Sunday, December 07, 2008

Swedishness in Public Transportation

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.

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  1. haha ok maybe a bit over-exaggerated at the end with swedes wanting "absolute silence" I've never been to sthlm so I don't how it is there but Im from Gothenburg and here peoplel like party on the trams all the time, and it's not very quiet at all.

    About the mineral water, which I love! You have got to taste "Loka, likes asia, Himalayan High" it's with white tea and white peach.. goddam delicious!


  2. well maybe a little bit. but stockholmers are a special breed of swedes.

    loka is delicious. I havent tried the himalayan high yet though. Ill give it a shot.

  3. To be fair to the old lady, the whole mobile phone etiquette has been a real hot potato for several years on SL. I used to have a daily commute from Nynäshamn to Centralen and I can't tell you how annoying it got in the end to have to listen to hour long CRAP conversations.

    For five years I was forced to listen to loud arguments, a plethora of extremely intimate and what should have been private conversations about the state of someone's private parts, how drunk they were and how they exposed themselves, the fact they found their mate in bed with the dog/next-door neighbour/postman/whatever. The whole "Sen hon ba...och då ba..."

    I hated being a captive audience to loud people, fighting, arguing with the kids, badmouthing their workmates all via the mobile telephone. Even when some trains and buses had mobile-free carriages or sections, it made no difference as it was completely ignored.

    There have been a few incidents of "phone rage" on trains and one friend witnessed someone grab a phone from a loud, raucous teenage girl who had been annoying everyone and hurl it out the train window. The whole carriage applauded.

    Maybe the older woman is just sick to death of it all and thought she'd stop it before it got going. Bad luck for the young woman though.

  4. What can I say? You are right. Simply. And I'm willing to take my individual responsibility to make a change. You've got an utmaning hos mig

  5. Im pretty sure you can find old neglected ladies and stubborn individuals anywhere in the world though.

  6. Marie, if you don't want to hear other people talking when you go into town to your little job as a cashier at ICA or whatever it is you do, get a car and drive! In public spaces you have to understand that there's other people and that people have conversations with other people. It's all part of normal life. Just accept it or buy a car or power walk or whatever.. Just stop being such a streber and make us all read your stupid, ridiculous little complaints. Skcika en insändare till din lokaltidining om det är så jävla jobbigt! suck...

  7. @Marie - That’s fair enough, sometimes it can be borderline rude. But the woman who answered my phone was outside. Standing at the bus stop. Waiting for the bus.

    But you’re right, there can be some conversations that should not be had on a cell phone out in public. It can be horribly awkward. It’s like people forget there are others around them. at the same time though, sometimes you just have to laugh at what people say in public.

    @emma – that’s what I like to hear.

    @anonymous – that’s very true. It was just the timing of it all.

    @the entertainer – well, a bit overblown Id have to say. Because while I don’t necessarily agree with Marie on all counts, there are instances where people need to realize, as you said, that they are in public spaces. but as I said above... sometime despite my misgivings, it can be damn funny to hear what people say on a cell phone.

  8. If you think it's funny what people say in public when they think that others can't hear them, maybe you should check out quite fun actually

  9. @ the entertainer: From your arrogance and rudeness, I presume you are a stockholmare. Public spaces does not imply that people should put up with anything. People who yell in their phones needs to be lectured.

  10. @s - I love that website. I actually have a link to it here on my blog off to the side.

    I check it every day. which may or may not be kind of pathetic of me.

    @jesper - Im all for a bit of cell phone etiquette at times. although I also think that when so many people have cell phones there should be some tolerance.

    cant we all just get along?

    damn that was a very swedish response...

  11. You could start commenting loud on conversations, for the fun of it. Like: oh yeah? And then? Weird. Sounds good. Eksakt, absolut. Precis. Jag förstår... LOL!

  12. well, I've done that on accident before. when someone was talking on a hands on and I responded. felt like an idiot.

    but it might be more fun if I was doing it on purpose.