Monday, September 01, 2014

Protests Against Swedish Neo-Nazis

At 11:34am on Sunday, August 31, I received the following alert from the US Government:
“A large area of central Stockholm will be cordoned off by police on Saturday, August 30, 2014 between 09:00-18:00 hours due to an authorized political meeting being held by the Neo-Nazi “Svenskarnasparti” (The Party of the Swedes). A demonstration against Svenskarnasparti is expected, estimated at 10,000 people, positioned at Gustav Adolfs Torg, just outside the MFA. The demonstration is scheduled to begin at 14:00 hrs.”

Quick aside: the MFA is the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or Utrikesdepartementet.

So the warning came a day late. In fact, I’d already heard about the warning coming from the US about the demonstration. I went to the protest against the neo-Nazi group anyway. Mostly because I can’t believe there are neo-Nazi parties in Sweden that are given police protection under the guise of freedom of speech to hold rallies in the middle of Stockholm.

That's a lot of peaceful protestors.
I went with a couple of friends. We arrived around 1:15. There were thousands and thousands of people in Kungsträdgården. I saw one estimate of 14,000 people. My time spent trying to estimate the number of fans at a basketball game for my job years and years ago had ill-prepared me for crowds of that number, so I’ll just trust the reports that there were over 10,000 people there. I finally left around 4:45. A lot happened in between.

While I was there, I saw over 10,000 people peacefully protesting against a handful  of neo-Nazis. The number floating around the crowd was that there were only 75 neo-Nazis at their rally. So the anti-Nazis far outnumbered them.

I saw people with their families. Parents and children holding balloons and little heart placards. Grandparents with their grandchildren. Old and young and everything in between.

I saw people singing and dancing. In several languages. I saw signs. Flags. Banners. I saw musicians playing drums. Even a saxophone.

I saw a whole lot of people who were there to protest the neo-Nazi party that, for some reason, continues to be given credence in this country. Unfortunately, many of the reports I read afterwards focused on 15 minutes of commotion.

And if you’ve been paying attention to the news, no doubt you saw that there were clashes. I also saw that. A group of plainclothes police walked into a crowd. They stood there. Doing nothing. Then something happened. I still don’t know what. They circled up and pulled their batons. The crowd gave them space. They called for the police in riot gear. There were two young men who were aggressively yelling, maybe ten feet from the police officers. But at this point, there was no one throwing a thing. Not a thing. People had been throwing things. Mostly smoke bombs. There were also people yelling to stop throwing things. But as the riot police arrived, I didn’t see a single thing being thrown. And then they charged.
Tensions running high. 
The crowd turned to run. There was white smoke and people running with their mouths covered, coughing. Turns out it was most likely fire retardant, which the police use to disperse crowds. And it worked. Of course, the police in riot gear, the plainclothes police, the mounted police, the K9 unit, the police vans heading straight into a crowd didn’t hurt either. What did hurt, at least I imagine it hurt, was the police baton smacking against the back of two demonstrators as they ran away. There were undoubtedly more people who felt a baton crash down on them. I only saw two. Apparently, if you’re not fast enough, even turning to disperse and run is not enough to keep you from taking a baton to the back.

At this point, I thought it best to go home. I was in no way interested in clashing with a police force that seemed all too ready to clash. And then I started reading about what happened. As if the 15 minutes of bull-rushing police officers were the story. As if the story of the day should have been about a imagined (and wholly false) full-scale militant attack by the protestors.

The story should be that many in Sweden will not tolerate neo-Nazis. And that many in Sweden are growing tired of the protection granted to hate-speech spouted by the neo-Nazis. The story should be about over 10,000 peaceful protestors and an atmosphere that was really, quite calm orderly, Swedish, for the vast majority of the time.

Welcome to Sweden. And anti-Nazi protests.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Swedish Escalator Etiquette

Stand to the right. Walk to the left. Always.
There are certain rules on escalators in Sweden. Stand to the right. Walk to the left. They’re pretty simple rules. Step onto any escalator in Stockholm and you’ll see the vast majority of people following those rules. It’s both impressive and slightly creepy. So I took a picture. I'll be honest, I felt like I was doing something wrong standing on the left to take this picture. Swedish cultural expectations are strong.

Of course, these two rules get broken. Especially on a drunken weekend. Or even when you’re carrying on a conversation with someone as you head to the escalator. It can be awkward standing above or below someone or standing backwards on the escalator as you descend into the art exhibition that is the Stockholm subway system. So some people choose to willingly break the rules. It’s a bold move. Breaking escalator rules can have drastic consequences.

The two people in front of me heading to Centralen found this out firsthand. I was standing to the right. Quietly. I know the rules. But just in front of me was a woman, also standing on the right, in a conversation with a man. Standing on the left! I know, I know. How could he? But he did. A rebel without a cause.

Just above us appeared a man, walking on the left with an air of self-importance, a black sweater over his dress shirt matching his black pants and black shoes. He did not approve. So much so that he stopped. He looked on with disgust at the man, who, apologizing in broken Swedish, sucked in and hugged the railing of the left side of the escalator. Our friendly Swede continued to look on with disgust at the man. He did not move. He did not take the space offered and walk past. He said, loudly: stand there! and pointed to the right. That’s it. No please, no thank you, no politeness at all. It was a command. And the man listened and the man moved to the right. The Swede blew past him with not a word of thanks or acknowledgement. He then came to the end of the escalators and waited for the subway to arrive. He did not have to hurry. He was just mean.

The guy might have had a bad day. He might have thought he was going to miss the subway. He might have been tired. I don’t know. There are a lot of possibilities. The worst, of course, is that he was just a racist, calmly commanding someone who was not like him to bow to his demands. Expecting, even knowing, that he was in the right and thus did not need to be a decent human. That’s the worst-case scenario. Maybe it’s unlikely, but, as I’ve written before, the latent racism in this country is alive and well – and becoming more and more blatant.

No matter the reason for this display, it does speak to the strict cultural conventions that can make this country so hard to feel a part of. Is it every Swede? Of course not. Is it every cultural tradition and display? Of course not. But Sweden is hard sometimes. It’s especially hard to learn what is and is not expected. What is and is not accepted. And those little things? Like escalator etiquette? Those things that you don’t necessarily think about if you’ve lived here for years and years and years? They matter and can be used as a tool to mark someone as other.

Welcome to Sweden. And escalator etiquette.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Strangers in Sweden

My name is not a common one in the United States. I’ve met four other Americans in my 30 years. That’s one every seven and a half years. Often my name is associated with people of color in the United States. Sometimes, after an introduction I hear: You’re the only white person I’ve ever met with that name. I don’t know how to respond. You should travel more? You need to stop arbitrarily associating names with races? Talk to my parents?

In Sweden though, my name is quite common. Here I’ve probably met that many in the last four years. That’s one every year, in case the maths are hard. It even makes the list of popular Swedish names every now and again. That being said, I am still taken aback when hearing my name.

Especially at a bar. Because suddenly, out of nowhere, a Swede. In the wild. Long dirty blonde hair, pulled back. Not the color dirty blonde, just dirty. Unwashed. Braided colorful bracelets. And a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I was with a couple of people. Americans. Speaking English. And there he was, right in front of me. Hand stretched out ready to shake. Saying my name. Once. Slowly. In Swedish.

I panicked. Did I know him? Someone I had met before? Friend? Enemy? Frenemy? Nothing. And then it dawned on me. He was just introducing himself. We had the same name. I did not know him. He did not know me. I responded, politely, in Swedish. He attempted to introduce himself to the others at the table. He was met with blank stares. Swedish is hard.

He switched to English, claiming that he was more fluent in English than he was in Swedish. You’ll be surprised to know that he was not. Of course, that raised the question, why was a Swede introducing himself to a table of strangers. I panicked again. He kept talking. Slowly. Like he was just really tired. Or really bored. He continued to suck down his cigarette while explaining his chosen line of study. And now I was the one that was really bored. Finally, his cigarette gone, he lost interest in boring the hell out of strangers and walked away.

That’s when I realized just how strange it all was. Not the name thing. It’s Sweden. Makes sense. The strange thing was that he was talking to us. A Swede. Not an American. Talking to strangers. And early in the evening. And not drunk. Even just a few weeks in, I’ve gotten used to silence, not having to talk to people, not having to, eww, meet new people. And then this. An outgoing Swede. The horror.

Welcome to Sweden. And friendly strangers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lunch in the Park

A few days ago I dug deep into my reserve of Swedishness. I was looking for a bench to sit down on and eat my sandwich of toasted bread, butter, mustard, and ham. It’s a lunchtime staple for me here in Sweden. But to truly enjoy a sandwich of that caliber, you need a nice bench and some sunlight.

As I walked out of the archive, I looked right only to see a man plop down on a sunny bench. I kept walking. There must be a bench around somewhere. How about the one near the church? Nope. One woman sitting there. The other one? Nope, an old lady sitting there. I kept walking. How about that stretch of benches in the park? Nope. One person on each of them. I kept walking. Everywhere I looked were sunny benches host to only one person. So I kept walking. Nearly a mile I walked until I found one. All to myself. A sun-smothered bench that was warm and quiet and the perfect place to eat my sandwich. And life was good. And I told myself that it was not strange at all to walk nearly a mile just to find a bench for myself because it meant I got a nice lunchtime walk in.

Then it happened again. The very next day. Lunch that is. It tends to be pretty regular. Except this time, I was ahead of the crowd. I’m an adult. I can eat lunch whenever I want. I don’t have to eat at noon. So I found a bench in the sun. Big enough to probably fit four people. I sat to the far right. Hugging the railing really. It seemed rude to sit right in the middle and take up too much space.

That's a not so good picture of the front of Kungliga biblioteket. Notice the benches. One person on each. Notice the ground. People sitting there. Probably to avoid sitting on the benches with someone else.
I was listening to a podcast. Eating another sandwich of toasted bread, butter, mustard, and ham. Enjoying the sun before it slowly fades into darkness as winter comes closer. And life was good. But out of the corner of my eye I saw something. A man. A bike. I heard something pushing, jostling, forcing its way through my podcast. A voice. Damn it. The man was talking to me. Asking if there was room on the bench for him. And again, I dug deep into my reserve of Swedishness. This one a different reserve. This one the reserve that avoids confrontation. That is friendly and abiding. Absolutely, I said. What I really wanted to say was No. No there’s not. I found this bench fair and square. There are other benches out here that are open. That’s why I ate lunch early. So I could claim a bench to myself. Find your own bench. Because apparently, in the ten days I’ve been back, I’ve turned into a bitter old man.

Of course, as those thoughts rushed through my head, he responded to them. As if he knew. Thank you, all the other benches are in the shade. Well-played, sir, well-played. We sat quietly and ate our sandwiches. He broke the silence to tell me about his cell phone problems. I listened politely and laughed at the right time. Smiled even. I’m very charming.

He finally left in silence. I had outwaited him. The bench was mine again. But my happiness was short lived. Coming from the left again, I saw movement. This time a couple. A super Swedish, blonde-haired couple. Black tights for her. Backslick for him. The same. Exact. Question. Was there room on the bench for the two of them? Absolutely, with a smile. But I lied. There wasn’t room. This bench wasn’t big enough for the both of us. Let alone the three of us. So I drank the rest of my water, brushed the breadcrumbs off of my shirt, packed away my sandwich bag to be used another day, and left.

Welcome to Sweden. And park bench politics.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sweatpants and Swedish Fashion

A couple of days ago I saw a young man wearing a pair of sweatpants while riding the subway. In Stockholm, Sweden. I considered just stopping right there. Not writing another word. Just letting that sink in. I know. I know. You’re thinking he must have been drunk. Or American. Or both. Unlike the last visibly drunk man I had a run-in with just a few days ago, this man did not fall into me and almost spill his open beer. Which is clearly my standard for sobriety. And he probably wasn’t American because he was not chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! while shotgunning a Bud Heavy in his tennis shoes and ‘Merica-themed t-shirt. Which is clearly my standard for American citizenship. But despite all this, he was wearing sweatpants while riding the subway in Stockholm, Sweden.

Now, as many of my friends know, I am pretty much a fashion guru. If there’s a fashion trend, I know about it. My wardrobe consists of fashionable labels that can only be found at the most exclusive of stores. Like Kohl’s. That t-shirt from Work Out West that I still wear regularly 14 years later? No longer in production. I took that from my old employer fair and square. Today, it’s retro. Those neon orange sweatpants acquired that same year? Also retro. The fact that I just searched for “retro fashion” to see if it was actually called “retro” or “vintage” on Also retro. And it really speaks to my expertise on the subject.

Fine. It was Google, not AskJeeves. But Jeeves was the best. I used to actually write full on questions into AskJeeves instead of key words.

Anyway when there are Swedish fashion trends to be discussed, I’m the one to do it. Like the guy walking through Humlegården wearing a blue blazer, dark jeans, and pumped up retro Nike basketball shoes. Business casual in Sweden.

But the guy on the subway was different. He wasn’t business casual. He was fashion casual with his sweatpants. Gray, tight-fitting, belt loop-having, zipper-equipped, sweatpants. I was fascinated. Probably creeped the poor guy out by just staring at his pants. It couldn’t be helped though. He was rocking the sweatpants.

At first I thought they were just normal gray pants. Slacks might be what they’re called. Then a little ball of fabric caught my eye. Right on his knee. It looked familiar. Like something that nearly all of my clothes eventually degrade to. His pants were pilling! He was wearing sweatpants! With belt loops and a zipper! So many exclamation marks!

If anything though, this gives me hope. Hope for a future where my neon orange sweatpants – those of the no zipper, no belt loops, and no form; those of the floppy elastic, holes in the pocket, holes in the knees, holes in the groin, and holes in the butt – will be accepted. Hope that I will one day be able to venture outside in them. In Stockholm, Sweden. Secure in my comfort. Secure in my sweatpants. Secure in my fashion casual. But maybe not.

Welcome to Sweden. Is retro fashion a thing?