When in Rome, the adage goes, do as the Romans do. But when in Sweden, must one do what the Swedes do? If I were now in Rome, instead of in Stockholm, which is only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, I wouldn't have the problem I'm having right now.
Stockholm and Rome may be in the same time zone. In fact, I can see from an atlas that if I were to drop a long rope down from Stockholm, or, more precisely Malm"o in Sweden, I would bonk Rome right on the head.
But my problem has nothing to do with longitude, and everything to do with latitude. More precisely, it's horizontal: How do I fall asleep, and, more important, stay asleep, in Stockholm?
Location -- a superb view of the city from high upon a cliff -- isn't the difficulty. It's something far more basic. For years I've been dreaming that what really separated frigid northern Europe from sunny southern Europe was that the top half was largely fair and Protestant, the other half predominantly Latin and Roman Catholic.
Now I discover to my amazement that it all boils down to, or rather cools down to, sleeping equipment. I speak, of course, of the duvet (pronounced doo-vay), because as any silly goose who is au fait with the duvet knows, it's duck feathers that really distinguish a Swede's nocturnal rest from an Italian's siesta or his evening sleep.
The duvet, to the uninitiated, is a comfy eiderdown that looks rather like a thick rectangular piece of very soft bread. Unlike a blanket or a bedspread, alas, it doesn't hang over the sides of the bed. Which means, of course, you can't tuck it in. Nor can it be peeled off, like individual blankets.
What is true in Sweden is true in Austria, Switzerland, and West Germany, too. In all those places the duvet, alas, has floored me, or more correctly, I have floored the duvet, which is when some of my sleeping problems begin.
Personally, I'm a sheets-and-blankets man. That's because that kind of bedding can be peeled off one at a time so you, like the layers of an onion. But not the duvet.
The duvet is the all or nothing sleeping experience. Either you have the duvet, which roasts you, because you feel as though all of Mother Earth is pressing down on you. Or, it slides right off the bed leaving you out in the cold. When it happened in the middle of the night recently, all I could recall were those words from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Iolanthe, where a kindred spirit is also trying to cope with fitful sleep. ``First your counterpane goes, and uncovers your toes, and your sheet slips demurely from under you.''
Toes uncovered in the silvery light of a chilled Nordic moon is not the most relaxing way to get a good night's sleep. The answer, of course, was really quite simple:
If it gets too hot under the duvet peek your toes out and wiggle them about. If the toes get cold, slip on socks. The fact that I awakened the next morning with one blue and brown sock on simply because I was groping around in the dark at 2:20 a.m. is of no consequence.
The problem was that my stockinged feet, so used to being closeted in a shoe or a slipper, just went back under the duvet and I was left feeling hotter than ever.
But the Swedes, who seem to have found the answer to most things, had already resolved my dilemma I discovered the next day. A blanket, which I had not previously spotted, was waiting coyly for me. That night, and every night since, my duvet and I keep a respectable distance from each other.