Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sweeping the Streets of Sweden Clean

Stockholm is the cleanest big city I have ever been in. It’s incredible. It’s as if little garbage gnomes come out at night, like magic, and take away the litter. Because it is so clean, I never think about the alternative though. I never think about trash on the sidewalks and old beer cans in the streets. Not unless I am in other big cities.

When traveling with the family quite a while back, we headed over to Copenhagen. You know, the city that bikes everywhere and hosted the environmental conference a while back? Even Copenhagen seemed dirty.

Anyway, the cleanliness of Stockholm came to my attention in recent days because the snow has been melting. And melting snow means that all those things that were hiding in the snow come to the surface. The sidewalk is strewn with the dregs of the Swedish winter. Empty bottles, lonely mittens, sand and gravel to combat the ice, I even saw a large planter box that sits on my walk to work. It had been hidden for so long that I forgot it was even there.

So today, on my way to work, I was thinking about how clean Stockholm always is, and how very unclean it had suddenly become. For the first time since I moved to Sweden, Stockholm felt dirty. That’s damn impressive work over the course of three years. All the snow this year had just collected so much trash.

Then I went to the gym at lunch. Because some days at work result in needing to lift heavy things. And on the way there, I looked down at the sidewalk. Clean. Completely clean. It was amazing. Apparently the garbage gnomes drive a sidewalk Zamboni.

The entire sidewalk had been swept clean. No bottles. No lonely mittens. No sand or gravel. Instead just the faint outline of a Zamboni and the brush strokes of spring. For the first time in nearly three months, I saw virgin pavement in Stockholm, and it was glorious.

Welcome to Sweden. And garbage gnomes.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Springing Forward and Sunday Beer

Today is Sunday. But not just any Sunday. At 2 am this morning, the clocks changed. We finally sprang forward over here in Sweden. Suddenly, the cold dark days of winter are being replaced by the cold light days of… well, winter. It isn’t officially spring in Stockholm yet.

Sweden doesn’t declare spring based on that silly equinox, but instead on the temperature. SMHI, the weather gurus here in Sweden, have decided that it is spring when the average 24 hour temperature is over 0 degrees for seven days in a row. As long as this happens after the 15th of February of course. This means that certain parts of the country are in the throes of spring while other parts are in the throes of jealousy.

Stockholm is not there yet. Soon what with all of the snow melting, but not quite. It wasn’t the time change that I noticed today though. Or even the thawing temperatures. It was beer.

I saw a man walking up the escalator with a full case of beer in hand. And this struck me as odd. Because, as I mentioned above, it is Sunday. The fact that it struck me as odd struck me as odd. Beer on Sundays shouldn’t be something noteworthy. But in a country where last call at the liquor store is 3 in the afternoon on Saturday, seeing someone walking around with a full case of beer at 4 in the afternoon on a Sunday raises an eyebrow.

He must have been coming home from the ferry, there’s really no other reason. Unless he grossly miscalculated his beer intake for the night before. But I’m thinking Finland.

It frightens me though that I notice this. I shouldn’t notice this. Either I have embraced the Swedish liquor culture and accepted Sunday as dry days meant to nurse hangovers, or I am pathetically attentive to what other people are doing. Which just sounds sad. So let’s go with the acceptance of Swedish liquor culture.

Welcome to Sweden. And Sunday beer.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

SAS, Arlanda, and Incompetence – A Match Made in Stockholm

And we’re back. I’ve been traveling. Decided it was a good idea to escape to the good old US of A for a while. He sun was shining, it was warm, and it took about half an hour before my poor Nordic skin was fried. The cul de sacs that once held hair have since turned a nice scaly consistency with bits of skin flaking off on a regular basis. And yes, I am still single. Weird, I know.

I even managed to be around for one of those historic moments what with the health care bill passing last Sunday. Followed by threats by various state lawmakers to sue the federal government. Lawsuits… it’s the American way.

But the trip was short lived and I returned to Sweden. Via Arlanda. The worst airport in the entire world. This time, I actually left the country without any issues and I avoided my arch nemesis Mikael, the infamous SAS employee. And I almost made it into the country without any issues. Almost.

Instead, I stood at the baggage claim carousel waiting for my bag to arrive. And I waited. And the bags kept coming. And mine did not. So I waited some more. And finally the bags stopped coming. And so I stopped waiting.

I headed over to SAS’s (of course it was SAS, the worst airline I have ever flown with out of the worst airport) claims desk. There was one person working the desk as I and five other people converged on the counter. There were four in the back room. Two of which I could see standing around drinking coffee. Eventually another woman joined the man working the counter.

We all dutifully, in that way that you learn to do in Sweden, grabbed our nummerlapp and immediately milled about waiting for the sign to light up with our number. Eventually mine lit up. I began filing my claim for missing luggage. Boarding pass. Full flight information. Description of suitcase. As I was describing the color of my bag, an Arlanda employee came up to the desk and explained that, oops, some of the luggage from Newark was mistakenly put on the carousel for the flight arriving from Chicago. Maybe my bags were there. Yes. Maybe.

He mounted his little scooter that they ride at Arlanda and drove away to get the bags. I waited patiently. After having traveled for about 18 hours and waited for luggage in over an hour, patiently is a euphemism for dead tired and unable to think straight.

Our friendly Arlanda employee arrived, my bag in tow. I was one of six lucky people on a flight where I could reach out and kick six people in my general vicinity from Newark to Stockholm to have their bags placed on the wrong carousel.

I know mistakes happen. There are hundreds of thousands of bags that go through the airport. Some are bound to be misplaced. But at some point, I just want to make it through a round trip ticket involving a stop in Arlanda without problems. One can only hope.

Welcome to Sweden. And the incompetence that is Arlanda airport.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Schlager + Dolph Lundgren = Glorious

This weekend I did something I am not necessarily proud of. It happens to the best of us really. We look back on our actions and can only ask why. I do not regret my actions, but I do question them. I have learned from them. I am a better person because of them.

On Saturday, I went to Melodifestivalen. Not the actual event mind you, but the afternoon dress rehearsal. I told you it wasn’t something I was proud of. Melodifestivalen is like watching a train wreck filled with song, dance, confetti, and He-Man. It’s the most magical train wreck you will ever see. Like Rocky IV. As a musical. On shrooms.

Upon entering Globen, we were greeted by men in pink tasseled cowboy hats. Obviously. We hiked to our seats. I considered investing in an oxygen tank or at least setting up camp and waiting for the morning. But I pushed on. Melodifestivalen waits for no man. At one point I think I saw a Sherpa pass us, but the lack of oxygen may have caused hallucinations. It was right around this point that I discovered Lundgren’s Principle. A close relative to Bernoulli’s Principle, Lundgren’s Principle states the following:

b(π - y + x) = b(a-y + c+x)

Assume π is Glorious (not 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288. Come on now.)

a = Dolph Lundgren
b = Dignity
c = Schlager
x = Sparkles
y = Acting Skills

Schlager + Dolph Lundgren = Glorious.

There might be a couple of holes in the principle. I’m not a master of chemical engineering like Dolph.

After having made it to our seats, the festivities began. Kind of. This was only a dress rehearsal. But we got to see Rocky Balboa butcher Swedish names and look slightly like a half melted GI Joe doll so that was a plus.

The event was a rousing success, if only because Dolph Lundgren, former Master of the Universe, former Russian boxer, current holder of a master’s degree in chemical engineering, was a host. I laughed every time he spoke. I couldn’t help it. He-Man was introducing songs like Man-Boy which ends with a kid getting drenched in water and teenage girls throughout Sweden giggling uncontrollably. Hell, the man even made a wet-dream joke. It was incredible. I’m pretty sure the only thing that could have been better would have been Chuck Norris hosting. In Swedish.

We settled for Ivan though. After having written skeptical reviews of Melodifestivalen and Eurovision such as Eurovision Song Contest 2008. Stockholm Edition and Melodifestivalen in Sweden – 2009 Edition it’s clear that I had gone through a transformation. And Dolph was there to see it. “I guess what I'm trying to say is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.” Well said Rocky, well said.

Walking out of Globen, I was a changed man. Or so I thought. That’s when I saw the following sign:

When I jumped over the rail, started laughing, and felt compelled to take a picture I knew that while boxing could thaw the Cold War and Dolph Lundgren could melt my icy demeanor towards schlager, nothing could take my love of inappropriately worded signs.

Welcome to Sweden. And my transformation.

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Monday, March 08, 2010

A Real Swedish Winter

The snow is starting to melt here in Stockholm. For the first time in nearly three months I saw pavement today on the sidewalk as I hiked to work in the morning. It was incredible. Hell, the sun was still up when I left work. Not just technically up as in there was still daylight, but I could actually see it.

It’s been a long winter. A cold winter. And I’ve loved it. As far as I’m concerned, snow is a requisite for any good winter activity. Like skiing. Or sledding. Or pelting people with snowballs when they least expect it. Always a good way to make friends as far as I’m concerned.

Winter in Sweden is a bit different than winter in Colorado though. Mostly because Colorado is a wonderfully shaped rectangle surrounded by several other rectangles in the middle of the US. There are very few large bodies of water to fight with.

I think that is why the news during the Swedish winter is so fascinating to me. Like the ferries getting stuck in the ice on their way to Finland. But the one that really caught my eye? A company that flies helicopters out to the archipelago and brings them to civilization when the water freezes over. I didn’t even realize people actually lived out in the archipelago all year round, so I was horribly impressed. Mostly because the idea of living on an island really intrigues me. Until I actually start thinking about it and my own personal neurosis which would probably drive me to cannibalism. Or something like that.

But I digress. Their math seems a bit fuzzy, considering they claim to have been doing this since 1996 and that ends up being nearly 10 years, but I’ll just chalk it up to a lazy website administrator and instead continue living in my fantasy world in which helicopters are needed to keep people alive in the Swedish winter.

Welcome to Sweden. And necessities.

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Swedish Mea Culpa

I’ve been writing here for about two and a half years now. It started as a way to vent about Sweden. The good and the bad. At times, my writing has been dominated by critique of the Swedish system and what bothers me. Seldom will you hear me raving about the political system here for example. Not because it doesn’t work (it does), but because something inside of me lashes back at certain Swedish ideals. Just like Swedes lash back at certain American ideals.

Despite my critique, I have chosen to be here. I chose to go on this adventure. I chose Sweden. I know that at the drop of a hat, I can leave, but I haven’t. I’ve been close. Once, just days away actually. In fact, I had already told my brothers that I needed them to fly out with empty suitcases and help me move. But my stubbornness (and a deal I made with myself) said otherwise.

At the time, I felt like Sweden had beaten me. Which seems silly. Countries can’t beat people. But Sweden had beaten me. From a completely selfish standpoint, it had taken too much from me and given me so little. I was ready to head home to Colorado, tail between my legs, and be done with this country. I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.

Sweden and I get along now. We have an uneasy relationship at times, but deep down we love each other despite our differences. And they are myriad. But that is the point.

Moving to Sweden, no matter how seemingly familiar it may be, entails a ridiculous amount of culture shock. Coming to visit for a few weeks in the summer is not the same as living through every up and down that is the Swedish calendar year. It is not understanding the loneliness that comes with not knowing anyone. It is not understanding the feeling in your gut when you miss another birthday. Another Thanksgiving. Another graduation. It is not understanding the ever widening gap between you and the friends you left behind. It is not understanding the everyday details that make up what becomes a life.

The longer I stay here, the more I realize that. The more I realize that to complain, to bitch and moan, to criticize the very country that I made a choice to move to is a form of therapy. It allows me to work through the differences. The stark differences that dominate my life.

I will eventually move back to the US. Not because I am tired of Sweden. But because the US is home. I know this, in and of itself, will entail a ridiculous amount of culture shock. This time reverse culture shock. I haven’t gone grocery shopping in the US for nearly three years. This thought struck me the other day when I waltzed into the store and didn’t have to think. I knew what I wanted. I knew the brand. The cost. The location. It is three years of practice that has made my life in Sweden a life. Not a trip.

Some of the most commented posts here are about those entrenched differences that foreigners face in Sweden. Some are heated. Many times, the classic jingoistic comment has arisen. If you don’t like it, leave. It’s a comment that I was familiar with in the US. It is a comment I have become familiar with here. It is a comment that I fail to understand with every passing day.

I will leave when I am ready. My not agreeing with every aspect of the Swedish system does not warrant me leaving. In fact, those criticisms are what make me want to stay. To understand. The criticism of the school system is not meant to be a personal attack. The disgust with the high taxes is not meant to be a personal attack. The shock at the short prison sentences is not meant to be a personal attack. It is simply a difference so jarring that as a foreigner with a hint of insider in me can’t help but comment.

The complaints I throw around are done with reason. They are expressed because the complaints, the differences, they are what make this an adventure. They are what make me laugh. They are what I need to get off my (hairy) chest.

I have spoken with so many ex-pats. So often our conversations devolve into what we dislike about Sweden. Not so much because we dislike the country, but we miss home and the familiarity that comes with it. We leave a part of ourselves behind. The language for example. I am much more myself than I will ever be in Swedish.

Recently, I was out with an American friend and a Swedish friend who has traveled extensively. The conversation devolved and I saw the same look on my Swedish friends’ face that I often make when the conversation devolves to America bashing. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I am a hypocrite. But in the end, despite the criticism, we all stay. We are all still here. I am still here. For better or worse.

Welcome to Sweden. And my mea culpa.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Books, Guilt, and Akvavit

I have a problem. I read a lot. The reading isn’t the problem; it’s the books that are the problem. Mostly because I don’t like to use the library. I’ve been like this since I was a little kid. I like to own the books. I like to buy the books. I like to have the books near me. I like to buy books for other people. In fact, I find every gift giving opportunity the perfect time to force books upon people I care about.

But it has come to the point that I feel guilty when buying books. They pile up on the couch, on my shelves, beside my bed, on the floor. I read them all, eventually, but they keep collecting. There are times when I can fight through my problem. Months go by and not a single new book passes through my doors. I have such a back log of previously purchased books that it doesn’t infringe on my reading habits.

Other times though, other times I struggle. Once a year, every year, in Sweden I am challenged. Because every year in February, all of Sweden has a book sale. Literally (see what I did there?). The entire country has a book sale. A bokrea if you will. It’s incredible and horribly overwhelming for the bibliophile in me. This year’s sale started on February 25th and most places will keep it going for a couple of weeks.

The whole thing has quite a bit of history to it, damn near 90 years of history. The whole thing started in the ‘20s. There is even an organization behind the whole idea called Svenska Förläggareföreningen (The Swedish Publishers’ Association). Of course, this being Sweden, there are plenty of rules and regulations to keep things fair. One of the big ones being that the book sale starts on the same day for everyone in Sweden. The fear is that if everyone goes willy nilly offering sales prices on books, the whole structure will deteriorate into chaos. And so, there will be no cheating. Of course, this being a working economy, game theory does come into play.

This year, someone tried to cheat. It was none other than the evil empire of Swedish grocery stores, ICA. ICA Stig, the mastermind behind the plot, tried to start the book sale the day before the official start date. Public pressure eventually forced ICA into an awkward compromise and the book sale lives on.

As a general rule, I like competition. And while these rules smack of anti-competition, my love of books trumps my love of competition. Anything that creates a buzz around books for several weeks is ok by me. Unless you’re burning them. Burning books is not ok by me. So every year, I become a reluctant participant in the sale. Reluctant because I don’t need more books. Reluctant because I want more books.

This year, after wandering through several book stores, I hadn’t made a single purchase. I had a few specific books in mind, and to my great dismay, and great luck, they were not on sale. Then it happened. The last book store of the day. I couldn’t resist any longer. I’d been eyeing this book for a while (even when the book sale isn’t going on I have a habit of milling about in book stores). Norrlands Akvavit. I’m hoping Torgny Lindgren can ease my book buying guilt.

Welcome to Sweden. And a countrywide book sale.

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