Thursday, December 18, 2014

Moving to Sweden – Marijuana

A few days ago, a Russian military aircraft nearly collided with a SAS passenger plane somewhere between Copenhagen and Malmö. The plane was flying without its transponder on, so was apparently invisible. You know, except to the people in the plane. This isn’t the first time this has happened and the way Russia is going it won’t be the last. They’ve violated several countries’ airspace and don’t seem all too concerned about doing it. In fact, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin seems pretty sure the Swedes are just a bit paranoid and imagined the near miss. He was quoted as saying “[t]he Swedish authorities also recently said there was a submarine in their waters. There wasn't. Now they say again that they have seen something. I'm afraid the Swedes visit Pusher Street very often.” Then he went on to make veiled threats about not waking up the Russian bear and blah blah blah, Putin is manly and rides horses without his shirt on.

What is much more interesting than the Russian bear, is the Swedes and weed. Because that’s what this ambassador is getting at. Pusher Street is, of course, the street in Christiania, Copenhagen, where you can buy a whole lot of hash. Cannabis. Clearly, comrade Vanin hasn’t spent much time in Sweden. But I have. And maybe you’re thinking of spending some time here. Or even moving here:

Moving to Sweden – What to Bring
Moving to Sweden – The Swedish Language
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Place to Live
Moving to Sweden – The Metric System and You
Moving to Sweden – Getting a Cell Phone
Moving to Sweden – Getting from the Airport to Stockholm City
Moving to Sweden – The Weather
Moving to Sweden – Swedish Citizenship Test
Moving to Sweden – Public Holidays
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Job
Moving to Sweden – Culture Shock: It's the Little Things
Moving to Sweden – Making Friends
Moving to Sweden – Cost of Living
Moving to Sweden – The Laundry Room
Moving to Sweden – Most Common Jobs and Salaries

And what better way to prepare for your move to Sweden after having found a place to live and understanding the laundry system than to take a look at the drug policy of the country?

I should say this up front: I don’t smoke weed. I haven’t tried it and just am not all that interested. So keep that in mind as you read, but coming from the US where marijuana use is becoming common in the medical community, where my home state has legalized it, it’s a topic of conversation in both Sweden and the US, so I suppose I'm an advocate of legalization. And in that classic way that helps people earn credibility – it’s cool, I know a guy who smokes. He told me I could write this. So without further ado, some information about weed in Sweden. You know, just in case.

Weed will make Swedes nervous. And I’m painting with broad strokes here. If you want it, you can find it. People smoke it. It exists, you can buy it, albeit illegally. But it makes Swedes nervous. I remember studying abroad in Uppsala years and years ago. I remember going to a party where I don’t remember if I drank too much. I remember smelling weed. But that smell is distinct. And I watched as people around me started leaving the party. Clearing out. It was just too much. Drink yourself to the point of vomiting and unconsciousness? No worries. That’s just a normal Friday or Saturday night. But weed? You may as well have clubbed a baby seal while shooting heroin and chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! in the middle of rush hour at Central Station. People will give you a wide berth.

It’s just not socially (or legally) acceptable. It wasn’t always this way. Thanks to Nils Bejerot’s campaign for zero tolerance back in the 1960s, the Riksförbundet Narkotikafritt Samhälle (The National Association for a Drug-Free Society) was formed in 1969. And that was that. Under the impression that drug usage works as a an epidemic and is spread from user to user, RNS uses a mix of imprisoning users, treating users, identifying early users, and some early education for the young ‘uns. And with that, Bejerot and RNS convinced everyone that drugs are bad m’kay. Including weed.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, as of 2012, lifetime prevalence for cannabis use for adults aged 15-64 is only 14.9%. That means that only 14.9% of those surveyed had ever tried weed over the course of their entire life. Denmark comes in around 35%. Turns out Pusher Street is pushing that number higher. You can check your favorite European country’s weed numbers here. Compare that to the United States where some studies show that over 50% of those surveyed had tried weed sometime during their illustrious lives. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration put that number at 51.9% in 2013 for young adults. That same EMCDDA study put the Swedish number for young adults at 22.2% in 2012. Math is hard, but that’s about twice as much.

Drug use is separated into three different categories: minor, ordinary, and serious. Seems easy enough. What that means in time served kind of depends. Generally speaking, a minor offense means you’ll probably just pay a fine, although you could spend up to six months of time in jail. If you bump up your offense to the ordinary one, you cold be facing up to three years in prison. A serious offense will result in a prison term of between two and ten years. Or, if you’re an immigrant, I suppose just deportation.

But how do you move up the ladder of offenses? It mostly has to do with the amount. A minor offense for weed will mean about 50 grams of cannabis (that’s about 1.7 ounces). Ordinary is about 51 grams to two kilos. Serious is more than two kilos. The EMCDDA and, strangely enough, the Parliament of Canada, has a wonderful overview of Sweden’s drug policy.

While plenty of countries (and American states) are changing their attitudes towards marijuana use, Sweden, well, doesn’t. There’s not even much of a discussion about potential legalization. Drugs are bad. Marijuana is a drug. Marijuana is bad. Drugs are illegal. Marijuana is a drug. Marijuana is illegal. It really is that simple for a lot of Swedes. Every now and again someone will pop up and write a piece in the newspaper calling for a change. Every now and again a professor will make a statement pointing out that yes, marijuana is not all that great for you, but neither is alcohol, maybe we should reconsider the drug policy. And then those articles will get lost in the internet somewhere and folks will go back to buying weed illegally or just leaving the country and heading down to Pusher Street in Copenhagen. Just maybe not at the rate that Vanin thinks.

Welcome to Sweden. And marijuana policy.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Swedish Holidays - Lucia

Last Friday I was last in a line of people who were all carrying a live candle with glittery, silver boas wrapped around their head. It was performance art. Kind of. I found myself in a choir full of PhD students singing to a recently defended PhD. And because ‘tis the season, we held candles.

The flame whispered in front of me as I was overtaken by the holiday spirit. I belted out every note with the voice of an angel. It was glorious. A warm glow descended over me as the music transported me further and further away from this temporal world.

And then I realized I should probably unlock my knees because a couple glasses of wine and the heat of the candle was going to turn me into a stereotype. Because right around December 13th, people everywhere begin dropping like those cute little goats who just tip right over when they get panicked. There are plenty of explanations out there. Some people say the tiny little candle steals all the oxygen (science says that isn’t true). Some people say it’s hard to stand that long (retail workers say toughen up, half an hour is nothing). Some people say it’s too much partying (college students say that’s ridiculous). Some people say it’s a combination of heat, nerves, and standing (and by some people, I mean scientists say that, which must mean it is true). Either way, people are fainting a lot this time of year.

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/se/
Don't worry. They're just stjärngossar. We think...
Picture from Mölndals stadsmuseum via DigitaltMuseum.se
"Stjärngossar: fr.v Rune Lindh, Karl-Erik Andersson,
Lucia: Ulla Hultsten..." by Greta Bengtsson is licensed
under CC BY 2.5 SE. This is such a long caption.
Citations are hard.
That’s because December 13 is Lucia in Sweden. Lucia is a lovely holiday—a holiday that involves a crown of candles upon a person’s head, choir-like singing, a parade of people dressed as miniature KKK members with stars upon their hoods, and baked goods. Obviously. It’s going to get a bit nerdy from here on out. Proceed with caution.

The holiday combines some Pagan traditions with some Christian traditions and, voila, Swedes eat baked goods while watching people faint in a choir.

There’s plenty to be found about Lucia, most of it hard to pin down because of those pesky hagiographies. She was Italian. Born around 283, dead around 304 (or maybe a few years later). She might have had her eyes gouged out. She might have been stabbed in the throat by a spear. She might have been burned alive. Either way, she was definitely viewed as a Christian martyr now celebrated as a Catholic saint. That just so happens to be super popular in Protestant Sweden.

December 13 was thought to be the longest night of the year and darkness needs to be beaten back with light. Then Greg changed it for everyone back in 1582. Suddenly the longest night of the year was moved. But have no fear; Lucia is here! Her feast day just happened to fall on December 13, which was super handy because before, and even after that meddling Pope changed the calendar, Swedes were paying attention to that date. It just so happened that it was a time when super scary things were out tormenting folks. Plus, Christmas was coming and so the pig had to be slaughtered and the feast had to be prepared. So the Christian and the Pagan came together, as it so often did in perfect harmony with no blood lost and smiles and hugs all around. That’s how that story usually goes, right?

No word if this woman fainted or not.
Kustflottans Lucia 1942, frk Ingegärd Hägg.
So we get lights and candles, songs and a Saint, food and drink and all the good stuff needed to banish evil whence it came. Anyway, the tradition remained, for the most part, a somewhat rural one that was especially regional and celebrated around Lake Vänern throughout the 1800s. But you know about it, and chances are you haven’t spent a whole lot of time around Lake Vänern. I know I haven’t.

Luckily, students are surprisingly good bearers of traditions. They helped spread the holiday to Uppsala and Lund around the 1850s when they headed off to University. By the 1890s, Lucia had made its way to Stockholm with a little help from Skansen and became viewed as particularly “Swedish” and not just provincial by folks outside of Sweden. That's partly because Skansen was starting to be viewed as a place to maintain and preserve Swedishness (which gets super complicated and still is complicated today). By 1920, the holiday was a big deal and Swedes throughout the country began to celebrate. It was around this time that the stjärngossar became the dominant figure behind Lucia. For a while, there was some competition between the star boys, the baker, and the chimney sweep, but those hats must have given them the edge. In 1927, Stockholms Dagblad, a now-defunct newspaper, held a competition to crown Lucia and the tradition has continued to this day. Now, schools, cities, and, of course, Skansen, continue to crown a Lucia each year.

Today, a Lucia procession involves a Lucia walking in a white dress with red sash and a crown of light upon her head, singing. Tärnor (12 of them if you're aiming for a religious ceremony), dressed in white, sometimes wearing a sash, sometimes not, sometimes wearing a sort of wreath upon their heads, sometimes not. Stjärngossar, also dressed in white and wearing those cone hats, and sometimes even a tomte or two will follow behind. If you're really lucky and watching a bunch of kids do this, you might even see a pepparkaksgubbe or pepparkaksgumma. All the while, songs are sung, pepparkakor or lussebullar are handed out, coffee or glögg are drunk, and merriment is made.

Usually that crown of lights are electric lights. Usually. Sometimes, they are live candles and the brave soul underneath it has a towel draped over their head. You know, just in case.

It’s also tradition at this time of year to get upset if a, gasp, male is voted or wants to become Lucia. That’s when people start blah blah blahing about tradition and blah blah blah. First, never use tradition as an argument. Yes, you. Don’t do it. It’s a terrible argument. Traditions change. A lot. Second, there are plenty of examples of men playing the role of Lucia in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s. If a group of school kids vote a boy as Lucia, and said Lucia wants to be Lucia, let him. Don’t get frumpy if a male plays the role of Lucia.

Welcome to Sweden. And Italian Saints in Sweden.

P.S. This holiday also exists in the US. Kind of. It's celebrated in Swedish-American communities throughout the United States. There's probably one near you. Check it out if you can.

P.P.S. There are so very many sources to go to for more information about this. If you speak Swedish, just Ask Jeeves it. If you don’t, check out Wikipedia or Larry Danielson’s article “St. Lucia in Lindsborg, Kansas.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Nobel Prize Ceremony 2014

Tuesday night I pulled my suit out of the closet. Tuesday night I also noticed that my suit pants were covered in dust and dirt. Last time I wore my suit I decided it would be a good idea to run across the dance floor and slide feet-first between my cousin’s legs as he danced. Turns out it WAS a good idea. Unfortunately, it left me carefully dusting off my pants before Wednesday, when I would be attending the Nobel Prize ceremony.

Nobel Selfie #1. Note the confused stare
as if new technology frightens him.
After a careful dusting, my pants looked good as new. Or at least, good enough that no one would notice. And really, when you’re going to the Nobel ceremony, good enough is good enough. If you’re a guy at least. The prince’s fiancée is apparently taking flak for her dress. I’m guessing hers was at least clean.

Anyway, I went to the Nobel Prize ceremony yesterday. So that’s a thing that happened. Turns out that being an academic on fancy grants sometimes has perks.

We showed up at around 5pm. The ceremony was set to start at 5:30pm. We picked a door and waited in line for a bit. Apparently if you’re important enough to have two bodyguards with you, you’re also important enough to not wait in line and to not carry your own umbrella. Although, you’re not important enough for me to recognize who you are. So I moved to a different line, showed my ticket, scanned my ID, and bam. There I was. Rubbing elbows with fancy famous people.

That’s not true. The fancy famous part. I didn’t recognize a single famous person. In fact, not until I was seated and watched as the royal family walked in did I recognize anyone. Me and the Bernadottes, we go way back.

It became clear though who the students were, who the Nobel laureates were, and who would be attending the dinner afterwards. Dinner requires a white tie and tails. The ceremony did not. And medals are meant to be worn at events like this. Including your Nobel awards. I was just wishing I had planned ahead and brought along my third place medal from the Greeley Tri-Star Skills Dribble, Pass & Shoot Competition back in elementary school. Alas. My torso was unadorned by medals. This time.

A not-yet-filled stage waiting for smart people. And royalty.
We made our way to our seats at the top of the concert house; we sat and waited for the ceremony to begin. I had no idea what to expect. I had a program in front of me, but come on, there’s a lot that goes unsaid in those programs. When do we clap? When do we stand? When do we rush the stage like the joker at the ceremony in Oslo? You know, the usual. Luckily, the king took care of all that for us. When in doubt, do what the king does. A tried and true method for centuries.

We waited patiently as everyone took their seats. There was a buzz. The nervous talking and excitement that comes with experiencing something extreme, abnormal, different. There was a host of students in the row in front of me. Based on their dress, they looked to have been the lucky ones to score tickets to the dinner. The German student in front of me was very interested in the Japanese student to his left. Because I am awkward, I chose to eavesdrop instead of actually talk to the people sitting next to me. The conversation in front of me turned to folk costumes, because folk costumes are considered, along with tuxedos, to be appropriate dress for events like these. Our German friend was less interested in folk dress than he was in the low cut dress of the woman to his left. Eyes up, buddy, eyes up.

And then the lights dimmed and silence fell and the royal family entered. I think we stood. I don’t remember. I think there was music. But I don’t remember. I assume we did, because it seems like the kind of thing that would be expected of folks in the presence of royalty. It was all so strange. Kings and queens and princes and princesses. Their dresses and jewelry dazzled. Seriously. Dazzled. And glittered. And caught the light and threw it all the way up to the second-to-last row of the concert house. The royals took their seats. Backs straight, hands gently arranged in their laps, posture that would make my pudgy core cringe after a moment. And then the audience was seated. At least I think we actually sat down. I mean, I know I was sitting at this point. Of course, the audience seemed a bit less straight-backed, and there were at least twenty seats empty throughout the evening. But we were there. Then the speeches began.

We were welcomed to the event. We were reminded of the troubling times we live in. Of “strong social and environmental challenges, with anti-intellectual and xenophobic tendencies and with a military build-up coupled with ruthless nationalistic actions and obvious threats to peace.” (You can watch the whole thing here.) But the prizes awarded were in honor of Nobel’s vision—to honor the discoveries and inventions and literature that benefit people as a whole. We were reminded that education and research matters. That stories matter. That individuals matter. That actions matter. We were reminded of all of this as ten men and one woman sat on the stage waiting to be awarded for their work as professors and doctors and writers. It was a testament to education and the sciences and the humanities.

Patrick Modiano accepting his prize from a descendent
of a French Marshal named Jean-Baptiste. Seems fitting.
The speeches continued, each prize being singled out for their importance to society. The prize for physics was awarded first. It was a speech that opened with fairy tales and Lord of the Rings to explain the importance of the discovery. Turns out, the humanities are good for explaining the world around us. In fact, the humanities were well represented. Aside from the literature prize, we were treated to the humanities once more when Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? and Mio, My Son, were mentioned in the speech about economics (not an actual Nobel prize, by the way). Because I’m not a scientist, I quite appreciated the way in which the sciences were presented to us—through stories and literature.

Professor Anne L'Huillier, Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, asked the award winners to stand, and the first, Professor Isamu Akasaki (aged 85 in case you were wondering), made his way to the center of the stage. He met the king there, who placed the award in front of the professor, patted it, shook Professor Akasaki’s hand, and then bowed slightly to him. He backed away and then began to clap. So everyone else began to clap. The professor bowed, he turned and bowed to the Nobel committee, the clapping continued. And then he turned to the crowd and bowed once more. The clapping, having continued evenly since he had received his award became even louder. Reaching a sort of crescendo that wouldn’t be met again for the remainder of the evening. It was the only time this happened. It was the only time this happened because the king clapped too early. I know, he’s the king, but for the other ten laureates, he did not begin clapping until the award winners turned to the crowd and bowed.

The rest of the evening was a mix of English, Swedish, French, and German. Luckily, they provided us all with a translation of the speeches into English. I only clapped at the wrong time once. Luckily, I was not alone. Two old men on stage clapped at the wrong time too. Awkwardly looking at each other as they slowed their clap to a clasp as if they were just so darn pleased with the award. Then they looked at each other and shook their heads. They’d been caught.

At least they hadn’t been caught sleeping. Because it’s hot in there. Sweaty hot. And that heat and a whole lot of speeches can make you a bit sleepy. I’m not saying I fell asleep during the ceremony, I’m just saying that I wouldn’t judge anyone who did.

This account may sound dismissive. It shouldn’t. Or maybe it should. But it isn’t. This was kind of a surreal experience. A once-in-a-lifetime surreal experience. Surreal, because when it comes down to it, it’s an awards ceremony. Surreal because there was a king who everyone mimicked. He stood, we stood. He clapped, we clapped. He left, we left. Surreal because I was watching as one of the most prestigious awards in the sciences and literature was handed out as I sat in my dirty suit as if I belonged. It was all surreal. And something I won’t forget.

Welcome to Sweden. And tl;dr: Nobel Prize ceremonies are interesting and exotic to Americans.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Want to Grab Some Coffee?

Not a fika. Coffee. Want to grab some coffee?

I’ve written about fika before. I was but a young man then, so naïve. My opinions have changed a bit. Although my coffee drinking habits have not. As in, I don’t drink it. The bitterness reminds me of my elementary school music teacher who was just serving her time before retirement and her pension kicked in. On an unrelated note, I am a terrible musician.

You can talk to Swedes about how the word fika just can’t be translated. You can read about how it’s a way of life. You can be advised that it’s the safest way to make friends in Sweden. You can use it as a semi-date. You’ll be inundated with the truth that fika is a solely Swedish invention and one that defines a sense of Swedishness. That it’s anathema to your colleagues to miss the office fika for it is a cultural institution that must be preserved at all costs. That once you start regularly fika-ing you will have stayed in Sweden for too long. Or long enough to be Swedish.

Fine. We all have our own truths. But fika is not so simple.

For the uninitiated, fika is a thing here in Sweden. It’s like asking someone “want to grab some coffee?” But the Swedes are protesting having read that sentence. There’s so much more to it than that, they’ll say. It’s not just coffee, they’ll say. They’re right. The same way that “want to grab some coffee” in the US can mean:
  • I’m thirsty. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m hungry and want a baked good. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m lonely and need someone to talk to. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’ve missed you and want to catch up. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m horny and find you attractive but am incapable of asking you on a date and think that a cup of coffee will clearly lead to sex. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m pretentious and want to bestow upon you my encyclopedic knowledge of coffee. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m interested in making you my friend. Want to grab some coffee? 
See? Lots of meaning in English, too.

The word can be used as a verb or a noun. There’s a bit of debate about the exact etymology, but it is generally accepted that the word is a form of back slang in which the word is, yup, you guessed it, spoken backwards. So kaffe, coffee, somehow became fika. Some letters were apparently rearranged. I’m not a linguist. Don’t judge me.

Usually, along with your coffee or tea (or hot chocolate if you know what’s good for you) you can add a baked good. This is, as far as I am concerned, the most redeeming quality of a fika. Because I love cardamom rolls. And cinnamon rolls.

Read those clickbait-y websites that give the top x reasons to move to Sweden or top x ways you know you’ve been in Sweden too long and you’ll find some funny truths. I read them against my better judgment. This is where I learn that Swedish men are tall, Swedish women are blonde, Swedes like to fish, they do this, they do that, and that they fika at work twice a day. Now don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by stereotypes and cultures and what that says about the world we live in. But, and here come some facts that may rock you to your very Swedish-loving core, the part of you that smells of cinnamon buns and sill, the part of you that bleeds snaps and stor starks: not every office has a daily fika. Let alone two. Not every Swede enjoys fika-ing. Not every fika is a turning point in your attempts to assimilate into this oh so foreign culture. What‽‽‽‽‽‽ (Look at all those interrobangs!) I know. Calm down.

I’ve worked in a few different office situations in Sweden. Never once did we have a planned daily fika time. Now, my few years as an adult in Sweden do not speak to the experiences of every person in Sweden. I’m aware of that. But three different jobs and the most I can say is that sometimes on Fridays at one of my jobs we got some baked goods in the afternoon. Usually only when someone was leaving the company, which happened quite a bit. Turnover was high.

Fika IS a thing. But it is not THE thing. Or ONE thing. It is performed in so many different ways or ignored in so many different ways. It can be used as a marker of identity—either inclusionary or exclusionary. It does not, however, mean you’ve made it, that you’re one of them. If only it were that simple.

The folklorist in me wants to see some sort of interesting public folklore project that crowd sources the fika experiences of Swedish people through pictures, video, and maybe some written accounts. The Swedish American in me wants to see the nuance that makes fika fascinating, not fifth on the list telling me that I’ve been in Sweden too long. The non-coffee drinker in me wants to see hot chocolate be embraced as an acceptable drink for 30-year olds.

But we can’t all have what we want. I've got fika plans next week anyway.

Welcome to Sweden. Want to grab some coffee? Or maybe a fika?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Swedish Election Season? Swedish Election Season. Again.

So there’s going to be another election in March of 2015. Which is unfortunate since there was just an election not too long ago. You may remember it because the racist Sverigedemokraterna ended up the third biggest party by garnering 13% of the country’s vote.

A coalition minority government was formed. A budget, which is necessary for the ruling coalition to, you know, rule, was voted down today. The government was unable to reach any agreement and Sverigedemokraterna were able to flex whatever racist muscles they wanted. They chose to flex their most racist one and have apparently decided to topple the government, force a new election, try to force immigration upon the people as the only issue of consequence, and sit back and watch as the remaining parties bicker and blame.

This is what can best be described as a high-stakes pissing contest with Sverigedemokraterna on the other side making the rules. And the wind is at their backs. Only one party wins in a pissing contest like that. The other side gets very, very wet.

Right now, the contestants are blaming each other. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, you’re probably convinced that it’s the other side’s fault. And it is. You’re all right. For once.

I don’t know how these things work. There hasn’t been a new election like this since 1958. I don’t know if this will galvanize voters, or leave them disgusted, disillusioned, and disinterested in actually voting. My concern is that this will only serve the interests of the racists. Look, they’ll say. Look how incapable the other parties are of ruling. Look at what they made us do. Look at how they overlook us. Look how they ignore our questions and concerns. Look at their accusations of racism just because we want to limit immigration. Look, they’ll say.

And people will look. And they’ll come out and they’ll vote. And what was once 13% will only rise. Because what they’re looking at is easily digestible fear mongering spewed from heads on a suit rather than heads on a uniform. And even though there are no real solutions there, they look and sound reasonable to far too many. And that scares me.

Maybe this time Alliansen, the more conservative coalition, will win. It doesn’t matter. Because Sverigedemokraterna will do the same thing. They’ve already said they’ll do the same thing. They won’t pass the budget unless the ruling coalitions bow to their demands on immigration. And we’ll be right back where we are today. With no government and a bunch of racists sitting back watching and counting their new votes.

I don’t know how these things work. But I know that the other parties better get their act together, talk, negotiate, find common ground, and stop pissing into the wind. Because waiting for the wind to shift is too risky. And we’re all getting wet in the process.

Welcome to Sweden. And electoral chaos.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Swedish Boobs. Again.

I saw some Swedish boobs today.

I thought that needed to be its own paragraph. I saw some Swedish boobs today at a place I did not expect to see Swedish boobs. There are spaces in which seeing a woman’s breasts are not entirely out of the ordinary. The beach. The bedroom. The gentleman’s club (such a classy misnomer). Where you may not expect to see a topless woman is at a university and study abroad fair for Swedish high school students. But sure enough.

Today I took a pause from my groundbreaking and incredibly important research that will probably save the world to help out at a fair to promote secondary education and study abroad. It seemed like a good excuse to get out of doing my actual work and a nice way to get a free lunch. And by free I mean I stood and talked to high school students for about six hours and got some soggy cod and potatoes in return.

There were colleges and universities and trade schools and any organization you can imagine that might be interested in recruiting high school graduates. There were thousands upon thousands of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds all looking for something to do with their lives. I was clearly of much use as a 30-year-old with little to no career plans. But I did my job and smiled and answered questions as best I could.

Come noon I was hungry. So off to lunch I went. And I passed by a small crowd of young women. I looked to my left and noticed two pedestals. Upon which was a topless teenage woman in a thong. Having body paint applied slowly and carefully by another woman. I slowed. I’m not going to lie. I slowed down. I stared. Mostly out of sheer confusion. I don’t know of too many universities that offer majors in nude body painting.

As my brain raced to figure out where in the hell I was, I looked to the woman’s left and there sat several women applying make-up to some of the high school students. It was a school of make-up artistry. Suddenly this made a lot more sense. I went on my way and ate my lunch. It was disappointing, but filling. I went back to my booth and the crowd had dissipated but the woman was still being painted atop her pedestal.

Two hours later I had to pee. And I passed by the make-up artistry booth again. There was zero crowd. At all. But the woman was still being painted atop her pedestal.

And finally, as the event was closing down and I was leaving, I walked by one last time. There were two photographers and zero crowd. The woman’s paint job was complete and she was now being photographed as she struck poses atop her pedestal.

I’ve seen Swedish boobs in public before, remember? That was mostly an awkward situation. This wasn’t awkward. It was about three second of shock followed by three seconds of confusion followed by three hours of meh. What was most shocking was the lack of a crowd. Actually, what was most shocking was the woman’s ability to stand atop a pedestal for at least three hours and act as a canvas. That was closely followed by the lack of a crowd. Maybe I have no faith in the average American teenager who happens to be attracted to women, but I can’t imagine there being no crowd of teenagers in front of a topless woman in the US. Of course, I can’t actually imagine there ever being a topless woman at an event created and marketed entirely for high school students in the US. Because in America, women’s nipples are scary and are a direct cause of communism. Men’s nipples are totally different though.

Welcome to Sweden. And nipples not being a big deal.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Train Travelin'

The expected departure time just kept changing. Later and later and later. It was cold, I had walked thirty minutes in the rain (without help of a map and without getting lost, I’ll have you know). I had three bags, one of which had four very dead, very frozen ducks in it. I didn’t want to haul everything back into the warmth of the station, not when the departure time was only being updated in five to ten minute increments, leaving me with a sense of hope.

Finally, with little fanfare, the train rolled into the station about 35 minutes late. I’ve come to expect delays whenever I travel, whether it’s by car or boat, plane or train. All things considered, 35 minutes wasn’t horrible. Mostly, I was just excited about getting out of the cold.

I climbed aboard, found my car, found my seat, and proceeded to say nothing for the entire train ride from Lund to Stockholm. It was amazing. I finished a book, listened to some podcasts, and wrote a bit. Train travel isn’t such a bad gig once you’re actually on the train.

Periodically, a woman would interrupt the silence over the loudspeaker. As we neared a station, she would give the passengers an update as to where we were, where we were going, and how late we would be when we arrived (about 56 minutes. Not exactly, but about.). Helpful information really. She also gave us instructions. There’s nothing new about that. The platform is to your left as we pull into Linköping. Watch your step. Make sure you don’t forget anything. You know, the usual. What caught my attention were her pleas for assistance.

She beseeched us to have our bags packed and ready to go as we arrived and that we be waiting at the door so that everyone could disembark quickly. She warned us that because we were 56 minutes behind schedule, it was imperative that everyone come together and help out so that we could make up as much time as possible. She asked passengers to not step off for a breath of fresh air or a smoke. She even told us why it was so important that everyone leave the train efficiently and effectively: there was a train behind us that was on schedule and it took priority; there was a freight train in front of us and we really needed to get in front of it or we’d be stuck traveling at its slower speed; she just really needed a drink after listening to everyone complain. Two of those three are true.

We’ve all heard these pleas for help. Think back to flying through Chicago during any holiday ever. The person at the front desk takes to a microphone and asks everyone to have their boarding tickets out and ready to go and their bags packed and ready for the overhead compartment. Then think back to the guy in the socks, sandals, Hawaiian shirt, and floppy hat in front of you who didn’t follow directions. He’s got a connecting flight in Chicago that’s taking him somewhere warm for the holiday. He got to the front of the line and then had to empty his bags (plural) just to find his boarding pass. He’s also the one who packed a one-room apartment into his carry-on and is upset when it, surprise surprise, doesn’t fit under the seat in front of him or in the overhead compartment. But still, the poor airline and airport employees continue to plead.

What’s to stop the person who has already arrived from taking their time? Why should they care whether the train takes in a few minutes after they’ve already made it home? The answers are nothing and they shouldn’t. But they did care. With five minutes to go, the woman’s soothing Stockholm accent came over the intercom. She asked everyone to get ready. She made her case. And with four minutes to go, people started pouring out of their seats, they bundled up, steeled themselves against the rain, and went to the doors and waited patiently. They piled off. The next folks piled on. And two minutes later, we were on our way again. It was a frightening, yet encouraging, display of Swedishness in action.

When I started writing this, I was going to comment that I’ve never heard of this sort of thing happening in the US. To point out that this was a manifestation of jantelagen in the form of public transportation. To say, look, how Swedish and quaint. Then I remembered that trains are nearly non-existent in the US. That’s why I’ve never heard of this happening. Well played, Sweden, well played.

Welcome to Sweden. Where trains are delayed. Because they actually have a passenger rail transportation system that is used by large numbers of people.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cub Scouts in Stockholm

I am a failed Boy Scout. That’s not true, I never actually made it to the Boy Scouts. I quit after Webelos. It was a good run. A run filled with plenty of Cub Scout meetings. Aside from the Pinewood Derby, I remember three things: our den leader nearly burning down his garage, learning to change a flat tire, and playing Nightmare on Sesame Street with a child-sized play set.

There are probably several things you think I should remember from those days. Like how to read a map. Or a compass. How to build a fire. Maybe how to tie several different knots. Survival skills.

I don’t remember those things. I don’t know if we even learned how to do those things. Maybe they were only for the Boy Scouts. All that matters is that at the age of 30, I can’t do most of those things properly (and plenty of others, actually).

Of the long list of skills I do not have, there is one in particular that rears its ugly head all too often. I am incapable of reading a map. This matters because I am in a book club. I am in a book club and was on my way to our monthly meeting the other night. Our monthly meeting rotates between the different members. People move. New people join. I’ve been gone for four years. I can’t read a map.

This time though, I was late. I hate being late. I get really flustered and I sweat a lot. I should specify that a lot just means more than usual. So as the clock struck 6:30pm, I was just climbing off the subway instead of walking through a front door. And because I was sweaty and flustered, I walked out the wrong subway entrance. Despite looking at a map. It’s something I do on a regular basis when I’m in a hurry and stop to look at a map thinking that it will help orient me.

My continued attempts at map reading would prove to add several minutes to my walk. But have no fear. I have an iPhone! With Google Maps! And so I was on my way stretching my long legs as long as my legs would stretch. I turned right when I should have turned left. Despite looking at a map. Maps are hard. But I righted myself, like any former Cub Scout would do.

That’s when my cousin called. Wondering. She’s in the book club too, you see. Have no fear, dear cousin, for I am on my way! Those were probably my exact words. I hung up, and kept walking. Faster now.

I turned left and looked down to see my iPhone shut off. In just 15 minutes, 40% of my battery had disappeared. A minor inconvenience, but I remembered the address and the code into the building. This would be easy. Who needs maps anyway? Especially when you can’t read them properly.

I kept walking and came to a fork in the road. Two roads diverged in a city, and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference. Because it was the wrong, god damned road. I found my way back to the correct road and walked through the front door of the building about 30 minutes late. Not my finest moment.

Most Swedish apartment buildings (and maybe apartment buildings in other countries) have a noticeboard where the names of each apartment occupant is listed along with their floor number. I went to the board. And was met with a wave of embarrassment. There was no one there, and I could still feel my cheeks heat up and the sweat droplets forming. That's what embarrassment feels like. Because I didn’t know the last name of the person in whose apartment we would be discussing Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her (a book I had suggested, by the way). It was on my phone. My very dead phone. Shit.

I went to the top floor. And I stopped at every. Single. Door. I gently placed my ear near the door and listened for any hint of English. Eight floors. Several apartments on each floor. As those sweat droplets began dripping off the tip of my nose, I creepily listened for a few seconds. Nothing. No English. No literary discussions. No arrests, either. In case you were wondering.

Down to the lobby I went. At this point, I had no cell phone. Which meant no email. No calendar. No map. And I was frozen by my lack of technology. Frozen! My Cub Scout training kicked in, because word association. Or something. My phone was also frozen. Batteries don’t just dump 40% for nothing. My poor iPhone was cold. I found a chair in the lobby, sat down, and did the only logical thing left to do: I took out my phone, smushed it between my hands, and smushed my hands between my knees. Bending over, my forehead nearly touched my knees as I used my body heat to warm a piece of metal, plastic, glass, and precious minerals. There’s probably some sort of social commentary to be made about my position mimicking that of a person in prayer, but my focus being on the physical, the technological, the secular.

Whatever. It worked. With a warm phone in hand, I was able to turn it on, open my email and find which floor I was meant to be on. The seventh. Up I went. In I strode. Embarrassed. Sweaty. Flushed. Forty-five minutes late.

Welcome to Sweden. And the last Cub Scout.

P.S. Having made it this far, you deserve some good writing. Check out fellow former Cub Scout Peter Derk’s work here. I’ve been creepily following him on Twitter at @helpfulsnowman. I don’t think I’ve seen or talked to him since at least high school. It doesn’t matter. He’s a damn fine writer. Read his stuff here: Origins or Tough Shoot: A Short Essay or The First of Me: Stories or Barehanded: Poems.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I’m So Hungry I Could Eat a Horse

It's Friday. Don't forget your horsemeat.
From the January 22, 1920 issue of Arbetarbladet.
Horsemeat. Beautiful horsemeat.

This beautiful horsemeat was for sale every Friday and Saturday back in 1919 and 1920 in Gävle, Sweden, according to a recurring ad in the newspaper Arbetarbladet. I don’t know how long this ad ran. My research has nothing to do with advertisements, the food being eaten by or marketed to the working class, nor does it have anything to do with horsemeat. That being said, the phrase “Horsemeat. Beautiful horsemeat.” will apparently catch my attention in Swedish. (Although, I still don't know if it should be one word or two. Horse meat? Horsemeat? Horsemeat.)

The US tends to recoil at the thought of eating horsemeat. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but plenty of people view horsemeat as akin to slaughtering cute baby seals. Kicking puppies. Hating freedom. Devising dastardly deeds. It’s taboo, to say the least.

I'm accepting hand modeling gigs. 
So I should come out and say it. I don’t slaughter cute baby seals. Or kick puppies. Or hate freedom. Or even devise dastardly deeds. I do, however, eat horsemeat. At least while in Europe. I’ve eaten it as a steak in Iceland. It was delicious. But more commonly, I eat it as a cold cut here in Sweden. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I eat meat. And horse is a meat when it is in my refrigerator. It's even more of a meat when it is in my lunch, which for the past two days has consisted of toasted bread, some mustard, some cucumber, and three slices of horsemeat. Or, as the sneaky Swedes sometimes like to call it: hamburgerkött. Hamburger meat. Sneaky sneaky Swedes. That’s not hamburger. That’s horsemeat. Smoky, salty, delicious horsemeat. I prefer the brands that just right out and tell me what I'm eating. Like the picture to your left.

That ad for beautiful horsemeat may have been from 1920, but the horsemeat industry is alive and kicking (see what I did there?) here in Sweden. Turns out that about 400 metric tons of horsemeat is imported to Sweden every year. On average, Swedes eat 200 grams of horsemeat each year. That’s not a whole lot per person, but, considering horse slaughter was illegal in the US for several years (legal again since 2011), I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably more than the average in the US.

It seems that plenty of people are against horsemeat because horses are smart, they are sometimes pets, they help us work, they symbolize freedom and the openness of the plains, they are big and pretty and majestic and on and on and on. Fine. People like horses. Of course, they never were stuck on the back of Joker, the meanest (and last horse) I ever rode at the age of 10 near Granby, Colorado. Since that day, I have found myself mucking out stalls with dressage horses eyeing me. I have placed horse hooves between my legs (against my better judgment) to clean the gunk out of them. I have fed them and led them and brushed them. However, I have never ridden a horse since I was 10. But I sure as hell have eaten one.

Welcome to Sweden. And the sweet (but mostly salty) taste of revenge.

Wait. That sounds pretty messed up. How about this?

Welcome to Sweden. And the horse with [one] name: hamburger.

Or this one?

Welcome to Sweden. And yet another Swedish food that Americans fear.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Sandwich Cake WTF?

“smörgåstårta. wtf is this? you cant put a sandwhich on a cake! *explain further*”

That is an actual email I received several years ago while teaching Swedish. I haven’t changed a single thing. That’s a copy and paste job right there. And I know you’re supposed to cite your sources, but I’m not citing this student. It’s best for everyone involved.

In a stroke of pedagogical genius, I just sent this student links to the Wikipedia page in English AND in Swedish. See? A learning opportunity.

I don’t necessarily expect super formal emails to be sent to me when I teach. Especially as, at the time, a graduate student who was only a few years older than some of the students in my class. But this one was new. I got the full on “wtf.” It bothered me, I’ll be honest.

Which is too bad, because it’s a legitimate question. Seriously, smörgåstårta? Wtf?

I’m hungry right now. And I walked by a bakery earlier. And bakeries make me think of delicious baked goods. And delicious baked goods make me think of things like kladdkaka and princesstårta. And the word tårta makes me think of smörgåstårta. And that, my friends, is how genius happens. Or a complete and utter inability to focus on anything important the second I get a little bit hungry.

The smörgåstårta first made it’s way into Sweden around the 1940s, was credited to Gunnar Sjödahl from Wedemarks konditori in Östersund in 1961, and became a Swedish staple in the 1970s. Since then, the smörgåstårta has been a staple of the finest Swedish cuisine. And by fine Swedish cuisine, I mean something that will feed a bunch of people, because it sits like a rock in your belly and can be served as leftovers for days, because no one can eat more than a piece at a time.

Anyway, a smörgåstårta is a sandwich cake. Literally. What it really is is a sort of savory cake with several layers of hedonistic Swedish pleasures smushed into a sort of creamy spread smothered all over bread. It’s not uncommon to bite into a cake filled with shrimp, salmon, crayfish, eggs, tomatoes, and cucumber. Of course, none of those things are creamy. That’s where the liver pâté, and mayonnaise comes into play. If you’re really lucky, you’ll also find some cold cuts, maybe an olive or two, and of course some lemon slices on top.

Now I want you to read through that last paragraph one more time. Then I want you to imagine biting into that and letting that sit in your gut for the rest of your workday.

Because, you see, the only time I’ve ever run into a smörgåstårta in the wild is at a Swedish office. Every now and again, while working here, we were graced with the presence of this monstrosity and invited to partake in the glory that is the smörgåstårta. I’ve heard rumors that this is sometimes served at parties. Apparently, my friends have better taste than that. Or they just don’t invite me to their parties. My friends are clearly assholes.

Welcome to Sweden. And Swedish foods that Americans fear.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Express Disenfranchisement

Everyone is voting back home. Colorado and Wisconsin both have some important elections today. My Facebook feed is choked with people exhorting everyone to vote. It’s a good idea. In general. Although, there’s something to be said for abstaining. In fact, Stan from South Park said it: “No, I think voting is great, but, if I have to choose between a douche and a turd, I just don't see the point.”

So if you’re stuck choosing between a douche and a turd, do what you want.

Of course, I actually tried voting today. From Sweden. But I have been disenfranchised! Kind of. I shouldn’t joke about that. Wisconsin has actually been actively trying to disenfranchise people recently.

I requested an absentee ballot on October 6 and had sent in all of the required documents by October 7. That was four weeks ago. I had to send a reminder on October 24, because nothing had happened. Turns out, my ballot had never been sent. I was told it would be sent on Friday, October 24. It was not. The postmark on the ballot I received said October 27. Another delay. Because of that, I just received my ballot yesterday on November 3. I have filled out my ballot, I have signed my envelope, I even found another American citizen to serve as my witness and sign the envelope that holds my ballot. And all for naught. Because I realized that there is no way for me to get this envelope from Stockholm, Sweden, to Madison, Wisconsin, by Friday.

Wisconsin state voting law requires the absentee ballot to be postmarked on or before election day. Check. It also requires the absentee ballot to be received on or before the Friday of election week. Today is Tuesday. Friday is Friday. That’s three days from now. Not check.

A first-class letter sent internationally from Sweden to the US is predicted to arrive in four to six business days for the low, low cost of 14 SEK. That math doesn’t add up for a Friday arrival. That’s what the postal employee in Stockholm told me. The one that knew his job so well that as I waited, he helped a woman weight, address, stamp, and mail her package while also explaining the rules and requirements of a PO box to the other woman in line.

After explaining the intricacies of international, first-class postage, he said I could send it express. But that he couldn’t help me with that. You had to have a computer, access to the internet, and a printer to do all that. While I appreciate the convenience of online transactions, not everyone has easy access to a printer. Or the internet, for that matter. But fine. I’ll pay ball Sweden.

What does express mean? That your envelope is predicted to arrive in three business days (plus the one that you’re sending it on). Which sounds like four to me. What will express cost you? Only 410 SEK. That’s it. Don’t forget the customs papers. You’ll need those, even for letters. And finally, posten.se suggests that you have the proper envelopes to send things express. You can order those online and they will be delivered right to your door at no extra cost! What service. You just have to wait three days. Which sounds like not express to me. Express shouldn’t involve planning. I need to ship things express because I failed to plan.

Let’s do a recap and some quick math here. If I want to send something express, I can expect it to arrive in three plus one days. However, it is suggested that I send things express in fancy express envelopes. So wait three days. Three days plus three plus one days equals six plus one days. Total cost, 410 SEK.

If I want to send something first-class, I can expect it to arrive in four to six business days. I can plop a stamp on and send away. Total cost, 14 SEK.

Six plus one days for express is greater than four to six days for first-class.

I bought a first-class stamp. I'm sticking my ballot in the mail anyway. Just because. Just because it doesn’t matter. Just because I wanted to try. When I requested the ballot so far in advance, I was hoping that everything would be ok. That I would be able to vote. That my vote would actually be counted. That I could be a part of an election of this importance, even though I am in Sweden for a year (ironically, some of my funding to be here for a year is coming from the US Federal government). Instead, I'm sitting here with a signed, sealed, and yet-to-be delivered ballot that means absolutely nothing.

There is nothing that can be done at this point, so instead I’m annoyed with the Madison City Clerk for taking 28 days to get me an absentee ballot and leaving me feeling disenfranchised. I’m annoyed at the Swedish postal service because their express service doesn’t seem very express. And I’m annoyed that I didn’t have anything better to write for today.

Welcome to Sweden. And the voting problems of the privileged.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween in Sweden: 2014

Boo. It’s Halloween. This year, Halloween is getting my own special locker at the library, eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Stockholm, and drinking farewell to a couple of friends who are moving back to the US. All while dressed like a prematurely-balding graduate student. I know, pretty spoooooky…

I haven’t been in Sweden for Halloween since 2009. It was a glorious year. I was dressed as a zebra and did some graceful bounding while disembarking from the train. I remember that I was dressed as a zebra for two reasons. One, I wrote a post back in 2009 about it called Halloween in Sweden. Damn this blog and its ability to remember everything I did. And two, before moving back to Sweden I was cleaning out my closet in July and came across a pair of white pants that had clearly been ruined by duct tape. Turns out I hadn’t taken much care of my zebra costume. Turns out I also didn’t have much need for a pair of white pants. Weird.

I really am terrible at taking pictures.
Especially one-handed so as not to call attention to myself.
Halloween in Stockholm has become more and more popular. For one thing, people talk about it. Openly. They do sometimes seem a bit confused though, wandering around in costumes on the Monday before Halloween. New holidays are hard. There’s still a big ghost hanging over Drottninggatan. So they've got that going for them. And now Halloween-themed ads are almost common, like the McDonald’s ad creepily asking you “Chick or cheese?” Get it? Trick or treat? Chicken sandwich or cheeseburger. They rhyme. Kind of. Very cute. There are even pumpkins popping up in grocery stores. For example, at one of the many grocery stores that I sometimes find myself shopping at, you can buy what is being billed as a giant American pumpkin. Only 3 000 SEK! $400. Or as I like to call it: half a month’s rent. I can only wonder if this is, finally, the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

But I even found numbers to prove Halloween is growing in popularity alongside my own anecdotal evidence. Depending on which study you believe somewhere between 30-40% of Swedes will be celebrating Halloween. GP suggests that a whopping 16% are planning on having candy at home for trick-or-treaters, 10% are going to make jack-o-lanterns, and 8% are even going to go to a Halloween party. One website claims that Swedes spend one billion SEK every year on Halloween. That’s over 136 million USD. It’s a super legitimate looking website, which is why I wanted to be sure to cite it, like any good academic would. But the statistics that count the most? They come from Expressen. Did you know that Karamellkungen, a glorious company that makes me feel bad about my eating habits every Saturday, says that sales of candy increase by 50% around Halloween? And did you know that sales of pumpkins have increased from 500 metric tons in 1999 to 1 100 metric tons today. So many conversions, but that’s an increase from 1 102 311.31 pounds to 2 425 084.88 pounds. Approximately.

Halloween is coming. It’s not yet beating out All Saints Day, but it’s trying.

Welcome to Sweden. And a quarter pound of pumpkin for every Swedish citizen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Teaching Svenska Around the Värld: Money Matters

This isn’t a funny post. I didn’t do anything ridiculous this time. I didn’t embarrass myself. Or get yelled at. Or fail as an adult. This is one of those serious ones where I reveal my biases.

For years and years, the Swedish government has supported Swedish instruction around the world. This has taken the form of professional development, jobs, grants for translators, even text books purchased for students (something many of my former students have benefited from when they all received free copies of Bröderna Lejonhjärta, which we used in our second semester course).

A lot of this support comes from the Swedish Institute, Svenska institutet, SI. They are an amazing group of people, some of whom I have met and worked with. They all have specific jobs, but generally speaking, they are cultural ambassadors for Sweden and support the 38 000 students at 228 universities in 39 countries who are learning Swedish. I know there are more students learning French. Or Spanish. But 38 000 new Swedish speakers for a country of nine and a half million is a big deal.

By the way, I grabbed those statistics directly from an article written the other day by Olle Wästberg. The article, titled “Ändra beslutet att slopa stöd till svenskundervisning,” was published in Dagens Nyheter yesterday. It’s worth reading. Especially considering that I know many readers of this blog have, at one point or another, taken Swedish courses abroad. Chances are that you benefited from SI without even knowing it.

A few years ago, the government in power decided to shut down a few of these cultural centers abroad. They were dissuaded. Luckily. Unfortunately, they did reduce financial support for instruction and translation of Swedish abroad.

A few days ago, the government in power decided to shut down a few of these cultural centers abroad. They look to have been dissuaded. Luckily. Unfortunately, they still plan to reduce financial support for instruction and translation of Swedish abroad and by 2017 killing that funding completely.

People are starting to take note. It’s a very shortsighted approach by a very small country that is a very active member of a very globalized economy and culture. I’m obviously biased. Horribly, horribly biased. I’m kind of ok with that bias.

There are petitions that have been started. One by a professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Illinois garnered over 1 000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Not huge numbers, but nothing to sneeze at. Articles, along with Wästberg’s, have begun popping up in Swedish newspapers. People have started emailing Sweden's Minister of Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson, who has some say in all of this. They’re sending their own stories about learning Swedish abroad, the importance of cross-cultural support, and the long-term benefits of organizations like SI. You can do all of those things. And you should.

Welcome to Sweden. But, you know, only if you’re actually IN Sweden.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Moving to Sweden – The Laundry Room

Bruce Springsteen woke me up this morning at 6:55.
The screen door slams
Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays…

I usually don’t make it to Roy Orbison singing for the lonely before I reach over and swipe my alarm to the right and into oblivion. Today was no different, but rather than snagging my phone to read the news, I jumped out of bed ready to tackle the day. And by tackle the day, I mean do my laundry. I had scheduled a laundry time for 7am. That’s a silly time to do laundry, I know, but I had zero clean pairs of underwear and zero clean pairs of socks. In fact, I may or may not have worn the same pair of socks twice. Don’t judge me.

I packed up my clothes, grabbed my detergent, and started hiking to the laundry room. It’s about a five-minute walk from my apartment. Not bad, but dirty laundry is surprisingly heavy. I fought through the pain and acted an adult. And now I’m writing this while wearing clean boxers AND clean socks.
This is where the magic happens.
But anyway, I think it’s time for another Moving to Sweden post. It’s been about three and a half years since I wrote one of these. If you’re new, check them out below. I’ll be honest, there’s probably some stuff here that’s out of date. If you have questions, ask or email:

Moving to Sweden – What to Bring
Moving to Sweden – The Swedish Language
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Place to Live
Moving to Sweden – The Metric System and You
Moving to Sweden – Getting a Cell Phone
Moving to Sweden – Getting from the Airport to Stockholm City
Moving to Sweden – The Weather
Moving to Sweden – Swedish Citizenship Test
Moving to Sweden – Public Holidays
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Job
Moving to Sweden – Culture Shock: It's the Little Things
Moving to Sweden – Making Friends
Moving to Sweden – Cost of Living
Moving to Sweden – Marijuana
Moving to Sweden – Most Common Jobs and Salaries

Now to the laundry.

Laundry in Sweden is a bit different than laundry in the US. Notably, the cost. I have never paid for laundry in Sweden. Ever. Most apartment buildings have a tvättstuga. Sometimes that stuga is in the building, usually the basement or the first floor. Sometimes it’s a separate building. And sometimes it’s both. Which is my current situation. All you do is schedule a time, show up, do your laundry, and leave. There is no monetary transaction. Clearly, socialcommunofascism (or whatever the Swedish model is thought of in the small towns that surround my hometown) means not having to pay for laundry.

There could be classic Laundromats in this country where people go and take their kronor with them. Feeding the washer and waiting patiently. Maybe meeting the love of their life as they awkwardly fold their skivvies. I don’t know. I’ve never seen it though.

Outside of the laundry room is the booking board. That’s a technical term. It’s the place you book your next laundry time. Sometimes they’re electronic. Sometimes you can do it online. Sometimes they’re big and unwieldy and you need to unlock an actual plug-like apparatus and move it to the time you want. Because I have hipster tendencies, I prefer the big unwieldy thing that looks like it got stuck in the ‘70s. Unfortunately, I’m not so lucky and I have to make do with a keyfob and an electronic booking board. Life is hard.

Booking a laundry time though? That’s important. It’s important because without it you might not even be able to get into the laundry room (if it’s a fancy electronic system). It’s also important because if you steal someone’s laundry time, they will be angry. You might even get a dirty look or a mean note. Of course, there tends to be a grace period. If the person hasn’t claimed their machines after half an hour the machine is probably fair game. But check your rules for the exact time period. And trust me, there are rules.

That’s because the laundry room is a place of acute Swedishness. Or acute passive-aggressiveness. They might be synonymous. There are books about the passive-aggressive notes that people leave in the laundry room. Seriously. Make sure you clean up your lint from the dryer. Make sure you don’t leave anything behind. Make sure you don’t steal someone’s time. Be polite. Be nice. Don’t mess up. It’s really that simple. Usually. But, stay here long enough and you’ll find yourself in at least one awkward situation. Like the time my machine was filled with a load of wet clothes that had stopped mid-cycle (I just took them out and dumped them in a basket. The laundry room is no place to make friends.). Or the time I got locked out of the laundry room in -13 degree Celsius weather

Once you get in you’ll be met by washing machines galore! Or at least one. Plus some other things. There are so many foreign machines in the Swedish laundry room. See what I did there? Foreign? Swedish? Because I’m also American. Get it? Cool.

Looks inviting, doesn't it?
There’s the drying cabinet. It’s like a sauna for your clothes. There’s the mangle table. It’s like a torture device for your clothes. Actually, that’s it. There are two foreign machines in the Swedish laundry room. There’s obviously a washing machine and a dryer. Those aren’t foreign to me though.

I still haven’t dared use the mangle table. It scares me. And I’m not really sure why I would need it. Sometimes I use the drying cabinet, but I usually end up hanging things improperly and opening the door to find a pile of clothes on the floor. I fear change and so stick with what I know, the dryer. But do what you want. You’re your own person.

You’ll notice signs everywhere. Read them. Learn them. Know them. They’re telling you how to properly behave in the laundry room. They’re reminding you to use the proper dosage of laundry detergent because it’s better for the environment and your clothes. They’re explaining how to use the different machines. And, of course, they’re reminding you to clean out your god-damned lint. Do it.

Welcome to Sweden. And the laundry room.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

1,000,000 Page Views

I started this blog on September 5, 2007. That was 2,608 day ago. That’s a lot of days. I’ve written over 500 posts, over 500 single-spaced pages in a Word document, over 275,000 words. That’s a lot of words. Last week, someone clicked on this blog and read something, I don’t know what, but it was the one millionth page view. That’s a lot of page views.

That number isn’t earning me a fancy living and it’s not going on my CV, but I like that I’ve had the opportunity to interact with so many people through this blog. Sometimes by email, sometimes in the comments section, and sometimes meeting up in flesh and blood. I’ve made plenty of friends through this blog. Some have moved to Sweden only to leave a few years later. Some have stayed. And some, like me, have just gone back and forth.

It took me a while to get going with this blog. To find my voice and to find my style. My first few posts are rough and I once wrote about Bill Murray getting pulled over while driving a golf cart in Stockholm. So there’s that. But I also got to write about a country that I love and admire. And sometimes that country annoyed me a bit.

I wrote plenty about the things that bothered me about this country. And that bothered a lot of people that live in this country. I criticized and I joked and I had fun. There are posts that make me cringe and comments that make me laugh. There are emails that make me wonder about the goodness of people (it’s surprising how many ways people can use the word fuck) and then there are emails that remind me of the goodness of people. I learned a lot along the way and have changed a lot as well. Something that becomes (sometimes) painfully obvious when I read back on what I've written. I've even seen a popular TV show emerge titled Welcome to Sweden. Clearly, it was inspired by the popularity of this blog. There can be no other explanation.

I don’t post as often as I used to or even as often as I’d like to, but I’m glad so many people have stuck around and popped in to say hello over the past seven years. Thanks for reading and commenting and making this a fun experience.

Welcome to Sweden. And thanks for putting up with me for so long.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stockholm Christmas Creep

This is not my new nickname. Just putting that out there immediately. Christmas creep is that friendly reminder that you should be buying your Christmas gifts now. It’s hearing “Jingle Bells” on your favorite country station before the leaves have even turned. It might even be seeing Christmas decorations being mounted across Stockholm. In October.

I first noticed it last Thursday. That’s October 16, 2014. Or, as I like to call it: The day from which there are only 69 days left until Christmas!1 I admit that the name may need some work. Maybe it was just Stockholm trying to get ahead of the game. It must take a while to decorate an entire city and it is getting colder and darker. Maybe the city was just taking advantage of daylight and better weather. Maybe.

But then a few days later there were Christmas decorations in store windows. And tomtar and pepparkakor to be bought.2 And today, Christmas trees were being hung on the buildings with care. Now Åhléns is all dressed up with nowhere to go for two whole months.

Turns out tomtar are not responsible for Christmas decorations.
The nice thing about Christmas creep are the lights. Stockholm is getting dark and daylight savings means we’re falling back an hour in just a few days. Any light helps. Of course, the downside is that now everyone (ALL OF THE PEOPLE!) will be inundated with Christmas suggestions. Which is probably annoying for the folks who don’t celebrate. And also annoying for me. And clearly I should be catered to at all times. Especially since everyone knows that the best time to buy Christmas gifts is the day before Christmas. Duh.

Welcome to Sweden. And 62 days until Christmas.


1 From which? On which? Prepositions are hard.
2 You’ll notice those two links are to Amazon.com. You know, to get you in the spirit. It’s ironic. Or something.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Adventures in the National Library of Sweden

Despite my headphones, I heard him coming up behind me. Quickly. Aggressively. Loudly. It’s amazing what just a few strides can convey. He grabbed me and began to turn me around while yelling: what do you say when you bump into someone‽1

I am not a brave man, but I am a big man and with that comes a bit of privilege. I don’t immediately have to fear for my safety, especially in a public setting like the café of a library. Which is where this man chose to yell at me. So I slowly took out my headphones. I looked at him. He was old. He had white hair. A tired face. A saggy torso. And he was frantic. His eyes were dancing. He was legitimately angry. He felt aggrieved.

A group of three Germans were standing in the corridor on one side. This older gentleman was standing on the other side. I tried to sneak between them to get out of their way. Because I still wear a backpack, my size ends up being a bit problematic in tight spaces.2 So I brushed him with my bag. I knew it and he clearly knew it. But as I did so I said, as one does, ursäkta. Excuse me. And I continued walking.

That’s when he grabbed me. And as he yelled, I noticed the rest of the room noticing what was going on. Yelling is rare in Sweden. Rarer still in libraries. People stare. It’s a sort of national sport in Sweden, along with avoiding your neighbors. So as calmly as I could, I explained that I had, in fact, said excuse me. Without missing a beat he yelled: you need to say it loud enough to be heard! Apparently, the last couple of months in archives and libraries has trained away my American voice and replaced it with a Swedish library voice: loud enough to communicate with librarians, not loud enough to communicate with angry old men.

Having heard more shushes in this library than in any other library I’ve ever spent time in, a small part of me wanted to lift my finger to my lips and shush him. Just once. For yelling. But I did not. Like I said, I am not a brave man and there’s really no reason to tempt fate. Or an angry old man, whichever the case may be. Instead I stared at him. Probably a little confused. Probably a little shocked.

The woman working at the café to my left just started laughing. Just burst out laughing. As if this were a normal occurrence. As if she had seen this play before. I looked at her. Smiled. Shook my head. Walked away. I did not say another word to the old man. There was nothing left to say. He had said his piece. He had made his scene. He needed a reason to yell and I was as good a reason as any.

Welcome to Sweden. And library voices.



1 That’s an interrobang. An incredible punctuation mark that combines the question mark with the exclamation point. Use it. Love it.
2 I have officially, by the way, exceeded 20 years of education at public institutions. Yay public education!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Swedish Bankers’ Hours

During college and immediately after, I worked at a bank in the marketing department. It was a good job with good people and gave me good experience with a good paycheck. It was good. It was a normal job with normal hours. Eight in the morning until five in the evening. Sometimes later. Especially because in marketing, there’s plenty going on during the weekend or evenings. So I put in my 40-ish hours of work a week and thought nothing of it.

But then people would ask me about bankers’ hours with a glint in their glinty eyes and a smirk on their smirky face. And the only thing I could think of was, you mean eight to five? Normal workday hours? I didn’t understand. I was, obviously, unfamiliar with the term. It was explained to me. I laughed because that seemed to be what was expected of me and I kept working bankers’ hours. The ones that had me working from eight to five.

Then I moved to Sweden. And realized what bankers’ hours really are. Bankers’ hours are from ten to three. Ten to fifteen. Monday through Friday. That’s five hours per day. Five hours in the middle of the day. During the week. There are no available times on the weekend.

I know, I know. Some banks are giving the people what they want and staying open later in the evening. One day a week at some banks (some, not all), you’ll be able to take care of your banking needs from ten to six. Woo.

During those hours, you might get everything done. Or you might not. It seems that everyone has a horror story about banking in Sweden. Especially immigrants. You might need to go to several banks before being allowed to open an account. You might be refused. You might need to bring people with you to vouch for your identity. You might be getting a paycheck and still not be allowed to open an account. It’s a long list.

I’m telling you all of this, obviously, because I had to deal with a bank the other day. SEB. I got to the bank early. And by early I mean 9:45. So I had to wait for 15 minutes. Another man came in and tried to get into the bank. He looked at me with a look of confusion when he found the door was closed. I said, simply, ten. It opens at ten. Of course. He left, but returned a few minutes later with an umbrella. We still had five minutes. And so I struck up a conversation. And by conversation I mean we exchanged a few sentences. I said that I should work at a bank with these hours. He chuckled. Politely. He responded with a reference to “Va i helvete har dom för sig inne i banken efter tre?” It was a familiar reference, mostly because my dad had tried to cheer me up with this very same reference the night before:


I chuckled. Politely. Then I told him what I just told you: my dad said the same thing last night. Which probably weirded him out and reminded him of his age and forced him to confront his own mortality because I look like I’m 40 (and have since I was about 18) and he didn’t know how to handle the fact that he had similar taste in satirical bank songs as the father of a 40 year old. Despite his confusion, we are now friends according to long-standing Swedish tradition that if you exchange more than two sentences and one chuckle, you are blood brothers. Or something like that.

When the bank finally opened I headed straight to the first teller. In-person banking doesn’t happen all that often and I was excited. I needed some paperwork. An end-of-year financial statement to be exact. I messed up and lost the original. I’ll fess up to that. It happens. I ordered the paperwork. It took two weeks before the bank actually ordered the paperwork for me. And here I am, nearly three weeks later still waiting for my paperwork. So I went to the bank in hopes that they could just print out what I needed.

You might ask, but why does the bank need to ORDER the paperwork? And by you, I mean I. I asked that. And was informed that SEB, my esteemed bank of choice, has all their back office located in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania. They are unable to produce or provide any back-office report or request at offices in Sweden. The requests must be sent to Vilnius. The report can’t be generated online through my own personal internetbank. The bank offices in Sweden can’t generate the reports. Only Vilnius. All-powerful Vilnius.

So the bankers work from ten to three. They don’t do any back-office work. And keep in mind that plenty of banks no longer carry any cash. I don’t actually know if any banks carry cash anymore. I do know that every bank I have been to in Stockholm for quite some time now, no longer carries cash.1 So I can’t go into a bank and request a withdrawal. I can do that at the ATM. Which is fine. It’s convenient and easy and open.

But it leads me to wonder, in the vein of Hasse and Tage from 1968: what the hell does a banker in Sweden actually do between ten and three? I don’t even care what happens after three. What do those five hours actually look like between ten and three?

Welcome to Sweden. And bankers’ hours.


1 October 24, 2014 - I was in a bank a few days ago and... they had cash! They were fulfilling withdrawl requests. Apparently some banks still carry cash and I had just been going to the ones that didn't. Now you know.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Flygande Jakob!

What do you get if you mix chicken, bacon, bananas, chili sauce, whipping cream, and peanuts? A tummyache! No. Wrong. You get the makings of a delicious meal known in Sweden as Flygande Jakob. Flying Jacob. Serve it on a bed of rice with a nice salad on the side and you’re ready to tackle the day. Or at least go to bed.

Back in the ‘70s, when all things disgusting happened, some guy named Ove Jacobsson is said to have invented this meal. He was probably a wonderful father, but a terrible cook. Because seriously, who else but a bunch of children and a terrible cook would think that a good idea? Apparently, he worked in the airfreight industry. Airfreight involved flying. His last name was Jacobsson. Creativity is hard. And ta da… Flygande Jakob!

Because it was the ‘70s (remember, when all things disgusting happened) this became popular.1 It was even published in a food magazine, issue number 13 of Allt om Mat in 1976.

I ate this. But I didn't take this picture. Thanks RWB!
I was born just eight short years after the invention of this amazing meal. I don’t know if my mother and father ever loved me enough to feed me heaven in chunky red sauce form. Maybe they did, and I just forgot, because until a week ago, I didn’t know what this was. A friend was visiting. She is a badass and translates books from Swedish to English. And she asked me. I didn’t know. I don’t know a lot of things. Luckily, I’m pretty handy with the internet, so I looked it up and found a recipe. And a couple of days later we were making vegetarian, lactose-free Flygande Jakob for our guests who had a couple of dietary restrictions. And yup, the recipe accounted for that.

Turns out it is super easy to make. And turns out you end up with a whole lot of food. And turns out I love it. In the days that have followed, I have eaten so much. I’ve been trying to make up for 30 years of not having satiated my belly.

Even as I enjoy each forkful, I can’t help but think of the ingredients list. Chicken. Bacon. (Or quorn, in this case. I didn’t know what it was either.) Bananas. Chili sauce. Whipping cream. Those items probably should not be combined. I keep eating though. Closing my eyes and whispering gently to each bite of Flygande Jakob, Jakob, if this is wrong, I don’t want to be right. But it’s not wrong. That recipe is right.

Today, this meal is considered a classic. A Swedish classic. A Swedish classic with bananas and chili sauce. Which should be a reminder to everyone that what is considered classic or traditional or a part of your heritage is constantly evolving. It changes. It is invented. It is reinvented. Because this recipe isn’t even 40. And it has bananas and chili sauce in it. And try as you might, bananas are just not that easily grown in this country. Not now and not 40 years ago.

Welcome to Sweden. And lessons learned from a plate of banana, chicken, chili sauce, and whipped cream.


1 Wikipedia, the only source that matters, says the following about the smörgåstårta, the sandwich cake, which became popular in the ‘70s: “The smörgåstårta is normally made up of several layers of white or light rye bread with creamy fillings in between. The fillings and toppings vary, but egg and mayonnaise are often the base, additional filling may vary greatly but often includes one or more of the following: liver pâté, olives, shrimp, ham, various cold cuts, caviar, tomato, cucumber, grapes, lemon slices, cheese and smoked salmon." Gross.