Sunday, January 31, 2010

Social Security, Bill Gates, and the Disabled – Stockholm at 2 AM

It happened again. I talked to a crazy person. It happens more than I’d care to admit. Two in the morning on the subway home though is a classic time. But this time was different and, as it turned out, rather entertaining. Maybe because an old man was involved, an old man who had obviously had a rough life.

I was discussing work with a buddy of mine. A subject that I try to avoid because I get plenty of work discussion at work. Strangely enough. The man sitting across the aisle from us piped in and began hounding me about my pay. Did the money matter. Did a title matter. Wouldn’t life be better if everyone made the exact same salary. No. No it would not. Apparently that was the wrong answer.

Well wouldn’t life be better if everyone got the exact same retirement. No. Not it would not. Again, the wrong answer. At this point he began questioning me about my parents and their retirement. When I told him they were in the US, he lit up. In that sort of, oooh, now I’ve got you kind of way.

I humored him though. I let him spout his ideals. I usually do. I can handle the opinions, but I struggle with the boldfaced misconceptions. He began telling me that there is no such thing as retirement in the US, that disabled people (I really don’t know what the politically correct term is for disabled. Handicapped? Disabled? Handicapable?) do not receive any help, from anyone, and that I have no right to compare Sweden and the US but he had lived in the US so he could do it. Really, it wasn't until this point that I realized the old man wasn't quite all there.

I was nice though. I was even respectful when he said that handicapped people should be given the same amount of money as Bill Gates. Which made no sense to me at all. But I went with it.

It was a hard argument to follow really. Especially after drinking. But it was amazing to see the old man fishing for anything and everything that might be wrong with the US. Anything and everything that might be seen as controversial. He played the usual cards. Focusing mostly on the health care thing, but also the Social Security thing. It was a tired argument, and one that has been heard before. This man offered nothing new to the conversation. Except for his delivery.

He had slightly crazy eyes. The kind with a flickering flame burning just beneath the surface. As if at one point he really was an intelligent man rather than a babbling fool riding the subway at two in the morning. He kept flicking his tongue over his yellowing teeth with a half smile/half smirk on his face. It was mildly disconcerting. But fascinating. So much so that I nearly missed my stop. But I ripped myself away from the conversation, hastily leaving my buddy (who is Swedish) to discuss the intricacies of Social Security with the old man. It went well.

Welcome to Sweden. And late night conversations.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Text Messages from the Swedish Police

Polisen. The police. It’s kind of a disconcerting thing to see pop up on your cell phone. Especially when they are sending you text messages. Notice the s. Multiple text messages from the Swedish police.

Last week I wandered over to my friendly neighborhood police station. I needed a new passport. Mine was falling apart, which I was reminded of after being berated by the friendly EasyJet employee at Arlanda (the worst airport in the world) who said that because we were in Sweden she would let me fly on it, but she couldn’t make any guarantees when trying to get back into the country. Of course, aside from this Swedish ray of sunshine, no one in France or Switzerland seemed to be too concerned about it.

Anyway, I decided it was time to upgrade my passport and, because it has been almost three years since I moved to Sweden, to pick up a Swedish ID card. Really the only reason I need this is so I don’t have to take my passport with me to the liquor store. Strangely enough, the receding hairline and my beard suggest to the people working there that I might be under the age of twenty so I am constantly asked to show ID. And they won’t accept an American one.

I’ve heard horror stories of people trying to get an ID and spending inordinate amounts of time trying to convince the Swedish police that they are who they say they are. Not for me though. The benefits of already having a Swedish passport. The process was incredibly easy.

I walked into the police station, took a kölapp, of course, and sat down. Ten minutes later I was speaking with the good looking blonde, of course, police officer. She explained that for the low low cost of 400 SEK I could get a new passport and for another 400 SEK I could get an ID card. I was convinced. So I stared in the camera and waited for the clicks.

But I got antsy and moved after the first click. Turns out I don’t take directions well. The second time was the charm though and I was well on my way to being very official. 970 days later. The good looking police officer then asked for my phone number. Which I promptly gave her. She explained that my ID’s would be ready for pick up in a little over a week or so and that they would let me know by phone. I winked and nudged her and said sure, sure, whatever you need to tell the chief. That’s not true; I thanked her and left quietly. Come on now.

Three days later, I was receiving text messages from Polisen. My ID was ready to be picked up. My passport was ready to be picked up. The good looking police officer did not send me a text message.

I was impressed by the entire process. In just a few days I had brand new forms of ID and am now ready when they ask me if I’ve got ID at Systembolaget. Plus I’m constantly amazed at the use of text messages in this country. I shouldn’t be, considering you can file your taxes via text message, but still, it gets me every time.

Welcome to Sweden. And a technologically savvy police force.

To receive A Swedish American in Sweden in your inbox enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Swedish Country Music

I am a sucker for a sad country song. They get me every time. A little twang, some steel guitar, and a sad story and I’m sold (addendum: Word just told me that instead of “I’m” I should use “I are” to be grammatically correct. I appreciate Microsoft getting into the hillbilly spirit.). Sweden isn’t exactly a bastion of country music though. Despite this, I’ve managed to see Alan Jackson and Toby Keith in concert. But come on, they are Americans so it doesn’t really count. Last night counted though.

Last night I was at Debaser Slussen in Stockholm (which I always associate with more of a hipster music scene) to watch a country music act. From Sweden. Kiruna to be exact. Singing in English. The Willy Clay Band (I think most of the time there is no “The” but it just seems so awkward without it).

They were glorious. Had the requisite love songs. The sad songs. The stories in musical form. Hell, they even had a little hillbilly beat going. I promptly grabbed all of their songs on Spotify and have tormented my coworkers with Swedish country music all day. If you get the chance, check out [The] Willy Clay Band (YouTube clips here).

I was impressed by the turnout at the concert. A solid amount of people came out. Many actually wearing plaid and flannel. I did not wear flannel. Just so you know.

But the outpouring of plaid wasn’t what caught my eye. It was the line dancing. Let me set the stage (or the dance floor as it were) for you.

The crowd gave the stage a respectful ten feet of distance. With the opening act, my friend Terander asked if the distance was especially Swedish. I answered not yet because it was still the opening act. Obviously I was reserving judgment because I am an open minded and kind hearted person and never judge people on first impression. Or something like that.

As the night progressed, the ten feet of distance were preserved. [The] Willy Clay Band came on, the crowd went wild in a Swedish sense and the ten feet of distance were preserved. An hour went by, several beers were spilled by the drunken fan in front of us, and the ten feet of distance were preserved. At this point, I started to have my doubts. Maybe this really was Swedishness in concert form.

Suddenly, in the finest form of Swedish hickishness that I have ever seen, line dancing broke out. I contend that the Swedes were just so forward thinking that they left the area open in case of emergency. Or line dancing. I’m pretty sure they are the same thing.

Suddenly, a group of four, plus one slightly portly, obviously inebriated man, were line dancing. There was clapping, maybe a cat-call or two and the line dancing grew. By the end there were eight to ten country music fans in Stockholm, Sweden line dancing. Line dancing. In Sweden. I did not dance. Because despite what you might think, I was not the slightly portly, obviously inebriated man trying to keep up.

As a general rule, it takes enough alcohol to kill a small pony to get me to dance. And, despite my fear of horses, I quite like small ponies so try to avoid drinking that much. Especially on a Tuesday night. But I appreciate that Stockholm’s finest gave me a country music show for the ages.

Welcome to Sweden. And Swedish country music.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden

Monday, January 25, 2010

Moving to Sweden – Culture Shock: It’s the Little Things

Time for more Moving to Sweden posts. This one is all about the little things. The culture shock that comes with making the move to a foreign country. Of course, if you’ve made it this far you’ll already have read through the rest of the Moving to Sweden posts:

Moving to Sweden – What to Bring
Moving to Sweden – The Swedish Language
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Place to Live
Moving to Sweden – The Metric System and You
Moving to Sweden – Getting a Cell Phone
Moving to Sweden – Getting from the Airport to Stockholm City
Moving to Sweden – The Weather
Moving to Sweden – Swedish Citizenship Test
Moving to Sweden – Public Holidays
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Job
Moving to Sweden – Making Friends
Moving to Sweden – Cost of Living
Moving to Sweden – The Laundry Room
Moving to Sweden – Marijuana
Moving to Sweden – Most Common Jobs and Salaries

When I moved to Sweden, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Of course, I knew that moving somewhere, whether from Greeley, Colorado to Eugene, Oregon or from Greeley, Colorado to Stockholm, Sweden carries with it a bit of culture shock. But come on, I spoke decent Swedish. I had a passport. I had lived here before.

I thought I knew the language. I thought I knew the culture. I thought I knew enough to not suffer from horrible culture shock. I was wrong. Not because suddenly I was forced into situations in which I felt completely out of place, but because I was forced into situations in which I felt like I should belong, but wasn’t quite there. I was on the fringes of culture shock. And that shocked me.

Coming from the US to Sweden, there is an expectation that things will be different, but not too different. And at first glance, that is absolutely true. A two week vacation to Stockholm, and you wouldn’t notice the differences. Of course there is the different language and enough H&M stores to make a teenage girl piddle. But you can speak English and buy Levi’s and drink a Coke and not think twice about it. But it’s the little things that you notice when you’ve been here for a while.

Like grunts being an acceptable form of response. The sharp intake of breath meaning yes. Obviously. To the untrained English speaking ear, it might sound like an utterance of surprise. It’s not. It is an utterance of affirmation.

Like all of the public holidays. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Red days. They are red because the Christian calendar liked to focus people on those important days by printing them in red. Sundays for example. And of course who could forget the Ascension. In a country as secular as Sweden, some less religious holidays are celebrated. Like International Workers Day on the first of May. Whatever the reason, enjoy your day off and try to avoid embarrassing circumstances like showing up for work.

Like fika. The act of stopping everything you are doing to drink coffee and eat delicious baked goods. Some companies seem to shut down for about half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon as the entire staff eats a cinnamon roll and drinks a cup of coffee. It’s amazing. It’s delicious. It’s frustrating. Embrace it.

Like the customer service. There is none. Seriously. Get it yourself. Find it yourself. Don’t ask questions. I bitch and moan about this still. And I’ll bitch and moan about it until I leave. Except now I know enough to get it myself, find it myself, and not ask questions. But it took a while to get used to.

Like the alcohol policies. There is one distributor of alcohol in the entire country. They are run with an iron (curtain) fist. They are closed on holidays. They close early on Saturdays. They don’t even keep your beer cold for you. But plenty of Swedes will defend Systembolaget to their dying breath. I won’t. If anything, being of legal age to drink and living in Sweden will force you to plan ahead. Spontaneity is frowned upon on a Saturday after three in the afternoon. Want to bring a six-pack over to a friend's for a night of hockey on TV? That’s a great idea. As long as you had that idea during opening hours.

Like waiting in line. Swedes don’t really wait in line. Not in the way we know a line to be at least. And it’s not because they are trying to sneak their way in front of you. It’s because the Swedes have what is called a kölapp. A tiny little piece of paper with a number on it. When it’s your turn, a light will flash and your number will pop up. This eliminates the needs for lines. It’s amazing when it works. What is less amazing is when you don’t know about the system. Because suddenly you find yourself standing around confused and mildly angry while that guy in the comfy looking chair suddenly slides in front of you. Whenever there is a potential for a line (bank, bakery, pharmacy, etc.) just start looking around for a little dispenser of small numbered pieces of paper. Trust me.

Like worshipping the sun. You’ll start to do it. You’ll start fantasizing about sunny beaches despite your pale, easily reddened skin. You’ll think that the charter travel trips to the Canary Islands are actually starting to look reasonable. You’ll throw your face to the sun during those waning moments of daylight in the middle of December. And not a single person will think less of you.

Like the trust. Some ski resorts have areas for you to leave your lunch. They are not locked. They are not guarded. You just leave your backpack with your lunch in it. And no one takes it.

And of course, like the toilets being a different height from the ground than in the US. I’ll be honest, I’m a bathroom reader, so when sitting down I’m not thinking of how close I am to the ground but this was brought to my attention by my cousin and her sambo. Turns out they noticed when visiting the US. Just beware.

Welcome to Sweden. And culture shock.

To receive A Swedish American in Sweden in your inbox enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Elusive Swedish Friend

I’m pushing about two and a half years in this lovely Nordic country. It took me a very long time to make friends, not two and a half years, but it was a struggle. I’m not always the most outgoing person, but I am by no means awkwardly shy, making friends has never really been a struggle for me. Until Sweden. Some of this had to do with my circumstances, living in the southern suburbs of Stockholm while working in Uppsala. Not going to school. But still.

Lots of people say this is because Swedes are shy. I say that. Lots of people say it is because Sweden is somewhat of an insular country. I say that. Lots of people say it is because Swedes make friends at early ages and that’s who they stick with. I say that. But still.

Let’s just say moving to Sweden and making a friend, isn’t always easy. So I bitched and moaned, and eventually harassed people enough with phone calls and sms’s (that’s Swedish for text messages) that they were forced to like me. Today I have a friend. Maybe two.

However, I don’t have those friends that know that I had curly hair when I was little. Or at one point was capable of seeing without the assistance of contact lenses. Or that I was awesome at marbles. (Actually, that’s not true. I lost them all to Henrik, the older neighborhood kid with a briefcase full of them. Many of them mine. Bastard.) Most of my American friends don’t know that either. That’s because I haven’t been going to schools all my life with the same people I went to dagis with. It’s different here though. I’ve always claimed this dagis thing was important, but never really understood just how important.

But the other day I was with a group of people listening to a woman introduce herself and I suddenly had a very concrete example of why Swedes are so hard to make friends with. She explained her background, educational, work, and then got into her family life. Where she grew up. She hesitated. And almost apologetically stumbled her way through an explanation. I suppose I would say I am from Södermalm [an area in Stockholm]. I moved there when I was about three years old and still live there today, as do my parents. So I guess I grew up for the most part on Söder. So yes, I grew up on Södermalm.

Here is a woman, who is 30ish, and has lived on the same small island in Stockholm for let’s say 27 years, who struggled to explain where she grew up. I have had my own identity struggles; mostly on the existential who am I level. I always knew where I grew up. Greeley, Colorado. That one was easy. And I didn’t move there until I was nearly six years old.

This was the example I needed though, that example that explains what I mean when I say Swedes are shy and insular. Of course, this is an extreme. I know. But that the extreme could be this extreme seems to speak to just how tightknit Swedes are when it comes to those friends they grew up with. Not everyone is like this. Some people manage to not live their entire life (or all but three years of their life) on an island area of Stockholm. Some people don’t.

Welcome to Sweden. And best friends forever.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Swedes – Hypocritical Fatties

I am not fat. I’m not big boned. I’m not even overweight. I’m actually quite normal weight-wise. And I consider myself very much an American. Basically I’m a stereotype buster spreading skinny Americanism throughout the world. An ambassador if you will.

That being said, I have sat in on the fatty American comments. In fact, I’ve made them myself, because who are we kidding, Americans tend to be bigger than Swedes. Especially at Chicago O’Hare Airport in case you were wondering.

Anyway, turns out Americans aren’t the only fatties. The Local, that beacon of journalistic integrity and ground breaking stories, brings all the English speakers out there a glorious article titled: “Floor collapses at Swedish Weight Watchers clinic.”

Just read that again. Let it sink in.

Ok, now I actually laughed out loud when I first read this. Which was kind of embarrassing because there were other people around at the time, and while it is hilarious, explaining that you take joy in the sad moments in other’s lives isn’t the easiest thing to do. But seriously. The floor collapsed. They were there to see how much weight they had lost and the floor collapsed.

Weight Watchers is an organization that preys on the waistlines of Americans everywhere. I did not know they were international. Their goal is to help people lose weight, all the while making money by selling those weight loss services. It’s genius really. Make money by focusing on the health and well-being of your customer and by praying on their insecurities.

Anyway, I know people who have been in Weight Watchers. They did so to better themselves. To lose weight. To cow to the norms of society. Some people lost weight. Some people didn’t. But they still went to weigh-ins.

In fact, if I remember correctly, they met at a local church. On the first floor. And that is key. I blame the influx of fat people to Sweden, they are still new to this whole thing, but as America has learned, you should never gather a large group of severely overweight people in any room above ground level. It’s just common sense really. That’s a heavy load to bear for any one building.

Considering the post I just wrote yesterday, this might be seen as somewhat hypocritical. Here I am making fun of people. Using stereotypes. But I think we all know the truth. Swedes are hypocritical fatties.

Welcome to Sweden. Where Weight Watchers will no longer meet on the first floor.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Swedish Marketing Campaigns

I try to avoid TV. Not because of some sort of moral issue, mostly because when I do something I get completely engrossed in it. Regardless of how mind numbing it might be. Because the drivel that is shown on Swedish TV (much of it horrible American drivel) is incredibly mind numbing, my TV tends to be off and gathering dust.

Sometimes though, in lapses of judgment I turn it on. Usually flipping through the channels in disgust before settling for the lesser of two evils. American TV with Swedish subtitles.

In a moment of weakness a little while ago I stumbled across a show, which will remain nameless not to preserve any sense of impartiality but simply because I don’t remember what show it was. It was the commercial in between the show that caught my attention. A commercial for The Amazing Race.

Billed as some sort of reality TV show which skews reality because I have never been in a race with a teammate around the world while TV cameras followed, The Amazing Race is American TV at its most basic form. Bad. It’s been showing here in Sweden for a while now.

All that being said, the commercial was just too much for me. First, the fact that one team was introduced as “Idioterna,” the idiots was maybe not the best tone setter. They may be dumber than Helen Keller (see what I did there? Dumb? As in mute? It’s ok to laugh.) but it just seemed unnecessary.

Idiots are ok though. I know one or two. They amuse me for a while, some I even Facebook stalk for my own personal amusement. This makes me a horrible person. I know. It wasn’t the idiots comment that put it over the edge for me though. It was the following comment that, for some reason, brought the US as a nation into the mix.

“Just when you thought it was ok to start liking the United States again.” Let’s break this down. It implies quite a few different things. First, that people might actually like the US. This is a good thing. I like the US. But it also implies that people did not like the US and actually still haven’t decided that they do like the US. This is less of a good thing. Finally, it implies that one show, a reality show none the less, should be used as to determine positive feelings towards a nation the geographical size of Europe with 300 million citizens. Which makes perfect sense now that I think of it because the show did feature about 24 people or 0.00000008% of the population. What’s better? The season they are showing is from 2006.

My skin has thickened quite a bit since living abroad. I sit quietly as people do their America bashing and stew internally, which is actually very good for your mental health. When I first moved here, it bothered much more than it does now. I accept that people don’t agree with the American way of life. The politics. The religion. The consumerism. That’s fine. That realization is one of the reasons I like to travel. But sometimes it gets to be too much.

When it becomes a central theme of a marketing campaign I have to question the ethical issues of bashing a nation based on a reality show, not on a private basis, but on Swedish TV. Swedes bitch and moan about sexism in advertising. Advertising that targets children. Strangely, they have no problems with advertising that attacks an entire nation.

Welcome to Sweden. Where America bashing makes for good marketing.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tracking Swedes in the Wild (Or Europe)

I’ve been travelling. Essentially with no real time back in Stockholm. This includes trips to southern Sweden, as demonstrated by the SJ issues (which, by the way, was handled nicely by SJ with the money already being reimbursed for my ticket), skiing in southern France, and a trip to Ireland. And now I’m back. But all the while, I’ve been tracking Swedes. Inadvertently.

Turns out Swedes are everywhere. In Skåne, despite what some people might say, this is not strange. In France and Ireland I wasn’t quite prepared for their omnipresence.

The mountains of Chamonix were crawling with Swedes. Swedes in the gondolas. At the restaurants. In town. At the bar. Everywhere. One bar was manned (well one man was a woman) completely by Swedes. Turns out that the Swedes enjoy working the winters down in the Alps. Which is absolutely genius.

In Ireland, they were elusive, but still there. It was like tracking wild game in the mountains. Instead of stopping in the forest to pick up deer droppings and sniffing them for freshness, which is obviously what all hunters do, I would stop at urinals and pick up snus packets and sniff them for freshness, which is obviously disgusting.

I didn’t actually do this. But I couldn’t help but notice the number of snus packets lining the urinals in bars throughout Dublin. This could really only mean one thing. Swedes had been there. And relatively recently assuming that the urinals are cleaned out every day or two.

For those of you who don’t know, snus is tobacco shoved into a small pouch. It looks like a pillow specially made for a grasshopper, except instead of being filled with soft down feathers, it is filled with tobacco. The pouch is placed in the upper lip, commonly known as the upper lip dip (which is always pronounced with a twang. Always.). Swedes love the stuff.

I generalize a lot, especially about Sweden. I live in Stockholm which is far from a good representation of all of Sweden. I know. But in this case I say Swedes rather specifically. Mostly because, snus is illegal in the EU except for Sweden. Sweden managed to argue that snus was a part of their cultural heritage and that the prohibition of it would obviously lead to mass riots, snus-easies, and black market snus. Or something like that. Either way, they still use it. And take it with them wherever they go. Like skiing in Chamonix. Or drinking in Dublin.

Despite not being a snus-user myself, the snus packets made me feel at home. There was something comforting about standing at the urinal aiming at the little pouch of tobacco just like I would in Stockholm.

Welcome to Sweden. And signs of Swedes in the wild.

To receive A Swedish American in Sweden in your inbox enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner