Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Olympic Hockey. And Glee Club.

I’ve been watching a lot of the Olympics. Sweden has been doing a hell of a job on those cross country skis. Unfortunately, it’s not really a sport I can watch. I didn’t even know there were so many different ways to cross country ski. Relays. Distances. Sprints. With guns. It never seems to end. But I’ve been a dutiful sports fan and very seldom is the TV on now without the Olympics being the viewing of choice.

As a general rule, I find Swedish announcers to be painfully awkward, almost entertainingly so. It’s almost like they are embarrassed to be on TV and it shows. It’s a shame because it often times takes away from the knowledge they do have about their respective sports.

The Olympics have been different though. Not because the commentary has been world class and insightful. Not because the commentators are the stereotypical good looking Swede. Not because they haven’t been awkward. But simply because they have been drunk. Ok, maybe not drunk, but something has been going on in the booth.

Especially in the hockey games. I know that a lot of these games are being shown in Sweden late at night/early in the morning. Maybe the commentators think no one is watching. But people are watching. Like me. And listening. Like me. And passing those comments on to the old man as a way to spread the glory that is Swedish Olympic hockey announcers.

Early in the tournament, I was watching the US beat Switzerland in the opener. It wasn’t a horribly impressive showing by the Americans, but the Swiss are sneaky good at hockey. But, it wasn’t the game itself that I remembered. It was here that the comments started. Between periods, we always head up to get a breakdown of what’s happened. A blonde, somewhat dominant looking woman sits at a table with what one can only suspect is the resident hockey expert. A man who could not for the life of him say the word “amerikanerna.” The Americans. In a stunning act of un-Swedishness, the dominant blonde woman made fun of him. Mercilessly. So much so that eventually, in a fit of awkwardness, the man said “amerik… jänkarna” and continued on. It was from that point that Americans became Yankees.

The fun continued. Suddenly the man made a claim that I was horribly impressed by. He knew the Russian national anthem. And thus, he began to sing. Mitt namn är Nikolajev/Kosmonaut från Sovjet. My name is Nicolai/cosmonaut from the Soviet. Now I do not speak Russian, but I feel fairly confident that wasn’t Russian.

One day later I watched Belarus play Finland. Since Sweden’s 2002 loss to Belarus I have had a soft spot for anyone playing Belarus. But again, it was not the game itself that intrigued me. Instead, I was once again treated to a vocal performance that would make your local Idol panel proud. Because suddenly, all of Sweden was being serenaded by the classic Abba song, Waterloo. Waterloo - I was defeated, you won the war/Waterloo - Promise to love you forever more. Amazing.

You would think that would be the end of it. But one night later, for reasons I still do not understand, the play by play guys began their attempt at speaking Polish. Literally. They were trying to say things in Polish. Poland is not represented in the ice hockey tournament.

The Olympics is by far the greatest hockey tournament in the world. It’s an incredible mix of athleticism, patriotism, plus a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of doing things you’ve never dreamed of. A part of me though watches every single hockey game hoping to hear an announcer break into song.

Welcome to Sweden. And Olympic hockey.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

International Students, Tuition, and Swedish Education

The big news amongst the international student community in Sweden the past few days, aside from the snow, has been the decision to charge tuition. Beginning in the fall of 2011, students coming to Sweden from non-EU countries (like the US for example) will no longer be doing so on the Swedish tax-payers krona.

The idea is that the tuition charged should cover the cost of the education which, as of right now, has not been defined. It is thought to be between 60,000 and 80,000 SEK per year (depending on which source you want to use The Local or SVD) but the individual universities will have the final say. To help pick up a bit of the slack, two different scholarship funds have been formed.

I’m pumped. I have never understood the Swedish attitude towards foreign students. Students who come to this country, work for an education, then leave. Let’s me start off by saying that I know school in Sweden isn’t free. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free education. There is rent to pay, books to buy, student fees. There is no tuition though, and that makes the education damn appealing. Instead, Swedish taxes pay for it. I’m not a fan of the high taxes in this country (Sweden had the second highest tax burden in the world just a couple of years ago), but if I get to choose where my tax money goes, education is at the top of the list.

That being said, I also believe there is a sort of social contract that goes along with that education. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, international students receiving their education are often not allowed to fulfill that social contract.

Sweden is notorious for making it difficult to get a job for international students after they graduate. Recent legislation has attempted to ease the restrictions, but a quick look at any Swedish newspaper for the past six months will reveal the continued difficulties for international students looking for work in Sweden.

It’s a shame; students make a choice to come here, to study here, to live here. It only stands that some of them might actually want to work here. Let them. They have the same education offered to Swedes; they might have even managed to get a MVG without a re-test. But so it goes. Which is what makes the current system so asinine.

A system which is tuition free due to tax-payer monies forcing the beneficiaries of those monies to leave the country. Never getting a single öre of ROI. The move to charging tuition is one way of solving this problem. Now, the risk the Swedish government takes by paying for these students is minimized. Paying for the education of others, who never get the chance to put that education to use in this country, is not economically feasible. It just isn’t.

Some people are arguing that this will hurt the Swedish school system. Which to be honest, seems to speak quite poorly of the system as it stands suggesting that the only reason people come to study here is because it is free. They argue that with required tuition, qualified students will go elsewhere and that quality will suffer. You know, like other university systems that charge tuition. Like the US for example. Worthless universities in that country.

While I’m sure there will be a drop in applications in the short-term (the education minister said as much), I’m also sure that the international reputation of Swedish innovation will continue to attract students despite the tuition. I would also argue that charging tuition will raise the standard of students and the quality of student life in general as suddenly those who are applying will be those who truly want to be in the country.

All that being said, if you’re thinking of studying here, get your ass in gear. You have until the fall of 2011. Hurry up. Seriously. If you start your program before the fall of 2011 you will be grandfathered in.

The three big universities are Lund, Stockholm, and Uppsala. Also, check out Study in Sweden, a great website that has already put together a clear and concise FAQ about tuition in Swedish universities.

Welcome to Sweden. And tuition.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Snow Storms and Public Transportation

I ignored all warnings to stay home today. I’m kind of a rebel like that. At 1:45 I left my apartment to head into town. It usually takes me 5-10 minutes depending on which mode of public transportation I choose. Train or bus.

I chose train today. It takes less time and is closer to my apartment although it doesn’t come by as often. It was the wrong choice. The train was cancelled.

Fine, up to the bus stop it was. I lucked out and a bus came by after only a couple of minutes. I climbed aboard to a bus full of cross country skiers. And away we went. We didn’t even make it one stop. Ahead of us was another bus that had decided to stop at a horribly awkward angle blocking all traffic. Wonderful. The cross country skiers were getting antsy, especially the older creepy lady with the unnaturally red mouth. Eventually, a group of them made their way to the front and were let off in the middle of the road. I assume they put their skis on and went skiing towards Dalarna to round up the farmers for a revolution. I could be wrong though.

I continued to wait. The bus was warm and aside from trying to find a pair of shoes with no holes, I had nothing to do. Plus, the bus was warm and the aforementioned hole-y shoes are not all that conducive to hiking into town.

Instead I stared out the window at the traffic chaos that was playing out in front of us. People were honking. Making illegal turns. Driving on the wrong side of the road. Dodging pedestrians. Even at one point driving up on the median. It was incredible.

Twenty minutes went by and I started to get restless. I got off and began the hike into town. At this point I was cold and kind of annoyed. It snows during the winter. It happens every year. Yet SL was not prepared. They said it was because of the icy roads and the sustained rate of snow fall. Fine. But I was still hiking because the damn bus got stranded.

My mood changed after watching a boat break up the ice under the bridge I was crossing. I am easily amused.

I continued my walk and after passing one bus stop saw a bus pull up to a second. Perfect timing. Off we went towards town. Then it happened. Again. A bus was stuck right in front of us. This time, the bus had managed to drive into a traffic light. I’m not even sure how he managed to hit it. But he did.
We stopped. And waited. Our bus driver though, in a fit of impatience decided to pull a horribly awkward manoeuver. He angled the bus out into oncoming traffic, quick turn back towards the broken bus, and a couple more turns of the steering wheel and we were home free. An impressive show of driving really.

I stepped off the bus and headed into the subway station. One line was said to be running irregularly. This meant that there were two men on the tracks breaking off ice and sweeping it away while the board flashed the occasional warning that the subway would come when it damn well felt like it. And eventually it did.
Over an hour after having left my apartment, I made it into town. It involved one cancelled train, two different busses, a hike, two broken busses, and an icy subway track. A few hours later, the return trip was much smoother. Unfortunately, I had no new shoes to show for my trouble.

Welcome to Sweden. And my continued bad luck with the winter weather.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Snow Storms and Laundry

Right now it is -13 degrees Celsius. About nine degrees Fahrenheit. It has snowed a couple of inches and continues to snow. And I just spent the last forty minutes of my life locked outside.

Not because I forgot my keys, not because I locked them in somewhere, not, for once, because I was an idiot. I was locked outside for forty minutes because my keys froze in the lock.

I was trying to do laundry. Get up relatively early on a Saturday and be responsible. It doesn’t happen all that often. I put on some sweats and a fleece jacket. I was just running to the laundry room. I took my cell phone and keys. But not my wallet.

Going to the laundry room involves a trek into the outside world. I braved the elements and arrived unscathed at the laundry room door. I placed my key into the door as any self-respecting potential laundry-doer would do. Nothing happened. Which wasn’t strange, this door is notorious for not always closing all the way when locked. I pushed the door shut and turned the key. And nothing happened. Which I thought was fine, I would just pull the key out and try again. Nope. The key was stuck. I couldn’t turn it left, I couldn’t turn it right.

A girl walked by and, being a resident, knew about the notorious door, she suggested I push it shut some more. I explained that the key was in fact stuck. After a brief moment of condolence, her parting words? Hoppas du inte behöver stå här ute länge. Hope you don’t have to stand out here for long. Me too. Me too.

I suddenly began going through my options. I could run to the store and buy some of that lock spray that is essentially straight alcohol. No, I couldn’t. I didn’t have my wallet. I could run back to my apartment and not be cold. No, I couldn’t. My key was stuck in a different lock. Things were not looking promising.

At this point I became somewhat agitated and may have kicked the door in disgust. Which in cold weather just hurts. But the aggression cleared my head. The other laundry room was open, and there was running water. But I had no container. In a stroke of genius, I ran to the recycling room and dug through the metal return bin for an old can of tomatoes. Back to the laundry room. I cranked on the water and let it run hot. And filled the tomato can. Ran outside, dumped the water on. Tried the key. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. I dumped at least eight cans of hot water on the lock before it finally released my key from the bowels of hell.

Sweet relief. At this point my hands were cold and wet which meat I was starting to stick to door handles. And anyone who has ever seen A Christmas Story knows that wet skin and cold metal do not mix.

I headed back to my apartment with no clean clothes but a key. I put my key in the door and felt it stick. And immediately pulled it out. It was still a bit wet. Damn it. I stood outside drying the key with numb finger tips. After a couple minutes, I felt confident enough to make another attempt. I did. The key turned, the lock clicked, and the door swung open.

Welcome to Sweden. And weather cold enough to lock you outside.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Entertaining Canadians in Stockholm

I was entertaining three Canadians who were in town for a couple of days. It was speckled with “ehs” and discussion of hockey. It was like a living stereotype. I know plenty of Canadians who do not like hockey, nor do they say “eh,” but it was because of this living stereotype that I was so intrigued by the reactions they had to Sweden.

We ended up at dinner where the main topic of conversation was Sweden. Swedish culture. Swedish history. Swedish. Of course, there were the classic comments, the women are all beautiful, no one will look at me. But then there were a couple that threw me for a loop.

The first being that Swedish bars and restaurants are filled with co-ed bathrooms. This was news to me because I have only found one restaurant and one bar with co-ed bathrooms. In nearly three years. I tried convincing the Canadians of this, they weren’t having it though. Even the lobby of their hotel had co-ed bathrooms.

Then there was the view of Swedish men and women. Generalizations and stereotypes don’t take long to form. I do it all the time. It a good way to categorize things, to bring some sort of order to the individuality of everyone that I cross paths with. So despite having only been here for two days, there were stereotypes and generalizations being made.

Men in Sweden were dominating and rude, while women were meek and subservient. I think my jaw might have actually dropped. It was the first time I had ever heard Swedish men and women described that way. I am used to the strong willed women of Sweden. I am used to the soft spoken men of Sweden. I am not used to rude men and meek women.

The whole discussion reminded me just how easily our views are shaped. The importance of experiences in everyday life. That circumstances can lead us to conclusions that may not necessarily be true.

I’m not saying it will ever change the way I interact with different cultures, but I do think it made me more aware of the way I form my own stereotypes. And even after so long here in Stockholm, how stereotypes still dominate my life, both from the way I interact with Sweden, and how others interact with me as an American.

Welcome to Sweden. And the stereotypical Swede.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Swedish Word for Astigmatism

I am essentially blind without my contacts in or glasses on. And by essentially, I mean if you put me in a foreign room without my glasses on it would be like watching a drunk three year old in a china shop. Hilarious, but kind of sad. I blame my parents for this. My eyesight I mean, not the fact that I think watching a drunk three year old in a china shop would be funny.

Because of my constantly fading eye sight, I try to get my eyes checked every year. Since moving to Sweden though, I have failed horribly. Not because my eyesight has suddenly stabilized, but because I have been horribly nervous about doing this in Swedish. I always question my fluency when it comes to official things. I can get by, maybe even trick someone into thinking I am Swedish in an everyday conversation, but doctors are different.

Suddenly I need to explain that I have horrible astigmatisms. In both eyes. In Swedish. Astigmatism is not a word I commonly use in Swedish. Turns out though that the word for astigmatism in Swedish is… astigmatism. Of course.

This only compounded the fact that that eye doctors are probably the most judgmental people in the medical profession. Can you read the last line? Hmmmm. How about this? Hmmmm. Is this better? Or Worse? Hmmmm. Do you wear your contacts more than your glasses? Hmmmm. The judgmental hmmmm stresses me out. Did I give the right answer? Was that a D or an O? Is it better? Yes. Wait. No. Wait. Maybe?

It’s an emotional roller coaster really. It doesn’t help when the eye doctor decides to taunt me. I took my contacts out to test my glasses. She asked me to take my glasses off for further tests. She told me to put them on the table. I did. She finished her tests. I politely looked her direction at the flesh-colored blob that I assumed was her face. She began speaking. I aimed my eyes at where I assumed her eyes would have been situated in the aforementioned flesh-colored blob. Then she picked up a chart and began pointing to it expecting me to follow. Taunting me really. It was at this point I had to stop her. I need my glasses. I can’t see what you are pointing at. An embarrassed chuckle and an oh yeah, you can’t see. No. No I can’t. Thank you.

And it only gets worse when the news is handed down. Your eyesight has deteriorated. Again. Awesome. Now I get to go back and pick up a trial pair of contacts a few days from now. They don’t have my strength in stock. In fact, I don’t think they’ve had my strength in stock since I was about 16.

Welcome to Sweden. And fading to black.

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sports in Stockholm

It happened. Finally. After several failed attempts, I was able to see Peter Forsberg play live in Sweden. Earlier this season I had bought tickets, only to learn the day of the game that he would not be playing. With Forsberg’s injury history, it wasn’t horribly surprising. It was horribly disappointing. I went to the game anyway, mostly because I love sports.

I came away questioning that love because of my disgust with the Djurgården hockey fans. Let me point out, that I have no allegiance to any Stockholm sports club. At all. I’ve been to AIK hockey matches and been disgusted by the fans there as well, it just happens that Djurgården is playing in Elitserien, probably the third best hockey league in the world. AIK is not.

I go to hockey to watch hockey. Not to drink myself stupid. Not to vent my pent up frustration of mediocrity at men who do something that I can’t even dream of. Not to fall into the mindless drone that is the mob. But I suppose to each his own.

So I went, I listened to the vitriol spewed by the fans, many of them drunk. I told my father later that I would never take a child to a hockey game in Sweden. Ever. There should be some sort of rating system like the movies. Hockey in Sweden, or in Stockholm at least, should definitely be rated PG-13. At best.

But I went back. Not because I like to throw myself into situations which I dislike, but because I grew up watching Peter Forsberg in Colorado, and having the opportunity to watch him in Sweden was not something I was willing to miss. The game was last night. Friday night I saw a report that he had hurt his finger and was questionable to play in Stockholm. Damn it. Again. I frantically reloaded various sports websites over the course of my Saturday hoping that I would read good news. I did. He was in. Hurting, but in. So last night I was there again, this time I paid a bit extra for better seats in the hopes that the market economy would sort out the riff raff. It did. Kind of.

At least those surrounding me this time chose not to direct their ire at young children as they had the last game. Although, I did learn a few new Swedish words. But I am constantly amazed by the aggression shown at hockey games. I have become so used to the lack of passion and fight in the Swedish people (a gross generalization, I know) that to see the fanatics come out is jarring. It may be that what I am seeing is no worse than in the US, but that I have built up a picture of the subdued Swede, and having that picture shattered makes it all the more surprising. It could all be relative. But I just don’t think so.

I wasn’t watching the crowd though; instead I had my eyes glued on umber 21 in the MODO jersey. He was out of sync and it was clear that he hadn’t played himself back into shape. But he still managed to make passes that amazed me. He was more physical than I remember, a sign that he’s lost a step or two, but those passes, that vision, they were still there. And seeing his numbers, averaging just over a point a game, there is still some fight left in the old man. MODO lost, Forsberg didn’t score, nor did he have an assist. But it didn’t matter. I watched Peter Forsberg play in Sweden. Finally.

Now, I am waiting for the sun to go down so I can take a nap. Because I am preparing to make poor choices on a Sunday night. It is Super Bowl Sunday. Of course, since the game doesn’t start until after midnight, that is a bit of a misnomer, but Super Bowl Monday just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Either way, I need the nap because I intend to watch a football game on TV that starts after midnight and tends to last at least three hours. I also intend to work the next morning.

Welcome to Sweden. And the wide world of sports.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My Tax Money at Work – Adult Education

I’ve been trying to learn some language here in Sweden. Take advantage of the educational system. Putting my tax kronor to work if you will.

With all the tax money the government pulls in, they offer a lot of opportunities for adult education. Or a high school education while an adult. Which is what I’m looking for when it comes to languages. So I signed up of course. I’ve already made my way through one course, but missed the opening introductory meeting. I just signed up for my second course.

This time, I decided to take a late lunch and disappear to my introductory meeting. It was a poor choice on my part. An enlightening choice, but a poor one none the less.

The meeting was open to everyone taking classes so it was a hodgepodge of different interests. It kicked off with an awkward introduction by the middle aged woman in front of us. Who later revealed to us she was a teacher. And the principal. My education is in good hands.

We eventually got into the grading of assignments. This is where it got interesting. Despite a move to the Bologna system and a standardized grading using the letter grading scale, adult education sticks with the Swedish system. G, VG, MVG, and lest we forget, IG. Godkänd, Väl Godkänd, Mycket Väl Godkänd, and Icke Godkänd. Essentially, pass, pass +, pass with distinction, and fail.

Pretty easy to follow, no questions there. It was how to earn the grades that I thought was interesting. Because it turns out you can re-do an assignment as many times as you want. Fail the assignment? Don’t worry; if you get an MVG on the sixth attempt, no one needs to know about the other five failures. Now my mind starts racing, probably because I am kind of competitive and have always pulled half-way decent grades.

I get the idea that people should actually learn the subject, that a grade doesn’t necessarily demonstrate learning. I understand that. Fine. So pass the person, but do not give that person the same grade as someone who managed to pass with an MVG on the first attempt. Note somewhere that it took six attempts. Or at least just give them a G and move them along. To suggest that taking as many attempts as you want to pass a class is indicative of mastery of a certain subject is frightening. I do not want a surgeon who needed six attempts to pass physiology.

There are moments when I struggle to fit into Swedish society. Luckily, there are also moments when I force myself to fit into Swedish society. I did not act on my immediate impulse to raise my hand and ask why.

We moved along to how we all were going to get through the classes we were taking. Goals are good. But don’t aim too high. Don’t want to be let down when you don’t achieve them. Seriously. This was the advice given. Don’t set your goals too high. Like MVG. G might just be good enough for you.

So on the one hand, we are told that we can keep trying until we get that MVG, but on the other hand, some of us should just not try. Which makes perfect sense.

Welcome to Sweden. And Swedish adult education.

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