Sunday, October 04, 2009

Swedes Abroad

I’ve been away from Sweden. Traveling the world if you will. Mostly, just drinking heavily because I was at Oktoberfest. Drinking does not lend itself to writing, and so, I took a self-imposed vacation.

Oktoberfest is, quite simply, ridiculous. It is a living stereotype of excess and debauchery. I saw an Australian chug two liters of beer in approximately 30 seconds and promptly throw up. I saw another man hold a glass filled with a liter of beer by his teeth and chug it in less than 10 seconds. Look mom, no hands! I saw enough men in lederhosen to last me a lifetime. I also saw a Swedish flag. Constantly. And overwhelmingly.

Swedes are not known for their nationalism. At least as long as they are inside the Swedish border. Pride in ones nation is often seen as a negative, something more appropriate for a red neck republican from Georgia than a refined Stockholmer. Of course, the flag days, the blue and yellow that dominated so much of Swedish society, doesn’t count as nationalism. Blue and yellow are just nice colors.

But get Swedes outside of their borders and the pride runs thick. Suddenly, Sweden is the greatest nation. Suddenly, Swedish colors are worn with pride. Suddenly, Swedish flags are waved wildly. I have yet to understand this.

While at Oktoberfest, three Swedes sat down next to me. Not because they knew I was Swedish. I do not exactly scream “Swede” by my appearance. My clothes are just a tad too big. My body type is just a tad too large. I’m just a tad too American.

Often times, Swedes are easy to pick out in a crowd. They immediately made their presence felt by trying to get Australian Joe kicked out. He had made a toast a little too heartily and some beer spilled over the glass. He was drunk and working on his 6th liter of beer by around 2 in the afternoon. The fact that he could even lift his glass was a feat in my opinion. But rules are meant to be followed, and the Swedes clearly didn’t appreciate the overt drunkenness of Australian Joe. Because Oktoberfest is clearly not the place for wanton drunkenness. So the waitress was called and Joe was made to take a walk.

Of course, this didn’t enamor them in the eyes of their fellow tablemates. Neither did the flag. The constant, and obnoxious really, waving of the Swedish flag. At first, I thought maybe they were trying to wave someone else down. One of those corny tourist guide moves where the flag is used to identify the group. Twenty minutes later, despite my somewhat inebriated state, I had ruled this out. For some reason, these men felt compelled to show the Löwenbrau tent that they were Swedish.

This seems to be a common occurrence. Swedes abroad love their country. Swedes in Sweden are slow to praise it. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it with Swedes in the US. I’ve seen it with Swedes in the UK. And now I’ve seen it with Swedes in Germany.

I like pride in ones nation. I think, to an extent, it is a good thing. It builds a sense of community and gives citizens something to belong to. Something to work for. Something to serve. There’s nothing wrong with some pride as long as it comes with a healthy dose of realism.

I suppose it is because of this that I struggle with the Swedish pride. It is obviously there. I’ve lived here long enough and seen too much of it not to recognize that Swedes like Sweden. Even think it is a wonderful place to be, especially in comparison to other countries. As they should. But why it is not displayed in Sweden escapes me.

Maybe they feel so confident in their country that when inside the borders there is just no need to make a display of their pride. Or maybe Swedes have a horrible inferiority complex and need to demonstrate their nationalism to others while abroad. Or maybe they were just drunk. Either way, I’d like to see more Swedish flag stickers on the back of Saabs.

Welcome to Oktoberfest. And Swedes abroad.

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  1. so glad you are back. missed reading you!

  2. What about the little wooden flags at the dinner table? (My family in Sweden places those next to little wooden American flags at every gathering...)

  3. Maybe that what you described is more like a Stockholm syndrome :) When I travelled by car in the North of Sweden during Christmas time, there was a Swedish flag on a pole in almost every house around the road. It was dark but many Christmas lights were practically illuminating my way. Maybe the flag is more like a part of Xmas decoration nowadays..?

  4. *Blushing*
    I admit I have used the little wodden flags too. Mainly when meeting up with a bunch of people I haven't seen before, because it is easy to spot us if we have a little flag, but still...
    But seriously, there are good things about Sweden and there are things that are not so good. I am not so sure that you should pay to much attention to what happens at Octoberfest. It is for tourists. And when you are a tourist you compete with other tourists, it is like sport events.

  5. Welcome back Hairy. We've missed the Hairyness. I find Swedes extremely nationalistic, especially when hockey is involved. so much so that it's scary. And being Canadian, they really hate us and as a matter of fact, are quick to accuse us meek Canadians of Game-Fixing to explain their losses.

  6. Well, you have to take into account that what happens in Oktoberfest is like a little microcosmos on itself..can't really compare it with the outside world..

  7. "Maybe they feel so confident in their country that when inside the borders there is just no need to make a display of their pride. Or maybe Swedes have a horrible inferiority complex and need to demonstrate their nationalism to others while abroad."

    I have to say it's a bit of both.
    Some national Swedish parties (mainly built up by neo nazis) have a tendency to wave the Swedish flag all over the place while shouting out the national anthem, they have pride in their country as we all should, but they just take it to another level, as we all know.
    As you should know, Sweden is absolutely terrified of being branded as nazi, racist or fascist.
    I believe that this form of shyness of showing national pride within country stems from this as well.
    Being too proud and you will be bunted up together with the skin heads.
    I'm from north of sweden and living here in the US (Missouri, woo.. ) I am both embarrassed and proud over my country. Most of the political stuff = embarrassing. But I miss my beautiful forests, mountains and lakes/rivers of north of sweden. I miss the nature and being able to go out on a road and then walk into the woods and eat blueberries/bilberries/lingon/cloudberries/anything edible without running the risk of trespassing and getting shot!
    And I will always have pride in my upbringing over there and my sami heritage.

  8. This kind of reminds me of something I've noticed.

    When in the U.S. if someone askes someone else "What nationality are you?" they'll say German, Swedish, Filipino etc...

    But the moment they leave the U.S. if someone asks them the same question they'll say "Oh I'm American."

  9. I don't get all the flag waving inside the States. Why? Is it to remind forgetful people where they live? Who are they wanting to show it to? Other Americans? Or are all people who vote differently from the flag waver not American? Last I figured, spies and treasonous folk could just as easily put a sticker on the back of their car or a flag in their front yard. I understand wearing a flag or whatever outside one's border, but inside it? That just like something that wasn't thought out and redundant; something American in other words.

    I've often wondered if we'd ever see so much flag waving here in the States if it was an American who discovered a vaccine for AIDs or a cure for cancer or was the first to Mars (all three of which would most likely be done by an American or in America). I think not. It's only when America is gearing up for ill-thought-out wars or policy that it does so. Patriotism is what people with no reasoning rely upon. You can see boatloads of it in Germany prior WWI.

    Personally, I think all flag waving is stupid. No one chooses which nation they're born into. Plus, every country on this planet has enough skeletons in its closet that no one should be overtly proud of it. How can you even be proud of something you had no control over? YEAH!!! MY PARENTS FUCKED IN AMERICA/SWEDEN/GERMANY/WHEREVER! YEAH!

    When you travel, having a flag sewed on your backpack can be nice; it can help you find a fellow native abroad, someone to make you feel more at home. That and when competing in a sport for your nation are the only reasons I can see for displaying a flag.

    The only thing I can think of that is more annoying is when dumb, drunk crowds chant: USA! USA! USA! Or when Europeans sing that stupid fucking "Olay, olay olay olay!" shit they did when they won the Ryder Cup last. Holy fuck that shit's annoying.

  10. @mamma – back and better than ever. Kind of.

    @Isle Dance – those are pretty ubiquitous during the holidays. Especially midsummer.

    @Smek – That could very well be. But who are we kidding, most of what I describe is Stockholm-centric.

    @Ann-Katrin – Agreed, Oktoberfest may not be the best place to make sweeping generalizations. But I just couldn’t resist.

    @SwedishJenn – oooh, the Swedes can get pretty fired up about soccer and hockey.

    @TNT – you mean Oktoberfest isn’t a good representation of real life? Damn it!

    @Mamaya – thats a good point. Nationalism has been tied very tightly to the crazy neo nazis. Which is a shame really. But a good balance of pride and embarrassment can do wonders for understanding your own country. Which I have definitely learned since moving here.

    @Zach – I’m pretty sure that is an American phenomenon. And one which I struggle with. It drives me crazy when people tell me they are from Norway. Turns out their great great grandparents came from Norwegian and they haven’t stepped foot outside of Hillsboro, Oregon.

    @Bazarov – Fair enough. The flag waving can be overwhelming. But it also symbolizes that whole thing I wrote about, something to work for, something to belong to. And people love symbols. Just look at the New York Times best sellers list to see how much people love symbols.

  11. Reminds me of a car I saw here is the US this summer. It was some sort of old classic car (I don't know old cars, but think one of those long cars from the 1950s with fins on the back and all of that) that was painted white. It had flames painted like they were coming off of the front and down the sides of the car, and then there was a Swedish flag painted on the side. The flag was coming out of the flames, and was painted to look like it was flapping in the wind. I'm not sure what that means, but I thought it was an interesting display of Swedishness.

  12. That clearly means that John Travolta and Olivia Newton John moved to Sweden.

  13. Talking about cars, what about the cars here in Stockholm that have the southern American 'rebel' flag painted on them, like General Lee? I'm not fully sure I understand the meaning behind that. Do they realize just what those flags portray?

    Everyone has a right be proud of where they come from, though I have never said I am from Italy, though in the states I do say that I am Italian, even if all of my friends just call me Canadian. You may not have a choice for where you grew up, but you left a mark there, as did your ancestors before you. I think that's where the pride comes into play. Where you are from is part of who you are.

  14. Interesting post. I got to say it's true. 100%. We can't show pride of our own country in Sweden. But yes, of course we still are proud. But if we show it inside the borders the rest of the Swedes will yell "Nazi!" at us, so we figured it's just easier to go to the Oktoberfest and constantly wave our flag while getting drunk. And you know, thee beer is cheaper over there...

    But of course we're proud! We're just pussies and afraid to show it because it's politically incorrect. Oughh! (that was supposed to be a scared shout) Politicially incorrect! Nothing worse you can be, right? But dammit, we are proud.

    We freeze to death for an eternity and all we got to make ourselves feel a little bit better is alcohol (which the government decided, for some reason, we can only buy 11-12 every Tuesday). Well, alcohol and the fact that we can look forward to going to hell. I mean, after freezing to death for 90 long years burning in hell for an eternity seems kind of nice, don't you think?
    (I can just imagine that big, constant fire... Mmm...) And I say, look forward to hell, because of course, we Swedes are all Godless sodomites and who are we kidding, we're going to hell.

    But at least we get free health care and education, right?

    Yeah, we have to pay 50% of our salary to get it, but it's free. Right? So that means we also get free roads, free maintenance of them, free government.Hell, everything in this country is free! The entire infrastructure! How nice of them! We don't have to pay a dime. Well, except for more than half of our hardly earned salaries every month...

    Yeah, it totally sucks and of course, we're NOT happy but at least it's better than the US. I mean, it could have been worse. There's some genuine Swedish national pride for you.

  15. @Shawna – Im pretty sure its not just you who doesn’t understand, I’m guessing the driver doesn’t understand either.

    I definitely agree that where you are from is a part of who you are, but that comes with a qualifier, where you are from is where YOU are from, not where your great great grandfather was from.

    @Robban – I think I enjoy your comments more every time I read them.

  16. Why, thank you. I worked a long time on that one. That's why it's so late.

  17. Seriously though, my point (yes, I had a point!) with my comment was that national pride is kind of a taboo in Sweden (I'll admit that) but I think that's at least better than the übernationalism (one of my favorite words) in, for example, the United States of America.

    Also, I tried to show that I am proud of Sweden, which is "my" country but I am also aware (painfully, I might add) that there are a lot of bad stuff in Sweden, as well, and I'm not afraid to talk about it. That's the approach to national pride I think everyone should have. Nothing should be sacred. No, the foreign policies of the US are not good just because you happen to be American. But yes, Seinfeld is really funny and hamburgers are kind of tasty. Be proud of stuff but not just because it was made by people with the same country on their passports as you.

    Now, my fellow blog readers and blog author you might wonder why I'm explaining my comment to you like you were 5 years old. I got a That's because I've found out by experience, your intellect is at a five year old's level. OK, I'm sorry that was too harsh but often, my comments are completely misunderstood and people take offense. And I don't want to offend people. That's why I said you were as smart as five year olds...

  18. come on now, five year olds dont get insulted. seven year olds do. duh.

    but I agree, nationalism should be coupled with a sense of realism. often times that is missing in the extreme, or übernationalism as you say.

    That being said, I don't know that I would label the average American as übernationalistic. There are nut jobs. Just like they exist here in Sweden. But the average person is proud of the US but well aware that there are problems.

    What often happens though, and I am guilty of this as well, is that when it seems like people are constantly criticizing the US I become very defensive. I know there are problems. But I get tired of hearing those problems from people abroad on a constant basis as if the entire US is a country of fat cowboys.

    It's a bit of a dilemma. I defend the US when people are always criticizing it, but then people see me as nationalistic, and criticize the country even more.

  19. agreed, Sweden's flag looks beautiful

  20. Fredrik Lindström described, and I think he's right, Sweden's national pride something like this: Swedes everywhere actually do think Sweden is better than other countries. Not just in a national pride way, but in a measuring way - we have the clean air, the health care system, the free education, the equality of genders and classes, etc etc. This makes it impossibly rude to actually voice our pride and osvenskt is forced to be a positive thing. While most normal people can admit Sweden's flaws and appreciate other countries' qualities, deep down we think we win in the long run. Italy? Great architecture, great arts, great climate... but all the problems with the Mafia and that volcano, luckily Sweden is safe and peaceful. Norwegians are all gorgeous and kjempeglade gutter but the whales beg to differ and why oh why won't they babyproof their homes, no thanks, I prefer safe and peaceful Sweden... and the list goes on. Basically, the whole thing could very well boil down to safety and peace. Something we feel strongly about and are told at an early age that other countries lack. "In other countries only the rich kids go to school", "eat your dinner, kids in Africa don't get any", "people have guns at home in America", "kids in France are allowed to taste wine", "there are snakes in Asutralia", "there is rabies everywhere but Sweden and Norway", the list goes on.

  21. Oops, I should probably add that I only referred Fredrik Lindström's view in the first couple of sentences. The rest was all me.

  22. I love it. see these are the little things that I missed while growing up in the US. Its also what makes it so interesting being back here as an adult.

  23. I have to agree a little with Robban... If a Swedish flag is shown on a day that's not a "flag day", we have a feeling people conisder us as rasists. I think this started maybe 10-15 years ago, when there were many skinheads around that adopted the "Swedish" flags. Also, in many schools, it's no longer allowed to sing the Swedish national anthem, so our immigrants won't be insulted or worth less.

  24. ... or feel they are worth less. Sorry about the mistake.

  25. I must say I think that is quite sad that a fringe group can highjack something like that and turn it into a negative symbol.

    if anything, I would be more tempted to show the flag just to take back the symbol from the lunatics.

  26. Late comment by me, as usual, but interesting subject on which I have something to say!
    I agree with several of the comments above, e.g. about the nationalist parties having more or less taken over our flag as the symbol for their ideas of what "real" Sweden is, or should be, about and whatnot.
    It's basically like this: We ("normal" Swedes who are not racist) feel that the narrow-minded idiots (who most often live in the countryside and are, shall we say, less educated) have stolen our flag and made it into a symbol of xenophobia. And since Swedes in general are a peace-loving people, terrified of conflict/being impolite/discriminating we don't dare wave our flags too much, afraid that we would be insulting someone or not being politically correct. I would also say that Jantelagen plays a part here, seeing as we don't think anyone should be "different", for better OR for worse.
    I don't know if I'm making any sense here, but what I'm trying to say is that we probably would like to show more pride in our country, but we want even more to be politically correct and not discriminate or hurt anyone's feelings. As you say, we SHOULD take back our flag, but it's a tricky thing for us Swedes...

    I also think Emma has a really good point about us thinking that Sweden is the bomb, but it being considered impolite to point that out too much. We DO love safe, peaceful Sweden and we DO think we have a really good way of life here. At the same time, we DO know we have problems too. I am very proud to call myself a Swede, and I also think it's important for people to remember that you aren't your country. One citizen cannot be held responsible for all the country's wrongdoings in the past, present or future (especially since it is the government who decides all the decision-crap).

    Also, keep in mind Hairy, that we Swedes mostly encounter Americans on TV and in movies, and I don't think you can deny that TV and movies show a lot of those übernationalistic nut jobs you mentioned. You also mentioned getting annoyed about the criticism and defending the US in those scenarios. I have to say that we get that a lot too, from the US. We often and repeatedly get crap from "the greatest country in the world", the land of the free etc., for being socialistic. Honestly, you guys treat us and talk about us like we are the devil, what with our "commie dictatorship"-like policies and indisposition to let every person think and decide everything for themselves. Ooooh, the government is evil and out to quell free thought and independence!
    Sorry about the rant, just wanted you to see that the US isn't the only country suffering from preconceptions and criticism.

    Btw, LOVE the fact that you went to Oktoberfest! Just curious as to where you were exactly? I myself spent five years living in Munich when I was younger, so Oktoberfest in Munich is a big part of my childhood. (Because yes, children and alcohol go SO well together! ;) )
    Anyway, rant over. Love your blog!


  27. The flag thing really is unfortunate. And the folkdräkt thing. But symbols and costumes and flags all carry a lot of meaning, so I understand how this sort of appropriation happens, it just is a shame that it does happen.

    And you're right. Americans (and I'm generalizing here) struggle sometimes with Sweden and how to react to the country. Often falling back to the simple communist argument. It's a shame.