Friday, August 19, 2011


A few years ago (and it frightens me that I still remember what I wrote nearly three years ago and can dig it up and link to it but whatever), I wrote about childcare in Sweden. Not because I actually have children, but because it’s a pretty popular topic. People the world over comment on the parental leave, the daycare, the child allowance all provided by those high taxes that Swedes pay.

In that post, I mentioned in passing about a Danish woman who ran into some legal trouble in the US for leaving her child in a stroller while she went into some sort of business establishment. Eventually, the whole thing settled down and she managed to even get some money out of the whole thing. Well played Danish woman, well played. Now a Swedish woman is in the exact same situation in Massachusetts. She left her kid outside in the stroller and spent gasp, 10 minutes in a restaurant. By the time she came out, she was facing charges of neglect. Bummer.

This is the ultimate kulturkrock. A culture crash of the kind that leads to serious problems and demonstrates a lack of understanding on so many levels. From both parties. I think this is a ridiculous overreaction by the Americans. I also think it is a little ridiculous that the Swedish mother in question wasn’t savvy enough to realize that this sort of thing doesn’t necessarily fly in the US. Silly, but you might want to pay some attention to what is socially acceptable in different cultures. I don’t eat bacon while wearing shorts and a tank top when I visit mosques in Istanbul.

All that being said, I sometimes forget just how Swedish I have become. Aside from the lack of cultural awareness, I see nothing wrong with this. Leave the kid to sleep outside. Don’t drag a huge stroller inside a crowded, or even empty, café or restaurant. Hell, some places in Stockholm have signs posted forbidding strollers from entering the building. It’s smart really. And I know, what if the child is kidnapped? It’s the big bad United States of America where nothing is safe…

There’s no need to be paranoid. That’s all it is, unwarranted paranoia. The statistics of kidnappings from the US Justice Department bear this out. Very seldom is a child just grabbed by a random stranger. Very, very seldom. Too often I hear the, well Sweden is just so safe so that this is completely acceptable. I believe it has less to do with actual safety and more to do with perceived safety. Yes, there are some places in the US you don’t want to be late at night. Of course, the serial rapist who was victimizing Flemingsberg while I lived there would suggests that there are some places in Sweden as well. Overall though, it seems my views on childcare for the hypothetical child that I don’t have, have suddenly been very much influenced by my Swedishness.

Welcome to the US. And kulturkrock.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

(Not) Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law

I love stereotypes. I like to play with them. I like to joke about them. Sometimes I even like to live up to them. One stereotype that has always kind of surprised me is the Swedish law-abiding citizen. Usually this stereotype plays itself out in an everyday example. Cross walks. Apparently, Swedes never cross against red. Which is a damn dirty lie.

I learned earlier this summer that this same stereotype carries over to other countries in Scandinavia. Namely, Denmark. I found myself on a tiny little back street in a tiny little town with a tiny little American man with Danish ancestry. As I walked across the street against a very red light, he hustled slowly behind me. And yes, he hustled slowly. You know exactly what I mean. Because as he hustled slowly, he called out to my heels, you know, this is illegal. My cousin told me that he knew someone who once got a ticket for doing this late at night. Aah. Well in that case, we should always believe the “a friend of a friend of a friend told me once that” story. Those are always credible sources. I called out that I liked my chances of not getting a ticket. Lo and behold, I was not ticketed.

I tell you this story to demonstrate that this stereotype is alive and well in at least two Scandinavian countries. But last Sunday, I found myself staring at the stereotype come to life. I was back in Sweden. One last time before heading back to the US. I had a lovely meal with my family, but before seeing them, I tried getting a bit of shopping done. And by shopping, I mean candy buying.

I wandered into an ICA and found my candy of choice. And I paid. I was slow to pack up because I was too cheap to buy a plastic bag so it was necessary to shove everything into pockets and the (free) produce bags they offer. I managed, but in the meantime I watched a scene play out in front of me that I’m still not sure I witnessed.

A mother and two sons came up to the counter, maybe five and seven years old. They had a few things to purchase and two winning scratch-off lottery tickets. The mother was holding one ticket, the older son the other. The cute little kid held out his scratch ticket to the woman behind the counter. She looked at him then looked at the mother. I can’t accept this. You must be 18 years old to play the lottery. Ha ha I thought. Very cute. Cracking a little joke on a Sunday afternoon. What a friendly Swede. But I think we all know where this is going. I wouldn’t be writing about this if this was where the story ended. The mother chuckled a bit, I assume because she had a similar reaction to mine. The cashier did not chuckle. Stone-faced.

As the cashier continued to stare blankly at the mother, not reaching for the ticket, the mother simply asked, are you serious. Yes. Yes she was serious. The mother, quick thinking as she was, grabbed the ticket from the son then attempted to give it to the cashier. Again, the cashier made no move to reach for the ticket. She looked at the mother and said that once the child had touched the ticket, she was not allowed to accept it. You know, because you have to be 18 to play the lottery.

The poor little boy watched in confusion and eventually tried to explain that it wasn’t really him that was playing the lottery. He didn’t actually buy it. He was just holding it. Farmor bought it. Farmor is way older than 18. Surely she should be allowed to play the lottery. The cashier was unmoved. I don’t make the rules she said.

It was a mind-boggling display of following the letter of the law. The child clearly had not purchased the ticket. The mother had clearly just handed the child the ticket to hold as they waited in line. There was nothing sinister about it. Yet still, the cashier would not budge. While I'm sure there was a hint of, I'm working, I have to do this, it did not shine through at all. Instead she seemed to revel a bit in the ability to fall back on the excuse that someone else was making these rules. She was just the poor soldier following orders.

Finally, in exasperation, the mother asked if she would at least accept the second lottery ticket, the one that she was holding. She did. Of course, for all we know, that ticket may have been null and void. At some point, a child under the age of 18 may have possibly, maybe, accidentally touched the ticket. And you know, children under the age of 18 aren’t allowed to play the lottery in Sweden.

Welcome to Sweden. And law-abiding citizens.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

IKEA. In Colorado.

Just a few weeks ago, a brand new IKEA opened in Colorado. This was big news. Such big news that while I was home for a few days this summer, several companies were using IKEA in their marketing. As in, we are located just three blocks away from IKEA. Of course, IKEA was yet to have actually opened, but a large blue and yellow box is hard to miss.

I took great interest in this. And by great, I mean I paid attention when my parents told me that people had camped out two nights before so that they could be the first to get into IKEA. You see, the first 30 people in would receive an IKEA couch. Yay.

Let me first say that I love IKEA. In a slightly creepy way. I furnished damn near my entire apartment in the US with IKEA products. It’s cheap, it looks halfway decent, and it’s cheap. But it’s cheap. And that seems to have been lost on many people in the US.

I have owned an IKEA couch. It was, without a doubt, the worst couch I have ever owned. Granted, it wasn’t the top of the line model, but let’s be honest, nothing is top of the line when it comes from IKEA. There are very few things I would sleep in a large asphalt parking lot for two days for. A couch from IKEA is not one of them. In fact, it shouldn’t be one of them for anyone.

You see, IKEA stuff is made with cheap materials so that it can be sold cheaply in flat packed boxes and put together with one magical tool. These are not handmade works of art. They just aren’t. Swedes know this.

Swedes know that IKEA allows you to get bored and redecorate your entire kitchen every other year without having to take out a second mortgage. Americans don’t seem to understand this. Yes, there are pieces of IKEA furniture that last for decades. I believe some old bookshelves/cupboard thingies that once sat in the basement of my parents’ home were from IKEA. But the vast majority of furniture from the blue and yellow giant lasts a couple of years. IKEA furniture is not handed down from one generation to the next. It is not a point of contention in last wills and testaments. It is sorted at the dump or thrown onto That’s it.

A few years ago, I found a short article claiming that IKEA and H&M played a role in the high rate of divorce in Sweden. Because Swedes were used to changing their interior decorating and their wardrobe for next to nothing, they were also used to changing their partners. It was the kind of pseudo-psychology that appeals to people like me. I can read a poorly written article that probably misrepresents actual psychological research and refer to it in conversation with friends about the recent study I just read about blah blah blah. But regardless of the correlation or causation between divorce and IKEA usage, the fact remains that these giants of Swedish design are designed to be tossed aside for the next great Swedish design. It’s genius really. But it’s something that seems to have been lost in the cultural translation from IKEA Sweden to IKEA US.

What does all this mean? Nothing. Except for that when the next IKEA opens in the US, don’t camp outside. And anyway, they sell stuff online.

Welcome to the US. And cultural translation problems.

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