Friday, August 29, 2014

Swedish Escalator Etiquette

Stand to the right. Walk to the left. Always.
There are certain rules on escalators in Sweden. Stand to the right. Walk to the left. They’re pretty simple rules. Step onto any escalator in Stockholm and you’ll see the vast majority of people following those rules. It’s both impressive and slightly creepy. So I took a picture. I'll be honest, I felt like I was doing something wrong standing on the left to take this picture. Swedish cultural expectations are strong.

Of course, these two rules get broken. Especially on a drunken weekend. Or even when you’re carrying on a conversation with someone as you head to the escalator. It can be awkward standing above or below someone or standing backwards on the escalator as you descend into the art exhibition that is the Stockholm subway system. So some people choose to willingly break the rules. It’s a bold move. Breaking escalator rules can have drastic consequences.

The two people in front of me heading to Centralen found this out firsthand. I was standing to the right. Quietly. I know the rules. But just in front of me was a woman, also standing on the right, in a conversation with a man. Standing on the left! I know, I know. How could he? But he did. A rebel without a cause.

Just above us appeared a man, walking on the left with an air of self-importance, a black sweater over his dress shirt matching his black pants and black shoes. He did not approve. So much so that he stopped. He looked on with disgust at the man, who, apologizing in broken Swedish, sucked in and hugged the railing of the left side of the escalator. Our friendly Swede continued to look on with disgust at the man. He did not move. He did not take the space offered and walk past. He said, loudly: stand there! and pointed to the right. That’s it. No please, no thank you, no politeness at all. It was a command. And the man listened and the man moved to the right. The Swede blew past him with not a word of thanks or acknowledgement. He then came to the end of the escalators and waited for the subway to arrive. He did not have to hurry. He was just mean.

The guy might have had a bad day. He might have thought he was going to miss the subway. He might have been tired. I don’t know. There are a lot of possibilities. The worst, of course, is that he was just a racist, calmly commanding someone who was not like him to bow to his demands. Expecting, even knowing, that he was in the right and thus did not need to be a decent human. That’s the worst-case scenario. Maybe it’s unlikely, but, as I’ve written before, the latent racism in this country is alive and well – and becoming more and more blatant.

No matter the reason for this display, it does speak to the strict cultural conventions that can make this country so hard to feel a part of. Is it every Swede? Of course not. Is it every cultural tradition and display? Of course not. But Sweden is hard sometimes. It’s especially hard to learn what is and is not expected. What is and is not accepted. And those little things? Like escalator etiquette? Those things that you don’t necessarily think about if you’ve lived here for years and years and years? They matter and can be used as a tool to mark someone as other.

Welcome to Sweden. And escalator etiquette.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Strangers in Sweden

My name is not a common one in the United States. I’ve met four other Americans in my 30 years. That’s one every seven and a half years. Often my name is associated with people of color in the United States. Sometimes, after an introduction I hear: You’re the only white person I’ve ever met with that name. I don’t know how to respond. You should travel more? You need to stop arbitrarily associating names with races? Talk to my parents?

In Sweden though, my name is quite common. Here I’ve probably met that many in the last four years. That’s one every year, in case the maths are hard. It even makes the list of popular Swedish names every now and again. That being said, I am still taken aback when hearing my name.

Especially at a bar. Because suddenly, out of nowhere, a Swede. In the wild. Long dirty blonde hair, pulled back. Not the color dirty blonde, just dirty. Unwashed. Braided colorful bracelets. And a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I was with a couple of people. Americans. Speaking English. And there he was, right in front of me. Hand stretched out ready to shake. Saying my name. Once. Slowly. In Swedish.

I panicked. Did I know him? Someone I had met before? Friend? Enemy? Frenemy? Nothing. And then it dawned on me. He was just introducing himself. We had the same name. I did not know him. He did not know me. I responded, politely, in Swedish. He attempted to introduce himself to the others at the table. He was met with blank stares. Swedish is hard.

He switched to English, claiming that he was more fluent in English than he was in Swedish. You’ll be surprised to know that he was not. Of course, that raised the question, why was a Swede introducing himself to a table of strangers. I panicked again. He kept talking. Slowly. Like he was just really tired. Or really bored. He continued to suck down his cigarette while explaining his chosen line of study. And now I was the one that was really bored. Finally, his cigarette gone, he lost interest in boring the hell out of strangers and walked away.

That’s when I realized just how strange it all was. Not the name thing. It’s Sweden. Makes sense. The strange thing was that he was talking to us. A Swede. Not an American. Talking to strangers. And early in the evening. And not drunk. Even just a few weeks in, I’ve gotten used to silence, not having to talk to people, not having to, eww, meet new people. And then this. An outgoing Swede. The horror.

Welcome to Sweden. And friendly strangers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lunch in the Park

A few days ago I dug deep into my reserve of Swedishness. I was looking for a bench to sit down on and eat my sandwich of toasted bread, butter, mustard, and ham. It’s a lunchtime staple for me here in Sweden. But to truly enjoy a sandwich of that caliber, you need a nice bench and some sunlight.

As I walked out of the archive, I looked right only to see a man plop down on a sunny bench. I kept walking. There must be a bench around somewhere. How about the one near the church? Nope. One woman sitting there. The other one? Nope, an old lady sitting there. I kept walking. How about that stretch of benches in the park? Nope. One person on each of them. I kept walking. Everywhere I looked were sunny benches host to only one person. So I kept walking. Nearly a mile I walked until I found one. All to myself. A sun-smothered bench that was warm and quiet and the perfect place to eat my sandwich. And life was good. And I told myself that it was not strange at all to walk nearly a mile just to find a bench for myself because it meant I got a nice lunchtime walk in.

Then it happened again. The very next day. Lunch that is. It tends to be pretty regular. Except this time, I was ahead of the crowd. I’m an adult. I can eat lunch whenever I want. I don’t have to eat at noon. So I found a bench in the sun. Big enough to probably fit four people. I sat to the far right. Hugging the railing really. It seemed rude to sit right in the middle and take up too much space.

That's a not so good picture of the front of Kungliga biblioteket. Notice the benches. One person on each. Notice the ground. People sitting there. Probably to avoid sitting on the benches with someone else.
I was listening to a podcast. Eating another sandwich of toasted bread, butter, mustard, and ham. Enjoying the sun before it slowly fades into darkness as winter comes closer. And life was good. But out of the corner of my eye I saw something. A man. A bike. I heard something pushing, jostling, forcing its way through my podcast. A voice. Damn it. The man was talking to me. Asking if there was room on the bench for him. And again, I dug deep into my reserve of Swedishness. This one a different reserve. This one the reserve that avoids confrontation. That is friendly and abiding. Absolutely, I said. What I really wanted to say was No. No there’s not. I found this bench fair and square. There are other benches out here that are open. That’s why I ate lunch early. So I could claim a bench to myself. Find your own bench. Because apparently, in the ten days I’ve been back, I’ve turned into a bitter old man.

Of course, as those thoughts rushed through my head, he responded to them. As if he knew. Thank you, all the other benches are in the shade. Well-played, sir, well-played. We sat quietly and ate our sandwiches. He broke the silence to tell me about his cell phone problems. I listened politely and laughed at the right time. Smiled even. I’m very charming.

He finally left in silence. I had outwaited him. The bench was mine again. But my happiness was short lived. Coming from the left again, I saw movement. This time a couple. A super Swedish, blonde-haired couple. Black tights for her. Backslick for him. The same. Exact. Question. Was there room on the bench for the two of them? Absolutely, with a smile. But I lied. There wasn’t room. This bench wasn’t big enough for the both of us. Let alone the three of us. So I drank the rest of my water, brushed the breadcrumbs off of my shirt, packed away my sandwich bag to be used another day, and left.

Welcome to Sweden. And park bench politics.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sweatpants and Swedish Fashion

A couple of days ago I saw a young man wearing a pair of sweatpants while riding the subway. In Stockholm, Sweden. I considered just stopping right there. Not writing another word. Just letting that sink in. I know. I know. You’re thinking he must have been drunk. Or American. Or both. Unlike the last visibly drunk man I had a run-in with just a few days ago, this man did not fall into me and almost spill his open beer. Which is clearly my standard for sobriety. And he probably wasn’t American because he was not chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! while shotgunning a Bud Heavy in his tennis shoes and ‘Merica-themed t-shirt. Which is clearly my standard for American citizenship. But despite all this, he was wearing sweatpants while riding the subway in Stockholm, Sweden.

Now, as many of my friends know, I am pretty much a fashion guru. If there’s a fashion trend, I know about it. My wardrobe consists of fashionable labels that can only be found at the most exclusive of stores. Like Kohl’s. That t-shirt from Work Out West that I still wear regularly 14 years later? No longer in production. I took that from my old employer fair and square. Today, it’s retro. Those neon orange sweatpants acquired that same year? Also retro. The fact that I just searched for “retro fashion” to see if it was actually called “retro” or “vintage” on Also retro. And it really speaks to my expertise on the subject.

Fine. It was Google, not AskJeeves. But Jeeves was the best. I used to actually write full on questions into AskJeeves instead of key words.

Anyway when there are Swedish fashion trends to be discussed, I’m the one to do it. Like the guy walking through Humlegården wearing a blue blazer, dark jeans, and pumped up retro Nike basketball shoes. Business casual in Sweden.

But the guy on the subway was different. He wasn’t business casual. He was fashion casual with his sweatpants. Gray, tight-fitting, belt loop-having, zipper-equipped, sweatpants. I was fascinated. Probably creeped the poor guy out by just staring at his pants. It couldn’t be helped though. He was rocking the sweatpants.

At first I thought they were just normal gray pants. Slacks might be what they’re called. Then a little ball of fabric caught my eye. Right on his knee. It looked familiar. Like something that nearly all of my clothes eventually degrade to. His pants were pilling! He was wearing sweatpants! With belt loops and a zipper! So many exclamation marks!

If anything though, this gives me hope. Hope for a future where my neon orange sweatpants – those of the no zipper, no belt loops, and no form; those of the floppy elastic, holes in the pocket, holes in the knees, holes in the groin, and holes in the butt – will be accepted. Hope that I will one day be able to venture outside in them. In Stockholm, Sweden. Secure in my comfort. Secure in my sweatpants. Secure in my fashion casual. But maybe not.

Welcome to Sweden. Is retro fashion a thing?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Home, Sweet Stockholm Home

It’s been over a week now. I am, once again, registered as a Swede living in Stockholm. Everything still feels new and familiar. Like I’ve never walked these streets a thousand times. Like there aren’t memories around each and every corner. Some that I desperately hold on to and others that I desperately try to forget. Both with varying degrees of success. Friends are older now. Married now. Divorced now. Parents now. I am only one of those things.

It’s always strange coming back to a place you once called home. And Stockholm was home for a solid few years of my life. I managed to work here and make friends here and learn here and love here. It was home. And now it’s going to be home for another year.

I fall back into my life here pretty easily. There are good friends to see and good family to hang out with. Beers to drink and chilinuts to eat. There are museums to visit and parks to walk through. Stories to tell and experiences to write about. So life is pretty good.

But it’s not the same. It won’t be and can’t be. And that’s fine. I’m on my own for a year conducting research. No 9-5 office job, no colleagues by my side. I have to be disciplined enough to get myself to the library or the archive or the university every single day. Reading and noting and photographing and maybe even interviewing. Then there’s the writing. The writing that I need to do for my dissertation and the writing I want to do for my well-being.

Writing is hard though. Hard because for the last few years I’ve been writing academically and not for myself. Hard because I haven’t written like this in years. Hard because of the fits and starts and pointless things I choose to write about. Hard because I can look back and follow my life for a three-year period. I do not have a journal or a diary. I don’t write letters. This blog was (and is again) a way to record my time in Sweden. Which is both fun and embarrassing. There are things here that I no longer agree with. That I wrote. Myself. My politics are different. My attitude is different. My hairline is different. Being able to look back and see what changed, how it changed, remembering what changed, that’s something that I quite enjoy.

Seeing the comments from people who agreed and disagreed. Logging on to Twitter to find that one person started a Twitter account just to harass me about something I had written six years ago. Realizing that I’ve written over 500 posts and nearly 600 single-spaced pages. I’m looking forward to getting back to it. To writing. To Sweden. To my life.

Welcome to Sweden. And my temporary home. Probably.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Underground Showers

The average Swedish male is 182cm tall. That’s five feet eleven and a half inches. The average Hairy Swede is 189cm tall. That’s six feet two and a half inches. I am not a giant. However, I’m apparently too tall for my shower. Not the shower head, mind you. The actual room in which the shower is located.

I’m living in a very old building. It’s a nice building. It’s one of those historically marked buildings, which makes changing anything a challenge. It has character is probably the euphemistic way of putting it. But most things seem to work. The apartment itself is nice. Very few complaints. Except my apartment does not have a shower in the actual apartment. It’s in the basement. A very musty, very creepy basement that can only be accessed by stepping outside. Something I am very much looking forward to come January.

I knew all of this in advance. Or at least that the shower was in the basement and that it could only be accessed from outside. The creepiness and mustiness were not entirely unexpected. It’s an old building. What I did not expect was the height of the ceiling in the showers. Of which there are two for the ten apartments in the building. I’ve had a private shower in every place I’ve paid rent since my first year of college. Even then, it was just a short walk down good old Sweetser Hall. It’s a privilege that I suppose I hadn’t ever thought about, but one I thought I could live with. It’s just a year. I showered every day in the dorms, just fine. Four days later, I’m already changing my tune.

I can’t stand up straight. At all. I either bow my head awkwardly for the length of my shower or squat. Both are not fun. I’ve jokingly been told to do wall squats. I sweat easily. That would defeat the purpose of the shower. I’ve been told to buy a shower stool to haul down to the basement with me every day. I’m already hauling my toiletries down there everyday and am hesitant to add another item to the list of things to forget.

I’ve taken four showers since arriving in Stockholm. I was met by a clump of hair that looked like a small mouse on the first day. Since then I have scrubbed the shower room down, trying to remove some of the disgusting that has worked its way into the walls. I have scrubbed the bench down with thoughts of sitting on it to shower, only to think better of it. I have showered in the dark, as the light turned off on me mid-shower. I have forgotten my soap and shampoo down there, bringing back to my days as a first-year student in college.

In somewhat related news, I’ll be joining a gym soon. Where there’s a shower. I’ll either be in the best shape of my adult life or I’ll be paying for a very expensive daily shower. It’s so going to be worth it.

Welcome to Sweden. And expensive showers.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Election Season 2014 in Sweden

I landed in Copenhagen on Monday. After a train ride, I finally made it to Sweden.  I’m down in southern Sweden for a few more days before heading to Stockholm. With about a year in Sweden in front of me I had a few things to take care of. One of which was getting a cell phone set up. The number I have had for nearly ten years was unceremoniously taken from me. With good reason, I suppose. It had been over a year since I had used it. So it goes.

But I would like to be able to contact people, so I headed in to Helsingborg and with no trouble at all had a new Swedish phone number. Everything worked exactly as it should. It was easy and cheap. But because it was so easy and cheap, I had some time to spare and one more important purchase to make. A beard trimmer. My luscious facelocks need to be properly cared for while abroad.

I headed to the nearest Clas Ohlson only to met by police. Everywhere. Lots of them. Police in full uniform. Police with little vests with the word “dialog” on them. Police in vans. Police. As I continued walking I noticed a fenced-off square with a single podium in the middle and a lone table just to the side. Sverigedemokraterna. Resident racist and current party-leader Jimmie Åkesson was speaking in Helsingborg at noon. Awesome. Because what better way to be welcomed back to the country than by a rally of racists. I went and bought my beard trimmer and headed back to the square. I was curious.

A crowd had gathered. An all-white crowd had gathered. Maybe 200 people. Posters exhorting “Heja Jimmie” were passed out. A group of maybe a couple of hundred crowded closer to the fence. And in the mean time, a small group of protesters gathered just behind the group. Mostly young people. And then he arrived. Cheers went up. As did boos. And then a family of four directly in front of me turned their back. They said nothing. They did not boo. They did not chant. They did not sing. They silently turned their back on the aforementioned racist.

Behind me chants erupted sporadically. Inga rasister på våra gator. Inga rasister på våra gator. Inga rasister på våra gator.

Two younger men made their way to the front of the crowd with a photoshopped A-4 printout of Jimmie Åkesson in a Nazi-era uniform. They said nothing. They did not boo. They did not chant. They did not sing. They just held their pieces of paper above their heads. That’s when the guy standing next to them took notice. And by took notice I mean confronted them and tried ripping the piece of paper from their hands. One man held on tight to his paper only to then be pushed by another man with short-cropped hair and a black jacket featuring epaulets that was vaguely reminiscent of fascist Germany. Probably just a coincidence though. The police made their way over and calmed everything down. Ish. These two would be in the center of several more confrontations in the 20 minutes that I stood and watched.

But I turned my attention back to the family of four in front of me. They had been joined by an older man with a black tank top and a barrel chest to rival any. He was short and squat and looked like he had seen things. As Åkesson continued spewing nonsense, the father in the family who had turned their backs began to shake his head. With good reason. Åkesson had begun claiming that folks were no longer safe in their homes. And this man’s head just went back and forth. No. Back and forth. No. Back and forth. No. He did not boo. He did not chant. He did not sing. He just shook his head. He did not agree.

And that’s when it happened. An older man, maybe in his seventies steamed over. His face red, his finger jabbing into the chest of  the silent man. A threat erupted from the old man’s lips and the police hustled over. That’s when I noticed the son of this family make a beeline out of there. Scared. His father, now protesting to the police, explained that his son shouldn’t have to see people threatened. That’s when the purple-haired old lady piped in.  (Why do old ladies dye their hair blue or purple?) Then don’t bring him here!

Her solution was so simple. If you don’t want to hear hate and fear mongering, don’t bring him to a Sverigedemokraterna rally. It makes sense, really. Of course, I’m sure she didn’t realize the irony in her statement. At this point, the police were heavily involved as I stood staring silently at the purple-haired woman, shaking my head in disbelief. She turned to the police officer next to me. Can’t you remove these people? The officer responded. No. According to Swedish law, they have a right to be here. She scoffed. That’s too bad. Hopefully we can get that law changed. Shame you don’t use water cannons. We could rinse this garbage off the streets.

So that’s the rhetoric being used by at least some of the Sverigedemokraterna supporters. I’ll be honest, I didn’t hear much of what Åkesson said. I listened to his fear mongering for a while. I listened to a speech that sounded eerily familiar to that spewed by Ted Cruz in the US. But really, I was concentrating instead on the crowd around me. The dynamics. The protesters. The racists. The police. It was fascinating. It was scary. It was disgusting. It was sad.

Welcome to Sweden. And election season.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

I'm Back

I'm back.

Welcome to Sweden. And disclaimers. I'm here for a year conducting research for my PhD. I'm receiving funding from various organizations to conduct that research. That means that every word I write, every idea I put forth, everything I do is because I choose to do so and it represents me and me alone. Which is funny, because reading back on this thing, I've written things that I don't even agree with now. All those things I write in the future, or have already written, they do not reflect any position by any organization that is funding me - like a non-profit. Or a university. Or a government. Or a for-profit. Or anyone. Good. I'm glad we had this talk.