Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

There Is Nothing More Powerful Than Yoga (Unless You Hate It, Of Course)

I absolutely adore yoga. It's like having sex with yourself - a spiritual cleansing, a divine form of masturbation that has been passed down from Indian saints who didn't know how to keep warm in the Himalayas. I totally believe you can become enlightened by mastering your body - I'm just not sure I have one.

Yes, you guessed it, I only like yoga in theory. When my body sees a yoga mat it wants to run away and munch on a pork sandwich. It doesn't want to breathe through migraines; it doesn't find any joy in "allowing" the pain from a cracked collarbone. My body wants greasy tacos, sex in phone booths, and long bike rides around nuclear plants.

So why do I keep on torturing myself with the Downward Dog and other unhealthy yoga positions? I've done yoga on Greek islands and dengue at a health spa in Thailand. That's right, dengue at a health spa. God is trying to tell me something. "Stay away from yoga," God shouts with that booming voice of His that worked so well for Charlton Heston.

Right now I'm sitting at Kalani Oceanside Retreat in the rainforest on Big Island, Hawaii, and it's so serene it gets on my nerves. Alcohol isn't allowed, but anal sex is, so it's not all dull.

Actually, people are absolutely warm and beautiful. In my group you find a Latvian healer, a musician from L.A. with a gift for Zin Wine, a chocolate sales executive who despises chocolate, and an ex-con from the Oakland ghetto. The food is so healthy and tasty you want to scream, and unfortunately our yoga teacher Will is absolutely great. He even has a sense of humor, something I thought was strictly forbidden on the spiritual pathway. And hey, there's a reclining Buddha overseeing my declining body when I go snorkeling in the pool. With a life guard like that, how can you drown?

So yes, you could refer to this lush rain forest as Paradise, but damn it, there's nothing at Kalani to keep me on my toes. When I visited ashrams in India and Thailand you had to watch out for snakes and monkeys jumping on your back. On Big Island nothing can kill you. You may see a dolphin or hear a whale, but even though this is a spiritual place whales tend to keep to the sea - they're not much for doing The Plow.

By the way, I love mediation much better than the medieval torture that passes for Kundalini yoga. I'm also pretty good at breathing. Without bragging I can say I've done that successfully for half a century.

A few days ago I almost reached Enlightenment. I suddenly found myself fondling the most beautiful woman in the studio which happened to be my girlfriend. And I felt like fondling a few others as well, since I believe it's very important to share your wealth, but unfortunately my guardian spirit told me to stop.

But excuse me, I have to leave you now. There's an Ecstatic Dance taking place in the Rainbow Room here at Kalani. You're supposed to chant and rub your chakras against the other yogis while you chant something incredibly deep in Sanskrit. You just can't go wrong with that, now can you?

Link to the gorgeous Kalani Oceanside Retreat where egos go to die (some more than others)


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Forgive Me, Berlin, But I Miss The Wall and The Gloomy Marxists With Their Bad Haircuts

I'm in Berlin for the first time in more than thirty years.

It's a fun, vibrant city full of cafes, trendy neighborhoods, and friendly people with oversized lap tops. Prentzlauer Berg is hard not to like. So are Bergmannstrasse and fashionable Unter den Linden with the wonderful Berlin museum, but the more I walk toward Brandenburger Tor the more I miss the wall and good old gloomy East Germany.

Not because I liked the German Democratic Republic or DDR. No one did unless they were deranged. East Germany was the most unpleasant country in the world at that time, but it was exciting the same way a nightmare is exciting. The collective paranoia crept into you and made you look suspiciously at every zombie-hausfrau who passed you in the street, most of them smoking Bulgarian cigarettes that smelled worse than the factories.

Yes, that's right, visiting East Germany was like walking into a black and white film with incredibly bad props. People drove around in Skodas and Trabants. The East Germans wore dreadful clothes and had haircuts that made Danish degenerates like me roar with laughter. Alexanderplatz in the late seventies was a paradise of asbestos and huge red banners, teaching us that the Party decided what we should say and think.

God, I loved the Deutsche Democratische Republik the same way you love your undertaker. It was definitely my "favorite" dictatorship because the Poles and Romanians were too friendly. In Hungary the food was too delicious to being real Marxist, but the East Germans got it right: They despised everybody and were downright rude toward capitalists who didn't bow before their Holy Trinity of Marx, Engels, and Hoenecker. But still they dreamed of hiding in your suitcase when you went back to West Berlin.

"God, it must be so exciting to live in this workers' paradise," I used to think stupidly, "they have microphones in the ashtrays just like in the movies, and when somebody knocks at your door in the middle of the night, you know it's not your boring neighbor but some Stasi with a gun."

My fondest memory of my two trips to East Germany was visiting my pen pal, a girl from Halle who dreamed of escaping to the West.

One late night we sat on a bench in Alexanderplatz and kissed. It was one of those three minute kisses you have to be a teenager to endure. We never came up for air, we just kept on kissing ... but while we were at it, I felt something was wrong. I looked up and saw that a police car slowly went by eying us suspiciously. Then it disappeared, but one minute later it came back. An officer rolled down the window and said something sinister to us, so we got up and continued somewhere else. East was meeting West. In our mouths, anyway.

Berlin today is quaint and exciting but not a favorite city of mine. One of my favorite places today is Kollwitzplatz. And there's something wonderfully ridiculous about the biggest tourist trap of them all, Checkpoint Charlie where I buy a piece of the Wall that I add to my impressive collection of ridiculous relics like two expensive splinters from the cross on Golgatha.

I leave modern day Berlin after three days, but what I'm going to miss the most is the Club Colas they used to serve in DDR. They always tasted like Cokes that had been left open on a kitchen counter for a decade. No wonder that East Germany ceased to exist. There's only so much suffering humanity can take, anyway.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

No Wonder I Feel Right At Home In Gdansk, Poland (In The Company Of A Certain Naked Woman)

I'm presenting my novel The Tsar's Dwarf at Uniwersytet Gdanski in Poland, and no wonder I feel right at home.

A few minutes before my reading I run into The Little Mermaid. She's sitting stark naked in the hall trying to read Søren Kierkegaard. No wonder she looks depressed. But I've always been a fan of our national symbol, so I decide to cheer her up by gently stroking her breasts. She gets quite aroused, of course, and as you can tell from the picture I get tired from my handiwork.

Actually, I love the fact that the Danish national symbol is visiting Poland. We have a duty to share her with the world, so first The Little Mermaid went to Expo in Shanghai, and now she's hanging out at Uniwersytet Gdanski hoping to get laid.

"Your Danish mermaid used to sit in the Norwegian class room, but we got so sick of her we threw her out," Hilde, the Norwegian instructor tells me with a cruel smile. But I forgive her. I always forgive Norwegians. That's how loving a person I am.

Gdansk is beautiful. I had no idea that the historical center was so breathtaking. It took me back to the happy days of 1716 when everybody wore powdered wigs and didn't worry about the Euro.

Seriously, if I'd known that Gdansk was this gorgeous I would have gone years ago. Gdansk is only 50 minutes by plane from Copenhagen, but it seems like another world. The prices are low, the graffiti in the train stations are awesome, and people really know how to drink. And hey, I'm deeply impressed with the language as well. The Poles don't believe in vowels. They were forbidden by law a long time ago and they seem to have a kinky love affair with the letter Z. They put it absolutely everywhere, especially in places where it doesn't belong.

But as I said, what impresses me the most is the old part of Gdansk. It was expertly rebuild after the war and it really should be a major tourist attraction for those of us who love the baroque period.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How To Milk a Danish Cash Cow (A Holy Scam In Varanasi, India)

I'm in love with India. I've been here about eight times. I love the deep spirituality of this great country. And when I get tired of God, there are always the strong colors, the gorgeous scent of urine, and the palak paneer they serve in the small guest houses.

India is full of surprises, too. Yesterday I ran into three holy cows and Goldie Hawn. And I was head butted by all four. Yes, I'm truly blessed.

This time I'm here to do research on my next novel. It takes place in Varanasi, the holiest of all cities in India. Varanasi (Benares) is the famous place where you wash away your sins in Mother Ganges. And cremate your loved ones at the same time. You could argue that Ganges is the biggest funeral parlor in the world. Or the most impressive sewer in history.

Varanasi is India at its best and worst. It's colorful, charismatic, loud, polluted, dirty, generous, kind, obnoxious, spiritual, beautiful, and a haven for scam artists, con men, and monks with an advanced degree in pick pocketing. Everybody wants something from you. Sometimes it's your soul, but mostly it's just your damn rupees.

I ran into a delightful scam the other day. Since I know how to navigate in India, it didn't take me totally by surprise. But sometimes I'm not as cynical as I like to think, so let's say I was mildly disappointed. While roaring with laughter at the same time.

I was walking down the atmospheric alleys of the old city avoiding the cow dung, the one-armed beggars, and the scrawny cows feasting on filthy plastic bags.

A man came up to me and started to talk. His English was fine, so we chatted for a while. At one point he asked whether I wanted to see the burning ghats - the place where the dead are cremated before their ashes are spread over Mother Ganges.

I said, sure, and we went to a house that supposedly was a hospice for the poor. Here people come from all over India to die and are taken care of for free. I was greeted by a little old lady in a dirty sari.

"This is The Mother Teresa of Varanasi" I was told, and then I was introduced to a guru in a dhoti and two volunteers. A "pious" looking gentleman lead me up to the roof of the patient-free hospice, so I could get a good view of the cremations at the nearby ghat.

"You have to understand, we're not asking for money. We're all volunteers at this hospice," my guide said.

I nodded, knowing that when a con man says he doesn't want money, things are going to get very expensive. But I went along for the ride for the simple reason I wasn't 100% sure whether this was a scam or not. Yet.

From the roof top there was a nice view of the Ganges and the three platforms where the dead are burned: One for the upper cast (business class?), one for the middle cast (coach), and one for the lower cast. The fire that was used for the cremation was lit thousands of years ago and had never gone out, my guide told me while meditating on my pin codes.

I started to cough because of the heavy smoke. I've always been sensitive to inhaling the deceased, especially Brahmins.

My guide stared at me through the fumes with that pious look he had practiced in front of the mirror, "Look around, Sir. Look at all the people carrying the dead bodies. Do you see any women?"


"Women are not allowed to attend because they cry. Crying holds back the soul. It's very selfish to show emotion, Sir."

"Well, sometimes men are emotional, too," I said.

"Yes, but men are not women," the Pious One answered with surprising contempt. Then he told a story about a widow who threw herself on the fire to be with her dead husband. This unfortunate incident happened ten years ago and meant that women had been banished from the cremations ever since.

After ten minutes of watching I'd had enough. Even though there was something sad but beautiful about the cremations, there was a limit to how much of a voyeur I wanted to be. When I got downstairs, the guru was ready to bless me as a token "for the large donation I was going to give to the poor".

"The small donation," I added quickly.

The guru in the dhoti asked me to kneel and put a warm hand on my head and started praying. I liked looking into his eyes, and I clearly felt good karma was coming my way, even though I was aware that one of the 32 million Hindu gods probably would cut my head off if I was stingy.

When that was done, my guide stepped forward and asked me to give a donation of 2000 rupees (about fifty US-dollars) which would cover the expenses of a cremation for two people.

"I'll donate 200 rupees," I said immediately.

My guide looked at me with horror. "No, that's not possible," he said, once more putting a hand on his heart as pious people do when they're asking for justice in this cruel world. "A 1000 rupee donation is the smallest we can accept."

Now suddenly I was crowded by six people. A young volunteer from Europe said he was sick and tired of "tourists who'd only give the equivalent of 5 euros when they are filthy rich."

The atmosphere was getting ugly, but now I got stubborn. If these people were who they pretended to be, they wouldn't pressure me. So I stood my ground 100% convinced that this indeed wasan ugly but hilarious scam.

When it finally dawned on everybody, I wasn't going to give more than 200 lousy rupees (a weekly wage for most in India), one of them shouted, "Give at least something to Mother Teresa."

Suddenly, the frail old lady stood by my side and looked up at me with her big compassionate eyes. I sighed and handed her a 50 rupee bill, just to end things on a civilized note.

The next second I'll never forget as long as I live.

"Mother Teresa of Varanasi", this pious woman who had dedicated her life to the poor; this modern-day saint who had renounced luxury to do God's work on earth, stared at the 50 rupee bill I'd given her with a baffled look on her face - a look that I best can describe as "you gotta be fucking kidding me." Then the look slowly turned into contempt and then to anger. For a short second I thought this angel was going to attack me and rip me to pieces.

When I walked out of the hospice I heard the sound of people spitting after me, and when I continued down one of the narrow alleys, I felt how the good karma I'd been promised slowly evaporated and gave way to ancient curses from the "spiritual" people at this divine "hospice".

The first minutes afterward I was a little more shaken than I wanted to admit. Had I been too harsh? Could I be so sure that it was a scam? But of course it was. And I wouldn't have been without all this. 250 rupees to experience something as wonderfully absurd as a hospice tour was a damn bargain.

And hey, I got to take some good pictures, too.

A few days later I left Varanasi.

It was difficult to say goodbye to this gorgeous mess of a place. Varanasi is the kind of city you never forget. It shows humanity at its best and worst: Beggars dying in the streets, horny monks rubbing against women, child prostitution, devout Hindus full of beautiful faith, nuns helping the poor, gorgeous processions with elephants, sun sets coloring the roof tops and the fishing boats, beautiful kids asking for one rupee...

When I entered Varanasi's small airport I saw a sign saying YOU'RE BEING WATCHED.

At first I felt intimidated. Was God at the check-in counter, too? But then I simply decided it was good news for us narcissists.

Rewritten blog entry from the fall of 2009


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hi, Hermann Hesse, I'm Right Outside Your House. Why Don't You Come Out And Play?

I'm visiting the great novelist and poet Hermann Hesse.

Frankly, I haven't been invited, but I don't really care, and Hermann probably doesn't, either. I'm in his house in Montagnola in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. Hermann Hesse lived here from 1919 until his death in 1962, and I can't say I blame him. The area is absolutely gorgeous, overlooking Lago di Lugano and the majestic Alps. If I'd lived here I would have written Siddharta, too.

Right now I'm walking around the first house Hesse lived in. It's called Torre Camuzzi and is a museum for the great German/Swiss writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1946. One Nobel prize is too little if you ask me. The man should have won two! I mean, have you ever read Demian and Siddharta? Hesse wasn't just a great writer, he was also a mystic, a philosopher, a pacifist, and a humanitarian who stood up against the Kaiser, Hitler, and the nationalism of the day.

When I read Demian the first time I was totally blown away because the novel is a spiritual manifesto and a visionary masterpiece that easily could have been written today. I mean, can you mention any writer in the world who had such insight, such language, and used spiritual symbolism in a way that would have made Confucius, Krishnamurti, and Jung proud? Actually, Hermann Hesse was inspired by Jung as well.

I have a lot in common with Hermann Hesse, except for the small fact that I'm not a genius.

I'm as heavily influenced by Indian mysticism as he was. I'm in love with Francis of Assisi, and I'm a nomad and pacifist as well. So Hermann Hesse holds up a mirror for me. All great artists do. When a reader loves a writer it's never only the writing he or she connects to; it's something deeper - a vision shared, a voice in the wind, a sense that we were downloaded from the same celestial sphere.

Hermann Hesse even had a younger partner as I do, and he loved traveling in Italy - a country that always has been a great inspiration for me as a novelist and soul. Funnily enough I never knew anything about Hesse's personal life until a few months ago. In 2001 I read Siddharta and loved the prose and the wisdom, but it's only this summer I've started to read the rest of Hesse's books, and what a great journey I'm on. Narcissus and Goldmund is another gem dealing with the struggle between the spiritual life and the earthly pleasures.

It's also quite a journey walking around Hesse's home, admiring his straw-hat, the glasses he wore, the ancient typewriter he wrote on with the uneven keys - not forgetting the private pictures of the novelist/poet/painter sunbathing in the nude. (Yes, Hermann was German after all and Germans like to take off their clothes). I almost feel as if I'm stalking a ghost, but that's okay because I love stalking, and I enjoy every minute I spend in the small, quaint museum.

The last thing I do is sit by Hermann Hesse's tomb a kilometer away from his house in a beautiful cemetery, surrounded by cypresses and bird song. His gravestone is simple and humble contrary to most of the others. A small Buddha is sitting on top, and Hesse's third wife is lying next to him. After all, he was just another soul passing through, guided by forces so much greater than him, and it's in that knowledge true humility is born.

I'm very moved by the stillness and the presence at the small cemetery. However, I know that Hermann Hesse wasn't a saint during his life. His work was everything to him; he often suffered from depressions and felt like a misfit in this dualistic world, but I'm extremely grateful for the art and the insights the weird German Steppenwolf gave to the world and me.

So danke, grazie, thank you, Hermann. I enjoyed stalking you, and I'll continue reading your novels, your poetry, and your fairy tales until there are no more left.  Why wouldn't I because sometimes, for a second or two,  I sense you around me, even though that's most likely my imagination.

Writing at Lake Lugano the day after I visited the museum in Montagnola.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Syria Is A Dream, But Journalists and Lesbians Are Not Allowed (Memories of Pre-War Damascus)

There is a snake in the courtyard. And I'm not talking about Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, even though God knows I should.

No, this is a tiny but poisonous snake. You wouldn't expect to find one in the middle of Damascus, but here it is at the Danish institute, waiting to bite a degenerate Dane and all the other authors, scholars, and painters who are working and studying at this gorgeous place.

One of the Syrian guards catches the snake and puts it in a glass. "It's very dangerous," he says with a big smile and starts to play with the reptile. I almost feel sorry for it. A snake doesn't look right in a tea glass. On a desk. In the Danish Institute in the middle of the Syrian capital.

"And now," the guard adds, "we're waiting for the snake mother."

Some of the other guests go pale.

"What ... what do you mean?" an older scholar asks nervously. He's only used to deal with Rumi, so this is a little bit too real.

"The snake mother will come to seek revenge, of course" the Syrian beams.

That night none of us sleep well at the institute. We are all waiting for an angry mother snake, attacking us through our bed sheets, ready for the kill.

I'm reminded of this innocent scene from my 2007 visit to Syria.  Those were the days when Bashar-al-Assad and his state psychos had everything under control.  Luckily, they don't anymore. Syria is coming undone, and I hope things will end well because the Syrians are some of the most generous and warm people I've ever met.

The Danish Institute  is situated in an old Arab villa in the suq in Damascus. When you walk out of the door, you're in the middle of 1001 Nights. It's a magical place with a small fountain, gorgeous walls, and a high iwan.

The villa is a national treasure. Most of the construction is from the 17th century, but one wall is actually from before Christ. It used to be part of a Roman structure. So here I am, surrounded by sultans, baby snakes, and the smell of apostles and curry.

I've always been crazy about the Middle East. Maybe it's because my grand father was born in Safed eighty miles away, in what today is Northern Israel. He was born Jewish but his father was a Coptic Christian with an Arab background, so I'm happy to say I carry that confusion inside of me.

One of the many fantastic places in old Damascus is the Umayyad mosque, which is among the most important in the Muslim world. It's a ten minute walk through the suq with its donkeys, silk vendors, and water bearers.

The mosque is not just a place for prayers and agitation as we like to think in the West; it's also a place where kids play grab ass and where you meet a lot of Syrians. One day I run into Zeid - a student of English literature at the University of Damascus.

"So what writers do you study?" I ask.

"William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Henrik Ibsen," he says.

"Henrik Ibsen is actually Norwegian," I smile. 

"Thank you so much. I'll bring this important information to my professor," he says solemnly.

Zeid is a nice guy. His English is decent, so I take him to a restaurant with my favorite lesbians from the institute, the Danish author and critic, Leonora Christine Skov and an illustrator friend. It's Ramadan. Everybody is chewing on their head scarfs, but most Syrians succeed in being pleasant until around 5 pm. Then they just can't take it anymore.

When we return to the institute, we're told they have found three more snakes. A  few hours later, a Syrian terminator shows up. He looks like a reptile himself, sticking his tongue out, putting out poison in every conceivable hole, including some of my mine. After half an hour, the whole place stinks like a chemical plant.

"We've never had snakes here before," the secretary complains. "Only a few adorable scorpions in my office."

However, the Institute is always infested - it's full of hidden microphones, and several of the people who work there are definitely informants. We are probably followed when we venture out into Damascus. Syria is one of the most efficient police states in the Arab world, and at one point, a local shop owner tells me that he is forced to have a picture of Assad on the wall.

"I would have preferred Cameron Diaz," he says.

The snakes finally disappear from the institute. Or so it seems. You never know with the Devil.

One day I visit one of the many Internet cafes in modern Damascus - a place that looks like East Berlin in the sixties. As usual, most of the visitors are local men watching porn. I try not to notice their erections, but I'm sure the secret police does.

I want to publish a piece on my blog, but is forbidden in Syria. It's hardly surprising because the first time I was in Damascus was forbidden. My second time here it was Yahoo's turn to cause the wrath of the regime.

Leonora and her friend have the same kind of problem. When they try to get into the official Danish website for homosexuals, they are met by the stern picture of Bashar-Al-Assad, may peace not be upon him.

In a certain sense, it's all very logical. Bashar-Al-Assad sees everything. Before he became a dictator, he worked as an eye doctor - my condolences go out to the world of optometry. But soon, his regime will be history. Let's pray for that. Syria deserves a lot better, so I'd like to dedicate this blog entry to all the Syrians who have had enough. May Allah and all gods in the universe be with you.

March, 2011 (I visited Damascus and worked there on two of my novels in 2003, 2004, 2007, and loved it)

**********All photos copyright Peter H. Fogtdal, Danish Accent

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How To Sleep With An Author In The Comfort Of Your Own Head

It's a difficult choice.

It's always a difficult choice: Who to sleep with. So many writers, so little time but at Sylvia Beach Hotel you can choose between the cream of the American and British crop. You can shag up with Mark Twain. You can cuddle with Agatha Christie. You can share saliva with Scott Fitzgerald. Or how about enjoying your nightmares with the one and only Edgar Allen Poe?

That's what we did at this wonderful hotel in Nye Beach in Newport, Oregon. It's a theme hotel. All rooms are named after a famous writer. Sluts as we are, we slept with three, the first being Edgar.

If you don't know Edgar Allen Poe, I'll tell you this: That man was seriously messed up - like a latter day Lou Reed with a keen eye for the poodle droppings of life. Just looking at his portrait was enough to make your skin crawl. And his room was creepy as well. Dark red colors, pictures of ravens (not exactly the most cheerful bird around), and an axe above the bed to keep you on edge. It wasn't a healthy room to stay in. After a few hours I actually tried to murder my wife twice.

The next morning we moved out and took a walk on the beach. It was a gorgeous day. No dead bodies around, just your odd Christian fundamentalist gazing wistfully at the young girls. We went back to the hotel and had a wonderful breakfast. Those are hard to come by in the US, unless you're infatuated with plastic spoons. But at Sylvia Beach Hotel they actually have a bit of class: Pancakes, sausages, soy milk, and only a few of those bagels that taste like cardboard.

At noon we moved into the Gertrud Stein room, a small place with a lesbian cabinet, a few of her letters on the wall, and some nice unattractive pictures of the writer. We felt much better in those surroundings, even though there wasn't much of a view.

By the way, there are a lot of cats at Sylvia Beach Hotel. For an extra twenty dollars you can have one sleep on your belly - they should call it Rent-A-Cat. Maybe they should have a house penguin as well because I have a weakness for animals in suits.

On the third floor, there's a library with beat up chairs and a fantastic view of the ocean. I tried to reserve all the chairs like the Germans do, but we Scandinavians just can't get away with that.

Sylvia Beach is an easy place to connect with book nerds. Even New Yorkers become mellow when they look at the sea. Several times I strolled through the small library at the hotel. It has an impressive collection of all the books a writer ought to read - the so-called classics that only have one purpose in life, to make you feel like shit because you haven't read them.

The third night was a treat. Luckily, a nice couple got the swine flue and didn't show up, so the kind people in the reception offered us the suite - the Agatha Christie room, with four windows facing the ocean, a fireplace, and an old typewriter.

God, I loved it. Everything had a twenties feel. I could just picture Miss Marple looking for murder clues in the ashtray, or Hercule Poirot driving everybody insane with his Belgian accent. The room was so wonderful I decided I'd never leave - I actually handcuffed myself to the bedpost instead of paying the bill. I've now been barred for life, but sometimes you just have to fight for what you believe in.

So what can I say? I've stayed at hotels around the world. I've been smothered in Thailand, spoiled in Syria, and humiliated in Costa Rica, but the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Nye Beach, Oregon is something else.

And I'm definitely going back one day. I just have one small request, and I don't think it's unreasonable: Please name a room after me. I know I'm not that important a writer, so the Peter H. Fogtdal Broom Closet will do. Or how about one of those bathrooms where the toilets won't flush - I would be happy with that, too. That's how humble I am, seriously!

Check out The Sylvia Beach Hotel here!

*Rewritten version of blog entry from the summer of 2008 and 2013

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Danish Jesusland In The Middle Of The Orange Groves?

It's a wet dream for any Dane.

You're driving down a street in generic Yorba Linda south of Los Angeles. The palm trees are swaying in the Californian wind. It's 71 gorgeous degrees on this Saturday in January; the mountains are glowing in the sun ... and suddenly you see it.

At first you think you're hallucinating. After all, it's not easy being a Dane far away from home missing saltlakrids and Lars von Trier ... but right in front of you, you see something that looks like a Danish sognekirke, a white church. You do a double take. Maybe this isn't Southern California after all; maybe you're in Øster Ulslev without knowing it?

But no, this Danish church is frighteningly real. I step out of the car, and several Danes greet me. They all speak English, probably because they want to be sure I understand them. Then we head for the entrance ... but suddenly I stop dead in my tracks and stare at a huge rock by the door.

No, this can't be true. It's Jellingestenen, one of the most important historical monuments in Denmark. When did these nice people steal it? And more important, how did they get it through customs?

"Very nice," I smile hurrying through the door like a madman, knowing that these Danes aren't well. They must be common criminals. I mean, what am I going to find in the church next? The severed head of The Little Mermaid?

Actually, I'm here to talk about my novel, The Tsar's Dwarf that was translated into English two years ago. Fifty people have shown up for Books & Breakfast. They serve Danish pastry, rye bread, and me. Luckily, these funky Americans and delightful Danes turn out to be a lovely audience. They even forgive me for my sins; something Christ hasn't come around to quite yet.

Most of my book talks aren't for Danes, but I always enjoy visiting Danish cultural centers. Here in Yorba Linda, they even have a red Danish mailbox - what more can you ask for? I'm so grateful I feel like mailing some threatening letters to my accountant, but I decide against it. It's so great meeting all these people who have read my novel in their book club while doing yoga under the tolerant eyes of our Danish God.

When I leave the Lutheran church and it disappears behind palm trees of Orange County, I have tears in my eyes.

Legend has it that the Danish flag fell from the sky in Estonia in 1219. That's not true. Now I know it was in Yorba Linda.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Joan Rivers in Portland - The Most Hilarious and Adorable Sewer in America

It doesn't get much better. Or worse.

Saturday night Joan Rivers was in Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland where she did her stand up comedy. It's totally impossible to think of a comedian more outrageously judgmental than this queen of the zinger. She almost makes Ricky Gervais look like a choir boy.

For an hour and a half, 77-year old Joan Rivers told us about all the people she hates and despises: Lesbians, kids on airplanes, Victoria Beckham, Mel Gibson, cripples who slow everybody down, women suffering from breast cancer, dead people, beggars, Mother Teresa, The Three Wise Men, Jackie Kennedy, obesity, Oprah's ass, Chinese women, and men with balls that look like tea bags.

For reasons unknown to mankind, Joan Rivers appeared with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra at her show in Portland. "A sick and stupid idea," she told the audience. And it sure was. But it worked. No one wants to be offended for two and a half hours, but 75 minutes are a fucking delight!

By the way, when Joan Rivers was a small Jewish girl in New York, she wrote a letter to Hitler begging him to find a place for a classmate in his concentration camps. She also makes important confessions: "Do you know why I love anal sex? Because you can do other things while your man is at it. You can read a book. You can check your email..."

Joan hates people with annoying disabilities as well: "Why do blind people need an apartment with a view? They can't even pay you a proper compliment like 'you look wonderful today'. Blind people are so self absorbed. It's all about them."

So was this show in poor taste?  Absolutely not. We all have a dark judgmental side in our heads that pop up when we don't feel well - a voice that tells us how irritating and disgusting other people are. So the show is actually an interesting and hilarious study of our dark side. It's only those self righteous people who identify with being 'all good' or 'true Christians' who will be extremely offended by a show like this.

People with self awareness are painfully aware of their own Inner Joan Rivers - that gorgeous and angry sewer that most of us learn to control, so it doesn't do serious damage to our environment.