Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Swedish Winter Uniform

Along with a crowd of morning commuters, I stepped off the light rail to be met by six young women in front of us. They were 15 maybe? I stutter-stepped as they passed in front of me. My eyes followed them as they walked by. I stared and shook my head in wonder. The crowd just cleared in front of them, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Electric Company opening up holes for OJ Simpson, that dude who forgot to wear deodorant sitting on the subway.

I’m at an age where this behavior is especially creepy. It’s creepy at any age, but it’s especially creepy at an age when the group of women you’re staring at is half your age. So let me explain. These women were in uniform. Not a military uniform. Or a nurse’s uniform. Or a delivery uniform. They were in the Swedish winter uniform.

Black pants. Black boots. Black puffy jackets. Four of which had (fake?) fur hoods. Three of which were identical with the same design and the same logo. The other two were puffy and hoodless. It was like some sort of armed force coming at me. I was waiting for them to either assassinate someone or break into synchronized song and dance. Those were clearly the only two possible options. I didn’t stick around to find out which one did happen. I don’t like assassinations OR musicals.

Lest you think I only stare creepily at young women, men wear a uniform as well. You may be surprised to find out that the color of choice is black. A common uniform includes a black pea coat with dark jeans, black gloves, a black hat, and then an understated (but dark-colored) scarf.

Of course variants of this national folk dress occur. Scarves are a popular accessory. As are hats and gloves. Sometimes the pants are replaced by a skirt and tights. Sometimes the jacket is not puffy. Sometimes the jeans are blue. Sometimes the gloves are brown. And sometimes, but only sometimes, the coat is not black. These non-black coats generally fall into three different categories: dark blue, brown, and oh, you’re not from around here, are you?

Much of these variants seem dependent on age and perhaps even socioeconomic status. You won’t see too many people over the age of 30 or 40 wearing puffy coats. They’re out there, of course, hanging on desperately to days gone by, but the puffy style belongs to the youth. Walk around Östermalm and you’ll see a lot of brown leather gloves. Walk around the university and you’ll see a lot of knitted gloves. Walk around central station with the masses and you’ll see just the classic black gloves you grew up with.

But there are brave souls who walk among us. They dare to be different. Instead of eschewing color, they embrace it, making it a part of who they are. Or at least what they wear. I pass them on the streets and I smile. Not at them, God no, this is Sweden, but I smile straight ahead thanks to these contrarians.

I’ll admit it. I’ve succumbed to the uniform, albeit with a dash of color. I wear a black pea coat with dark blue jeans. I’ve got a pair of clodhoppers that are dark brown and keep me from slipping on the icy sidewalks. I even wear gloves that look to be knitted (they are not. I bought them at H&M). So far, it’s all pretty standard. And then, as if to look Sweden straight in the eye, throw back my head, and laugh the laugh of the pretentious foreigner who focuses on all that is wrong with the country so as to hold on to any and all feelings of superiority, I wear a bright orange hat. Like don’t-shoot-me-while-I’m-hunting orange. Like look-at-me-I’m-different orange. Like U-S-A!-U-S-A!-U-S-A! orange. And while I’ve assimilated in quite a few ways, I have limits. And my orange hat shall remained perched atop my head, a beacon of color in this dark Swedish winter.

Welcome to Sweden. And little acts of winter rebellion.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Please, sir, I want some more…

The third and fourth weeks of January are, most likely, the poorest weeks of the year for people living in Sweden. I blame the holidays. Actually, lots of people blame the holidays. But it also has to do with the way Sweden doles out money.

Money is important after you’ve just spent most of it on presents, ham, and alcohol. Not necessarily in that order. If you have kids, you may have spent even more money on presents and alcohol. I don’t know. Santa needs his Christmas cheer in liquor form to make it through the night. Anyway, families with children are often staring at a whole lot of red in their accounts come January.

Luckily for parents, there’s the ever popular barnbidrag. It’s an allowance that goes to the parents recognizing their ability to create a child. Every kid is, according to the Swedish government, worth a solid 1 050 SEK per month. Fun fact though, that money doesn’t get paid out until the 20th of every month.

There are a lot of days between Christmas, New Years, and the 20th of January. So on January 19th, people throughout Sweden eat macaroni. If they really stuck to their Christmas budget you might see some hotdogs in that macaroni or maybe some falukorv on the table.

But what about us? Those who don’t have children? Who don’t want children? Who can’t have children? We’re poor too! And we’re poor for even longer. That’s because payday here in Sweden is the 25th of every month for the vast majority of people. That’s right. You get one paycheck per month. Twelve per year. None of this get-paid-twice-per-month nonsense here. There’s one big deposit in your bank account so you can pay your bills, rack up more bills, and drink yourself into a krona-induced stupor. It’s amazing. People fill the streets, single-handedly attempting to bolster the Swedish economy. And, based on absolutely zero data but a trained folklorists eye, totally true.

If you’re good at math, you’ll notice that there are even more days between Christmas, New Years, and the 25th of January. So on January 24th, child-less people will be eating frozen pizza or spaghetti with ketchup. Except for the child-less people with high-paying jobs. They have way more disposable income and will obviously be eating filet mignon and drinking champagne.

Welcome to Sweden. And holiday hangovers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sound and the (Stockholm) Fury

My doorbell clanged. Loudly. It took me a second to figure out what the noise was. I turned off my music and waited half a beat. My brain caught up with my ears and I realized I should probably answer the door.

I don't really know what I was expecting. Maybe a neighbor with a welcome-to-the-new-apartment cake. Maybe a neighbor asking for sugar. Maybe the police finally catching me for eating that chocolate covered almond from my bag of delicious nuts the other day at Hemköp before I paid. I just couldn’t resist. It was dark chocolate, too. They get me every time. Pretending to be healthy. Anyway, I was not expecting a small blonde man with a not-completely identifiable accent (German? Austrian? Swiss?) speaking English to me.

He spoke. That’s a short sentence, but an important one in Sweden. Because neighbors, by law and political legislation, are barred from speaking to each other. It's in every rental contract or mortgage that you ever sign. Just check the fine print. I’m sure it’s there somewhere. It’s the only logical explanation.

But this man spoke. He fumbled for words at first, but they kept coming. More words in just a couple of minutes than all of the words I had heard in the four months of living in my previous apartment. Seriously. I spoke, max, three sentences with my neighbors at the last place. This diarrhea of the mouth was so unexpected. I was scared. Nervous. Excited. Then confused.

He was complaining about the noise. I explained that I had just moved in. I said three days, but it had been about eight by then. I don't know why I lied. It didn't seem like a lie when it came out of my mouth. You know exactly what I mean. Don’t judge me.

The time period didn't matter though. This had been going on for a while, he explained. Between 10.30pm and midnight he often heard banging noises from the apartment above. My current apartment. He'd come up before to complain. He knew someone was home, he heard noises and saw lights. No one answered though.

He kept telling me all of this. Never making a move to wrap things up. Never making a move to leave. I told him I'd try to be quiet. That I wouldn't be slamming doors or drawers late at night. And he kept telling me the same things. Again and again and again. I smiled and nodded and reached deep into my well of politeness, eventually stifling a laugh.

Banging between 10.30pm and midnight? No one answering when he came to the door? Come on buddy, what do you think was going on up here? Put two and two together. Or in this case probably one and one. Or maybe two and one. I don’t know what the person living here before me was in to.

Despite the comedy, it was kind of fascinating. I’ve gone from a small house with ten apartments to a large university housing complex with over 100. It’s a completely different world where people acknowledge each other. Doors are held, apologizes are verbalized, I even had someone tell me goodnight after leaving the elevator. I haven’t spoken to this many strangers in Sweden in, well, probably ever.

Here in Stockholm, people joke about looking out the peephole of their door to avoid leaving the apartment when their neighbors are in the halls. It’s silly, dramatized, exaggerated, but there might be a bit of truth to it. And by might be I mean that I did it. Once. Just once. I was younger then. Experimenting. But still. I did it. Because there are stretches here in Stockholm where the silence can wend its way into your very being. The way you live your life can be affected by silence. So a noise complaint after just a few days in my new place? It was just what I needed as a remind that it doesn’t have to be like that.

Welcome to Sweden. And things that go bump, or hump, in the night.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Penis, Penis, Penis. Vagina, Vagina, Vagina.

Read that title out loud. With some panache. That’s right, panache. Bold words, I know. But it feels good, doesn’t it?

You don’t need to read this out loud, but let’s try it again: Vagina. Penis. Testicles. Genitals. Most of us have at least one of those things. Some of us have more than one. Some of us have none. This isn’t news. You can find pictures of all of those things online. But now Swedish genitals are making waves online. Surprisingly, if you buy into the sexualized Swede stereotype, it doesn’t involve the search terms “hot Swedish nudes” or “Swedish tits.” Instead it involves children and the words snipp and snopp. Basically, those words are the kid way of saying vagina (actually: vulva and I've updated this to reflect that despite vagina and vulva often being used interchangeably in everyday American English) and penis, respectively.

SVT, the Swedish TV broadcaster, has several different programs designed specifically for children. One, Bacillakuten, teaches children about the body, including body parts. Like penises and vulvas. The show is starting its 2015 season and posted a clip with a catchy little number. That catchy little number reminds us all about the glories that are penises and vulvas. The catchy little number is sung by catchy little animated penises and vulvas. An old lady vulva with a cane even makes an appearance reminding us that even old lady vulvas are elegant.

Chances are, you’ve seen this floating around the internet. Maybe even watched the clip already, or even watched the show. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

When I decided to jump on the bandwagon and comment about this video, I thought it would be as easy as heading over to YouTube and grabbing the link. It was not. Unless someone has snuck in and put the childlock on my laptop, YouTube required me to login to watch this one minute video from a Swedish children’s show. You know, because the video could be offensive to my young and innocent eyes and ears. By logging in, I could confirm that I was, in fact, old enough to watch an animated dancing penis and vulva sing a song.

There's so much to be said here. I'll just leave you with the ridiculousness that is
a content warning on a video produced by Barnkanalen.
Having shown the proper ID, I watched the clip. A few times even. I smiled. I nodded. I even sang along a bit. The world did not end. My morals were not immediately compromised. I did not go blind, nor did my palms turn hairy. Wait. That’s masturbation, right? Anyway, I’m going to go out on a limb here as a childless, white, middle class man (because no one ever listens to us): it’s going to be ok. If you don’t want your kids to watch it, don’t watch it. No one is forcing you, or them, to watch the cutest penis and vulva I have ever seen sing a song.

And anyway, there’s plenty of other stuff to watch, which I’m sure will educate, enlighten, and entertain. Like Biss och Kajs, two adults dressed up as pee and poop who have adventures together. Kiss means pee and bajs means poop in Swedish. See what they did there? They switched the first letters? See? Get it? Get it? I know, it's hilarious, isn't it?

Welcome to Sweden. And children’s TV.

Johan Holmström is responsible for this amazing piece of art. And the lyrics are below. I didn’t translate them. You can do that yourself. You’re an adult. Or you at least know how to use the internet.

Snoppen och Snippan
Popi-dopp-pop snippedi snopp!
Här kommer snoppen i full galopp.
Han som inga brallor har
dinglar med snoppen och rumpan bar.
Snippan är häftig, ja det kan du tro.
Till och med på en gammal tant
snippan sitter där så elegant.

Så olika med nästan samma grej
Kissa kiss igenom snoppen eller snippan om man är tjej.

Snoppen och snippan vilket härligt gäng
Snippan och snoppen sjunger vår refräng
Snoppen och snippan finns på vår kropp

Hänger och slänger på en liten kropp
Snippan är häftig, Baby I Love You.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Shhhh… It’s Rush Hour in Stockholm

It’s been a busy few weeks here in Sweden. Girlfriend visiting. Family visiting. Travels up and down the country. Trains and boats and cars. And of course, lots and lots of public transportation.

The week before Christmas I was out with some folks on a Friday night. We headed home at around midnight. Not really a wild night, but this was the first Friday night in Stockholm for AJR so I warned her that it might be a bit wild. Friday and Saturday night seems to be the acceptable time to yell, sing, vomit, and generally harass people while on the subway. Especially at Slussen, which is where we were. But we were met by a relatively calm scene. There were some hipsters. And some bros. And some drunks. But mostly it was calm. I was a bit disappointed. I know, that’s weird and probably horrible to say, but I was hoping for a shit show to point to and say see, look at these silly drunken Swedes. Aren’t they embarrassing? But alas.

I tell you all this not because it was a story without a point. It was. And is. But because I’ve grown used to warning visitors about wild Swedes on a Friday night (just see rule #11 of the Ten Rules for the Stockholm Subway). Especially visitors who have grown accustomed to riding the subway during the week when all is well and good. That wellness and goodness came to a head on a Wednesday night during rush hour—17.39 to be exact. People are heading home. There are no seats to be had. There are professionals leaving work and parents picking up children and dogs. All of the things are happening. But they are happening in silence. So much silence that I made a video. Enjoy about 30 seconds of rush hour on the Stockholm subway system. Feel free to crank up the volume. You might need it:


Welcome to Sweden. And rush hour. Silent, silent rush hour.

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

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.