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 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.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Kilos of Kantareller

There are some things that seem to be inherent to Sweden. Candles. Kölappar. Kantareller. Or chanterelles. A word I don’t know how to pronounce in English. It’s a mushroom for those of you who are less fungally inclined.

Last weekend I went hiking in the woods with a buddy of mine. Hiking is maybe the wrong word. A walk. A walk in the woods. Nearly an eight-mile walk in the woods, but still a walk. Hiking suggests to me some sort of hill. There was no hill.

We had our requisite hotdogs that were twice the length of the bun. There was some fruit. Some saft. It was a proper weekend picnic on a proper Swedish autumn day. But as we continued to walk, we kept noticing other people weighed down by something. Baskets were filled. Bags were filled. People were stooped over, eyes glued to the forest floor. Mushroom pickers! Each and every one of them. Except for us.

And that’s when my own personal version of American exceptionalism kicked in. I can do that. Pick mushrooms. It can’t be that hard. My buddy, tapping his Australian exceptionalism, agreed. So we started hunting for mushrooms. Now, despite both of us having Swedish citizenship, we somehow missed the fungi identification course. Or the fungi test. Or the fungi gene. Or whatever it is that apparently allows Swedes to wander through the forest picking mushrooms without dying.

We knew what chanterelles looked like. Kind of. We’d both bought them at the store. They’re kind of golden colored. Kind of funnel shaped. Kind of easy to identify. So we stopped talking to each other. We stopped looking up and started looking down. We were out to earn that passport.

He found one first. In fact, he looked down and declared that he would find a chanterelle just next to the path. And he did. I did not. I wandered away. Sad and dejected. But still searching. Kind of like a sad puppy that wanders away sad and dejected but still searching for happiness. Similes are hard.
That's a kilo of kantareller. Edible kantareller.

But as we continued searching, we started finding mushrooms that seemed chanterelle-esque. They were a little smaller. A little browner. A little less funnel-y. But we kept picking. We started understanding which trees they seemed to grow near. What kind of ground we should be looking for. We’re pretty quick studies. And all of a sudden we each had about a kilo of mushrooms in our little plastic lunch bags. Of course, we still weren’t sure we actually had something edible, but we had something, damn it.

So home we went. He to his wife, me to my chilinuts. We agreed to do some research. You know, so we would avoid dying. Or at least pooping so much we felt like dying. He asked his wife. Yup. Trattkantareller. I sent a picture to my dad and then called him on Skype. I figure if he can diagnose a faulty distributor cap on a car in Sheraton, Australia, from Greeley, Colorado, he can identify an edible mushroom. Yup. Trattkantareller. Success. One kilo of trattkantareller. And confirmation that mushroom identification is inherent to Swedes. Because two people were able to identify them. And that’s science.

Welcome to Sweden. And mushroom hunting.