Saturday, September 27, 2014

Winter is Coming

See what I did with the title there? Because I’m hip to pop culture. That’s not true. I’ve only seen one episode of that show. But I read the first three books. And they just kept going. And going. And going. And so much happened. But nothing happened. And they kept going. Like this paragraph. On and on and on and on. And so I quit.

See what I did there? Again? I know.

But seriously. Winter is coming. As in the season that follows autumn. And in Sweden that means two very important things that will dominate the lives of every single person in the country. Cold and dark. Dark and cold. Depending on where you are in the country it might be a bit darker or a bit colder, but it doesn’t really matter where you’ll be. It’s still cold and dark. Dark and cold.

It’s about this time of the year though, that people start preparing for the winter. Animals start prepping for hibernation. Swedes prepare for anti-hibernation. Or at least winter preparations in this country involve things that are meant to avoid falling into a seasonal depression, which can and does happen.

I’m here on a grant for my dissertation research. I’ve mentioned that already to remind people that everything I say is my own opinion and doesn’t represent anyone else and blah blah blah. But the other day I was at an orientation meeting in which all the grantees were welcomed to Sweden. We were given information to get us through our year here in the country. We were also warned about the darkness. Fear the darkness. Embrace the darkness. Be one with the darkness.

Fuck that.1 Fight the man! I mean the darkness. Fight the darkness!

We can pretend all we want that the hours and hours of darkness are romantic and beautiful in their own right. That may be true for a few days. Maybe even a few weeks. But the winter is long. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to fight the darkness:

Buy candles. Candles should be one of the four standing items on your grocery list. Milk?2 Check. Bread? Check. Chilinuts? Check. Candles? Check. Buy candleholders. Nice ones. Cheap ones. Doesn’t matter. Do what feels right, as long as you buy candleholders. Then buy the candles to fill them. You can buy the tiny little tea lights, which will keep you warm for hours and can be used as a heater in your car in a pinch. Trust me. I once drove through a snowstorm from Stockholm to Helsingborg in a Saab with no heat wearing my ski gear and balancing lit tea lights on the dash. It worked.
That's the cute little bear that's keeping me safe.

Living your winter in darkness can be dangerous. It’s one of the reason there are so many reflective children running around with vests and telephone numbers printed on them. But children aren’t the only reflective beings in Sweden. Everywhere you look, people will have little reflectors attached to their clothing and bags. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Or how fancy you are. People hang these things on themselves as if to taunt the darkness. Ha, darkness. You think you’re concealing me from that driver sliding on the black ice? Wrong. I have a reflector and am safe in my glimmering, shivering ignorance.

Seriously. Lunch. No one cares what you eat. There are all kinds of suggestions about making sure you get a lot of vitamin D and omega threes in your diet while limiting caffeine and sugar. That’s fine. But that’s not what lunch is for. Lunch is for going outside. Every day. Go outside at lunch and hope to whatever you hope to and pray to whatever you pray to that the sun will grace you with its presence. Because lunch is the one time of the day that a large chunk of Sweden is not dark.

Along with the darkness comes the cold. People think the cold is less charming than the darkness. But that’s a comparison with no clear winner. Or loser. But don’t worry. You can fight the cold as well:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. This is patently false. And I say this only having lived in Wisconsin last winter. But in Sweden, yeah, it’s probably true. Those nice coats, gloves, hats, scarves, pants, and big boots? Those are the things that are going to allow you to go outside at lunch. They’re the things that are going to allow you to play in the snow, go ice skating, hike around the forest, or just wander around town. They’re the things that are going to allow you to beat back the cold. You’ll need them.

Drink it. You can drink it with or without alcohol. But it is one of the few warm drinks I enjoy. Along with hot chocolate. That’s it. Hot chocolate and glögg. Glögg is basically a mulled wine with almonds and raisins thrown in to give you something to chew on at the end.

Grow one (if you can). They are warm and they are awesome. And if you can't (p.s. that's ok) they've thought of you with these hats.

Welcome to Sweden. If you live way up north, sorry—you’re fucked.3

1 Sorry,mamma. I’m an adult now. Sometimes I say bad words.
2 Almond milk for me nowadays. I can’t drink the good stuff.
3 Seriously, mamma, don’t judge me.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Reflective Swedish Child

Kids like me. For whatever reason, kids like me. They smile at me. They reach for me. They start conversations with me in the laundry room and tell me how they prefer spending time at their mom’s house, even though when they’re at their dad’s house they get to eat a lot of potato chips and did I know that they could spin around on this chair, watch. Sometimes they awkwardly call me dad, when I am, without a doubt, not their dad. And I say awkward, because in fact their actual father is standing right next to them.

There should probably be a transition sentence somewhere in here. Oh well. Just stay with me. The paragraph above and the paragraph below are related. Kind of.

I substitute taught for a semester. Everything from third grade to AP Calculus. It was a strange experience. And it was one that made me very much appreciate the lives of elementary school teachers. Because those things are exhausting. Groups of small children, I mean.

Even after substitute teaching, I like kids. Mostly. I’m just not so sure I’d want to have any of my own. I like kids because I can give them back. Plus, I’m a selfish asshole, something that I’m sure a small child would eventually realize.

But knowing how exhausting small children can be and knowing how exhausting teaching can be, I couldn’t help but shake my head in admiration the other day on my way to the archives. I was sitting quietly listening to my morning podcast when suddenly a small band of roaming children stepped onto the bus wearing yellow reflective vests. Maybe 15 of them? Maybe 20? Maybe 372? I don’t know. They’re so small and flighty. It makes counting hard. And then, out of nowhere, three women climbed on. And they did the impossible. They herded cats. And by cats I mean 372 small children on the bus. They got everyone a seat. They got everyone settled down. They got everyone where they needed to be. And then, they got everyone off the bus several stops later. Nothing of note happened. At all. Which, in my opinion, is noteworthy.

Just a day or two later, I spotted another roaming band of children. This one a bit smaller. Maybe only 236 children. The reflective vests are disorienting. Like the reflective mirroring of schools of herring. Again, teachers were there, herding, cajoling, encouraging, teaching even. It was an impressive sight. And so I took a picture. Because, let’s be honest, it’s pretty damn cute seeing a bunch of small kids walking around dressed like miniature construction workers.

Don't be confused, Swedish construction companies do not rely on child labor.
Welcome to Sweden. And reflective children. Literally.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Turds, Swedish Politics, and My Mom: Val 2014

Sweden had an election on Sunday. And the Left won. Kind of. But really, Sverigedemokraterna won. Which means that no one won. People are angry, confused, defiant, deflated, surprised (some people, unfortunately, are also happy). Politicians are refusing to work with SD. Pundits are urging cooperation with SD. And these reactions are legitimate in response to the tide of nationalistic right-wing politics reaching Swedish shores.

Many English-language accounts of the election (Bloomberg and The Economist come to mind) seem convinced that Sweden’s change of heart was just out of sheer boredom. The articles spend time praising the economic gains, the growth in GDP, the tax cuts, the privatization. From an American perspective or a fiscally conservative perspective, these things are good. But these articles seem to forget that it is was over six million Swedes who voted. And that for decade upon decade, Swedes have embraced taxes and a social welfare state. It wasn’t a bunch of American or British citizens voting with American and British values. Plus, they seem to have forgotten that Alliansen, the incumbent government, received almost 40% of the Swedish vote. It just wasn’t enough. Swedish voters didn’t just wake up on Sunday and think, I’m bored. I want to throw turds at the Swedish political system.

So while they many not have thrown turds because they were bored, Swedish politics is covered in turds now. And I don’t have any idea how to clean up those turds, despite several years as a janitor back in high school. But politicians better start talking to the people who voted for Sverigedemokraterna and better figure out real quick how to convince them that the concerns they have for Swedish society are not best served by voting for a racist party. Convince them that the structural systems in place do not allow for one group of people to judge themselves better than another. That means actually getting something done. Something accomplished. Something that makes a difference in the everyday lives of a whole lot of people. I’m not interested in whether or not 800 000 people in Sweden are overt racists. I’m really not all that interested in even having that conversation (just like others who have written here and here in Swedish). Plenty of people are having that conversation. It doesn’t really matter whether we can look at Herr Sven Svensson from Skåne and say for sure that, yes, fictional Sven is a racist. What does matter is that over 800 000 people feel that their interests are best served by a party that holds such strong anti-immigrant opinions. Because those anti-immigrant opinions foster hatred and fear and racism. And when you feel like an immigrant (even if your passport says otherwise), you start to notice. Especially when you realize that because you have a Swedish name, white skin, and speak decent Swedish people never, ever, ask: where are you really from?

But that question pops up a lot in this country. And there is plenty of academic work exploring that question when it comes to identity formation and identity politics. We can have that discussion too, but right now, it feels way more personal than theory and academics. I have so many friends in this country who were not born here and are immigrants and get that question. Friends who were born here, but were born to a foreign parent and get that question. Friends who were born here but spent time in other countries as an immigrant. Friends who are now having children of their own, who will be born to a foreign parent. It hits a bit close to home. Mostly because that is me. And my brothers. And my dad. And my mom. Especially my mom.

My mom is a badass. She’s taught hundreds of elementary school kids. She’s run marathons. She reads books like the printed word is endangered. She learned Swedish as an adult and dusts it off every time she’s in Sweden like it’s no big deal. She’s taken a sexually active teenage woman to Planned Parenthood years and years ago, only to be verbally accosted by the young woman’s parents, despite her role as a social worker. She’s raised upwards of one hundred thousand dollars for cancer research. She’s also raised three boys, two dogs, and one Swedish husband. She’s a badass.

But she’s also American. Not Swedish. So she’s an immigrant. Or was at least. For about eight years, she was an immigrant.

When the third largest political party in Sweden, the party that is claiming the biggest gains in Swedish politics, wants to decrease immigration by 90% (without explaining exactly how) it says to me that all those friends might not have been allowed in to this country. And that means my mom might not have moved here. And that gets personal.

We can pretend that 13% isn’t a lot. That 87% of voters did NOT vote for Sverigedemokraterna and that’s a good thing. That it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to push through any of their hardcore election promises. That they can’t even find enough people to fill some of the seats they’ve won at various levels of government. Fine. Those are all fun little tidbits to remember, but all the while a racist party is normalized in Swedish politics. But those fun little tidbits are not really the point. Instead, the point is that Sverigedemokraterna have seen a steady increase of votes, percentage of the vote, and seats at all levels of government since their founding in 1988 when they only received 1 118 votes. They’ve inserted their coded language into the mainstream discussion. They’ve turned to fear mongering and blaming the other, whoever the other may be. Suddenly, 800 000 people have succeeded in making hundreds of thousands of other people feel unsafe. And that matters a lot. Because it’s not just happening here in Sweden. It’s happening throughout Europe.

Convincing our fictional friend, Herr Sven Svensson from Skåne, to not vote for Sverigedemokraterna is a good start. But that doesn’t mean it ends there. It doesn’t mean that suddenly, those turds have been cleaned off Swedish politics. Turds leave a mark. And Sverigedemokraterna have inserted a brown streak in the red, green, and blue, of Swedish politics. The risk is that that brown streak will remain unless something happens. And quick.

Welcome to Sweden. And a rising tide of right-wing nationalism.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Swedish Election 2014

There’s an election on Sunday here in Sweden. An important one. For a variety of reasons actually. One because there could be a party with a firmly feminist platform-fittingly known as Feministiskt initiative (Feminist Initiative). If they get in, there are going to be eight parties in parliament plus an extra group of racists under the auspices of being a political party. They call themselves Sverigedemokraterna. Remember them? I managed to stumble over one of their political rallies on only my second day back in Sweden. Another reason is, of course, that the government could swing from right to left. It is currently led by the conservative coalition, Alliansen, led by Moderaterna.

This post though isn’t really meant to be about racist political parties, of which there is growing support. It’s more about campaign politics in general here in Sweden and just a couple of things I’ve noticed. Since my last election here in Sweden, which was actually eight years ago now, a few things have changed. Or at least it seems so to my untrained political eye. For one thing, there seems to be much more individual political campaigning. Vote for this person. Vote for that person. It feels very American in that way. Of course, don't get me wrong. Socialdemokraterna have ads on the subway promising people that they will NOT cut taxes. Which does not feel very American.

Read my lips. No new tax cuts.
My experience with Swedish elections has been that it is more of vote for the party, not the person. In the US, where there are only two parties, that doesn’t give you much choice. Or chance of seeing any actual change if you choose to vote for a third party. In Sweden though, there’s next to zero chance of any one party getting a majority of the vote. That means coalitions need to be formed. Usually right vs. left. But that means that all those little parties that get in, they actually have a bit of a bargaining chip. It means all those little parties can actually move the bigger party one way or the other. It’s what the Tea Party has done in the US. It’s what Sverigedemokraterna and FI are hoping to do in Sweden. Move the coalition left or right.

And then there are the valstugor. The election cabins. They’re kind of amazing. Imagine a lovely little 50 square foot cabin. Maybe it’s that classic Swedish copper red, ubiquitous in Dalarna. It’s got a gently sloping roof. Maybe it has a small table, some chairs, even a kitchenette. No toilet though, sorry. Now take away all the windows, add a double door up front, and plaster it with election posters. Place several from each party in a small area. Ta da! Election cabin. 

That's a high-powered campaign being run out of a tiny little playhouse.
In these cabins you’ll find volunteers handing out election materials, talking to voters, and, if you’re Sverigedemokraterna, surrounded by groups of angry teenagers (usually young men and women of color) at Sergels torg. I love them. The valstugor that is. These do not exist in the US. At least not that I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame. I don’t know where they’ve come from. I’ve heard someone say the 1940s is when they started, but they really gained prominence in the 1970s. I don’t have the slightest clue. Wikipedia was of no use. And as we all know, if it isn’t on Wikipedia, it’s probably lost to the entire world for all eternity.

And finally, the feminists. They are painting the town pink. Or at least parts of it. There are pink blankets covering statues of lions in little squares around town. There are pink balloons hanging in bars. There’s Feminist style police tape wrapped around light posts. There are even pink hippopotamuses popping up encouraging people to vote out the racists and vote in the feminists. 

That's a pink river horse.
A couple weeks ago, out with some Americans, I walked into a bar that looked fun. It was. The doorman, in English, said simply. Come on in. It’s a feminist party! And it was. Later that evening after drinks, it was time for a kebab. And at the table next to us, four Swedish men were discussing the Feminist Initiative. Quite positively. Excited about the national conversation that the party had started. Excited that they have forced the other parties to discuss sexism as a legitimate issue. I loved it. And did not recognize it at all from an American perspective, where feminism is still a bad word for many politicians.

Welcome to Sweden. If you can vote, do. But not for Sverigedemokraterna.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Ten Rules for the Stockholm Subway

I spend a lot of time in libraries. In fact, there are four library cards in my wallet now. It’s a little silly to be honest, but I use them all. All that time in libraries has helped me train my inside voice. As an American, it’s something I try to work on while abroad. My inside voice. I’m getting good at the projected whisper. What is surprising though is how useful that projected whisper has become. Especially on the subway.

The subway culture in this country fascinates me. The silence. The waiting. The pushing. The awkwardness. It’s all there. And there is very much a proper way to behave on this Stockholm subway system.

That proper way to behave holds true even on a Friday during rush hour when everyone is heading home from work. I, of course, was not on my way home from work. Or not really. I had spent the day in a library reading about women who traveled back and forth between Sweden and the US in the early 1900s. Which is a kind of work. One that allows me to still wear a backpack at the age of 30. You should probably be jealous. And maybe pity me just a bit.

I was on the subway with a friend. We were talking. And it was quiet. So I lowered my voice. Now we were talking politics. Well actually the labor movement in the 1910s and ‘20s, but still. Politics. I lowered my voice not because of the subject, but because of the place. And then I realized what I had done. Friday evening. Rush hour. And it was so quiet that I felt it necessary to use my projected whisper. And I kind of liked it.

That’s when I realized just how acculturated to the Stockholm subway system I have become. There are a lot of rules. Some of them are explicit. Certain cars are available to dogs. Others are not. If you see someone get stuck in the door, pull the emergency brake. Se upp för dörrarna. You know, the usual. Other rules are less explicit. Unwritten even. Until now. So, after years of careful study, in-depth fieldwork, and years of living among the very people I am studying, here are ten rules to the Stockholm subway system:
Look at all those rules being followed here!
  1. Shhhhh. Always.
  2. Do not look anyone in the eye. Ever.
  3. If you don’t want to take your newspaper with you, hang it on the handrail under the window.
  4. Stand right in front of the door when it opens during rush hour. Both to get on and off. You were there first. But be warned. I will judge you. Others won’t though. They’ll be trying to get in front of you.
  5. Shhhhh. Still.
  6. Do not talk to strangers. Ever.
  7. If you don’t want someone to sit next to you, put your bag on the seat beside you. But be warned. People will, rightly, judge you. I will judge you.
  8. Do not sit next to anyone if there is an open seat somewhere else. Ever.
  9. Stare at your phone to ensure avoidance of eye contact. Even at the risk of missing your stop. Not that I've done that. 
  10. Shhhhh. Seriously, just shhhhhhhhhhh. 
Of course, rule 11 of the ten rules says ignore all of these rules on Friday and Saturday night after drinking for several hours. Sprawl out on the seats. Make out on the seats. Drink on the seats. Vomit on the seats. But only on Friday and Saturday night.

Welcome to Sweden. And subway silence. Sweet, sweet subway silence.

P.S. Feel free to add your own unwritten rules in the comments.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Protests Against Swedish Neo-Nazis

At 11:34am on Sunday, August 31, I received the following alert from the US Government:
“A large area of central Stockholm will be cordoned off by police on Saturday, August 30, 2014 between 09:00-18:00 hours due to an authorized political meeting being held by the Neo-Nazi “Svenskarnasparti” (The Party of the Swedes). A demonstration against Svenskarnasparti is expected, estimated at 10,000 people, positioned at Gustav Adolfs Torg, just outside the MFA. The demonstration is scheduled to begin at 14:00 hrs.”

Quick aside: the MFA is the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or Utrikesdepartementet.

So the warning came a day late. In fact, I’d already heard about the warning coming from the US about the demonstration. I went to the protest against the neo-Nazi group anyway. Mostly because I can’t believe there are neo-Nazi parties in Sweden that are given police protection under the guise of freedom of speech to hold rallies in the middle of Stockholm.

That's a lot of peaceful protestors.
I went with a couple of friends. We arrived around 1:15. There were thousands and thousands of people in Kungsträdgården. I saw one estimate of 14,000 people. My time spent trying to estimate the number of fans at a basketball game for my job years and years ago had ill-prepared me for crowds of that number, so I’ll just trust the reports that there were over 10,000 people there. I finally left around 4:45. A lot happened in between.

While I was there, I saw over 10,000 people peacefully protesting against a handful  of neo-Nazis. The number floating around the crowd was that there were only 75 neo-Nazis at their rally. So the anti-Nazis far outnumbered them.

I saw people with their families. Parents and children holding balloons and little heart placards. Grandparents with their grandchildren. Old and young and everything in between.

I saw people singing and dancing. In several languages. I saw signs. Flags. Banners. I saw musicians playing drums. Even a saxophone.

I saw a whole lot of people who were there to protest the neo-Nazi party that, for some reason, continues to be given credence in this country. Unfortunately, many of the reports I read afterwards focused on 15 minutes of commotion.

And if you’ve been paying attention to the news, no doubt you saw that there were clashes. I also saw that. A group of plainclothes police walked into a crowd. They stood there. Doing nothing. Then something happened. I still don’t know what. They circled up and pulled their batons. The crowd gave them space. They called for the police in riot gear. There were two young men who were aggressively yelling, maybe ten feet from the police officers. But at this point, there was no one throwing a thing. Not a thing. People had been throwing things. Mostly smoke bombs. There were also people yelling to stop throwing things. But as the riot police arrived, I didn’t see a single thing being thrown. And then they charged.
Tensions running high. 
The crowd turned to run. There was white smoke and people running with their mouths covered, coughing. Turns out it was most likely fire retardant, which the police use to disperse crowds. And it worked. Of course, the police in riot gear, the plainclothes police, the mounted police, the K9 unit, the police vans heading straight into a crowd didn’t hurt either. What did hurt, at least I imagine it hurt, was the police baton smacking against the back of two demonstrators as they ran away. There were undoubtedly more people who felt a baton crash down on them. I only saw two. Apparently, if you’re not fast enough, even turning to disperse and run is not enough to keep you from taking a baton to the back.

At this point, I thought it best to go home. I was in no way interested in clashing with a police force that seemed all too ready to clash. And then I started reading about what happened. As if the 15 minutes of bull-rushing police officers were the story. As if the story of the day should have been about a imagined (and wholly false) full-scale militant attack by the protestors.

The story should be that many in Sweden will not tolerate neo-Nazis. And that many in Sweden are growing tired of the protection granted to hate-speech spouted by the neo-Nazis. The story should be about over 10,000 peaceful protestors and an atmosphere that was really, quite calm orderly, Swedish, for the vast majority of the time.

Welcome to Sweden. And anti-Nazi protests.

*(September 2, 2014) I've had some comments/emails about my comments about neo-Nazis being protected under the guise of freedom of speech. First, I am always torn by free speech issues, mostly because I am not an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. I think it is dangerous to fetishize the idea that every single utterance is protected. Including hate speech. Of course, I really like the idea that you can say things that aren't popular and not be prosecuted for that. It can be useful, you know, government tyranny, crushing of dissent, etc. Hence, the being torn part.

That being said, Sweden has a pretty straight-forward law against hate speech, which is why I am confused by the police protection being offered. It states (and I found the English version):
A person who, in a disseminated statement or communication, threatens or expresses contempt for a national, ethnic or other such group of persons with allusion to race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religious belief shall, be sentenced for agitation against a national or ethnic group to imprisonment for at most two years or, if the crime is petty, to a fine. (Law 1988:835)

Which seems to me covers the entire platform of Svenskarnas parti. But still they have police protection. Now THAT being said, I'm not even going to pretend to know exactly how all that stuff actually works in real life, but it seems like it should cover a lot of the nonsense being spouted by the neo-Nazis.