Friday, November 28, 2014

Swedish Boobs. Again.

I saw some Swedish boobs today.

I thought that needed to be its own paragraph. I saw some Swedish boobs today at a place I did not expect to see Swedish boobs. There are spaces in which seeing a woman’s breasts are not entirely out of the ordinary. The beach. The bedroom. The gentleman’s club (such a classy misnomer). Where you may not expect to see a topless woman is at a university and study abroad fair for Swedish high school students. But sure enough.

Today I took a pause from my groundbreaking and incredibly important research that will probably save the world to help out at a fair to promote secondary education and study abroad. It seemed like a good excuse to get out of doing my actual work and a nice way to get a free lunch. And by free I mean I stood and talked to high school students for about six hours and got some soggy cod and potatoes in return.

There were colleges and universities and trade schools and any organization you can imagine that might be interested in recruiting high school graduates. There were thousands upon thousands of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds all looking for something to do with their lives. I was clearly of much use as a 30-year-old with little to no career plans. But I did my job and smiled and answered questions as best I could.

Come noon I was hungry. So off to lunch I went. And I passed by a small crowd of young women. I looked to my left and noticed two pedestals. Upon which was a topless teenage woman in a thong. Having body paint applied slowly and carefully by another woman. I slowed. I’m not going to lie. I slowed down. I stared. Mostly out of sheer confusion. I don’t know of too many universities that offer majors in nude body painting.

As my brain raced to figure out where in the hell I was, I looked to the woman’s left and there sat several women applying make-up to some of the high school students. It was a school of make-up artistry. Suddenly this made a lot more sense. I went on my way and ate my lunch. It was disappointing, but filling. I went back to my booth and the crowd had dissipated but the woman was still being painted atop her pedestal.

Two hours later I had to pee. And I passed by the make-up artistry booth again. There was zero crowd. At all. But the woman was still being painted atop her pedestal.

And finally, as the event was closing down and I was leaving, I walked by one last time. There were two photographers and zero crowd. The woman’s paint job was complete and she was now being photographed as she struck poses atop her pedestal.

I’ve seen Swedish boobs in public before, remember? That was mostly an awkward situation. This wasn’t awkward. It was about three second of shock followed by three seconds of confusion followed by three hours of meh. What was most shocking was the lack of a crowd. Actually, what was most shocking was the woman’s ability to stand atop a pedestal for at least three hours and act as a canvas. That was closely followed by the lack of a crowd. Maybe I have no faith in the average American teenager who happens to be attracted to women, but I can’t imagine there being no crowd of teenagers in front of a topless woman in the US. Of course, I can’t actually imagine there ever being a topless woman at an event created and marketed entirely for high school students in the US. Because in America, women’s nipples are scary and are a direct cause of communism. Men’s nipples are totally different though.

Welcome to Sweden. And nipples not being a big deal.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Train Travelin'

The expected departure time just kept changing. Later and later and later. It was cold, I had walked thirty minutes in the rain (without help of a map and without getting lost, I’ll have you know). I had three bags, one of which had four very dead, very frozen ducks in it. I didn’t want to haul everything back into the warmth of the station, not when the departure time was only being updated in five to ten minute increments, leaving me with a sense of hope.

Finally, with little fanfare, the train rolled into the station about 35 minutes late. I’ve come to expect delays whenever I travel, whether it’s by car or boat, plane or train. All things considered, 35 minutes wasn’t horrible. Mostly, I was just excited about getting out of the cold.

I climbed aboard, found my car, found my seat, and proceeded to say nothing for the entire train ride from Lund to Stockholm. It was amazing. I finished a book, listened to some podcasts, and wrote a bit. Train travel isn’t such a bad gig once you’re actually on the train.

Periodically, a woman would interrupt the silence over the loudspeaker. As we neared a station, she would give the passengers an update as to where we were, where we were going, and how late we would be when we arrived (about 56 minutes. Not exactly, but about.). Helpful information really. She also gave us instructions. There’s nothing new about that. The platform is to your left as we pull into Linköping. Watch your step. Make sure you don’t forget anything. You know, the usual. What caught my attention were her pleas for assistance.

She beseeched us to have our bags packed and ready to go as we arrived and that we be waiting at the door so that everyone could disembark quickly. She warned us that because we were 56 minutes behind schedule, it was imperative that everyone come together and help out so that we could make up as much time as possible. She asked passengers to not step off for a breath of fresh air or a smoke. She even told us why it was so important that everyone leave the train efficiently and effectively: there was a train behind us that was on schedule and it took priority; there was a freight train in front of us and we really needed to get in front of it or we’d be stuck traveling at its slower speed; she just really needed a drink after listening to everyone complain. Two of those three are true.

We’ve all heard these pleas for help. Think back to flying through Chicago during any holiday ever. The person at the front desk takes to a microphone and asks everyone to have their boarding tickets out and ready to go and their bags packed and ready for the overhead compartment. Then think back to the guy in the socks, sandals, Hawaiian shirt, and floppy hat in front of you who didn’t follow directions. He’s got a connecting flight in Chicago that’s taking him somewhere warm for the holiday. He got to the front of the line and then had to empty his bags (plural) just to find his boarding pass. He’s also the one who packed a one-room apartment into his carry-on and is upset when it, surprise surprise, doesn’t fit under the seat in front of him or in the overhead compartment. But still, the poor airline and airport employees continue to plead.

What’s to stop the person who has already arrived from taking their time? Why should they care whether the train takes in a few minutes after they’ve already made it home? The answers are nothing and they shouldn’t. But they did care. With five minutes to go, the woman’s soothing Stockholm accent came over the intercom. She asked everyone to get ready. She made her case. And with four minutes to go, people started pouring out of their seats, they bundled up, steeled themselves against the rain, and went to the doors and waited patiently. They piled off. The next folks piled on. And two minutes later, we were on our way again. It was a frightening, yet encouraging, display of Swedishness in action.

When I started writing this, I was going to comment that I’ve never heard of this sort of thing happening in the US. To point out that this was a manifestation of jantelagen in the form of public transportation. To say, look, how Swedish and quaint. Then I remembered that trains are nearly non-existent in the US. That’s why I’ve never heard of this happening. Well played, Sweden, well played.

Welcome to Sweden. Where trains are delayed. Because they actually have a passenger rail transportation system that is used by large numbers of people.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cub Scouts in Stockholm

I am a failed Boy Scout. That’s not true, I never actually made it to the Boy Scouts. I quit after Webelos. It was a good run. A run filled with plenty of Cub Scout meetings. Aside from the Pinewood Derby, I remember three things: our den leader nearly burning down his garage, learning to change a flat tire, and playing Nightmare on Sesame Street with a child-sized play set.

There are probably several things you think I should remember from those days. Like how to read a map. Or a compass. How to build a fire. Maybe how to tie several different knots. Survival skills.

I don’t remember those things. I don’t know if we even learned how to do those things. Maybe they were only for the Boy Scouts. All that matters is that at the age of 30, I can’t do most of those things properly (and plenty of others, actually).

Of the long list of skills I do not have, there is one in particular that rears its ugly head all too often. I am incapable of reading a map. This matters because I am in a book club. I am in a book club and was on my way to our monthly meeting the other night. Our monthly meeting rotates between the different members. People move. New people join. I’ve been gone for four years. I can’t read a map.

This time though, I was late. I hate being late. I get really flustered and I sweat a lot. I should specify that a lot just means more than usual. So as the clock struck 6:30pm, I was just climbing off the subway instead of walking through a front door. And because I was sweaty and flustered, I walked out the wrong subway entrance. Despite looking at a map. It’s something I do on a regular basis when I’m in a hurry and stop to look at a map thinking that it will help orient me.

My continued attempts at map reading would prove to add several minutes to my walk. But have no fear. I have an iPhone! With Google Maps! And so I was on my way stretching my long legs as long as my legs would stretch. I turned right when I should have turned left. Despite looking at a map. Maps are hard. But I righted myself, like any former Cub Scout would do.

That’s when my cousin called. Wondering. She’s in the book club too, you see. Have no fear, dear cousin, for I am on my way! Those were probably my exact words. I hung up, and kept walking. Faster now.

I turned left and looked down to see my iPhone shut off. In just 15 minutes, 40% of my battery had disappeared. A minor inconvenience, but I remembered the address and the code into the building. This would be easy. Who needs maps anyway? Especially when you can’t read them properly.

I kept walking and came to a fork in the road. Two roads diverged in a city, and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference. Because it was the wrong, god damned road. I found my way back to the correct road and walked through the front door of the building about 30 minutes late. Not my finest moment.

Most Swedish apartment buildings (and maybe apartment buildings in other countries) have a noticeboard where the names of each apartment occupant is listed along with their floor number. I went to the board. And was met with a wave of embarrassment. There was no one there, and I could still feel my cheeks heat up and the sweat droplets forming. That's what embarrassment feels like. Because I didn’t know the last name of the person in whose apartment we would be discussing Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her (a book I had suggested, by the way). It was on my phone. My very dead phone. Shit.

I went to the top floor. And I stopped at every. Single. Door. I gently placed my ear near the door and listened for any hint of English. Eight floors. Several apartments on each floor. As those sweat droplets began dripping off the tip of my nose, I creepily listened for a few seconds. Nothing. No English. No literary discussions. No arrests, either. In case you were wondering.

Down to the lobby I went. At this point, I had no cell phone. Which meant no email. No calendar. No map. And I was frozen by my lack of technology. Frozen! My Cub Scout training kicked in, because word association. Or something. My phone was also frozen. Batteries don’t just dump 40% for nothing. My poor iPhone was cold. I found a chair in the lobby, sat down, and did the only logical thing left to do: I took out my phone, smushed it between my hands, and smushed my hands between my knees. Bending over, my forehead nearly touched my knees as I used my body heat to warm a piece of metal, plastic, glass, and precious minerals. There’s probably some sort of social commentary to be made about my position mimicking that of a person in prayer, but my focus being on the physical, the technological, the secular.

Whatever. It worked. With a warm phone in hand, I was able to turn it on, open my email and find which floor I was meant to be on. The seventh. Up I went. In I strode. Embarrassed. Sweaty. Flushed. Forty-five minutes late.

Welcome to Sweden. And the last Cub Scout.

P.S. Having made it this far, you deserve some good writing. Check out fellow former Cub Scout Peter Derk’s work here. I’ve been creepily following him on Twitter at @helpfulsnowman. I don’t think I’ve seen or talked to him since at least high school. It doesn’t matter. He’s a damn fine writer. Read his stuff here: Origins or Tough Shoot: A Short Essay or The First of Me: Stories or Barehanded: Poems.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I’m So Hungry I Could Eat a Horse

It's Friday. Don't forget your horsemeat.
From the January 22, 1920 issue of Arbetarbladet.
Horsemeat. Beautiful horsemeat.

This beautiful horsemeat was for sale every Friday and Saturday back in 1919 and 1920 in Gävle, Sweden, according to a recurring ad in the newspaper Arbetarbladet. I don’t know how long this ad ran. My research has nothing to do with advertisements, the food being eaten by or marketed to the working class, nor does it have anything to do with horsemeat. That being said, the phrase “Horsemeat. Beautiful horsemeat.” will apparently catch my attention in Swedish. (Although, I still don't know if it should be one word or two. Horse meat? Horsemeat? Horsemeat.)

The US tends to recoil at the thought of eating horsemeat. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but plenty of people view horsemeat as akin to slaughtering cute baby seals. Kicking puppies. Hating freedom. Devising dastardly deeds. It’s taboo, to say the least.

I'm accepting hand modeling gigs. 
So I should come out and say it. I don’t slaughter cute baby seals. Or kick puppies. Or hate freedom. Or even devise dastardly deeds. I do, however, eat horsemeat. At least while in Europe. I’ve eaten it as a steak in Iceland. It was delicious. But more commonly, I eat it as a cold cut here in Sweden. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I eat meat. And horse is a meat when it is in my refrigerator. It's even more of a meat when it is in my lunch, which for the past two days has consisted of toasted bread, some mustard, some cucumber, and three slices of horsemeat. Or, as the sneaky Swedes sometimes like to call it: hamburgerkött. Hamburger meat. Sneaky sneaky Swedes. That’s not hamburger. That’s horsemeat. Smoky, salty, delicious horsemeat. I prefer the brands that just right out and tell me what I'm eating. Like the picture to your left.

That ad for beautiful horsemeat may have been from 1920, but the horsemeat industry is alive and kicking (see what I did there?) here in Sweden. Turns out that about 400 metric tons of horsemeat is imported to Sweden every year. On average, Swedes eat 200 grams of horsemeat each year. That’s not a whole lot per person, but, considering horse slaughter was illegal in the US for several years (legal again since 2011), I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably more than the average in the US.

It seems that plenty of people are against horsemeat because horses are smart, they are sometimes pets, they help us work, they symbolize freedom and the openness of the plains, they are big and pretty and majestic and on and on and on. Fine. People like horses. Of course, they never were stuck on the back of Joker, the meanest (and last horse) I ever rode at the age of 10 near Granby, Colorado. Since that day, I have found myself mucking out stalls with dressage horses eyeing me. I have placed horse hooves between my legs (against my better judgment) to clean the gunk out of them. I have fed them and led them and brushed them. However, I have never ridden a horse since I was 10. But I sure as hell have eaten one.

Welcome to Sweden. And the sweet (but mostly salty) taste of revenge.

Wait. That sounds pretty messed up. How about this?

Welcome to Sweden. And the horse with [one] name: hamburger.

Or this one?

Welcome to Sweden. And yet another Swedish food that Americans fear.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Sandwich Cake WTF?

“smörgåstårta. wtf is this? you cant put a sandwhich on a cake! *explain further*”

That is an actual email I received several years ago while teaching Swedish. I haven’t changed a single thing. That’s a copy and paste job right there. And I know you’re supposed to cite your sources, but I’m not citing this student. It’s best for everyone involved.

In a stroke of pedagogical genius, I just sent this student links to the Wikipedia page in English AND in Swedish. See? A learning opportunity.

I don’t necessarily expect super formal emails to be sent to me when I teach. Especially as, at the time, a graduate student who was only a few years older than some of the students in my class. But this one was new. I got the full on “wtf.” It bothered me, I’ll be honest.

Which is too bad, because it’s a legitimate question. Seriously, smörgåstårta? Wtf?

I’m hungry right now. And I walked by a bakery earlier. And bakeries make me think of delicious baked goods. And delicious baked goods make me think of things like kladdkaka and princesstårta. And the word tårta makes me think of smörgåstårta. And that, my friends, is how genius happens. Or a complete and utter inability to focus on anything important the second I get a little bit hungry.

The smörgåstårta first made it’s way into Sweden around the 1940s, was credited to Gunnar Sjödahl from Wedemarks konditori in Östersund in 1961, and became a Swedish staple in the 1970s. Since then, the smörgåstårta has been a staple of the finest Swedish cuisine. And by fine Swedish cuisine, I mean something that will feed a bunch of people, because it sits like a rock in your belly and can be served as leftovers for days, because no one can eat more than a piece at a time.

Anyway, a smörgåstårta is a sandwich cake. Literally. What it really is is a sort of savory cake with several layers of hedonistic Swedish pleasures smushed into a sort of creamy spread smothered all over bread. It’s not uncommon to bite into a cake filled with shrimp, salmon, crayfish, eggs, tomatoes, and cucumber. Of course, none of those things are creamy. That’s where the liver pâté, and mayonnaise comes into play. If you’re really lucky, you’ll also find some cold cuts, maybe an olive or two, and of course some lemon slices on top.

Now I want you to read through that last paragraph one more time. Then I want you to imagine biting into that and letting that sit in your gut for the rest of your workday.

Because, you see, the only time I’ve ever run into a smörgåstårta in the wild is at a Swedish office. Every now and again, while working here, we were graced with the presence of this monstrosity and invited to partake in the glory that is the smörgåstårta. I’ve heard rumors that this is sometimes served at parties. Apparently, my friends have better taste than that. Or they just don’t invite me to their parties. My friends are clearly assholes.

Welcome to Sweden. And Swedish foods that Americans fear.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Express Disenfranchisement

Everyone is voting back home. Colorado and Wisconsin both have some important elections today. My Facebook feed is choked with people exhorting everyone to vote. It’s a good idea. In general. Although, there’s something to be said for abstaining. In fact, Stan from South Park said it: “No, I think voting is great, but, if I have to choose between a douche and a turd, I just don't see the point.”

So if you’re stuck choosing between a douche and a turd, do what you want.

Of course, I actually tried voting today. From Sweden. But I have been disenfranchised! Kind of. I shouldn’t joke about that. Wisconsin has actually been actively trying to disenfranchise people recently.

I requested an absentee ballot on October 6 and had sent in all of the required documents by October 7. That was four weeks ago. I had to send a reminder on October 24, because nothing had happened. Turns out, my ballot had never been sent. I was told it would be sent on Friday, October 24. It was not. The postmark on the ballot I received said October 27. Another delay. Because of that, I just received my ballot yesterday on November 3. I have filled out my ballot, I have signed my envelope, I even found another American citizen to serve as my witness and sign the envelope that holds my ballot. And all for naught. Because I realized that there is no way for me to get this envelope from Stockholm, Sweden, to Madison, Wisconsin, by Friday.

Wisconsin state voting law requires the absentee ballot to be postmarked on or before election day. Check. It also requires the absentee ballot to be received on or before the Friday of election week. Today is Tuesday. Friday is Friday. That’s three days from now. Not check.

A first-class letter sent internationally from Sweden to the US is predicted to arrive in four to six business days for the low, low cost of 14 SEK. That math doesn’t add up for a Friday arrival. That’s what the postal employee in Stockholm told me. The one that knew his job so well that as I waited, he helped a woman weight, address, stamp, and mail her package while also explaining the rules and requirements of a PO box to the other woman in line.

After explaining the intricacies of international, first-class postage, he said I could send it express. But that he couldn’t help me with that. You had to have a computer, access to the internet, and a printer to do all that. While I appreciate the convenience of online transactions, not everyone has easy access to a printer. Or the internet, for that matter. But fine. I’ll pay ball Sweden.

What does express mean? That your envelope is predicted to arrive in three business days (plus the one that you’re sending it on). Which sounds like four to me. What will express cost you? Only 410 SEK. That’s it. Don’t forget the customs papers. You’ll need those, even for letters. And finally, suggests that you have the proper envelopes to send things express. You can order those online and they will be delivered right to your door at no extra cost! What service. You just have to wait three days. Which sounds like not express to me. Express shouldn’t involve planning. I need to ship things express because I failed to plan.

Let’s do a recap and some quick math here. If I want to send something express, I can expect it to arrive in three plus one days. However, it is suggested that I send things express in fancy express envelopes. So wait three days. Three days plus three plus one days equals six plus one days. Total cost, 410 SEK.

If I want to send something first-class, I can expect it to arrive in four to six business days. I can plop a stamp on and send away. Total cost, 14 SEK.

Six plus one days for express is greater than four to six days for first-class.

I bought a first-class stamp. I'm sticking my ballot in the mail anyway. Just because. Just because it doesn’t matter. Just because I wanted to try. When I requested the ballot so far in advance, I was hoping that everything would be ok. That I would be able to vote. That my vote would actually be counted. That I could be a part of an election of this importance, even though I am in Sweden for a year (ironically, some of my funding to be here for a year is coming from the US Federal government). Instead, I'm sitting here with a signed, sealed, and yet-to-be delivered ballot that means absolutely nothing.

There is nothing that can be done at this point, so instead I’m annoyed with the Madison City Clerk for taking 28 days to get me an absentee ballot and leaving me feeling disenfranchised. I’m annoyed at the Swedish postal service because their express service doesn’t seem very express. And I’m annoyed that I didn’t have anything better to write for today.

Welcome to Sweden. And the voting problems of the privileged.