Thursday, September 11, 2014

Swedish Election 2014

There’s an election on Sunday here in Sweden. An important one. For a variety of reasons actually. One because there could be a party with a firmly feminist platform-fittingly known as Feministiskt initiative (Feminist Initiative). If they get in, there are going to be eight parties in parliament plus an extra group of racists under the auspices of being a political party. They call themselves Sverigedemokraterna. Remember them? I managed to stumble over one of their political rallies on only my second day back in Sweden. Another reason is, of course, that the government could swing from right to left. It is currently led by the conservative coalition, Alliansen, led by Moderaterna.

This post though isn’t really meant to be about racist political parties, of which there is growing support. It’s more about campaign politics in general here in Sweden and just a couple of things I’ve noticed. Since my last election here in Sweden, which was actually eight years ago now, a few things have changed. Or at least it seems so to my untrained political eye. For one thing, there seems to be much more individual political campaigning. Vote for this person. Vote for that person. It feels very American in that way. Of course, don't get me wrong. Socialdemokraterna have ads on the subway promising people that they will NOT cut taxes. Which does not feel very American.

Read my lips. No new tax cuts.
My experience with Swedish elections has been that it is more of vote for the party, not the person. In the US, where there are only two parties, that doesn’t give you much choice. Or chance of seeing any actual change if you choose to vote for a third party. In Sweden though, there’s next to zero chance of any one party getting a majority of the vote. That means coalitions need to be formed. Usually right vs. left. But that means that all those little parties that get in, they actually have a bit of a bargaining chip. It means all those little parties can actually move the bigger party one way or the other. It’s what the Tea Party has done in the US. It’s what Sverigedemokraterna and FI are hoping to do in Sweden. Move the coalition left or right.

And then there are the valstugor. The election cabins. They’re kind of amazing. Imagine a lovely little 50 square foot cabin. Maybe it’s that classic Swedish copper red, ubiquitous in Dalarna. It’s got a gently sloping roof. Maybe it has a small table, some chairs, even a kitchenette. No toilet though, sorry. Now take away all the windows, add a double door up front, and plaster it with election posters. Place several from each party in a small area. Ta da! Election cabin. 

That's a high-powered campaign being run out of a tiny little playhouse.
In these cabins you’ll find volunteers handing out election materials, talking to voters, and, if you’re Sverigedemokraterna, surrounded by groups of angry teenagers (usually young men and women of color) at Sergels torg. I love them. The valstugor that is. These do not exist in the US. At least not that I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame. I don’t know where they’ve come from. I’ve heard someone say the 1940s is when they started, but they really gained prominence in the 1970s. I don’t have the slightest clue. Wikipedia was of no use. And as we all know, if it isn’t on Wikipedia, it’s probably lost to the entire world for all eternity.

And finally, the feminists. They are painting the town pink. Or at least parts of it. There are pink blankets covering statues of lions in little squares around town. There are pink balloons hanging in bars. There’s Feminist style police tape wrapped around light posts. There are even pink hippopotamuses popping up encouraging people to vote out the racists and vote in the feminists. 

That's a pink river horse.
A couple weeks ago, out with some Americans, I walked into a bar that looked fun. It was. The doorman, in English, said simply. Come on in. It’s a feminist party! And it was. Later that evening after drinks, it was time for a kebab. And at the table next to us, four Swedish men were discussing the Feminist Initiative. Quite positively. Excited about the national conversation that the party had started. Excited that they have forced the other parties to discuss sexism as a legitimate issue. I loved it. And did not recognize it at all from an American perspective, where feminism is still a bad word for many politicians.

Welcome to Sweden. If you can vote, do. But not for Sverigedemokraterna.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Ten Rules for the Stockholm Subway

I spend a lot of time in libraries. In fact, there are four library cards in my wallet now. It’s a little silly to be honest, but I use them all. All that time in libraries has helped me train my inside voice. As an American, it’s something I try to work on while abroad. My inside voice. I’m getting good at the projected whisper. What is surprising though is how useful that projected whisper has become. Especially on the subway.

The subway culture in this country fascinates me. The silence. The waiting. The pushing. The awkwardness. It’s all there. And there is very much a proper way to behave on this Stockholm subway system.

That proper way to behave holds true even on a Friday during rush hour when everyone is heading home from work. I, of course, was not on my way home from work. Or not really. I had spent the day in a library reading about women who traveled back and forth between Sweden and the US in the early 1900s. Which is a kind of work. One that allows me to still wear a backpack at the age of 30. You should probably be jealous. And maybe pity me just a bit.

I was on the subway with a friend. We were talking. And it was quiet. So I lowered my voice. Now we were talking politics. Well actually the labor movement in the 1910s and ‘20s, but still. Politics. I lowered my voice not because of the subject, but because of the place. And then I realized what I had done. Friday evening. Rush hour. And it was so quiet that I felt it necessary to use my projected whisper. And I kind of liked it.

That’s when I realized just how acculturated to the Stockholm subway system I have become. There are a lot of rules. Some of them are explicit. Certain cars are available to dogs. Others are not. If you see someone get stuck in the door, pull the emergency brake. Se upp för dörrarna. You know, the usual. Other rules are less explicit. Unwritten even. Until now. So, after years of careful study, in-depth fieldwork, and years of living among the very people I am studying, here are ten rules to the Stockholm subway system:
Look at all those rules being followed here!
  1. Shhhhh. Always.
  2. Do not look anyone in the eye. Ever.
  3. If you don’t want to take your newspaper with you, hang it on the handrail under the window.
  4. Stand right in front of the door when it opens during rush hour. Both to get on and off. You were there first. But be warned. I will judge you. Others won’t though. They’ll be trying to get in front of you.
  5. Shhhhh. Still.
  6. Do not talk to strangers. Ever.
  7. If you don’t want someone to sit next to you, put your bag on the seat beside you. But be warned. People will, rightly, judge you. I will judge you.
  8. Do not sit next to anyone if there is an open seat somewhere else. Ever.
  9. Stare at your phone to ensure avoidance of eye contact. Even at the risk of missing your stop. Not that I've done that. 
  10. Shhhhh. Seriously, just shhhhhhhhhhh. 
Of course, rule 11 of the ten rules says ignore all of these rules on Friday and Saturday night after drinking for several hours. Sprawl out on the seats. Make out on the seats. Drink on the seats. Vomit on the seats. But only on Friday and Saturday night.

Welcome to Sweden. And subway silence. Sweet, sweet subway silence.

P.S. Feel free to add your own unwritten rules in the comments.

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.

*(September 2, 2014) I've had some comments/emails about my comments about neo-Nazis being protected under the guise of freedom of speech. First, I am always torn by free speech issues, mostly because I am not an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. I think it is dangerous to fetishize the idea that every single utterance is protected. Including hate speech. Of course, I really like the idea that you can say things that aren't popular and not be prosecuted for that. It can be useful, you know, government tyranny, crushing of dissent, etc. Hence, the being torn part.

That being said, Sweden has a pretty straight-forward law against hate speech, which is why I am confused by the police protection being offered. It states (and I found the English version):
A person who, in a disseminated statement or communication, threatens or expresses contempt for a national, ethnic or other such group of persons with allusion to race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religious belief shall, be sentenced for agitation against a national or ethnic group to imprisonment for at most two years or, if the crime is petty, to a fine. (Law 1988:835)

Which seems to me covers the entire platform of Svenskarnas parti. But still they have police protection. Now THAT being said, I'm not even going to pretend to know exactly how all that stuff actually works in real life, but it seems like it should cover a lot of the nonsense being spouted by the neo-Nazis.

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.