Thursday, December 18, 2014

Moving to Sweden – Marijuana

A few days ago, a Russian military aircraft nearly collided with a SAS passenger plane somewhere between Copenhagen and Malmö. The plane was flying without its transponder on, so was apparently invisible. You know, except to the people in the plane. This isn’t the first time this has happened and the way Russia is going it won’t be the last. They’ve violated several countries’ airspace and don’t seem all too concerned about doing it. In fact, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin seems pretty sure the Swedes are just a bit paranoid and imagined the near miss. He was quoted as saying “[t]he Swedish authorities also recently said there was a submarine in their waters. There wasn't. Now they say again that they have seen something. I'm afraid the Swedes visit Pusher Street very often.” Then he went on to make veiled threats about not waking up the Russian bear and blah blah blah, Putin is manly and rides horses without his shirt on.

What is much more interesting than the Russian bear, is the Swedes and weed. Because that’s what this ambassador is getting at. Pusher Street is, of course, the street in Christiania, Copenhagen, where you can buy a whole lot of hash. Cannabis. Clearly, comrade Vanin hasn’t spent much time in Sweden. But I have. And maybe you’re thinking of spending some time here. Or even moving 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
Moving to Sweden – The Laundry Room
Moving to Sweden – Most Common Jobs and Salaries

And what better way to prepare for your move to Sweden after having found a place to live and understanding the laundry system than to take a look at the drug policy of the country?

I should say this up front: I don’t smoke weed. I haven’t tried it and just am not all that interested. So keep that in mind as you read, but coming from the US where marijuana use is becoming common in the medical community, where my home state has legalized it, it’s a topic of conversation in both Sweden and the US, so I suppose I'm an advocate of legalization. And in that classic way that helps people earn credibility – it’s cool, I know a guy who smokes. He told me I could write this. So without further ado, some information about weed in Sweden. You know, just in case.

Weed will make Swedes nervous. And I’m painting with broad strokes here. If you want it, you can find it. People smoke it. It exists, you can buy it, albeit illegally. But it makes Swedes nervous. I remember studying abroad in Uppsala years and years ago. I remember going to a party where I don’t remember if I drank too much. I remember smelling weed. But that smell is distinct. And I watched as people around me started leaving the party. Clearing out. It was just too much. Drink yourself to the point of vomiting and unconsciousness? No worries. That’s just a normal Friday or Saturday night. But weed? You may as well have clubbed a baby seal while shooting heroin and chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! in the middle of rush hour at Central Station. People will give you a wide berth.

It’s just not socially (or legally) acceptable. It wasn’t always this way. Thanks to Nils Bejerot’s campaign for zero tolerance back in the 1960s, the Riksförbundet Narkotikafritt Samhälle (The National Association for a Drug-Free Society) was formed in 1969. And that was that. Under the impression that drug usage works as a an epidemic and is spread from user to user, RNS uses a mix of imprisoning users, treating users, identifying early users, and some early education for the young ‘uns. And with that, Bejerot and RNS convinced everyone that drugs are bad m’kay. Including weed.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, as of 2012, lifetime prevalence for cannabis use for adults aged 15-64 is only 14.9%. That means that only 14.9% of those surveyed had ever tried weed over the course of their entire life. Denmark comes in around 35%. Turns out Pusher Street is pushing that number higher. You can check your favorite European country’s weed numbers here. Compare that to the United States where some studies show that over 50% of those surveyed had tried weed sometime during their illustrious lives. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration put that number at 51.9% in 2013 for young adults. That same EMCDDA study put the Swedish number for young adults at 22.2% in 2012. Math is hard, but that’s about twice as much.

Drug use is separated into three different categories: minor, ordinary, and serious. Seems easy enough. What that means in time served kind of depends. Generally speaking, a minor offense means you’ll probably just pay a fine, although you could spend up to six months of time in jail. If you bump up your offense to the ordinary one, you cold be facing up to three years in prison. A serious offense will result in a prison term of between two and ten years. Or, if you’re an immigrant, I suppose just deportation.

But how do you move up the ladder of offenses? It mostly has to do with the amount. A minor offense for weed will mean about 50 grams of cannabis (that’s about 1.7 ounces). Ordinary is about 51 grams to two kilos. Serious is more than two kilos. The EMCDDA and, strangely enough, the Parliament of Canada, has a wonderful overview of Sweden’s drug policy.

While plenty of countries (and American states) are changing their attitudes towards marijuana use, Sweden, well, doesn’t. There’s not even much of a discussion about potential legalization. Drugs are bad. Marijuana is a drug. Marijuana is bad. Drugs are illegal. Marijuana is a drug. Marijuana is illegal. It really is that simple for a lot of Swedes. Every now and again someone will pop up and write a piece in the newspaper calling for a change. Every now and again a professor will make a statement pointing out that yes, marijuana is not all that great for you, but neither is alcohol, maybe we should reconsider the drug policy. And then those articles will get lost in the internet somewhere and folks will go back to buying weed illegally or just leaving the country and heading down to Pusher Street in Copenhagen. Just maybe not at the rate that Vanin thinks.

Welcome to Sweden. And marijuana policy.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Swedish Holidays - Lucia

Last Friday I was last in a line of people who were all carrying a live candle with glittery, silver boas wrapped around their head. It was performance art. Kind of. I found myself in a choir full of PhD students singing to a recently defended PhD. And because ‘tis the season, we held candles.

The flame whispered in front of me as I was overtaken by the holiday spirit. I belted out every note with the voice of an angel. It was glorious. A warm glow descended over me as the music transported me further and further away from this temporal world.

And then I realized I should probably unlock my knees because a couple glasses of wine and the heat of the candle was going to turn me into a stereotype. Because right around December 13th, people everywhere begin dropping like those cute little goats who just tip right over when they get panicked. There are plenty of explanations out there. Some people say the tiny little candle steals all the oxygen (science says that isn’t true). Some people say it’s hard to stand that long (retail workers say toughen up, half an hour is nothing). Some people say it’s too much partying (college students say that’s ridiculous). Some people say it’s a combination of heat, nerves, and standing (and by some people, I mean scientists say that, which must mean it is true). Either way, people are fainting a lot this time of year.
Don't worry. They're just stjärngossar. We think...
Picture from Mölndals stadsmuseum via
"Stjärngossar: fr.v Rune Lindh, Karl-Erik Andersson,
Lucia: Ulla Hultsten..." by Greta Bengtsson is licensed
under CC BY 2.5 SE. This is such a long caption.
Citations are hard.
That’s because December 13 is Lucia in Sweden. Lucia is a lovely holiday—a holiday that involves a crown of candles upon a person’s head, choir-like singing, a parade of people dressed as miniature KKK members with stars upon their hoods, and baked goods. Obviously. It’s going to get a bit nerdy from here on out. Proceed with caution.

The holiday combines some Pagan traditions with some Christian traditions and, voila, Swedes eat baked goods while watching people faint in a choir.

There’s plenty to be found about Lucia, most of it hard to pin down because of those pesky hagiographies. She was Italian. Born around 283, dead around 304 (or maybe a few years later). She might have had her eyes gouged out. She might have been stabbed in the throat by a spear. She might have been burned alive. Either way, she was definitely viewed as a Christian martyr now celebrated as a Catholic saint. That just so happens to be super popular in Protestant Sweden.

December 13 was thought to be the longest night of the year and darkness needs to be beaten back with light. Then Greg changed it for everyone back in 1582. Suddenly the longest night of the year was moved. But have no fear; Lucia is here! Her feast day just happened to fall on December 13, which was super handy because before, and even after that meddling Pope changed the calendar, Swedes were paying attention to that date. It just so happened that it was a time when super scary things were out tormenting folks. Plus, Christmas was coming and so the pig had to be slaughtered and the feast had to be prepared. So the Christian and the Pagan came together, as it so often did in perfect harmony with no blood lost and smiles and hugs all around. That’s how that story usually goes, right?

No word if this woman fainted or not.
Kustflottans Lucia 1942, frk Ingegärd Hägg.
So we get lights and candles, songs and a Saint, food and drink and all the good stuff needed to banish evil whence it came. Anyway, the tradition remained, for the most part, a somewhat rural one that was especially regional and celebrated around Lake Vänern throughout the 1800s. But you know about it, and chances are you haven’t spent a whole lot of time around Lake Vänern. I know I haven’t.

Luckily, students are surprisingly good bearers of traditions. They helped spread the holiday to Uppsala and Lund around the 1850s when they headed off to University. By the 1890s, Lucia had made its way to Stockholm with a little help from Skansen and became viewed as particularly “Swedish” and not just provincial by folks outside of Sweden. That's partly because Skansen was starting to be viewed as a place to maintain and preserve Swedishness (which gets super complicated and still is complicated today). By 1920, the holiday was a big deal and Swedes throughout the country began to celebrate. It was around this time that the stjärngossar became the dominant figure behind Lucia. For a while, there was some competition between the star boys, the baker, and the chimney sweep, but those hats must have given them the edge. In 1927, Stockholms Dagblad, a now-defunct newspaper, held a competition to crown Lucia and the tradition has continued to this day. Now, schools, cities, and, of course, Skansen, continue to crown a Lucia each year.

Today, a Lucia procession involves a Lucia walking in a white dress with red sash and a crown of light upon her head, singing. Tärnor (12 of them if you're aiming for a religious ceremony), dressed in white, sometimes wearing a sash, sometimes not, sometimes wearing a sort of wreath upon their heads, sometimes not. Stjärngossar, also dressed in white and wearing those cone hats, and sometimes even a tomte or two will follow behind. If you're really lucky and watching a bunch of kids do this, you might even see a pepparkaksgubbe or pepparkaksgumma. All the while, songs are sung, pepparkakor or lussebullar are handed out, coffee or glögg are drunk, and merriment is made.

Usually that crown of lights are electric lights. Usually. Sometimes, they are live candles and the brave soul underneath it has a towel draped over their head. You know, just in case.

It’s also tradition at this time of year to get upset if a, gasp, male is voted or wants to become Lucia. That’s when people start blah blah blahing about tradition and blah blah blah. First, never use tradition as an argument. Yes, you. Don’t do it. It’s a terrible argument. Traditions change. A lot. Second, there are plenty of examples of men playing the role of Lucia in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s. If a group of school kids vote a boy as Lucia, and said Lucia wants to be Lucia, let him. Don’t get frumpy if a male plays the role of Lucia.

Welcome to Sweden. And Italian Saints in Sweden.

P.S. This holiday also exists in the US. Kind of. It's celebrated in Swedish-American communities throughout the United States. There's probably one near you. Check it out if you can.

P.P.S. There are so very many sources to go to for more information about this. If you speak Swedish, just Ask Jeeves it. If you don’t, check out Wikipedia or Larry Danielson’s article “St. Lucia in Lindsborg, Kansas.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Nobel Prize Ceremony 2014

Tuesday night I pulled my suit out of the closet. Tuesday night I also noticed that my suit pants were covered in dust and dirt. Last time I wore my suit I decided it would be a good idea to run across the dance floor and slide feet-first between my cousin’s legs as he danced. Turns out it WAS a good idea. Unfortunately, it left me carefully dusting off my pants before Wednesday, when I would be attending the Nobel Prize ceremony.

Nobel Selfie #1. Note the confused stare
as if new technology frightens him.
After a careful dusting, my pants looked good as new. Or at least, good enough that no one would notice. And really, when you’re going to the Nobel ceremony, good enough is good enough. If you’re a guy at least. The prince’s fiancée is apparently taking flak for her dress. I’m guessing hers was at least clean.

Anyway, I went to the Nobel Prize ceremony yesterday. So that’s a thing that happened. Turns out that being an academic on fancy grants sometimes has perks.

We showed up at around 5pm. The ceremony was set to start at 5:30pm. We picked a door and waited in line for a bit. Apparently if you’re important enough to have two bodyguards with you, you’re also important enough to not wait in line and to not carry your own umbrella. Although, you’re not important enough for me to recognize who you are. So I moved to a different line, showed my ticket, scanned my ID, and bam. There I was. Rubbing elbows with fancy famous people.

That’s not true. The fancy famous part. I didn’t recognize a single famous person. In fact, not until I was seated and watched as the royal family walked in did I recognize anyone. Me and the Bernadottes, we go way back.

It became clear though who the students were, who the Nobel laureates were, and who would be attending the dinner afterwards. Dinner requires a white tie and tails. The ceremony did not. And medals are meant to be worn at events like this. Including your Nobel awards. I was just wishing I had planned ahead and brought along my third place medal from the Greeley Tri-Star Skills Dribble, Pass & Shoot Competition back in elementary school. Alas. My torso was unadorned by medals. This time.

A not-yet-filled stage waiting for smart people. And royalty.
We made our way to our seats at the top of the concert house; we sat and waited for the ceremony to begin. I had no idea what to expect. I had a program in front of me, but come on, there’s a lot that goes unsaid in those programs. When do we clap? When do we stand? When do we rush the stage like the joker at the ceremony in Oslo? You know, the usual. Luckily, the king took care of all that for us. When in doubt, do what the king does. A tried and true method for centuries.

We waited patiently as everyone took their seats. There was a buzz. The nervous talking and excitement that comes with experiencing something extreme, abnormal, different. There was a host of students in the row in front of me. Based on their dress, they looked to have been the lucky ones to score tickets to the dinner. The German student in front of me was very interested in the Japanese student to his left. Because I am awkward, I chose to eavesdrop instead of actually talk to the people sitting next to me. The conversation in front of me turned to folk costumes, because folk costumes are considered, along with tuxedos, to be appropriate dress for events like these. Our German friend was less interested in folk dress than he was in the low cut dress of the woman to his left. Eyes up, buddy, eyes up.

And then the lights dimmed and silence fell and the royal family entered. I think we stood. I don’t remember. I think there was music. But I don’t remember. I assume we did, because it seems like the kind of thing that would be expected of folks in the presence of royalty. It was all so strange. Kings and queens and princes and princesses. Their dresses and jewelry dazzled. Seriously. Dazzled. And glittered. And caught the light and threw it all the way up to the second-to-last row of the concert house. The royals took their seats. Backs straight, hands gently arranged in their laps, posture that would make my pudgy core cringe after a moment. And then the audience was seated. At least I think we actually sat down. I mean, I know I was sitting at this point. Of course, the audience seemed a bit less straight-backed, and there were at least twenty seats empty throughout the evening. But we were there. Then the speeches began.

We were welcomed to the event. We were reminded of the troubling times we live in. Of “strong social and environmental challenges, with anti-intellectual and xenophobic tendencies and with a military build-up coupled with ruthless nationalistic actions and obvious threats to peace.” (You can watch the whole thing here.) But the prizes awarded were in honor of Nobel’s vision—to honor the discoveries and inventions and literature that benefit people as a whole. We were reminded that education and research matters. That stories matter. That individuals matter. That actions matter. We were reminded of all of this as ten men and one woman sat on the stage waiting to be awarded for their work as professors and doctors and writers. It was a testament to education and the sciences and the humanities.

Patrick Modiano accepting his prize from a descendent
of a French Marshal named Jean-Baptiste. Seems fitting.
The speeches continued, each prize being singled out for their importance to society. The prize for physics was awarded first. It was a speech that opened with fairy tales and Lord of the Rings to explain the importance of the discovery. Turns out, the humanities are good for explaining the world around us. In fact, the humanities were well represented. Aside from the literature prize, we were treated to the humanities once more when Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? and Mio, My Son, were mentioned in the speech about economics (not an actual Nobel prize, by the way). Because I’m not a scientist, I quite appreciated the way in which the sciences were presented to us—through stories and literature.

Professor Anne L'Huillier, Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, asked the award winners to stand, and the first, Professor Isamu Akasaki (aged 85 in case you were wondering), made his way to the center of the stage. He met the king there, who placed the award in front of the professor, patted it, shook Professor Akasaki’s hand, and then bowed slightly to him. He backed away and then began to clap. So everyone else began to clap. The professor bowed, he turned and bowed to the Nobel committee, the clapping continued. And then he turned to the crowd and bowed once more. The clapping, having continued evenly since he had received his award became even louder. Reaching a sort of crescendo that wouldn’t be met again for the remainder of the evening. It was the only time this happened. It was the only time this happened because the king clapped too early. I know, he’s the king, but for the other ten laureates, he did not begin clapping until the award winners turned to the crowd and bowed.

The rest of the evening was a mix of English, Swedish, French, and German. Luckily, they provided us all with a translation of the speeches into English. I only clapped at the wrong time once. Luckily, I was not alone. Two old men on stage clapped at the wrong time too. Awkwardly looking at each other as they slowed their clap to a clasp as if they were just so darn pleased with the award. Then they looked at each other and shook their heads. They’d been caught.

At least they hadn’t been caught sleeping. Because it’s hot in there. Sweaty hot. And that heat and a whole lot of speeches can make you a bit sleepy. I’m not saying I fell asleep during the ceremony, I’m just saying that I wouldn’t judge anyone who did.

This account may sound dismissive. It shouldn’t. Or maybe it should. But it isn’t. This was kind of a surreal experience. A once-in-a-lifetime surreal experience. Surreal, because when it comes down to it, it’s an awards ceremony. Surreal because there was a king who everyone mimicked. He stood, we stood. He clapped, we clapped. He left, we left. Surreal because I was watching as one of the most prestigious awards in the sciences and literature was handed out as I sat in my dirty suit as if I belonged. It was all surreal. And something I won’t forget.

Welcome to Sweden. And tl;dr: Nobel Prize ceremonies are interesting and exotic to Americans.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Want to Grab Some Coffee?

Not a fika. Coffee. Want to grab some coffee?

I’ve written about fika before. I was but a young man then, so naïve. My opinions have changed a bit. Although my coffee drinking habits have not. As in, I don’t drink it. The bitterness reminds me of my elementary school music teacher who was just serving her time before retirement and her pension kicked in. On an unrelated note, I am a terrible musician.

You can talk to Swedes about how the word fika just can’t be translated. You can read about how it’s a way of life. You can be advised that it’s the safest way to make friends in Sweden. You can use it as a semi-date. You’ll be inundated with the truth that fika is a solely Swedish invention and one that defines a sense of Swedishness. That it’s anathema to your colleagues to miss the office fika for it is a cultural institution that must be preserved at all costs. That once you start regularly fika-ing you will have stayed in Sweden for too long. Or long enough to be Swedish.

Fine. We all have our own truths. But fika is not so simple.

For the uninitiated, fika is a thing here in Sweden. It’s like asking someone “want to grab some coffee?” But the Swedes are protesting having read that sentence. There’s so much more to it than that, they’ll say. It’s not just coffee, they’ll say. They’re right. The same way that “want to grab some coffee” in the US can mean:
  • I’m thirsty. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m hungry and want a baked good. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m lonely and need someone to talk to. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’ve missed you and want to catch up. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m horny and find you attractive but am incapable of asking you on a date and think that a cup of coffee will clearly lead to sex. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m pretentious and want to bestow upon you my encyclopedic knowledge of coffee. Want to grab some coffee? 
  • I’m interested in making you my friend. Want to grab some coffee? 
See? Lots of meaning in English, too.

The word can be used as a verb or a noun. There’s a bit of debate about the exact etymology, but it is generally accepted that the word is a form of back slang in which the word is, yup, you guessed it, spoken backwards. So kaffe, coffee, somehow became fika. Some letters were apparently rearranged. I’m not a linguist. Don’t judge me.

Usually, along with your coffee or tea (or hot chocolate if you know what’s good for you) you can add a baked good. This is, as far as I am concerned, the most redeeming quality of a fika. Because I love cardamom rolls. And cinnamon rolls.

Read those clickbait-y websites that give the top x reasons to move to Sweden or top x ways you know you’ve been in Sweden too long and you’ll find some funny truths. I read them against my better judgment. This is where I learn that Swedish men are tall, Swedish women are blonde, Swedes like to fish, they do this, they do that, and that they fika at work twice a day. Now don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by stereotypes and cultures and what that says about the world we live in. But, and here come some facts that may rock you to your very Swedish-loving core, the part of you that smells of cinnamon buns and sill, the part of you that bleeds snaps and stor starks: not every office has a daily fika. Let alone two. Not every Swede enjoys fika-ing. Not every fika is a turning point in your attempts to assimilate into this oh so foreign culture. What‽‽‽‽‽‽ (Look at all those interrobangs!) I know. Calm down.

I’ve worked in a few different office situations in Sweden. Never once did we have a planned daily fika time. Now, my few years as an adult in Sweden do not speak to the experiences of every person in Sweden. I’m aware of that. But three different jobs and the most I can say is that sometimes on Fridays at one of my jobs we got some baked goods in the afternoon. Usually only when someone was leaving the company, which happened quite a bit. Turnover was high.

Fika IS a thing. But it is not THE thing. Or ONE thing. It is performed in so many different ways or ignored in so many different ways. It can be used as a marker of identity—either inclusionary or exclusionary. It does not, however, mean you’ve made it, that you’re one of them. If only it were that simple.

The folklorist in me wants to see some sort of interesting public folklore project that crowd sources the fika experiences of Swedish people through pictures, video, and maybe some written accounts. The Swedish American in me wants to see the nuance that makes fika fascinating, not fifth on the list telling me that I’ve been in Sweden too long. The non-coffee drinker in me wants to see hot chocolate be embraced as an acceptable drink for 30-year olds.

But we can’t all have what we want. I've got fika plans next week anyway.

Welcome to Sweden. Want to grab some coffee? Or maybe a fika?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Swedish Election Season? Swedish Election Season. Again.

So there’s going to be another election in March of 2015. Which is unfortunate since there was just an election not too long ago. You may remember it because the racist Sverigedemokraterna ended up the third biggest party by garnering 13% of the country’s vote.

A coalition minority government was formed. A budget, which is necessary for the ruling coalition to, you know, rule, was voted down today. The government was unable to reach any agreement and Sverigedemokraterna were able to flex whatever racist muscles they wanted. They chose to flex their most racist one and have apparently decided to topple the government, force a new election, try to force immigration upon the people as the only issue of consequence, and sit back and watch as the remaining parties bicker and blame.

This is what can best be described as a high-stakes pissing contest with Sverigedemokraterna on the other side making the rules. And the wind is at their backs. Only one party wins in a pissing contest like that. The other side gets very, very wet.

Right now, the contestants are blaming each other. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, you’re probably convinced that it’s the other side’s fault. And it is. You’re all right. For once.

I don’t know how these things work. There hasn’t been a new election like this since 1958. I don’t know if this will galvanize voters, or leave them disgusted, disillusioned, and disinterested in actually voting. My concern is that this will only serve the interests of the racists. Look, they’ll say. Look how incapable the other parties are of ruling. Look at what they made us do. Look at how they overlook us. Look how they ignore our questions and concerns. Look at their accusations of racism just because we want to limit immigration. Look, they’ll say.

And people will look. And they’ll come out and they’ll vote. And what was once 13% will only rise. Because what they’re looking at is easily digestible fear mongering spewed from heads on a suit rather than heads on a uniform. And even though there are no real solutions there, they look and sound reasonable to far too many. And that scares me.

Maybe this time Alliansen, the more conservative coalition, will win. It doesn’t matter. Because Sverigedemokraterna will do the same thing. They’ve already said they’ll do the same thing. They won’t pass the budget unless the ruling coalitions bow to their demands on immigration. And we’ll be right back where we are today. With no government and a bunch of racists sitting back watching and counting their new votes.

I don’t know how these things work. But I know that the other parties better get their act together, talk, negotiate, find common ground, and stop pissing into the wind. Because waiting for the wind to shift is too risky. And we’re all getting wet in the process.

Welcome to Sweden. And electoral chaos.