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. 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.

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.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Winter is Coming

See what I did with the title there? Because I’m hip to pop culture. That’s not true. I’ve only seen one episode of that show. But I read the first three books. And they just kept going. And going. And going. And so much happened. But nothing happened. And they kept going. Like this paragraph. On and on and on and on. And so I quit.

See what I did there? Again? I know.

But seriously. Winter is coming. As in the season that follows autumn. And in Sweden that means two very important things that will dominate the lives of every single person in the country. Cold and dark. Dark and cold. Depending on where you are in the country it might be a bit darker or a bit colder, but it doesn’t really matter where you’ll be. It’s still cold and dark. Dark and cold.

It’s about this time of the year though, that people start preparing for the winter. Animals start prepping for hibernation. Swedes prepare for anti-hibernation. Or at least winter preparations in this country involve things that are meant to avoid falling into a seasonal depression, which can and does happen.

I’m here on a grant for my dissertation research. I’ve mentioned that already to remind people that everything I say is my own opinion and doesn’t represent anyone else and blah blah blah. But the other day I was at an orientation meeting in which all the grantees were welcomed to Sweden. We were given information to get us through our year here in the country. We were also warned about the darkness. Fear the darkness. Embrace the darkness. Be one with the darkness.

Fuck that.1 Fight the man! I mean the darkness. Fight the darkness!

We can pretend all we want that the hours and hours of darkness are romantic and beautiful in their own right. That may be true for a few days. Maybe even a few weeks. But the winter is long. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to fight the darkness:

Buy candles. Candles should be one of the four standing items on your grocery list. Milk?2 Check. Bread? Check. Chilinuts? Check. Candles? Check. Buy candleholders. Nice ones. Cheap ones. Doesn’t matter. Do what feels right, as long as you buy candleholders. Then buy the candles to fill them. You can buy the tiny little tea lights, which will keep you warm for hours and can be used as a heater in your car in a pinch. Trust me. I once drove through a snowstorm from Stockholm to Helsingborg in a Saab with no heat wearing my ski gear and balancing lit tea lights on the dash. It worked.
That's the cute little bear that's keeping me safe.

Living your winter in darkness can be dangerous. It’s one of the reason there are so many reflective children running around with vests and telephone numbers printed on them. But children aren’t the only reflective beings in Sweden. Everywhere you look, people will have little reflectors attached to their clothing and bags. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Or how fancy you are. People hang these things on themselves as if to taunt the darkness. Ha, darkness. You think you’re concealing me from that driver sliding on the black ice? Wrong. I have a reflector and am safe in my glimmering, shivering ignorance.

Seriously. Lunch. No one cares what you eat. There are all kinds of suggestions about making sure you get a lot of vitamin D and omega threes in your diet while limiting caffeine and sugar. That’s fine. But that’s not what lunch is for. Lunch is for going outside. Every day. Go outside at lunch and hope to whatever you hope to and pray to whatever you pray to that the sun will grace you with its presence. Because lunch is the one time of the day that a large chunk of Sweden is not dark.

Along with the darkness comes the cold. People think the cold is less charming than the darkness. But that’s a comparison with no clear winner. Or loser. But don’t worry. You can fight the cold as well:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. This is patently false. And I say this only having lived in Wisconsin last winter. But in Sweden, yeah, it’s probably true. Those nice coats, gloves, hats, scarves, pants, and big boots? Those are the things that are going to allow you to go outside at lunch. They’re the things that are going to allow you to play in the snow, go ice skating, hike around the forest, or just wander around town. They’re the things that are going to allow you to beat back the cold. You’ll need them.

Drink it. You can drink it with or without alcohol. But it is one of the few warm drinks I enjoy. Along with hot chocolate. That’s it. Hot chocolate and glögg. Glögg is basically a mulled wine with almonds and raisins thrown in to give you something to chew on at the end.

Grow one (if you can). They are warm and they are awesome. And if you can't (p.s. that's ok) they've thought of you with these hats.

Welcome to Sweden. If you live way up north, sorry—you’re fucked.3

1 Sorry,mamma. I’m an adult now. Sometimes I say bad words.
2 Almond milk for me nowadays. I can’t drink the good stuff.
3 Seriously, mamma, don’t judge me.