Friday, September 28, 2012

Swedish Racism

I’m white. Super white. Like I put SPF 50 on during the summer in hopes of being light red instead of bright red.  So, no, I have never experienced racism personally. At all. I’ve seen it though. In the US. In Sweden. And before everyone gets all fired up, I know, there’s a whole lot of racism in this country. I know. But there’s a surprising amount of racism in Sweden as well. I’ve even written about it on this blog several times – Sweden’s Dirty Little Secret, Acute Swedishness... I Think, Really Sweden, Really?, and even about Sverigedemokraterna (and yeah, they’re racist, don’t argue that).

Recently though, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) came out with their fourth report on Sweden (you can find all four Swedish reports here at the ECRI) essentially giving Sweden a slight pat on the back while shaking its head as if to say, keep trying. It’s a start. And starts are always good in my opinion.

It’s important to note that the report does acknowledge some improvements, while also highlighting plenty of problems, Sverigedemokraterna being one. Another being the public discourse surrounding immigration from Islamic countries. This excerpt seemed especially familiar anytime I happen upon a Swedish news report:
“ECRI notes that the situation of Muslims in Sweden has not improved over the past few years.  Anti-Muslim political discourse has become more widespread and the tone has hardened. Some researchers have found that four out of five media reports about Muslims are negative. On the Internet, comments calling Muslims ‘invaders’ of Europe and inciting violence against them have proliferated, and some members of Parliament have made comments on their blogs to the effect that use of violence against Muslim immigrants is inevitable.”

Open up any online message board in Sweden (much like in this country) and you’ll find a level of vitriol that borders on criminal.

Or how about this quote?:
“As ECRI already noted in its third report, Afro-Swedes continue to suffer acts of racism and discrimination in everyday life. They are the object of racist insults in public places and racist remarks in the workplace…”

Again, I know. There is plenty of racism in the US. Glass house. Don’t throw stones. Got it. But the report highlights the things that I have seen too many times. Take the racism and discrimination  in everyday life quote from above and my experience a while back in Helsingborg when a pudgy, middle-aged Swede whipped a lighter through the air that hit me. He apologized by way of saying Ursäkta, det var inte meningen. Jag missade negern bakom dig. The man behind me couldn’t help but hear. It was a disgusting display of racism that shocked me. And stuck with me.

Plenty of folks will argue that the word neger means negro and is ok to use. They are wrong. On a variety of levels. This is something that has shifted in the last twenty, thirty maybe even forty years, but Språkrådet (Swedish Language Council), in one of those moments that should shed some light on things, answered a simple question: Är neger neutralt? with a simple answer: Nej, neger är inte neutralt. That includes negerboll a word used to describe a delicious baked good known as a chocolate ball (read the full answer from Språkrådet here).

Or how about this past summer in Stockholm, when a friend was asked if she spoke Swedish? A legitimate question early in the conversation considering the linguistically diverse group I found myself in. However, the subsequent follow-up raised my eyebrows. Kommer du från Sverige? In Swedish. Where do you come from? There was really no reason to ask that question in that way. We had already spoken plenty of Swedish. Established that she had come from her job in Stockholm. Curious to know if she come from Stockholm? Then ask that. Curious to know if she comes from up north or down south. Then ask that. Asking if she’s Swedish? Not necessary.

The two experiences were different in their severity. But that shouldn’t really matter. Both speak to the very problems that the ECRI reports on. A latent problem that sometimes spills out in very blatant ways, like in Helsingborg, or more subtle ways, like in Stockholm.

Welcome to Sweden. And a ways to go.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My (Cousin's) Big Fat Swedish Wedding

                This weekend I had the pleasure of going to my cousin's wedding south of Stockholm. I have been to a few weddings in my time, but only one other had been in Sweden, and I was fairly young and didn't really experience everything in the way it should be experienced. This was an interesting way to start off my "culturalization" into Swedish society and how they do things. Sitting there, I definitely noticed a lot of differences. And I'm sure you'd all love to hear them.
                A couple of months ago, one of my best friends got married. It was in a beautiful location in a somewhat small town near where I grew up. The wedding was in a chapel on a lake and the reception was right next door in a sort of tent thing that was set up. My friend stood at the altar and waited while the bride's father escorted her down the aisle towards her husband-to-be. This is a traditional American wedding style. The father of the bride brings her into the chapel and "gives her away" to the groom. The idea being that the bride and groom are about to embark on a new journey together as a new family, and the parents are no longer as prevalent in their lives, the father must give up some of his claim to his daughter and give her new husband his blessing and his love in order for them to live a happy life together. The priest did a very good job and gave some advice and had a few jokes, but overall it was to present the new couple to God and ask for His blessing. It was a beautiful service (just like the newlyweds... Aww).
                The reception was a lot of fun, with a buffet dinner and a DJ with good music and dancing. As is traditional, the best man (men, in this case) and the maid of honor made a toast to the new couple. There was also a microphone that went around the room and whoever wanted to say a few words were able to do that whenever they wanted to. The night ended with dancing and laughter and fun. It was a good time.
                This is a fairly normal wedding in America: a service presenting the new bride and groom, followed by food, dancing, and fun. It is a good system, and one that I quite enjoy.
                In Sweden, there are a few things that are a bit different. This particular wedding was a bit in the middle of nowhere. It took place in a very old church in the middle of farm country, with virtually no houses nearby. Everyone assembles outside the church, and walks arm in arm with his or her date (or if you don't have one, you make friends quickly) into the church. Once we sat down, the bride and groom walk into the church together toward the altar. The priest was a bit of a character (he sang a bit of Elvis, to the surprise of everyone – including the bride and groom), my aunt mentioned that she had never laughed so much at a wedding before. He gave his advice, said his prayers, sang psalms asking God for His blessing, and presented the new couple.
This bit, however, is pretty much purely tradition. Sweden's official religion is the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Only about 70% of the population identifies themselves as belonging to the church and only 2% are regular attendees. Religion is not nearly as prevalent here as it is in the US, so the church, the psalms, the priest, all seem to  be a tradition that people follow. I was told by the groom that the psalms were chosen pretty much at random. They said, "how about this one?" and the priest agreed that, "yeah, that works." Once the wedding was over, everyone filed out in the same way we went in, arm in arm, and waited outside the church until the newlyweds came out and we all blew bubbles at them and individually congratulated them before going to the reception.
The reception, then, was similar but different ("same, same, but different" as they enjoy saying here). We mingled a bit with champagne and hors d'oeuvres and waited until it was time to eat. Maybe that was just me being an American. Food is always my main priority.
This is where the main difference comes in. There is a seating chart for Swedish weddings, and really any formal dinner party-type event. It is carefully planned so that it is man, woman, man, woman, etc. You are not supposed to sit next to someone of the same gender, and you're not really supposed to sit next to someone that you know very well. This means that couples and families are separated in an effort to make you get to know other people. To help with this, there was a small booklet with the seating chart with numbers, and every number had a name to go along with it. Each name had a small description with an interesting fact or two to help conversation.
There was some talking and visiting before dinner came, which was served in three courses (soup, entrée, and dessert). Wine was constantly being refilled (which also helped with conversation), and overall it was a delicious meal. During the meal, though, the toasts were made.
This is another difference. There were a pair of "toastmasters" that introduced every person making their toast. The first two were the fathers of the bride and the groom, respectively. Then the best man and maid of honor and it finished with a few friends saying a few words and even a slideshow. It was very structured and very formal, with everyone finishing their toast with a "Skål!" and a deep drink. One of the toasts involved something which I tend to think of as very Swedish (correct me if I'm wrong here, but I know Christmas is similar to this), with a present being given to the bride along with a poem. It wasn't given directly, though, but to the bride, then she had to figure out the poem and give it to who she thought it fit, and it went around for a bit before it finally made its way back to the bride. It was actually really cool. Another quizzed the two about how well they knew their guests. We each got a card with a few things on it ("I have completed military service," "I have completed the Vasaloppet," and a few others) and we were asked to stand and they had to guess what the description was. That was pretty fun, too. All in all, the toasts were a mixture of formality, tradition, well-wishing, fun, and alcohol. The Swedish way, really.
After dinner, it went back to what I was used to, with music and dancing and even more fun. The music, though, was a bit different from what I usually hear at an American wedding. There was some Bruce Springsteen (awesome), and Michael Jackson, and something that I can only describe as what Richard Simmons would listen to while "Sweatin' it to theOldies" (not as awesome for me).  Everyone loved it though, and everyone, young and old, danced and sweated and had an amazing time.
At the end of the night, there was a shuttle to take everyone back to their hotels or hostels and we finished off the night walking into a brisk, star-filled night that perfectly capped off the night.
The difference were many, but in the end, the weddings in America and Sweden are essentially the same. They are about bringing two families together and sharing in a beautiful moment the love and loved ones that make a difference in our lives in a night of food, fun, and friendship. As I've said, I've been to several weddings, and I will always have an amazing time with those that I care about, no matter where I am.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Scandinavian Travel Adventures

It wouldn’t be an international trip for me if something didn’t go wrong while flying. And it did. I recently took a trip with Delta from Denver, Colorado to Stockholm, Sweden and then Copenhagen, Denmark to Denver, Colorado. It was less than impressive. But, luckily, I had absolutely no problems at Arlanda (considering I once dubbed Arlanda the worst airport in the world, a statement I stand by, by the way), this was no small feat. It’s the little things really.

I was scheduled to leave on July 23rd from Denver. At around 11pm on July 22nd, I received an email stating that my flight had been cancelled. Awesome. I immediately called and was told that there were no problems, I would just have to spend a night in New York. Because that is super cheap and easy to do on short notice. I told the customer service agent (whose name I do not remember, but who was quite helpful), that that wouldn’t work. To Delta’s, and her, credit, they were able to reschedule me on a new flight leaving at 7:35 the next morning. Obviously, this was short notice – less than nine hours actually. But it worked. I arrived in New York without any problems. I boarded the plane without any problems. I sat down without any problems. And I waited. And I sat. And I waited. And for approximately two hours, we sat in the plane. There was something wrong. Obviously. Turns out there was an oil filter issue with one of the engines. The pilot even said that had it been a domestic flight, they would have just gone for it. Part of me was grateful that they took such caution, the other part was sitting on the runway at JFK airport for nearly two hours. Finally, mercifully, we took off and arrived in Stockholm quite a bit later.

My time in Scandinavia was lovely. As it so often is.

On August 27th, I left Copenhagen for Denver. I thought that I had used up my bad luck while traveling. I was wrong. Although, this time there was no flight cancellation. I did make it to New York without any problems. I cleared customs and glanced at the departures screen. Delayed. Two hours. Awesome. I went to the gate, grabbed a vitamin packed drink (I was feeling a bit of a cold coming on), and waited. I wasted time on my phone. Read. Ate. And waited. Mostly I waited. I kept glancing at the departures screen as the delay continued to grow. There was no announcement explaining the delay. And so I waited. By the time we started boarding, I had been waiting for two hours and 41 minutes past the original departure time. By the time we finally took off, nearly three hours had gone by.

I travel a decent amount. Usually a couple of international flights every year and several domestic flights. I understand that things go wrong sometimes. Sometimes they are out of the airline’s control, like the weather. Sometimes they are under the airline’s control, like the mechanical readiness of their fleet. But every time I sit on a Delta flight, I watch that short film before the safety instructions with the CEO who espouses the virtues of customer service and mutual respect in his southern drawl. It’s charming really. But this last trip was just too much. There was not a single offer of compensation or a show of good will. I know, even that is not required, but this was rough. I spent nearly as many hours delayed as I did in taking a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Stockholm. And that’s ridiculous.

What’s not ridiculous though, was the incredible response by Delta when I emailed them asking them about the above trips. I spend a lot of time complaining about flying. Mostly because I am delayed so often. And because I like to complain. But I very seldom do any of that complaining to the actual company. You know, the ones that can actually do something about it. This time was different. What you just read was essentially my complaint email. Within four hours, a Delta customer service representative responded to the individual flights that I had taken and even offered a $100 travel voucher. Well done, Delta, well done.

Welcome to the US. And customer service.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Balding and Bearded

My looks have been eliciting comments recently. And not necessarily of the best kind. You see, along with being big and sweaty (see After Sweat), I am also balding and bearded. Yup. Pretty awesome.

Despite my constant comments on my receding hairline, I’m surprisingly comfortable with it. I think my acceptance is due to the early realization that my luscious locks would never rival Fabio’s. Much of this was brought on by a simple question from the mouth of a babe. Or at least a small child. My young cousin, who was maybe five at the time, asked me why I had dead grass growing on my head. I don’t. Thanks. That’s just my thinning hair. Awesome.

I’ve been trying to learn Danish, which, despite the Swedish (or maybe because of the Swedish) is damn near impossible. There are noises that just aren’t natural. But spending a few weeks in Denmark does seem to help. And so, this summer I spent a couple of weeks at a Danish Højskole. We sang for half an hour every morning. We ate fish nearly every day. And every meal was eaten together. Because I am such a social butterfly (or sommerfugl if you will), I tried sitting with different people every now and again.

One evening, I found myself at the dinner table with a 28 year old balding and bearded German and a 19 year old Canadian girl. A lovely conversation followed, but eventually, it turned to age. Mostly because she asked. Clearly the Canadians have no shame. She had already figured out that I was 28 and turned to the German. How old are you? Also 28.

She looks at him. Looks at me. Looks back at him. It was like a light turned on inside her head. Suddenly, it all made sense. Clearly, this is what men have to look forward to as they near 30.

And then.... aahhhhh, I see the resemblance. The ever growing forehead, the well-groomed beard. It was all there. We were about the same height even. Apparently, 28 is a magical age no matter where you’re from. Hair starts migrating from the top of your head, down. And everyone looks the same. It’s incredible.

She was not alone though. Even the Danish teacher commented on the same thing. Of course, with a bit more tact than the Canadian, she managed to cut herself off as she tried to explain that our beards and bald… you just look so similar. Uh huh. Similar. Because of our beards and….?

Welcome to Denmark. And the ravages of age.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Studying in Sweden

               I'll be taking a page out of the Hairy Swede's book for the moment. He likes to give tips and tell people a little bit about what to expect when moving to Sweden. Since I'm a student, I thought it might be a good idea to give a little bit of information on what to expect for anyone thinking of studying in Sweden.
                First, I would advise you to be European. It's a good thing to be from certain countries within Europe if you are going to school in Sweden. The university system here used to be free for anyone who wanted to study. This rule was recently changed and now only people with citizenship from countries within the EU/EEA (European Union/European Economic Area) get free tuition. The rules changed starting in the 2011/2012 school year. Officials wanted their schools to be able to compete globally, and the best way to do that was to introduce fees to discourage people from going to school simply because it was free. The fees definitely make it a little harder to rationalize schooling for the sake of schooling when it costs so much and roots out the lazy people and presumably only the really motivated people will be willing to pay.
                Don't despair, though. Tuition-paying students are eligible for grants and scholarships provided by the Swedish government. There is always help if you know where to look for it. 30 million SEK is awarded to students from certain countries that have had long-standing cooperation with Sweden (Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Rwanda, etc) and this year there is a general fund for all students from outside the EU/EEA for 60 million SEK. For those Americans counting at home that's almost 8.9 million US dollars. Not too shabby or a country with only about 9.5 million citizens.    
                Also, I'm not entirely sure about all schools in Sweden, but where I'm studying, those students from outside the EU/EEA are guaranteed housing. That means that you don't have to go through the hassle of trying to find a place to live. And trust me, it's a pain in the ass. If you've read Hairy's previous tips, you'll know that it's very hard to find housing here. And expensive. And it takes forever. And you don't really get a whole lot of space for what you're paying for. Seriously. I've been on a list for about 6 months now and I think I've moved up about four places for a room that's right around 20 square meters (215 square feet) and is close to 800 US dollars a month. I was lucky enough to have connections and found a place, but take my advice: If you even think you have the slightest interest in moving here, start looking now.
                There are also differences in the schooling system. The biggest change for me is going to be the class schedule. At my American university, I signed up for 4 or 5 classes in the spring and I would start all of those classes, having a few a day. This would last from about September to December, when we would have final exams before Winter break and start all new classes when we came back in January. Not so here. I am currently taking one class. I have one class a day. It is the same class. Each day there is a different lecturer. Each day it is in a different place. This will go on for about 5 or 6 weeks, then I'll take an exam and start another class. The semester begins in September and ends in mid January (yes, there is a winter break and yes it does take a chunk out of the semester - exams are only a week or two after the break is over). I know there are some universities in America that take this approach to coursework, but I also know that it's fairly rare. The idea is that you get more in-depth and focused coursework over the course of several weeks. I've only had two in-class sessions so far, so I can't really say whether it's good or bad. I understand why it could be good, though. There is more time to study when there's only one subject to study, so you can get a whole lot more out of the time you have. Also, with only one class at a time, you don't have to worry about finals week where your entire grade rests on one test at the end of the semester, multiplied by the number of classes you're taking. It will take some getting used to, but it should be good (hopefully).
                If this is too big of a change for you, don't worry. They let you retake exams. As many times as you want . My program actually has a 4 re-take limit. But the fact remains that I can take one exam four different times until I get it right. If you fail two times, you can request to have a new person administer the exam. You know, in case that person is out to get you. Apparently it's a sort of unwritten rule that on your tenth time taking the same exam, you're supposed to wear a tuxedo jacket. They like to keep it classy here in Sweden.
                One thing that doesn't change is that books are still super expensive. So where ever you are, you can be sure that you'll pay way too much for a book that you really don't want to read. So there's that.
                The take-home lesson here, though, is that school is different here, for better or for worse is up to you to decide. I'm taking it all in right now and enjoying it, and if you're interested in school, take a look. You might find something that intrigues you. I was intrigued, and I will get an education here.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Moving to Sweden – Facts About Sweden

It’s been a while. I haven’t written one of these in years. Which is too bad because now I don’t even live in Sweden any longer. Luckily, with my brother moving there and several other people I know from colleagues and classmates to students, I have found myself answering a lot of moving to Sweden questions. Most regarding housing, which I have covered before and can be found (along with all the others) here:
Moving to Sweden – What to Bring 
Moving to Sweden – The Swedish Language
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Place to Live
Moving to Sweden – The Metric System and You
Moving to Sweden – Getting a Cell Phone
Moving to Sweden – Getting from the Airport to Stockholm City
Moving to Sweden - The Weather
Moving to Sweden - Swedish Citizenship Test
Moving to Sweden - Public Holidays
Moving to Sweden - Finding a Job
Moving to Sweden - Culture Shock: It's the Little Things
Moving to Sweden - Making Friends
Moving to Sweden - Cost of Living

Now it’s time for something much more basic. Facts about Sweden. If you’re going to live here, you might as well know a bit about the country. It’s not always exciting, but it can be helpful nonetheless. And if nothing else, you can impress some Swede with your knowledge about the number of islands in the country. If you want more information check out the CIA World Factbook or Statistiska Centralbyrån.

Government and Society
Sweden is a constitutional monarchy. The current king, King Carl XVI Gustaf and his heir apparent, the Crown Princess Victoria have absolutely no power. They are figureheads. Instead, the country is governed as a social democracy by the prime minister of the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament which has 349 seats), currently Fredrik Reinfeldt.

The military is now a completely voluntary force and Sweden maintains a politcy of neutrality (although they do take part in so-called “peace keeping missions”). This change was put into place on July 1, 2010 and replaced conscription. Of course, conscription did not include every single person. When I moved to Sweden they sent me not one, but two, letters telling me that they did not want me to join the Swedish military.

The official language of Sweden is Swedish, although there are several minority languages. These include (in alphabetical order): Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani, Sami, and Yiddish.

There are just over 9.5 million people living in Sweden and 99% of them can read (or at least those 15 and over. Come on now.). If you happen to be Swedish, you’ve got a good chance of living for quite some time. To start with, the infant mortality rate is less than .003% and the maternal mortality rate is even smaller at .00004%. If you manage to get through birth, the average life expectancy of men is about 79 years of age, whereas women live to be almost 84.

The country is a mixed-market economy meaning there are plenty of private enterprises as well as state controlled enterprises (the most (in)famous being Systembolaget, which is the only place in the country to legally buy strong alcohol). Sweden, while a member of the European Union, does not use the Euro. Instead, they continue to use the Swedish krona (SEK). In recent years they have done away with the 50 öre piece (essentially the 50 cent piece) and now the smallest coin available is the one krona.

Despite the country emerging in a much better position than many other European countries during the most recent economic crisis (2.3% growth in GDP in the last reported quarter for example), unemployment is a huge problem for people between the ages of 15 and 24. SCB reports that as of June of 2012 the youth unemployment rate was 28.3% and that the overall unemployment rate was 8.8%.

VAT in Sweden is at a standard 25% (although there are a couple of exceptions – food being the most notable). The average local income tax rate was right around 31%, but can be as high as about 57%. For more, Deloitte has a lovely little factsheet on this.

Geography (SCB has a great PDF on Swedish geography!)
Sweden is big. Not USA big, but California big, which actually makes it one of the largest countries in Europe. It’s about 174,000 square miles (or by European measurements, 450295 square kilometers). Sweden if flat. Not Kansas flat, but still flat. That being said, Sweden does boast Kebnekaise which is nearly 7,000 feet high (2,111 meters). There are a ridiculous number of lakes in Sweden (like 100,000ish) and the three largest are Vänern, Vättern, and Mälaren. There are even 221,800 islands in Sweden (which I just think is impressive).

Is there more to say? Absoutely. But this is starting to feel too much like an elementary school country report. So feel free to include anything I might have missed in the comments below.

Welcome to Sweden. And a conversation starter.