Monday, August 30, 2010

That’ll Teach You, Sweden

Yesterday, I did something in the US to prove a point to Sweden. Surprisingly, Sweden was unaware of my actions. For good reason really, it is a point that is only meaningful to me. And to anyone ever stranded and ignored on the side of the road.

I am looking for new shoes. I bought a pair that I was quite pleased with back in March. I threw them away in June. They tore at the seams and couldn’t handle the slush that was the Swedish spring. Since then I have been using my old beat up tennies. They work well, but they are haggard. And to be honest, I really need a new pair of semi-nice shoes that can be worn with jeans in my new everyday life. It’s because I’m so European and stylish.

I have yet to find them. So yesterday, I went in search of some brown shoes. I stumbled upon a pair I really liked. And realized suddenly that they were the exact same pair I bought back in March. And so I left the store.

Stranded in the parking lot, sitting in an old blue Toyota of sorts was a young man with a dirty moustache. I mean just dirty. Blonde, stringy, with slight curls on the end. The kind of moustache my little brother would be proud of. It was not the moustache that drew me to him though, it was the Toyota. With the hood up. The telltale sign of trouble.

In the last three years I spent way too much time in parking lots, on the sides of roads, in below freezing temperatures, in rain and hail, looking for help with my car. I was turned down when I asked people for help. I was ignored when I asked people for help. I was in Sweden when I asked people for help.

So I asked him if he needed help. I stared at his moustache in amazement as he explained that his battery was dead. He didn’t have any jumper cables but his brother was on the way. Have no fear kind mustachioed one, I have jumper cables. See the above paragraph for why I always carry jumper cables with me. In my car I mean. I don’t actually walk around with them. Although, with my luck with any sort of motorized vehicle, it might not be a bad idea.

A quick attaching of the red and black cables and the Toyota roared to life. He thanked me profusely. Pulled away, and then stopped and yelled one last thank you as his moustache reverberated from the sound waves.

And I realized that I helped him solely because I was so seldom helped. I am not always the most outgoing person. I am more awkward than I care to be. I avoid conflict and potentially new situations. And I essentially just described myself as being Swedish. Except for the part where I helped someone jump their car.

That was mean.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And car trouble.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Interviews in Sweden

I have a lot of time on my hands right now. That means I’m cleaning out really old e-mails from my inbox. And I stumbled upon this gem. It’s an e-mail sent to my mom, dad, and aunt immediately after a job interview in Sweden for a marketing position at a company focusing on green products.

Names have been altered to protect the innocent. Enjoy.

“Well, I had my interview. It was supposed to start at 10:00. I was done and out of their office at 10:04.

This country never ceases to amaze me. For better or worse. So let me explain.

The interview was supposed to start at 10, but due to the public transportation connection I had the option of being 15 minutes early or 2 minutes early. This being fall, the trains tend to be delayed. Because of leaves. Seriously. Every autumn the leaves fall. But apparently, Stockholm's public transportation has yet to figure out a solution. Anyway, I opted to show up 15 minutes early.

I went in and was offered some coffee. I asked for water instead. By 9:50 I was in the interview with the two women I had interviews with previously, one being French, the other being Swedish, and the CEO of the company, another Swedish woman.

The CEO had not seen my CV. Luckily, I listened to all that nonsense they fed us in business school and had an extra one with me and handed it to her. So I went over the exact same stuff I had already covered in the first interview, except this time in Swedish. Which went well, probably because I already knew how to answer the questions seeing as how I had done it just a couple of weeks earlier in English.

While I thought it a bit strange that the CEO of a company of only 11 employees hadn't seen my CV, the interview got stranger. Solely because I am an American. Having covered my education and a bit of my experience we moved on to some personal information. Like really personal that didn't seem to have much bearing on my ability to do the job or not.

Did I have siblings? Was I the oldest? What do my siblings do? Where do my parents live? What do my parents do? Pappa works in jordbruk, by the way. I left out the chemicals part. Do I have a family here in Sweden? This meaning, very obviously, whether I had a girlfriend/sambo/wife and children. Where do I live?

Of course, in the first interview I was asked how old I was.

Never before have I been asked these questions in a job interview. And from my American perspective, a couple of them seem borderline illegal. But here? No problem.

I was asked again why I applied for the job. Once again, I responded that I was very interested in the marketing aspect, the international aspect, and the small-business aspect. It was the CEO that had asked this question and she was obviously fishing for the environmental spin to things. In fact, at first I only responded with the international and marketing part, but she delved deeper. And asked me again for more reasons. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't give it to her. So I gave her the small-business thing.

For a second I considered going the environmental route. Espousing the teachings of the great Al Gore, railing against big oil, damning the use of pesticides and all that could potentially harm the environment. Then I remembered that I hate Al Gore, big oil is one of the few stocks that I have picked that actually made money, and pesticides are responsible for all economic success in the family household. Whether that plays a big role in me being offered the job or not I don't know, but I didn't want to go down that road.

Anyway, following the personal information the two women I had interview with earlier each asked me one more question. And that was it. The whole thing took 14 minutes.

The whole time I was thinking that more questions were going to be coming my way. Questions about my experience. Actual examples of things I had accomplished. Maybe a list of references. Nothing.

The funny thing is that all the while I was answering my questions I was looking at each of the three women, not just the one who asked the question. From the overall body language and other non-verbal cues, the two women I had interviewed with previously loved me. It's probably my boyish charms and good looks. Plus I gave a little spritz of cologne before I left the house for good measure. Unfortunately, the CEO was not wooed by me. Honestly, my first reaction was of an old disillusioned man-hating hippie (if I get a job offer and accept it, I will deny any knowledge of the aforementioned description). She seemed distracted, annoyed, cold, and distant. Which may explain the incredibly short interview. Fourteen minutes short.

It's down to me and one other candidate. They have yet to interview the other candidate a second time so we'll see how it goes. Now I just get to wait. To be honest though, I felt much more confident after the first interview than I do right now. But as I said before, this country never ceases to amaze me. Hell, I might get a call tomorrow asking me to start on Monday. Of course, it seems equally as likely that I won't get any call at all. It's a crapshoot at this point. But if you know of any sports jobs back home... I'm all ears.”

I ended up getting the job. And held it until I quit to move out of the country.

Welcome (back) to Sweden. And job interviews.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Healthcare in the US

I have never bought healthcare insurance. Ever. I was horribly spoiled and my parents kept me on their plan as long as they could. Then I moved to Sweden. As we all know, you don’t pay for healthcare in Sweden. Or something like that.

The difference is that instead of every month money being deducted from my paycheck in the US and going directly to pay for my healthcare, money is deducted from my paycheck in Sweden and goes indirectly to pay for my healthcare. That "in" makes all the difference.

Of course, since leaving Sweden, I find myself suddenly being forced into American adulthood. And that means healthcare. And it also means several different plans to choose from. It means a 97 page PDF file. It means a second PDF file of equal length.

It also means that instead of me living my life blissfully unaware of what my healthcare benefits are and just assuming someone will pick up the tab, I have to pay attention. It means that every month I will see a small deduction that goes straight to healthcare insurance.

I forgot just how little attention needed to be paid in Sweden. How unengaged I was. Suddenly I was thrust into the world of co-pays and deductibles. Poring over hundreds of pages of information. Asking colleagues. Exploring websites. Looking up words. It’s been exhausting. After several hours, I’m well on my way to being covered. And it feels good.

I’m not even going to pretend what the new healthcare plan set forth by the US government will mean. I haven’t been paying attention. That’s what happens after three years abroad. I lose interest and I lose touch. There’s no better way to get that back than to be filling out healthcare forms less than two months after landing in the country.

Strangely enough, I’m excited about this. I like being in control. Knowing what I am getting for the money I am paying. Knowing who to see, where to go, what to pay. It’s liberating in its control over me. I’m a sucker for structure.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And healthcare.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Wheelchairs and Walmart

Today, I learned how much my time is worth. And apparently, it is not much. I just spent over an hour waiting at the local Walmart as they installed my new car battery. I did this because the service was free and had I chosen to install it myself, I would have to pay an extra five dollar battery recycling fee. Because obviously I love the environment and was not going to recycle the battery, I decided that my time was worth about five dollars. Plus labor.

That decision resulted in me not buying the battery and taking it home. Which I could have done. It resulted in me not installing the battery by myself. Which I am more than capable of. It resulted in me sitting in front of a TV near the auto care center listening to my iPod as a Roseanne Arnold movie was playing. Which I struggled with.

Luckily, I enjoy Walmart. It makes me feel good about myself. Mostly because I walk around with an air of superiority. It’s hard not to considering the overrepresentation of cut off jean shorts, jorts if you will, at Walmart. Everyone knows that the number of jorts you own has an inverse relationship with your intelligence.

But despite my need for constant self-assurance, an hour at Walmart is a long time. There are only so many low priced goods and services to go around. Of course, there are plenty of entertaining people to go around. And I was fortunate enough to end up right next to one. A kindly looking old lady in a wheelchair.

Most days, kindly old ladies in wheelchairs don’t catch my attention. But this was Walmart. Always remember to inspect everyone closely for anything that might entertain you. And I did. And this kindly old lady was actually pushing herself around in her wheelchair. With her legs. Obviously. Now, I know that there are a wide variety of possibilities as to why her legs worked but she felt the need to be in a wheelchair. But come on.

I watched, transfixed, as her legs, riddled with varicose veins, motored the wheelchair around. At one point she even got stuck on a little carpeting. Her powerful legs though just backed up and tried again. Successfully, I might add.

It’s not nice to make fun of people in wheelchairs.

Moving on. This same lady was asked to sign her name before handing her car over for an oil change. That it was her car is important. Because her next words were frightening. I don’t see well. Where do I sign? She had her glasses on. She could not see where to sign her name. Yet she had just brought HER car to have the oil changed.

Again, I know there are reasons she may have struggled to see where to sign her name. Perhaps she was farsighted. Or perhaps she really was blind as a bat. Over the course of that one glorious hour, she told two different mechanics that she didn’t see well. She also told me that she didn’t see well.

She told me this because she had ordered me to move her shopping cart over to the checkout counter. I stood there confused, not realizing she was talking to me until she began apologizing. You see, she doesn’t see well. She went on to explain that she thought I was her grandson. She couldn’t see the details, only that we were both tall. Just a few minutes later, she was swiping her credit card, having just paid to have the oil in her car changed. As in, she owns a car which I assume she drives.

So we have here a woman, with seemingly full functioning legs, sitting in a wheelchair, unable to distinguish between her grandson, who we assume she loves and knows quite well, and me, having some routine maintenance done on a car she owns. Awesome. I can only hope that her grandson was driving today. I made sure to get into my car and leave before I could find out how well her eyes worked on the road.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And Walmart.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Swedishness in America

In my last few weeks in Sweden, I was answering a lot of questions about why I was moving back. Three years of being in the country had apparently had an impact on me. And it was in these last few weeks that I started hearing more and more about my identity through the eyes of others.

I became a sort of sideshow for some of the members of my Swedish family that I only saw sporadically while in the country. I was reminded over and over about the improvement of my Swedish. To the extent that I began questioning my own fluency. At one point I answered the phone only to be met by laughter and a comment explaining that laughter. I sounded Swedish. Apparently, me sounding Swedish was hilarious.

A good friend of mine, who happens to be Swedish, asked me why I was moving back. I explained the whole, time for something different, time to be near the family, time to be near old friends. For some reason that wasn’t enough. And so I explained that final part that has always gnawed at me. I feel more American. I don’t feel completely at ease in Sweden as I do in the US. I don’t see myself as Swedish (unless I decide to use that Swedishness to my advantage like when negotiating at a bazaar in Istanbul during a time when the US State Department suggested Americans not travel to the country).

His response surprised me. Even after three years in the country it surprised me. Because apparently, he didn’t view me as American at all. I was Swedish. Of course, the part of me that loves the sweet smell of freedom that assaults your nostrils at your local Walmart was disgusted by the comment. But I kept that part quiet.

Later, in a quintessentially Swedish conversation about the weather, I was once again called out for being Swedish. Mostly because I said that when the sun was shining during the Swedish summer, it was important to passa på. Essentially to take advantage. The sunshine is fleeting in Sweden so you damn well should take advantage. Again, laughter follows. The comment was just a little too Swedish.

But maybe, most shocking of all, I was called out by my very own parents. They felt it necessary to point out that I had become a tad European. This may have owed to my awesomely tight pants. Or baby blue collared shirt. Or really fast sunglasses. Or maybe it just so happens that they hate freedom. My father is not an American citizen and my mother does not like to eat lamb. You be the judge.

In the end though, it seems I am probably more Swedish than I care to admit. I suppose after several years in the country that shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it does. To me at least. Maybe moving to Swedish-America will be the halfway house I need.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And my de-Swedishanization.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Accents in Swedish-America

I don’t have much of an accent. I’m from Colorado. I don’t have a southern drawl. I don’t have that obnoxious northeastern inability to enunciate. I speak a relatively clean American English. Which is why I was so very confused when speaking on the phone to my local cable provider.

I do have a habit of mumbling while speaking on the phone. Mostly because I hate it. But mumbling does not equal an accent. The lady on the other end would apparently disagree.

I explained that I needed to set up internet and that I had just moved here. She asked if I had moved from overseas. I was taken aback, because, technically I had. She went on to explain that I had an English accent. As in British. As in God Save the Queen. I explained that I was actually from the United States. As in American. As in God Bless America. She continued to shove her foot into her mouth when she explained that her mother was Irish. As in born there. As in speaks with an Irish accent.

This made it so much worse. Her own mother has an accent, and one that is much closer to Great Britain than the United States.

To be perfectly honest, an inability to distinguish between an American and British accent is concerning. Almost as concerning as an inability to recognize that Swedish is not, in fact, English with a Swedish accent. Let’s just say the linguistic knowledge of my new surroundings is lacking.

This was not the only time in the past few days that my new home has struggled with accents.

My father has been living in this country for 20 some years. Hell he has lived in the US longer than I have and he doesn’t even have citizenship. Silly alien. He also does not have an accent. In fact, if his name was John Smith rather than BGC, you would have no idea he was Swedish. Aside from his Viking-like constitution. Obviously.

So when I was recently told by a Wisconsinite that my father had an accent, I was taken aback. Mostly because the whole time I was listening to him speak, I was hearing a Midwest stereotype come out of his mouth. I was waiting for him to break out a wheel of cheese and start gnawing on it.

The guilty party in this sordid tale knew my old man’s story before he actually met him. Knew he was Swedish. It’s almost as if he was hoping to hear an accent. Drumming it up in his mind before he had met him. Trying to validate the stereotype he had created.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And linguistic adventures.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Of Beds and Men

I am an idiot. I have started off a whole lot of posts that way. But, if you’ve been keeping tabs on me, I think you’ll agree. If not, feel free to laugh at my expense:

I have stabbed myself in the back of my neck with a toothpick. In my sleep.

I have electrocuted myself after shaving.

I have locked myself out of the laundry room, and consequently my apartment, during one of the coldest Swedish winters in recent memory. As I said, I am an idiot.

But the fun thing about idiocy is that it translates well into all languages, and follows you to all countries. And by you, I mean me.

It also turns out that idiocy is an inherited trait.

I just made my move from the comforts of mountains, Colorado, and family, to a flatness that can best be described as Midwestian. I drove past enough corn and soy beans to make me hate vegetarians. I saw asphalt blend into horizon blend into nothingness. But I made it. And I even dragged my old man out with me. This alone does not make him an idiot. It is questionable behavior subjecting oneself to 14 hours of driving through middle America but it is not idiocy in its purest form.

Idiocy in its purest form is arriving at my destination in the great state of Wisconsin, unloading a very packed Saab (obviously), and promptly getting back into the car. Who doesn’t want to drive a bit more after having spent several hours cursing vegetables? Idiocy is knowing that the subsequent drive will result in at least three, possibly four, more hours of mileage. Idiocy is driving to IKEA.

After having moved away from Sweden, I clearly need to surround myself with more Swedishness. And so, my life has now been furnished by IKEA. This probably says more about my fear of change (I am a Republican after all) than it does my idiocy. Depending on your political ideas I suppose that is debatable. But I digress.

It wasn’t until we arrived at IKEA that the idiocy really shone through. The whole point was to get me a bed. I was bedless and darkness was fast approaching. While I enjoy camping, I do not enjoy sleeping on a floor indoors. I’m spoiled like that.

We wandered around, picking up a few necessities along the way. Then we arrived at the beds. I hate buying beds. Mostly because I usually hate lying in beds. They hurt my back. And when testing a bed, I can never lie there long enough to see if it will hurt my back. It is essentially a crap shoot. Or a shit show. Either way there is some sort of scatological description involved.

My dad and I started looking at beds. It was a build-your-own bed buffet. And it was exhausting. That may have had something to do with the driving. And the unpacking. And the more driving. But the different variations were overwhelming to say the least. After about an hour of trying to decipher the code that is IKEA beds, we had a mattress and bed base. The bed base even came with a bed frame. We were ready to go. Which was good because the store kept announcing to us that it was closing in half an hour. Fifteen minutes. Ten minutes.

We made our way downstairs to pick up the pieces of the bed. And that’s when the idiocy came to fruition. We found the mattress. We found the bed base. We did not find the bed frame. It turns out that the bed base did not actually include the bed frame. Which was unfortunate because the store had just announced that it was closing in five minutes. A quick scramble ensued involving an IKEA employee, frantic questions about the lack of bed frame, an explanation that the bed base did not come with the bed frame. His words said “sorry,” his eyes said “idiots.”

Luckily, IKEA is almost idiot-proof. There was a large bed frame on the end of the aisle. An endcap display if you will. And it was the right size. And it was relatively cheap. And so we grabbed it. And ran. The store had long ago announced that it was closed.

So my father and I went to the cashier. I stood in line. My father ran to the food section and bought four 50 cent hotdogs. They were delicious.

Several hours later than expected, we headed out. We called my mom. You know, to report on what we had done. You know when you do something stupid and your parents aren’t really mad, just disappointed? My mom wasn’t mad, she was just disappointed. As I explained our predicament, and the money spent, she just sighed. Finally, “that’s why you don’t buy a bed from IKEA.” It was reminiscent of the time my dad and I bought bananas at the grocery store for a price which we thought was spectacular. It was not. We were chided for our inability to buy bananas, much like we were chided for our inability to buy a bed.

But a couple of days later, the bed is put together, everything fits in my room, and my back isn’t sore. Well, not too sore at least.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And my transatlantic idiocy.

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