I’ve been feeling talkative lately. I complain a lot about the quiet of the Swedes, especially on Stockholm’s public transportation, but I tend to be a somewhat quiet individual. Quiet by American standards I suppose.
But lately if I hear any English, the first question out of my mouth is: Where are you from? It’s glorious. And I’ve had a whole lot of conversations on trains, on buses, in elevators lately because of it.
And it is because of my newfound disregard for the Swedish custom of silence and personal space that in a 24 hour period I was vividly reminded of that very custom.
I was coming home on the train the other day. It wasn’t horribly late, maybe eight in the evening. I was sitting there. Quietly. Minding my own business. Obviously. When I noticed a guy sitting across the aisle from me. He had just finished eating what looked to be a large and delicious sandwich. I was hungry. He was no longer hungry. Jealousy began to rear its ugly head.
And then it got worse, because he pulled out a Ramlösa. Sparkling water. And it was flavored. Raspberry. I love raspberry.
A quick side note, I used to hate this sparkling water. It’s more club soda I suppose. Anyway, I hated it. Until I moved here. Now I make conscious decisions to buy it. I blame Sweden for this change. It’s everywhere. And can be found in just about any flavor imaginable. You’ll learn to love it once you stay here for a few months. Give it a shot. But don’t give up after that first bottle.
Back to the object of my jealousy though. He pulled out his bottle of raspberry flavored water. It was a glass bottle. Without the twisty cap. I could see his face cloud over. He didn’t have a bottle opener. He was resourceful though. Or thought he was. He pulled out his keys and started going at it. Attempting to do what my little brother can do without thinking. Create a fulcrum with his hand between the key and the bottle cap and pop it open. All within a few seconds. He was not nearly as skilled as my little brother. And kept clicking away. Metal key against metal cap. Metal keys jangling against glass bottle. But the cap was stubborn.
And this is when I spoke up. Because I have a bottle opener on my keychain. In case of emergencies just like this one. I mean, the man had just eaten a delicious sandwich. Chances are he was parched.
So despite my jealousy, I turned to him, said excuse me, got his attention and offered him my bottle opener. I had even taken it out of my pocket and was reaching across to hand it to him. He stared me down. And bluntly said: No. I can do it myself. Like an angry four year old trying to tie his shoes. Fine. Ass. Do it yourself. Which he did. A couple of stops down the line.
I couldn’t decide if this was typical Swedishness, a kind of reaction to someone talking to him on the train, or if maybe he was just pulling some sort of manliness thing and wanted to prove to himself he could open it.
But then the very next day, I found myself at the bus stop. A woman standing next to me had pulled out her phone to make a call. As the other end picked up she said, with some enthusiasm: Hej, det är jag! Hey, it’s me! She was standing right next to me. She was excited to talk to the person, but not overly excited. She wasn’t loud. She wasn’t bothering anyone. Or at least not bother me, and I was standing right next to her. I thought it was perfectly acceptable cell phone etiquette.
I thought wrong. Because standing about 6 feet away from me, that is about two meters for those of you calculating at home, was an old lady. Now I tend to associate old ladies with the word nice. As in: My what a nice old lady. Or: I helped the nice old lady cross the street. This lady was not nice. Because as the woman standing next to me talked on her phone, the old lady barked back: Quiet! You’re too loud, no one wants to hear your conversation! And by barked I mean, yelled in a nasty old lady voice. Haggard after years of barking at people.
That’s when I decided that the two events, the stubborn man and the mean old lady, while different in so many ways, spoke to that underlying desire of Swedes, or at least Stockholmers, to wander around on public transportation in complete silence. Bereft of any and all noise that might intrude in their personal bubble.
Welcome to Sweden.