up a lot more space in my head than most others.

© Mark Harris 2020

(More true stories)

(MRH homepage)