Maria Helena Öhman is interested in good stories and how people tell them. Her love of stories has led her through a course of studies including sociolinguistics, advertising, international cinema, literature and anthropology. Having lived in Los Angeles and Northern Ireland, she has worked as a copywriter and an advertising producer, and has a developed a dedicated relationship with storytelling mediums like podcasts and Instagram.
Helena seeks out adventures in her own life that will create good stories. About a month after I met her last summer, we took a pilgramage to filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s home on the remote Swedish island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea. We visited the tiny museum that has been set up in his honor and several of his filming locations, as well as his grave. It was surreal, not only to see these immortalized locations, but to be standing in them and seeing them in color and all around us.
For some reason, Helena is a little embarrased about her birthplace of Piteå, a town of 23,000 people that lies absurdly far north, about nine hours north of Stockholm. When her hometown – or her friends from there – come up in conversation, she refers to it as “Oklahoma,” barely pausing or cracking a smile.
Helena is currently working on improving her ability to make faster decisions and learning how to play the piano, she says, because “I want to believe I’m in the same league as one of those undiscovered but extremely gifted kids, but in grown-up shape.” I’m pretty sure she is one of those extremely gifted kids, just maybe not on the piano.
PHOTOS BY EMILY DAHL
Are you good at saving money?
Well, I was planning to save up for a “fuck you” fund [laughs] but I haven’t really started. [three seconds] Yeah, I think I’m good at saving money, if I want to.
How do you like your coffee?
I like it with a little bit of milk in it. Just normal brewed coffee is kind of good sometimes. I used to drink black coffee and I think it’s kind of cool to drink black coffee.
Yeah, I used to drink black coffee because I’m from the north and that’s what you drink. But now I put a little milk in it, or I like a dirty chai.
Excellent choice. Why don’t you want to stare at a lemon for ten minutes?
[laughs] What… Have I told you this or something?
You told me something about this but I don’t remember exactly what it was.
Oh! Yes. There was this class in the US that they call Stress Management, and one of the exercises is that you have to stare at a lemon for ten minutes and then record your thoughts about it. And that’s pretty much the whole course, and I didn’t want to do that so I skipped the course.
What if it was a lime?
I have no problems with limes. I only have problems with kiwis.
What don’t you like about kiwis?
I mean, just the sound. Doesn’t it hurt your cheeks, when you – “kiwi” – it’s sort of like…
No, it’s sour.
I knew that. [laughter] Do you believe that hypnotism is real?
What part of it?
Can people be hypnotized?
Yeah, I think they can be really deeply relaxed. But then like jumping around like a chicken or something, I don’t really know about that.
Have you ever been hypnotized?
No. Have you?
No. I’m not sure I believe it. [six seconds] Do you have a printer for your computer?
What kind of stuff do you usually print?
I don’t really print, I don’t think. Only if I need to sign something… but yeah I don’t really use my printer. It’s really nice though.
If you don’t like someone, do they know it?
Yeah, I think nowadays they do. I think so.
How do you make it clear to people, or is it not intentional?
I don’t really know. It’s not intentional.
I don’t really want to let them know, but I think they know, because I just can’t be bothered anymore. Well, I’m nice – maybe – but I might just not be that interested in a person. I think I sort of just don’t interact with the person.
But then I don’t dislike people either, really. Maybe I do, I just make sure not to see them.
If you really like someone, do they know it?
No, well no, yeah, yeah. No! [laughter, then seven seconds]
I was tempted to say I don’t really like anybody, but yeah my friends. [five seconds] That’s a really good question. [six seconds] I just don’t think I like anybody that much. I think they would know.
You would show it?
I would show it if I really liked somebody. Yeah.
Yeah. How many books do you think you’ve read in your life?
[four seconds] I would like to think that I’ve read… [five seconds] I would like to think that I’ve read five a month, but I probably haven’t. Maybe like 70. That’s really low. Maybe just 70 in my whole life.
What do you look for when you’re choosing a book?
I think the cover design or the author. But I think I don’t really go to a book store and choose a book, I would just buy a book that I read about on a blog. No, I wouldn’t just go and choose a book. No. [five seconds] Because as you know I can’t make decisions.
This is the first I’ve heard of that. [laughter] Tell me about the last guy you kissed.
[three seconds, then smiling…] No, I can’t tell you that.
Why not? You don’t have to mention his name or any details, just like, tell me about it.
Well, it was a guy that I kissed. It wasn’t the best kiss. But all and all, I think I was satisfied with the kiss. Yeah, it would be way more fun if I could give you details but… no. [laughs]
It’s not someone I know?
No, no, no!
Was he cute?
Nah… ehhh… [hesitating] I mean, yeah, he had… No, not really, no. [laughter] But he has this like [four seconds] this presence, shall I say?
Do you think you’ll kiss him again?
How does it feel when you see a really good looking guy?
I mean, I guess the urge that I really want to get to know this person. But then, I mean if it’s a stranger it’s probably not gonna happen. So I guess, I mean, I feel happy and then I feel bitterness because I’m never gonna see this person again.
It would be nice if people would just talk to each other. But then also, if that was normal then it would get really annoying after a while.
Isn’t it normal elsewhere? I mean is it just this way because we’re in Sweden?
It’s more normal in other places, but I don’t know of anywhere – maybe Italy [laughs] – where people are more…
More people would just call out to you. Yeah, I mean, that happens. If you have a vagina, I think that happens! [laughter]
Yeah? I don’t have one, so I wouldn’t know. [laughter] So I’ve known you for about eight months and I’ve never really met any of your friends. [laughter] Are you really who you say you are?
Do you know where I come from?
I know where you say you come from [laughs] but I’ve never been there, never seen your apartment.
No that’s true. Nobody’s seen my apartment… or my friends! [laughter] Well, most of my friends live in Oklahoma. [laughs]
Yeah, up north. And my other friends… I’m just thinking why you should meet my other friends. But I really am who I say I am.
Are you embarrassed of me? You don’t want me to meet your friends?
Yeah exactly, Scott. [laughs] I’m really embarrassed by you! You just saw my co-workers a few minutes ago and that was really awkward for me! And unintentional.
Do they know anything about me?
Okay. I really need to make up a Swedish name.
I think so, too, but why?
As soon as I say “Scott” they say, “Nice to meet you.” As soon as I say my name people think I speak English.
But you can say “Skoat.” It’s just about your pronunciation.
I do, but there’s nobody in this country named Scott. Or Skoat.
You need to stress the T.
You also never talk about your parents. What’s their story?
My parents! I think it’s just because you never asked me. My parents met on a train ride somewhere and then they went to Russia or something. Now my mom lives up north and my dad lives in Stockholm. They’re very simple, nice people.
Are they still married?
No. I grew up and they weren’t together. I think they divorced when I was like nine months old or something. So to me they’ve never been together.
And you grew up with your mom?
I grew up with my mom and I spent all my holidays at my dad’s. At the time he was living up north in a really small town, like an hour away. And then every second weekend I would go to my dad’s.
Tell me about your theory on allergies.
Oh yeah, my theory is that you really look like your allergy. For example, I have a friend called Kim and he’s allergic to milk and he really looks like milk. [laughter] He has really white hair and white skin and white eyelashes. I think it’s similar with other allergies. Just look around you.
Like if somebody’s allergic to peanuts?
They would look like a peanut, yeah.
So, you’re learning to play the piano?
Not now, no. I was trying, because we had a piano at my last office. But now it’s sort of at a standstill, but I really want to learn how to play the piano. I think it’s really beautiful. It’s better than the guitar. I just always wanted to learn how to play the piano.
It’s a little more formal.
It’s a little less “sitting by a camp fire and playing songs.” Because it’s always more beautiful with the the piano. It’s formal, yeah, but it’s also like you can’t play like shit songs on a piano.
Is there any particular type of music you wanna play?
No, no. If I was an artist I would be like Nina Kinert or something, because she plays the piano too and she’s really good. No it doesn’t really matter. You know her, right?
I was at her music quiz the other day. She won the Pet Sounds Bar music quiz so she…
Oh, so that’s where you saw Iida and Erik [Welén].
Yeah. It was really creative, yeah. No, she’s really good.
That’s how I know her, through Erik. Iida [Hellström] has known Nina’s husband for a long time and Erik was in a band with him.
Oh, I see. Yeah, they seem like the most awesome couple, like they have so much fun.
Nina and Pontus? Yeah, they’re great.
They’re so funny. I love them.
They are really hilarious. Let’s see, when I asked you what I should write in the introduction to your interview, you told me to just write what I thought “so that way I won’t have to project the aspirations of my former self on my present me.”
That’s deep! [laughs]
What does that mean?
I guess I was just curious to see what your impression of me was. Because you always have your own impression and for me, I was just not… I just wanted to see what you came up with.
Today is actually the second time we have tried to do this interview. What was going on last time? Why was it so impossible to interview you then and this time it’s so easy?
Because last time I was just really not… I mean, there was a lot of stress at that time. You don’t need to include this…
Okay, I will. [laughter] Go ahead.
I was switching jobs and I was just not satisfied with like this (old phone) for example.
I think I asked you last time, what’s it like to not have an iPhone?
Oh, even lost my Mandroid! It got stolen.
Someone stole it, so now I have this old…
Who would steal that thing?
I know! Right? Have you seen the phone I use now?
It’s really good… Look! [laughter as she produces a vintage Nokia phone]
Oh, it’s gold!
And I have all these old contacts, text messages. It looks like a little… I don’t know… it’s “elegant.”
It is elegant. Interesting. [laughter]
So it even gets worse. You know when you told me I was too good for a Mandroid? Now, I still feel like this is more worthy.
Why do you call it a Man-droid?
Why not? [laughter]
Where did you pick up that term? Is it a man’s phone? A Man-droid?
No but… [laughter]
Tell me about your colourful wardrobe.
Well, every time I wear a colored shirt you miss it. But my blue sweater… you’ve seen it right?
I’ve heard about it.
I feel proud because – well, you know I only wear black – and today I just happen to be wearing red.
I see that.
I just happen to have all black clothes. That’s it.
Do you cry a lot?
No. If you would have asked me maybe five years ago I would say yes, or two years even. No, I don’t really cry a lot. I think I’m more of an angry person.
I read today that depression is anger without enthusiasm.
When you do cry, what do you cry about?
I mainly cry from being sad. Well, I guess, obstacles, overall. Like not getting the job you want or something goes wrong.
But I don’t really cry nowadays. Hmm. I think I cried at – what was it? – I’ll get back to you about it.
When I watch something – that never used to happen, but now – often documentaries about people who are just really passionate about their thing and something happens and they can’t make it happen and then their whole lives are…
How long did you live in America?
How do you speak “American” so well?
Did you consciously decide to …
No, I lived in Ireland for a while and then I was just really confused cause there was a mix between American and Swedish and Irish. But then, I had an American boyfriend so we spoke a lot, of course.
What do you mean ‘of course’? Because nobody from America knows Swedish?
Yeah, exactly. So English is just what I’ve been speaking for the most part. I don’t know what it would be like if I went to another place, I would probably adjust. Now it’s just that way.
Are you good at picking things up like that?
That’s a wonderful gift.
I heard that if you have talent for music then you pick up accents more easily. That’s promising.
That must be why I have such a hard time with Swedish, because my music sucks!
I heard some of your music.
What did you think?
[laughter] It’s awesome.
You don’t mean that! You’re just saying that. You’re trying to butter me up. That’s really all the questions I have for you. Now I’m thinking about, what do I really want to know.
I don’t need to handle you so delicately now. I mean the question about “what you cry about,” that’s really personal, and you just breezed right through it. I’m very impressed with you today.
Thank you, Scott. I’m happy I made you proud.
Yeah. Well, can I ask you this? If you’re eating and you find a hair in your food, is it less gross if it’s a blonde hair than a black hair?
Yes, it is. [laughter]
You’re still gonna give that answer. [laughter]
I’m still gonna give you that answer. And it’s just because…
What if it’s a long, straight hair?
Then it doesn’t matter.
So you’re worried about…
I’m worried about where on the body it came from. Blonde hairs are less suspicious. [laughter] But then again, you can have curly hair on your head. But yeah, if it’s a blonde straight hair, or a brown straight hair, then it’s fine.
But if it gets curly then you get suspicious.
PHOTOS BY EMILY DAHL