Monday, January 26, 2009

Acute Swedishness... I Think

I bore witness to an acute act of Swedishness. Or blatant racism. I can’t decide which.

I was sitting on the train on my way home the other night. It wasn’t horribly late, 6:30ish maybe. I had missed the rush hour traffic, because it was a Friday. And rush hour in Sweden on a Friday starts around 3.

Anyway, there were a few seats available on the train. Not a lot, but enough for me not to have to fight for one. Sitting in a pod of four seats by himself was a middle-aged man. I actually wouldn’t have paid much attention to his age except for the fact that his age didn’t match his appearance. He had somewhat spiky hair. An earring. And a dragon ring on his right hand. But he was at least 35, maybe 40. It just didn’t fit. So I took notice.

I made my way over and sat down. Diagonally from him. When you enter this country they actually give you a rulebook. One of the rules being if you are sitting down next to someone always put as much space as possible between you and the other person. So I did.

However, two other people, who obviously knew each other were following right behind me. So I scooted in so that they could sit across from each other. A third guy, who seemed to know one of the two other gentlemen wandered by. In one of those happy to see you moments they noticed each other and exchanged a brief greeting in a different language. One which I decided was Swahili. Based on my very, very, very limited knowledge of the language. Tangential at best. Anyway, all three gentlemen were black.

The third man was on the phone though so continued with his conversation while the other two men sat down. At which point the dragon ring wearing middle-aged man got up. In a bit of a huff. And then he went and sat on the floor. The floor of the train. No one had asked him for his seat. No one had shown any interest in his seat. He just got up and went and sat on the floor of the train. The floor. Not another seat. He didn’t go stand. He sat on the floor. Like a four year old pouting because he didn’t get any lördagsgodis.

I looked to the guy to my left and gave a little shrug. I was still trying to process it all. It was all so sudden. Who actually gets up out of their seat to instead sit on the floor? Either a Swede or a racist. Because I decided that either this was just blatant racism, and he didn’t want to sit next to a black man, or, it was blatant Swedishness. He didn’t want to sit next to anyone, black, white, brown, blue with red spots. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d like to think it was just acute Swedishness. But either way, it was quite an experience to be witness to.

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  1. A kook with identity problems who can't handle people? Anyway, some people are just sad. One can only hope he will grow up one day.

    Sweden has more than its share anti-social misfits maybe.

  2. Hairy,

    I would just put it down to a rather asocial fellow who doesn't know how to behave in public, or who likes to call attention to himself.

    But, it does raise in my mind the question: what is it to be Swedish? Perhaps you have rhetorically asked and answered this question already?

    Around 2-3 years ago I was in Malmö to attend the 100th annual Rotary Convention in Malmö and, mostly, Copenhagen. I met a lot of people, including a native Swede, a woman, to whom I put the question. Up until that point she was quite voluble (in English). She couldn't, or didn't choose to, give me an answer. There is a radio personality in the USA who says the national identity is defined by "border, language and culture." Where the lady seemed to founder was on the matter of border, given Sweden's membership in the EU. In Malmö, there are several languages spoken, although the official language in Sweden, as far as I know, is still Swedish. Perhaps "culture" is the big item, but how can anyone ever define this? Things change, people emigrate, people immigrate, some have more babies than others. Does it really matter?

  3. To me it seems like the middle-aged guy could have been on drugs. He probably saw something you didn't and reacted. Someone sitting next to him may have triggered the illusion or something.

    At least I got a hostile reseption at a bus stop in Stockholm by a drunkard. He thought I was robbing him just because I stared a time schedule above him. He called me a thief and hit me with some kind of sling. Then he left the stop. It could have been acute Swedishness, but I didn't think it that way then :)

  4. They actually hand out a rulebook?

    I would love to see that! I it avalible online or do you still have yours?

  5. Not swedishness, not racism. Just plain craziness!

  6. Swedishness would've been him staying in his seat, looking irritated, glaring at the three of you and probably sighing loudly.

    If it would have been a race issue, he'd probably have gotten up from the seat and walked over to the other end of the bus.

    But it sounds to me that huy has to be mentally ill or something...


  7. If he would act Swedish he would, as said, do nothing. A swede can't make a fuzz about himself or herself.

    Also, I don't get the whole idea of racism being related to swedishism?

  8. Micke, there are many rules in Sweden. The most important one, however, is to be on the right of the escalator if you're standing still, so you can let people pass you on the left. :)

    And about this guy, yeah, he was probably on drugs... That doesn't sound very racist nor Swedish.

  9. Let me start out by saying that me calling this an acute act of swedishness was a bit tongue in cheek. Just to avoid any misunderstanding.

    @eklandisk – agreed. The reaction was just ridiculous.

    @Ron – see that’s the thing, I think he most definitely was trying to call attention to himself. It seemed that if you really wanted to get away, you wouldn’t do so by sitting down on the floor.

    The question about Swedishness is something that really intrigues me. And its something I ask myself nearly every day, as weird as that may sound. What I find to be interesting is that so many times Swedes claim that Sweden has very little culture or any kind of –ness to it. Which I disagree with. This country has a rich history full of all kinds of culture everything from art to war.

    Your question though is a tough one to answer, because, as you say, cultures change. Languages evolve, or devolve. Even borders change. But I do believe it matters. I believe its important to be able to identify with something. Whether it be your family name, your country, or the Colorado Avalanche. It can create a sense of belonging and pride in something bigger than the individual.

    @smek – I love that story. And that the man was carrying some sort of sling is just glorious.

    @Micke – oh yeah. Its standard issue. Unfortunately they reclaim them after you have been in the country for a little over 6 months. Migrationsverket stops by and picks it up. I just remember the rules about never looking anyone in the eyes while on the train and those related to it.

    @Ewa – I think you’re absolutely right.

    @anonymous – ooooh… some good points. I forgot to take into account the classic passive aggressive move of glaring and sighing. Well done.

    @anonymous – racism isn’t related to swedishness at all.

    @mys - YES! the elevator rule is one of the golden rules. its towards the front of the rule book if I remember correctly.

  10. As pointed out ibid. I don't think that his behavior was Swedish, but just stupid. When it comes to the Swedish "rules" I think you should watch this though.. it's so "on the spot" or "klockrent!" as we say;

  11. That you tube was great!!

  12. @wee - I love it.

    @anonymous - agreed.

  13. "@Micke – oh yeah. Its standard issue. Unfortunately they reclaim them after you have been in the country for a little over 6 months. Migrationsverket stops by and picks it up. I just remember the rules about never looking anyone in the eyes while on the train and those related to it."

    This must be a joke mate :) im swede myself and have never heard the likes. Or wait, you live in sthlm, so maybe its true.

  14. definitely a joke. but Im sure theres a market for something like this.

  15. I find that when someone is in their home country (lets say Germany) and they see a person behaving horrendously they usually view it as an individual act. They would refer to the incident as done by some horrible person and seldom would they see it as being German. However, when someone moves to a new country, things change. Initially, they stop seeing people as individuals and they start seeing any good or bad behaviour as something that defines the new country. I think it is probably a very normal reaction. One is trying to make sense of the new situation, to bring ordr into the chaos within. Also, it is probably also part of being homesick. Often you see that people who have moved to escape terrible conditions in their home countries will tend to glorify that very same home country. However, after living in a new country for a while and getting a "vardag" most people go back to seeing the others as individuals and not as representatives for the country.
    This is my personal experience after moving to several countries over the past 35 years.

  16. a good point. although there is something to be said for seeing those individual actions in a broader context.