Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Train Adventures in Skåne

Usually, when I head down to southern Sweden to visit the family, I end up with a broken down car. Or I run out of gas because I am an idiot. One or the other. This time, I drove down in a blinding snowstorm. I made it, the heat worked; I didn’t run out of gas. All in all, quite the success really.

This time was different though. I had planned ahead. I was going to leave my car with my family, who was then going to drive it up a few days later. I was taking the train home to Stockholm. X-2000. The thing screams along on the rails and gets me to Stockholm after only a few hours. It’s amazing. Quick. Comfortable. Usually more expensive than driving though unless you plan ahead. And as mentioned before, I did just that.

I started my journey at 5:30 in evening from Helsingborg station. I was heading to Hässleholm, about an hour by train, at which point I would change over from the regional train I was on to the X-2000. I wasn’t horribly thrilled with the connection because Hässleholm train station can best be described as a few walls, a few stairs, and a roof, no more, no less, and I was going to have to sit there for about half an hour.

The train arrived three minutes later than planned. You might ask why I noticed a three minute delay. It’s because, like any good traveler, immediately after stepping off the train I checked to see which platform I was leaving from and to make sure everything was on time. The display told me that my train was three minutes late in arriving. Unfortunately, it also told me that my next train would be leaving at 20:55. That’s one hour and 58 minutes later than expected. My half hour had nearly quadrupled. Awesome.

I’m big. This means that once 6:30 rolls around, it starts to be about time for dinner. I headed over to the local kebab shop and enjoyed a pile of tubed meat shaved onto a plate. Delicious really. I ate while watching what was apparently the owners’ choice of TV. Top Model. It seemed fitting that I was watching damn near anorexic women strut around on TV while filling myself with meat.

Having finished my meal I headed back to Hässleholm’s train station. I sat down. I stood up. I browsed through magazines. I contemplated purchasing candy. I sat down again. I stood up. I wandered around. I purchased candy. I sat down. I ate candy. I checked the departure board.

Damn it. 21:40. Awesome, an extra 45 minutes. I pulled out my computer. I attempted to get internet. No luck. I typed a bit. I attempted to learn German. No luck. I stood up. I sat down. I stood up. I eavesdropped on everyone calling friends and family to tell them they were late. I checked the departure board again. 22:15. Yes. What’s another 35 minutes? Unfortunately, my expected arrival time in Stockholm was originally 22:35.

At this point people started to lose it. Angry phone calls were made; one woman in particular caught my eye. She made several phone calls. All seemed to be to friends and family. At least one was to her father. After the initial shock of being horribly delayed, she loudly proclaimed that she had to work the next day. For 12 hours. She also mentioned that she was so angry she could hardly talk anymore. Strangely enough, after ending that conversation she made another phone call. And repeated the exact same thoughts. After the fourth phone call, she was still so angry she could hardly talk. Yet continued to do so. There is something to be said for her ability to fight through the inability to speak and do just that.

I thought it was funny. Mostly because it was a hell of a lot more fun than trying to learn German. It became even better when the phone calls stopped. Not because they stopped, but because 10 minutes after they stopped she turned to the woman sitting next to her and began to bitch and moan. This time about the fact that her phone was dead. And she had an SMS ticket. Had she really not been able to talk, she at least would have still had access to her train ticket. Bummer.

Finally, the departure board was updated again, this time to 23:13, then 23:20. Around that time, the train showed up and I made my way back to Stockholm. Promises were made by SJ. They would refund my ticket. They would call me. They might even pay for my taxi, it was all a haze. Three and a half hours later I was in a taxi on my way home. Tired and dreading the day ahead. I was right to do so, turns out three hours of sleep, a full day’s work, and three beers with friends that evening along with Stockholm’s icy streets results in me taking a spill and catching myself with my elbows. Grace is not one of my strong points. Like I said: I’m big.

Welcome to Sweden. And train adventures in Skåne.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stockholm Student Housing Midget-ages

I was cleaning up my e-mails the other day. Usually it can take me months to respond to people. I’d like to say that it is because I am so busy I just don’t have time, but really I’m just horribly self-absorbed. This means I have e-mails from years ago. And I found a good one.

Anyway, way back in my unemployed, bored out of my mind, why did I move to Sweden days, I was considering going back to school. Swedish school is cheap. Seeing as how I had never really paid taxes at that point, it was essentially free. I like learning and reading. Clearly school was the place to be.

So I started looking into it. First, I was told that because I had never been to high school in Sweden, I would need to prove my Swedish skills. Fine, I produced my university transcripts stating that I had, in fact, taken a couple of Swedish courses. Please note that this was all done in Swedish. Of course. Tyvärr. Rules are rules and I would have to prove the equivalent of high school Swedish. Rather than take the courses though, I could take a test. Spectacular I thought. I had missed the test. It was only given twice a year. Fine.

My English skills are pretty good though so I thought I’d look for graduate programs in English. I checked things out, did some research, even sent an e-mail or two asking about the possibility. I did not reveal my grades, I did not reveal any sort of test score, I revealed nothing. They had nothing that would immediately make them think, “Wow, we do not want this guy at our school.” I just asked about the possibility of studying at Stockholm University. I received the following from an advisor at Stockholm University: “Unfortunately Stockholm University does not offer any scholarships and there is also a shortage of student accommodations in Stockholm.”

That one statement reveals a lot about Sweden, especially in Stockholm. It suggests first off, that despite the assumption that school is free in Sweden, it is not. Not even close. Turns out living in Stockholm isn’t exactly cheap. And speaking of living. You won’t, at least not under any good looking roof. A shortage is an understatement. A midget-age would be more appropriate. Having to wait in line for over a year just in hopes of living 45 minutes away from school isn’t a shortage. That’s a midget-age. Or dwarf-age. I’m not up on the proper politically correct term.

There is something to be said for honesty. There is also something to be said though for not crushing the dreams of someone wanting to learn. And my dreams were crushed. Instead, I find myself working full time pretending to be an adult. It’s exhausting.

Welcome to Sweden. And Stockholm student housing midget-ages.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Saab – A Eulogy

I'm not very good at this. Writing eulogies. It isn’t easy, saying goodbye to someone. Someone you grew up with. Someone who saw and heard and did so many things with you. It’s even harder because I don’t know whether you’re dead or just missing in action. Maybe you’ll come raging out of the jungle someday down the road, but until then, goodbye Saab.

I remember the first time we met. You didn’t have a transmission. I wasn’t old enough to drive. It was a match made in heaven. So $1000 later I was the proud owner of a Saab 9000 Turbo. 1989. I still don’t know how to define your color. Red? Bronze? Purple? Maroon? Pink? Burgundy? Brown? I think you might have just been the color awesome. You won’t find that color in the rainbow.

We went through a lot. We broke down in several different states. California, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming. Like the time we were pulled over for speeding in Wyoming by a State Trooper. We were heading back from Oregon after freshman year. You were filled with two dorm rooms’ worth of stuff. You didn’t start after he had given us the ticket and left us behind. It was late and Wyoming doesn’t even have enough people to rightfully deserve a representative in the US House of Representatives, we were kind of stuck.

Luckily, the friendly State Trooper turned back around. Is there a problem, he asked. Nope. Just hanging out on the interstate in the middle of the night. Yes there is a problem. First, you gave me a ticket. Now my car won’t start. It was the battery. I knew you well enough. State Trooper tried to argue with me. I respectfully disagreed and asked him if he had any jumper cables in his Wyoming issued State Trooper Dodge Durango. Nope. Of course not. Why would anyone need essential emergency equipment in an emergency vehicle?

I headed into the trunk. Digging through my recently packed memories trying to find jumper cables. The state of Wyoming may not be smart enough to equip people with jumper cables, but I sure as hell didn’t go anywhere without them. The State Trooper pulled around and we got started. Less than a minute later you were up and running. I gave the State Trooper a smug smile, an, "I told you so, never doubt me," smile. It didn’t make up for the ticket but it was all I had.

We had good times too though. Like the time in Nebraska when you decided your turbo would kick in. It was a straight shot between Colorado and Nebraska. Nowhere to turn. Nothing to see. Just openness. And nothingness. All of a sudden we were going 140. Miles per hour. That was a bit fast. You were shaking worse than I do after night terrors. So we slowed it down, but you proved something that day. You still had it.

It was tough giving you up, but it was time. I had grown up. You had grown old. My friends were tired of pushing you. At least I didn’t have to drive very often. No one trusted you. I probably owe people gas money. I saw you around town a few times after that, you always brought a smile to my face.

But I kept it in the family with my next car. You were a manual. And you were purchased sight unseen with the help of the old man. I didn’t even know how to drive a manual. Another match made in heaven. At least your color could be defined. Green. 1995. Saab 900.

I learned to drive you on the 1200 mile trek to Oregon. I killed your poor engine more times than I care to admit. Mamma was worried that I'd kill both the old man and myself stalling the engine somewhere on Laramie Pass. I didn't. We made it. Several curse words and strings of obscenities that even I didn't know I knew later, I could drive a manual transmission.

We had some good times too. Never 140 mph good times, but you were less prone to breaking down. Except for those few times. Like in north Portland on Killingsworth Street. An aptly named street for one of the roughest neighborhoods in Portland. Your clutch died. At that point I had learned how to drive you at least. The nice old man who stopped to tow us was dressed in camo pants and an Army ball cap. I thanked him after he got us to safety. No problem, I’m a soldier, I just keep soldiering on. And soldier on he did. So did we.

A few months later we ended up on the side of I-5 as a firetruck raced towards us. I was sitting in you reading the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden. It seemed appropriate at the time. Turns out our gas tank had been punctured and we were pissing gasoline all over the road. The state of Oregon doesn’t appreciate that. They couldn’t really do much. Turns out firemen are trained to fight fires, not leaking gas tanks. So we waited for a tow truck. Not the first time, and not the last time either.

But we made it home, we always did. About a year later, we were spinning out on I-25 while driving home in a blizzard on Christmas Eve. This time we didn’t need a tow truck. You righted yourself nicely and we drove home. It took us several hours to drive from Boulder to Greeley that time, but it gave us a chance to bond over our near miss. That was the last real excitement we had together. I was moving to Sweden. Your home. But you couldn’t come along.

Instead, I found a replacement. A 1993 Saab 9000. Blue. You’ve given me more material for this blog than could have been hoped for. We’ve waited in the cold for a car to come by so I could use my ever present jumper cables. We’ve run out of gas in the Swedish Bible Belt, and now, you’ve had to put up with me sliding my way into the driver’s seat from the passenger’s side. The lock is frozen so your door won’t open. There’s moisture in the car so I need to scrape both the outside and the inside when I drive anywhere. But I wouldn’t want any other brand of car.

Now, that choice is dying. Of course, since I have yet to find a model younger than 1995, we might still have a good 15 years together, but it just won’t be the same. It won’t ever be the same. I’m still holding out hope, but I know. We all know.

Welcome to Sweden. And the slow, inevitable death of an icon.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More Signs I’ve Been in Sweden too Long

I have these moments. I’ve had them before, and I continue to have them. Moments where I realize that my time here in Sweden has forever scarred me. Not necessarily a bad scar, but those kinds of scars that girls ask you about that makes you sound like the epitome of man. Like the time you were out chopping wood to build a log cabin while wearing flannel shirts and chewing on toothpicks. You know, just as an example.

My ears perk up when I heard a diesel truck right outside of my apartment. This frightens me. I have never owned a truck. Let alone a diesel. I know very little about cars. All I have learned is simply because I am too cheap to ever buy a nice car and instead buy cars that are nearly as old as I am. Despite once again having a car that is nearly as old as I am, but one that is currently working. I decided to walk to the grocery store.

I walked to the store for one reason, and one reason only. I saw the sun. For the last week I had been living on cereal, milk, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They work well for breakfast and dinner. After a week of it, something needed to change. I was in line for a big trip to the grocery store. But when I looked out the window I saw the sun. I couldn’t resist. Despite knowing how difficult it would be to carry enough food to restock my apartment, I walked to the grocery store. I even walked right past my parked car on the way there. I needed the vitamin D. I needed the sun. On the way back I needed a break. I stopped for a couple of minutes and ate some of the candy I bought. It was Saturday after all. Today, with the muffled crunch of snow under my shoes, I’m pleased with my decision.

I took my ear phones out on the bus the other day just because I somehow managed to hear English through my podcast. I didn’t talk to them. I just sat and soaked up the language. This makes me kind of creepy. I know. It also made me realize how sensitive I have become to language. English floats above the everyday Swedish because it is so rare. The same thing happens when I find myself in foreign countries and hear Swedish. I have spoken with other people about this. It seems that no matter where you are, the languages you are comfortable with rise above the din of everything else. This never ceases to amaze me.

And finally, the real kicker? I take cloth bags to the grocery store. This is mostly because I am too cheap to play the 1.5 SEK for the plastic bag, but still. I actually own two cloth bags for the sole purpose of grocery shopping. Of course, they are incredibly masculine. Especially the baby seal on the one of them.

Welcome to Sweden. And baby seals.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

H1N1 Vaccines and Swedish Healthcare

Just like over half the country, I took advantage of the social welfare system here in Sweden and received a completely free (you know, if you don’t count all of the taxes I pay) H1N1 vaccine. It was a very Swedish experience.

I made sure to take a look at my friendly neighborhood Vårdcentral. They had the vaccine, gave opening times, and even said there were drop in times. So I dropped in. Only to find out that drop in times were limited. To a few hours once a week.

Luckily, those few hours were the very next day. Drop-ins started at two in the afternoon. I was there at one. I was there at one because, in true Swedish fashion, I was supposed to take a number. The ubiquitous Swedish nummerlapp was being used in full force. I grabbed my number, filled in my health information, and wandered around for an hour. Heading back at two on the dot. I know how Sweden works.

Promptly at two, they began calling out numbers to be inoculated. Because I am just so very Swedish know and know how the system works, my number was very close to the front. I was sitting pretty. By sitting I mean standing at the back of a throng of people.

Despite the number system, there was a massive group of people waiting impatiently to get their vaccine. All of them crammed around the door to the poking room. The poor old lady yelling out the numbers was overwhelmed. And confused.

The numbers had rolled over (I was number 980 in case you were wondering) to the zeroes. There were well over a hundred people waiting which led to confusion. Because when the old lady yelled out number 74, two people came forward. Oh the humanity. Luckily, after much discussion, it was decided that the old lady should yell out all three numbers to avoid any future confusion. With just a few more numbers in front of me, I was glad that we had figured that out. I didn’t want to fight for my vaccine.

I was called into the poking room with three other people. My nurse took my health information and read my personnummer to me. She did not ask for any sort of ID. She didn’t ask me to recite it to make sure they made sense. She read it back to me. Luckily, it was actually my number and they weren’t shooting anyone else up. She also asked if I was allergic to eggs. I am not.

She then cracked a joke. Something about not wanting the disease but wanting the vaccine. I nodded, without acknowledging her joke, because it just wasn’t funny. I didn’t want to encourage her.

Then as swiftly as she made her bad joke, she poked me full of H1N1 vaccine. And the only thing I noticed was that she wasn’t wearing gloves.

I headed back to work and made it a couple of hours before I started making bad jokes while oinking. Or nöff-ing as the Swedish pigs say. I’m sure they were much appreciated by my co-workers.

In the following days, I felt nothing. I did not get sick. I did not get a fever. I did not die. The only side effect was that it felt like someone had poked a needle into my arm. Because someone had. All in all, I felt good that I was getting a little use out of my tax crowns.

Welcome to Sweden. And mass vaccinations.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Energy Drinks and Age Limits – Self-Imposed Swedish Regulation

I avoid caffeine like blind people avoid silent films. It does mean things to me. My eyelids twitch. My gut dances. My heart jumps rope. It basically becomes field day for my organs and appendages. It isn’t fun. On a different note, I am not a teenager anymore. I left those awkward teen years behind me several years ago. These two things are actually related.

I was at ICA, you know, your friendly neighborhood grocery store here in Sweden, purchasing what was to become my dinner. Two microwave calzone-like-ish things filled with taco-like-ish meat. I topped my grocery bag (which I of course brought to the store myself) with some potato chips and 1.5 liters of milk. Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do live alone. Is it that obvious?

What I purchased though isn’t nearly as interesting as the little sign on the cash register. I glanced at it, thinking it was the typical, if you look young and want to buy cigarettes or snus, be ready to show ID. I don’t buy either so wasn’t all that concerned. But something caught my eye. Fifteen. They were checking ID on 15 year olds. Not because they are allowed to buy tobacco. They aren’t. But because they might want to buy energy drinks.

ICA is checking ID for energy drink sales. If you are under the age of 15, you can’t buy a Red Bull. Because I don’t drink caffeine, please see above for reasons I don’t like feeling like I was sucker punched by Manny Pacquiao, and because I am no longer a teenager (I told you they were related. Never doubt me.) I haven’t been keeping up on the energy drink debate.

A quick search for “energidryck” on confirms my lack of interest in the subject. Turns out there has been a debate going on about this. A couple of months ago, 7-Eleven and Pressbyrån, decided to implement the 15 year old age limit. Since then, ICA seems to have followed suit along with a couple of other grocery store chains.

Just recently, a survey of 700 school nurses reported that about 80% wanted an age limit. And many of them wanted the age limit to be 18. The age of consent in this country is 15. Meaning that some nurses believe drinking an energy drink could be potentially more dangerous than having sex. I suppose putting a condom on a can of Red Bull might not have the desired effect, but I just don’t really understand the line of reasoning there.

What really gets me is the self-imposed legislation on caffeinated beverages. You can overdose on caffeine in plenty of different ways. A couple shots of espresso will do you in in no time. But Wayne’s Coffee doesn’t have a little sign on the cash register asking people to show their ID before buying an espresso. Here in Sweden though, companies are actively discouraging people from purchasing a product because they are unable to monitor their intake on their own. Kind of like Systembolaget.

It turns out this discussion is being had in the US also. Which is just as ridiculous as having it here. But here’s an idea, let kids overdose on caffeine. At some point, you kind of just have to accept your fate when you continue to drink highly caffeinated drinks after breaking out into a cold sweat with serious heart palpitations and anxiety attacks. Legislation can’t fix stupid.

Welcome to Sweden.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Art of Farting and Swedish Advertising

The Swedes have been doing good work lately. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been using the subway more than usual and so am subjected to the different advertising campaigns like light therapy through billboards.

Either way, I managed to laugh at an ad campaign. Again. This ad campaign was first brought to my attention by Tod. Although at the time I hadn’t seen it. Then, just the other day, I was riding the subway to Odenplan. And there it was. Staring back at me. Taunting me. Speaking to me. Like an old friend.

An old man, who bears an uncanny resemblance to my dentist back in the US of A if he had completely white hair, seems to be very pleased with himself. As he should be. He is on the cover of a book titled The Art of Farting. As someone who finds flatulence hilarious, even at the age of 25, this made my day. When fart jokes stop making my day, a part of me will have died. The fun part.
Other classic titles advertised are Herregud, jag var ju bara ung och naiv (Dear God, I was Just Young and Naive) written by Judas Iscariot and of course the Kokbok för militanta köttätare (Cookbook for Militant Meat Eaters). I found these to be hilarious. For various reasons.
One, as mentioned above, I still think farts are funny. Advertising campaigns that use farts are immediately winners in my eyes.

Two, I love eating meat and feel fairly confident that if people can be militant about their vegetarianism than people should also be allowed to be militant about their meateatingism.

Three, I like witty word play. And witty word play that is borderline sacrilegious? Even better.

Swedes are often stereotyped as being very dry people. Devoid of humor one might even say. I think it has to do with the stereotypical reserved nature. And also crappy Swedish comedies on TV. But then they come with advertisements like this and I can’t help but be impressed by the creativity and humor.

In case you were wondering, the ads are for an online book store. They claim to have over two million titles. They also claim that those titles they don’t have, probably don’t exist. Like a book written by Judas.

Welcome to Sweden. And the art of farting. And advertising.

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