Monday, July 25, 2011

Really Sweden, Really?

I miss Europe. And I’m still here. But the other day was rough. I went to Sweden for the afternoon with a group of fellow Danish learners. I was mostly looking forward to being able to speak a language without having to think. And mumble.

I arrived to a street filled with European football fans dressed in the local colors surrounding at least 10 police vans. We were told that there was a derby match about to happen. And at one in the afternoon, the Swedes were apparently properly liquored up. Because suddenly, sirens erupted, riot police charged, gas canisters were detonated (whether they were tear gas or not, I don’t know), and a throng of football fans spread out into the streets in all directions at a drunken sprint. It was like nothing I had ever seen. I once saw the beginnings of a riot at the University of Oregon several years ago, I’ve seen several large-scale demonstrations, but I have never seen riot police in action. It was intense. Because I am a responsible young man, I walked away. It was not a good first impression for several of the people who had never been to Sweden before.

Next, we headed to the old town. Because every proper European city has one. Obviously. On the way down a large set of stairs, a lighter came flying through the air and whipped against my hand. I looked up to see a pudgy, middle-aged man in a white shirt with a drunken, albeit sheepish, look on his face. My arms flew into the air in the international what the hell was that gesture. My words then flew into the air in the Swedish vad fan var det gesture. His response was one of the most disgusting things I have heard in Sweden in quite some time. Ursäkta, det var inte meningen. Jag missade negern bakom dig. As if that somehow makes it ok. Some Swedes will argue that the word neger means negro and is acceptable. To be perfectly honest, that’s bullshit. It’s a word that should not be used. Ever. I just looked at the guy, shook my head, and walked away. I didn’t know what to do. It just kind of hurt to hear.

At this point, my brow is furrowed and I’m not exactly happy to be at the head of a gaggle of foreigners trying to show off a country that I quite like and a city that holds a whole lot of amazing memories. So off we went to a medieval church. Because if there’s one thing that can cheer me up it’s a medieval church. Instead I saw three men, penises in hand, urinating on the walls surrounding the church grounds. Awesome.

After three strikes, the skies opened above us and rain started pissing down. You know, just for good measure. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most successful day trip to Sweden.

Welcome to Sweden. And drunkenness, hooliganism, racism, and public urination.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Using Your Inside Voice

The other day I wrote that Americans should use their inside voice when abroad. It was meant to be a smart ass comment that was halfway funny. Mostly because it is a stereotype that lives on and sometimes is based on a kernel of truth. However, I thought I should explain what I meant also, not because I received any scathing e-mails, but because behind the smartass comment there was something I meant. Surprisingly, there usually is.

Americans tend to be loud when abroad. Not overly so, but loud enough. It’s not just that though. Lots of people are loud. Lots of people make fools of themselves. Lots of people call attention to themselves. That’s not reserved just for Americans. I’ve seen countless languages do things that would make their mothers cringe. Or at least make my mother cringe.

But other languages can get away with things on a different level. It does not give them a license to act an ass, but it does give them license to say things that may be rude. Part of the reason an inside voice is so useful for an American is the simple fact that those Americans tend to be speaking English. And a vast population abroad speaks English. And when a vast international population speaks English, those little comments you make that you think you can get away with because you are abroad. Gross, it stinks here. Look at that person. Do I really have to eat that? Why don’t they do it this way? Those comments are understood. By a lot of people.

So whether they are loud or not, they are heard. Is it fair? Probably not. The group of Finnish guys may be saying the exact same things. I don’t know. I don’t speak Finnish. Chances are that you don’t either. And neither does the vast majority of the population.

While in Istanbul, I ran across a group of Americans. Probably a few years younger than me. I did not talk to them. They were standing outside a large Turkish bathhouse. They were talking. Someone in the group I was with made a comment about the stereotypically loud Americans. They weren’t. Not in my opinion. They were no louder than the other groups of tourists right outside of the bathhouse. The difference was they were in the middle of the classic tourist bitch session. We’ve all been there. I’ve seen Swedes do it in Mumbai, I’ve seen Canadians do it in Sweden, I’ve seen Americans do it all over. It’s a great way to blow off some steam when the homesickness hits. The difference between Swedes doing it in Mumbai and Americans doing it in Istanbul is that there aren’t a whole lot of Swedish speakers in Mumbai. There are a whole lot of English speakers in Istanbul. So all those rude comments were understood. Loud and clear. Minus the loud.

It’s frustrating to see this happen, it’s frustrating to see stereotypes beget stereotypes. Some of them deserved, I won’t deny that. Some are not. But when traveling abroad, it helps to be aware of those stereotypes. Because that inside voice may not break down the loud American stereotype, but it sure as hell will help. Even if your inside voice is understood by your surroundings as well.

Welcome to Europe. And inside voices.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Miss You Europe

I miss you Europe. And I’m still here. And I’ll be here for another four weeks. I have plenty to look forward to when going back to the US, but I miss you already.

I miss learning bits and pieces of new languages. Because there is no better way to make a foreign friend than comparing swear words.

I miss meeting people from different countries. Because here people are actually from that country. For the record, you are not from Sweden if your great-great-grandfather moved to the US from Skåne in the 1800s. You’re just not.

I miss people speaking at least two different languages. Because your four years of B-work French in high school doesn’t count ten years after the fact. It just doesn’t.

I miss being able to jump on a plane and exploring a new country. Because Poland or Greece or Turkey or Italy are right there. And paying next to nothing to do it.

I miss five to six weeks of paid vacation. Because I’m on vacation right now. But it sure as hell isn’t paid.

I miss taking my shoes off when I walk into someone’s house. Because it’s just gross not to.

I miss laughing at the skinny guy in skinny jeans and a skinny t-shirt. Because you look ridiculous. Even if it is fashionable.

I miss boobs on TV. Because they’re just nipples. We all have them.

I miss being able to pick out the American tourist from a mile away. Because you wear tennis shoes everywhere. And are carrying a water bottle. And just a tip, use your inside voice.

I miss naked kids on the beach. Because when you’re three years old (or even 27 years old), there are few things better than running naked into the ocean.

I miss laughing at European stereotypes. Because Germans wearing socks with sandals is just funny.

I miss the history. Because as much as I love American history, there’s nothing like a medieval church.

I miss the museums. Because all those years of colonialism sure made for one hell of a museum collection.

I miss bitching and moaning about you. Because even though I love you, sometimes you need to get over yourself. I know. So does, the US.

I miss working my ass off to understand you. Because I hate the Ugly American. And I hate being the Ugly American even more. So be able to identify more than three countries. Read a newspaper. The international section is a good place to start.

I miss my adventure. Because you were the best adventure I’ve had so far.

I miss running away to hide only to realize I found so much. Because nothing can compare to crossing an ocean. For friendship. For education. For work. For love.

I miss you Europe. And I’m still here.

Welcome to S(candinavia). I think I’ll leave. Probably.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes and Swedish Stereotypes

Sometimes I forget about Scandinavian stereotypes. And sometimes I forget that there is often a basis for those stereotypes. And sometimes it takes a bunch of international student trying to learn a Scandinavian language to point those differences out.

I am somewhere between red-headed and blonde-headed. I do not have blue eyes. I am half-way tall. I am pushing 200 pounds. I have broad-ish shoulders. In short, I can look the Swedish part if needed, although I may be a bit broad overall to be completely convincing. But this isn’t meant to be some sort of weird personal ad, although, ladies, I do enjoy a sad country song. You know, because I’m sensitive.

The point is that a certain look is expected from Swedes, and Scandinavians in general. That look is tall. Blonde or red-headed. Blue eyes. And little kids are expected to be either well-dressed or running around naked with their blonde hair and blue eyes.

So when I found myself in front of a delicious Danish ice cream shop teeming with small children none of this was in my mind. At all. I Was focused on my rapidly melting ice cream and the copious amounts of whipped cream and strawberry jam running down the sides.

What I saw in front of me was background noise. Just a bunch of Danes and Swedes enjoying ice cream and sunlight. As anyone should really. Until one of the several eastern Europeans I was with decided to chime in. About the children. In a good way. But it was a simple comment. Look at all the blonde hair! And the blue eyes! And so I did.

And he was right. They all had blonde hair. And they all had blue eyes. Every. Single. Child. While there were a couple of siblings in the group, not all of them were related. The numerous pairs of harried parents gave that away in a heartbeat.

Today at the beach, in one of those rare summer days when the sun is warm, the water is warm, and the ice cream is cold, there were little kids nakedly running around on the beach. And they were all blonde. Again. Every. Single. Child.

I don’t remember being two years old and running around in Sweden, but I’ve seen pictures. And I fit the bill. I was blonde blonde. Cute too. I don’t know what happened. It all went downhill from about the age of six. When my family moved to the US. Coincidence? Maybe.

But it’s quite the image when walking through town, or sitting on a beach, or riding a train, and realizing that all those kids running around really are blonde. Really are blue-eyed. Really are fitting every Swedish stereotype. It isn’t always that way. It doesn’t always stay that way. But next time you’re out enjoying the Swedish (or in my case, Danish) sun, look around. You may find yourself surrounded by living stereotypes.

Welcome to S(candinavia). And blonde hair and blue eyes.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Swedish Beer Drinking

Every time I go to Sweden I learn something. Sometimes it is useful. Like how to integrate into society by sharp intakes of breath as an affirmative response. Or staring at the sun. Or sitting in complete silence on public transportation. Other times it is not at all useful. Or useful in a different way. Like drinking Swedish beer.

A quick run-down of Swedish beer though. The big brands are not good. Falcon. Pripps. Norrlands. They are your classic stor stark version at the bars. Expensive and not worth the money. But more important is the different classes of beer. Lätt, folk, stark. This is where it can get tricky.

Lättöl is beer with 2.25% alcohol content or less. It is considered to be alcohol-free and so anyone can legally buy this. In theory. In reality, many stores won’t allow anyone under the age of 18 to buy anything that could be confused with beer.

Folköl is the stuff you buy in the grocery stores when you remember you’re stuck in a country that stops selling actual alcohol at three in the afternoon on a Saturday. It’s also the stuff that has an alcohol content between 2.25% and 3.5%. Usually it is 3.5%. Technically and in reality you have to be 18 or older to buy folköl.

Finally, the strong stuff. Starköl. This is any beer with an alcohol content of 3.5% or more. Because this is Sweden and the general population obviously can’t be trusted with alcohol, starköl is only available at Systembolaget or at bars and restaurants with the proper licensing. Of course, you need to be 20 to buy starköl at Systemet, but only 18 at a bar. I don’t know why. Probably because, again, the average Swede can’t be trusted with alcohol and so the impetus falls on the bars, restaurants, and thus the bartenders to police every individual’s alcohol intake. Or something like that.

Never mind that though, now we know how beer works in this country. It will get you damn drunk when out drinking because that starköl is just that, stark. Strong. And just the other day I was well on my way to a night of drunkenness that my liver would have regretted in the morning. You know that perfect state of drunkenness? The one where you are charming, smart, funny, and not really drunk? It’s a façade. You’re probably stupid drunk by that point. But right before that point, that’s when actual good ideas can smack you across the face. And I was smacked across the face by just such an idea as I walked myself to the bar to buy the next round. I was getting too drunk. But social convention suggests that I need to return with a beer in hand. I’m in Sweden! Folköl! Lättöl! They’re both available!

I ambled my way to the bar at this point with a new found sense of purpose. And self-confidence. I ordered starköls for my friends and a folköl for myself. Not only was it less alcohol, it was less money. A win-win for any thrifty (that’s a nice way of admitting to being cheap by the way) university student. More importantly though, as the night dragged on, instead of pouring several strong beers down my gullet, I switched to lighter and lighter beer.

Let’s be honest, I was drunk by the end of the night. This is just a relative way of avoiding different degrees of drunkenness. But I was not stupid drunk. And in the morning I was not hurting nearly as bad as I have in the past after nights out with the same group of guys. After thinking it over, I couldn’t help but wish that I could find similar options in the US. Of course, I’m not willing to accept Systemet back home. I have some limits.

Welcome to Sweden. And degrees of drunkenness.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Getting Old. And Danish.

I’ve decided to try to learn Danish. Mostly because I am an idiot. My Swedish isn’t even that impressive. I can trick people for a decent amount of time, but sooner or later I slip up and suddenly I sound like a five year old unable to decide between en or ett. So what better way to mess that up even more than to learn another Scandinavian language? And one that sounds like there may be a handful of potatoes shoved down the throat of its speakers.

But here I am. In Denmark. Trying to learn Danish. And I feel old. I’m 27. I’m losing my hair on my head and growing hair everywhere else. I have a bad hip. I am nearly blind without my contacts in. If I drink for more than one night in a row I feel like I was trampled by a small herd of elephants. It’s not a pretty sight really. But my boyish charm usually makes up for the outward appearance. But suddenly I am taking classes with a bunch of people that are no older than 21. Most of whom are still teenagers. Some of whom are still in high school. And I feel old. The 18 year old British kid referring to me as “old man” doesn’t help.

The other day a 19 year old British girl (damn those British) asked me how old I was. I answered. Truthfully. She responded by saying that she was surprised and that’s he thought I was only 22. Max. I couldn’t decide if I should be happy that I was mistaken for that age, or sad that I even considered taking that as a compliment. Despite the loss of hair and bad hip, there may be no more definite sign of old age than feeling complimented by someone mistaking you for a younger person. And here I was doing just that.

Worst of all though is not the age difference, it is the inability to make my mouth, tongue, and head do what the Danish language wants me to do. I feel like it’s stuck in Swedish. Which is enough of a challenge what with the sju sjösjuka sjömän sköttes av sju skönsjungande sjuksköterskor på det sjunkande skeppet Shanghai and the Knut knöt en knut bakom knuten, och när Knut hade knutit knuten så var knuten knuten.

I have never really learned a language. I took four years of French in high school, but that was a while ago and I could only just get by in France. Because I speak Swedish and English well, it is assumed that I am good at languages. People tend to forget that I got those for free. I didn’t have to learn Swedish. Or English. They came with my mom speaking English to me and my dad speaking Swedish. Essentially, I cheated. So suddenly I find myself struggling to make glottal stops. And remembering that Danes love apocope. Or tongue tapping certain letters. It’s exhausting. And a challenge. And a great way to spend the summer.

It also gives me a newfound appreciation for the multi-lingual friends I have made over the years in Europe. And a newfound appreciation for all those students who put up with my teaching this summer. And for my mom and her willingness (and badass-ness) in learning Swedish damn near 30 years ago.

Welcome to Denmark. And rødgrød med fløde.

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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Swedish Sailing and Insanity

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again expecting different results. By that definition, I am insane. Considering I just wrote a post about having multiple personalities, this may not come as much of a surprise. This past weekend though confirmed that. I am insane.

I went sailing. Again. Two years ago I went sailing and came back with two very expensive paper weights that were once a camera and cell phone after falling into the water. One year ago I was somehow convinced to join a sailing race. And ended up in what can best be described as a disaster including running aground, having no electricity and thus no GPS, and broaching the boat.

I vowed to not sail again. Which is where the insanity comes in. I found myself on a sail boat in the same damn race this past weekend. And I am alive. And that’s all that counts.

This time we really did have to pull out of the race. Strangely enough we found ourselves making the exact same call last year in the exact same Danish harbor town – Stubbekøbing. A lovely little place really and now my third most visited city in Denmark after Copenhagen and Helsingør.

But like I said, we had to quit. For a variety of reasons. The first being that we somehow managed to hit a marker in the middle of the ocean. Well not really the ocean, but a large sea. We were aiming for a west marker on the compass point. We just couldn’t see it. Not too strange really, it was the middle of the night and at two in the morning, it is somewhat dark, even here. As we got closer and closer to where it should have been a long winded discussion broke out about where in the hell the marker was. It was supposed to be lit. Nine flashes of light. Nothing. So we sailed on. And suddenly, BAM! We found it. It was not lit up. It was not supposed to be lit up. Not all markers are lit. The map tells us which ones are and are not supposed to be lit up. This one was not supposed to be lit up. Somehow we had missed that fact. We did not however miss the marker. I haven’t decided yet if this is an incredible work of navigation to be able to aim for a marker in the middle of the water that is maybe a meter wide and hit it, or just a stunningly embarrassing navigational feat. I’ll let you decide. Either way, the boat was hurting. So much so that the railing in the front was useless. Which was a bummer because that’s where I was doing most of my work. And without railing in the middle of a boiling sea, even strapped in and wearing a life jacket, well I may be insane, but I’m not stupid. There is a fine line. I toe it quite often, sometimes I cross it. Not usually when it could result in me taking a very cold and dark dive into the water while being dragged along by a boat doing ten knots.

After all this though, I went to bed. And woke up as we headed into port. Because while I was asleep, a large gust of wind grabbed the jib (that’s fock for the Swedish speakers. I had to look that one up in English) and ripped it nearly in half. Around the same time another gust of wind grabbed the mainsail and pushed us to one side in the process shearing the bolts holding the mainsheet in place clean off. Awesome.

To port we went. As I said, it was the same port as last year. At least we’re consistently bad. A discussion ensued about whether we should try to make some repairs or whether we should quit. Looking at the crew, it was decided that we should quit. Probably the smartest decision we made. At around this time, a lovely little storm was brewing. No worries we thought, we were going to turn the motor on and glide on home. It would only take us 14 hours.

It did only take us about 14 hours. Of course, we managed to run into one of the worts storms Copenhagen has seen in years. And when I say years I mean hundreds of them. The newspaper the next day said the rain that fell was the worst in 400 to 500 years. Four hundred to five hundred. That’s a lot of years. Hell, Sweden was still a world power 400 to 500 years ago. More rain fell in just a couple of hours than usually does in three or four months.

The sea was boiling. I never understood what that meant until this weekend. All of those literary descriptions meant nothing to me. Boiling? I thought it was just windy and wave-y. I was wrong. The rain was so powerful that the water falling from the skies was pushing the waves back down from the depths from which they originated. It was bubbling, but there were no whitecaps. The rain was too strong. Every description of a boiling sea that I have ever read suddenly made sense to me. In case you were wondering, boiling is an apt description. Just trust me.

The rain was accompanied by one of the most impressive lightning storms I have ever been a part of or seen. And I come from Colorado. Those Rocky Mountains do lightning right. One hit so close that I swear to you it sounded like someone fired a gun in the cabin of the boat. Everything was visible. Everything. I have never seen such light at such an ungodly hour of the night. It was eerie. And amazing. And frightening. It’s something I’m glad I was a part of and something I never want to be a part of again.

But we made it. Finally. No one was seriously hurt (we did have a smashed thumb). Everyone was still friends. And we all made it.

Welcome to Sweden. And my retirement from amateur sailing. For real this time.

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