Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Adventures in the National Library of Sweden

Despite my headphones, I heard him coming up behind me. Quickly. Aggressively. Loudly. It’s amazing what just a few strides can convey. He grabbed me and began to turn me around while yelling: what do you say when you bump into someone‽1

I am not a brave man, but I am a big man and with that comes a bit of privilege. I don’t immediately have to fear for my safety, especially in a public setting like the café of a library. Which is where this man chose to yell at me. So I slowly took out my headphones. I looked at him. He was old. He had white hair. A tired face. A saggy torso. And he was frantic. His eyes were dancing. He was legitimately angry. He felt aggrieved.

A group of three Germans were standing in the corridor on one side. This older gentleman was standing on the other side. I tried to sneak between them to get out of their way. Because I still wear a backpack, my size ends up being a bit problematic in tight spaces.2 So I brushed him with my bag. I knew it and he clearly knew it. But as I did so I said, as one does, ursäkta. Excuse me. And I continued walking.

That’s when he grabbed me. And as he yelled, I noticed the rest of the room noticing what was going on. Yelling is rare in Sweden. Rarer still in libraries. People stare. It’s a sort of national sport in Sweden, along with avoiding your neighbors. So as calmly as I could, I explained that I had, in fact, said excuse me. Without missing a beat he yelled: you need to say it loud enough to be heard! Apparently, the last couple of months in archives and libraries has trained away my American voice and replaced it with a Swedish library voice: loud enough to communicate with librarians, not loud enough to communicate with angry old men.

Having heard more shushes in this library than in any other library I’ve ever spent time in, a small part of me wanted to lift my finger to my lips and shush him. Just once. For yelling. But I did not. Like I said, I am not a brave man and there’s really no reason to tempt fate. Or an angry old man, whichever the case may be. Instead I stared at him. Probably a little confused. Probably a little shocked.

The woman working at the café to my left just started laughing. Just burst out laughing. As if this were a normal occurrence. As if she had seen this play before. I looked at her. Smiled. Shook my head. Walked away. I did not say another word to the old man. There was nothing left to say. He had said his piece. He had made his scene. He needed a reason to yell and I was as good a reason as any.

Welcome to Sweden. And library voices.

1 That’s an interrobang. An incredible punctuation mark that combines the question mark with the exclamation point. Use it. Love it.
2 I have officially, by the way, exceeded 20 years of education at public institutions. Yay public education!


  1. Wow, as a relative newcomer to Sweden I thought the reason rudeness and dis-courteousness were more prevalent than I'd expected here was precisely BECAUSE no one ever confronts anyone else. Clearly there's something else to it.

    P.S. I think your response was perfect! (Although that librarian may have started laughing even earlier had you shushed him with finger over the lips and all!).

  2. Well, being confronted is super rare. Although, I've seen it in various forms. Maybe it just takes a special Swedish style of confrontation. This was just straight up confrontation.

    P.S. It probably would have been even better if I had lifted my finger to HIS lips and said quietly, shhhh... don't talk. And by better, I mean creepier.

  3. Hairy, you always seem to have the funniest dealings with Swedes, and I absolutely love reading about them! :D

    Speaking of Swedish behavior, have you heard Fredrik Lindström's sommarprat from 2004? He discusses Swedish mentality, Swedish curse words, and Sweden as the most modern country in the world. It's entertaining and interesting, I highly recommend it! Here's a link if you'd like to listen to it:


    1. I have heard that one actually! He does great work. Thanks for the link though, it might be fun to listen to it again