Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Swedish Word of the Day: Kattfan

When I was in college, I went to Sweden for a summer. I found myself on a farm, mucking horse stalls, baling hay for a little while, and also working part-time installing ventilation systems and part-time at a car-parts store. I do not like horses. I am not a cowboy. I do not know anything about ventilation systems. And I take my car to a mechanic for nearly everything. So clearly, I was pretty successful in all of my summer endeavors. But despite all those different experiences, what sticks out most is waking up one morning. That’s because I woke up to a nightmare. There was a cat, sitting in my closet on a pile of my clothes, disemboweling a hare. Fun fact: the noise of a cat tearing into a hare is loud enough to wake a person up.

When I realized what was happening, I ran downstairs to grab a shovel. Not to kill the cat, but to shovel up the dead remains of a hare. By the time I got back to the scene of the crime, the cat had dragged the hare around two entire rooms, leaving blood and remains everywhere. It was like a miniature murder scene. I cleaned up after the cat, cursing, and vowing to avoid any dealings with cats again. Because one incident is enough. ‘Twas not to be.

I returned to Oregon to find that my roommates had adopted a cat. A cat that enjoyed peeing in my room, pooping on my bathroom rug, and generally screaming at me. But this was years ago. Nearly ten years ago, in fact. Scars heal. Memories fade. That sort of thing. Yet here I am, rehashing the trauma inflicted upon me by Lucifer’s handmaidens.

That’s because my girlfriend has cats. Two of them. I do not like cats. For several reasons, including those outlined above. A few days ago, those cats moved out to Wisconsin with AJR. By car. We were part of a small caravan moving across the country. We drove almost a thousand miles with two cats in the car. We also spent one night in a hotel with two cats. I tell cat-owners this and they shake their head with a knowing smile. A knowing smile that is full of empathy, sympathy, pity, even trauma. Smiles can say a lot.

That’s before I tell them that I was attacked by a cat at 3am. It dug its demon claws into my toes, while trying to communicate with its banshee brothers through a wide-mouthed mawing. I buried my head in the pillow and my feet in the sheets in hopes of trying to sleep. Or at least in hopes of keeping my toes in tact and not stabbing pencils into my ears to dampen the noise. Unfortunately, it was at this point that the cat decided it was best to begin parading back and forth across my head as it screamed the scream of a thousand spawns of Satan. For an hour. Around 4:00, I began plotting my revenge. By 4:30, I was on the verge of tears. By 5:00, I was debating on packing everything into the car, cats included, and driving the rest of the way to Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the aforementioned caravan meant we were stuck. Because if there’s one thing I learned from The Oregon Trail it’s that you never leave your caravan behind. That’s how folks die of dysentery. Or starvation because no one brought back 200 pounds of meat.

Eventually, AJR locked the cats into the bathroom. With the air conditioning cranked up their screams were muffled and, for a few sweet hours, I slept the sleep of a drunken baby. But Bruce Springsteen serenaded me just a couple of hours later, and it was time to continue our drive westward. My eyes burned. My body ached. My ears echoed. My toes were nervous. Suddenly, the zombie-like state of my friends who have young children made sense. A fitful sleep punctuated by screaming does not a rested person make. At least a cat can be locked in a bathroom with some food, water, and a litter box. Pretty sure that constitutes neglect if you replace the cat with a baby.

Welcome to Swedish America. And kattfan. Times two.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Midsommar (Midsummer)

Size doesn't matter. 
Every June, Swedes throughout the world gather around a large, green pole and dance and sing and drink. They pretend to be frogs, they pretend to be little old ladies, they pretend to wash clothes and go to church. And they hold hands and skip and dance around the Midsummer pole. Then they eat herring, drink akvavit while singing, hide from the rain, maybe go for a midnight skinny dip in the closest body of water, and if they’re really fulfilling stereotypes, they have sex. All this to celebrate the longest day of the year. Or the shortest night of the year. I suppose it depends on your perspective.

Just like so many of the other Swedish holidays, the big day is not the actual day, it’s the eve. Midsommarafton. Midsummer Eve. Unlike Shakespeare, who was dreaming on the actual night of Midsummer, the Swedes like to get an early start. It might be because of all those supernatural beings hanging out that night. If you’ve been paying attention to the Swedish holidays, you’ve probably noticed a theme. Eves and evils. Or at least eves and supernatural beings. But that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The holiday has been around for a while—at least since the 1500s and probably much earlier than that. Midsummer used to be celebrated on June 24, which happens to be John the Baptist’s feast day. That meant that Midsummer Eve was always June 23rd. But back in 1953, that changed. The Swedish government decided that Midsummer Eve would always fall on a Friday, which means that Midsummer in Sweden can be any day between June 20 and June 26. That’s good for Swedes. Mostly because it ensures that there is no chance that the holiday will fall on a Saturday or Sunday leaving someone with one less day off from work.

Moving it to a Friday also means folks have a couple of days to recover. Because Midsummer is a drinking holiday. In 2014, according to Systembolaget’s sales statistics, over one million customers came in on the Thursday before Midsummer Eve. And the week of Midsummer? Over 2.5 million. Keep in mind that Midsummer week is only four days long because Systembolaget is closed Friday and Saturday due to the holiday and always closed on Sundays. Those 2.5 million customers bought over 14 million liters of alcohol in one form or another. Sweden has a population of just under 10 million. Like I said, Midsummer is a drinking holiday.

But, thanks to some pretty solid alcohol problems in Sweden in the late 1800s and early 1900s, drinking akvavit with a meal became more common. The idea being, of course, that a little food in your stomach will do you good. Luckily, a lot of those 14 million liters are consumed at dinner. Your typical Midsummer menu will include five things. Only three of those are foods. Since the early 1900s folks have been eating herring and potatoes for the meal; strawberries for dessert. Beer and akvavit have wet many a whistle in Sweden. Drinking songs will most likely break out, the classic being “Helan Går.” While the Midsummer menu might be relatively new, “Helan Går” has been around since at least 1845 and, according to ethnologist Mats Rehnberg, much earlier. Folklorist Christina Mattsson points out that August Strindberg even tried convincing people that it should be viewed with the same reverence as the Swedish national anthem. For some folks, that’s probably rings true today.

This holiday isn’t just about drinking though. There’s a big pole standing erect in the middle of the celebration. It’s called either the Midsommarstång, Midsummer pole, or the Majstång, Maypole. And it has nothing to do with the month of May. At least not in Swedish. Maja as a verb means to decorate with green leaves. And once that pole is dressed up in green leaves, people dance around it. Sometimes they dance traditional folk dances in their traditional folk costumes and sing traditional folk songs. Sometimes they pretend to be frogs and hop around. Sometimes they pretend to be washing their clothes every day of the week before heading to church on Sunday. Because people like to dance and sing and celebrate and pretend they are someone else.

Local folk dance enthusiasts cutting a rug. Or a wooden stage.  
That pole, despite what remains of my 13-year old self says, is not phallic according to Jonas Engman over at the Nordic Museum. Instead, the fact that we see it as phallic is more a comment on the way folks saw the world back in the late 1800s. I blame Freud. Of course, the idea has stuck around. Get your mind out of the gutter, is the lesson here. Sometimes a tree is just a tree. Not a penis. And sometimes a big, green pole with hoops to the left and right is just a big, green pole with hoops to the left and right. Not a penis. It might be celebrating the changing of the seasons, the greening of the pastures, the growing of the crops. It might be some sort of reference to pagan beliefs in sacred trees. It might be symbolic of the world axis. Maybe folks just needed something to dance around.

Grow up. It's not a penis.
Picture from Bohusläns museum via DigitaltMuseum.se
"Midsommardans vid Badhuset, Lysekil" by Hugo Hallgren.
But just because the Midsummer pole is not a penis, doesn’t mean there can’t be some sexy thoughts. Or at least marriage thoughts. Because there are so many supernatural beings out and about on Midsummer, it’s a good time to look into the future. One way of doing that is to place a bunch of flowers under your pillow. Usually it is seven or nine different types. Or sometimes it’s the handpicked wreath of flowers that you’ve worn atop your head all night. Either way, those flowers, if placed under your pillow at night, will help you to dream about the person you will spend the rest of your life with. No word on whether or not this is a nightmare.

If you are suffering from nightmares, or just suffering from some sort of health problem, there are plenty of powerful plants to collect. But maybe you’re tired of tramping through fields and meadows and forests trying to cure what ails ya. Have no fear. On Midsummer Eve, you can strip down and roll around in the Midsummer dew to cure your ailments. Without even meaning to, many Swedes still today adhere to this timeless tradition.

Midsummer has become one of those quintessential Swedish holidays. It’s the stuff of stereotypes and movies and beer commercials. It’s a time of tradition, but traditions that have changed dramatically over the last 500 years. Those traditions are changing today and will continue to change tomorrow. They always change. Sometimes those changes are for the better if it means not having to see Grandpa Sven rolling around naked in the grass trying to fix his creaky hip.

Regardless of those changes, for many, Midsummer is a marker of Swedishness. A time to identify as Swedish, whatever that means. For others, it’s a time to identify as part of a family or of a group of friends. Still others will simply eat some herring, a potato or two, and take a shot of akvavit and call it a day. And then there are plenty who don’t do a damn thing. Midsummer Eve is just another Friday. Like all holidays, there is no right way to celebrate, there is only your way.

Welcome to Sweden. And the land of the midsummer sun.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Oh, the Places You’ll Go. In Sweden.

Traditions come in many forms and they are constantly changing. They’re the foods we eat at Christmas and the clothes we wear at weddings and the songs we sing at sporting events. They’re also the rituals that we celebrate to acknowledge the passage of time or the moving from one stage of life to the next. And every year around the beginning of June, the streets of Stockholm are filled with tradition. And by tradition I mean honking horns, yelling teenagers, and public intoxication.

Freedom... to have to be an adult.
By Berit Abrahamsson
(Katedralskolan/Berit Abrahamsson)
GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Teenagers can be seen in various stages of undress, covered in beer, cider, and, for those with a little extra cash, champagne. But this is Sweden during the summer, so there is also rosé. Lots and lots of rosé. That rosé (and cider and beer and champagne) usually ends up being poured out, sprayed on, and drunk by students who are wearing fancy white dresses, nice suits, rain ponchos, swimming suits, costumes, overalls, or, sometimes, just their birthday suits. But there is one constant—the white graduation caps.

That’s because the beginning of June marks high school graduation. This year, most of Stockholm will be graduating sometime between June 2 and June 16. They’ll come running out of the doors of their high school into a pack of family and friends. And yes, literally running. The women usually wearing white dresses, the men usually in dark suits, their little white graduation caps perched perilously on their heads.

They’ll be met by their parents, who are usually holding embarrassing or cute pictures blown-up into massive poster-sized signs. In fact, this tradition is so strong that a friend with a two-year old recently told me he had already begun picking out embarrassing photos to use for his son’s graduation, which should be occurring sometime around 2032.

Look at that giant face staring right back at you. Parents, am I right?
By Einarspetz (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons 
So, to celebrate freedom, high school students will stand, pass out, and try to destroy their livers before leaving their awkward teen years behind them all while being driven around in the beds of trucks. It’s called a studentflak. The more rural folks will be staring at the backend of a tractor as they party in a flatbed trailer. You’ll see them driving around town, birch branches (remember those from Easter?) decorating the corners of the trailer. Banners with some identifying information about the class, the school, the line of study, will hang from the sides. Sometimes, those banners will attempt to be funny. Most of the time, they will fail. Turns out inside jokes are usually only funny to the insiders. Some will even set up entire speaker systems and blare pop music for all the world to hear. Some of the students even decide to take an impromptu bath in the local fountains. It’s an impressive display of celebration and one that no American graduation party can even pretend to compete with. It’s also quite the shock to see in action.

Yup. Look at those graduates carpe-ing the diem.
Picture by JET.
Tourists, expecting the quiet paradise that a Swedish summer promises, are instead met by bedlam contained to the bed of a truck. Those tourists will stop on the side of the road. They’ll stare. They’ll take confused pictures. And then they’ll get angry as that one kid from high school that no one really likes but who is fun at parties sprays cheap beer at the unsuspecting tourists.

That spraying of beer has resulted in some communities in Sweden prohibiting drinking on the trailers. The fact that students aren’t technically old enough to buy alcohol from the state-owned Systembolaget but still have enough beer to fill a small pool doesn’t seem to get much thought. But while alcohol is prohibited by some communities, the police actually re-write the rules for a couple of weeks every year. That’s because, technically, riding in the back of a trailer is very illegal in Sweden.

The police and the Swedish Transport Agency, Transportstyrelsen, even have pages on their website outlining the rules of the studentflak. Many of these rules have been put into place recently, especially after last year’s festivities when at least 12 different serious accidents occurred around the country. One kid managed to get henself (I need a gender-neutral pronoun in English) squeezed between two trucks. Another was knocked off the trailer by a bridge as the truck drove under said bridge. If it weren’t so serious, it’d be funny. Like some sort of Wile E. Coyote sketch.

But this is serious stuff. High school is over. Now it’s more school. Or work. Or unemployment. But it’s not high school. And that’s worth celebrating with some long-standing traditions.

Welcome to Sweden. And the places you’ll go.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Kristi himmelsfärdsdag (Feast of the Ascension)

Wednesday was a half-day. Thursday was a holiday. Friday was a squeeze day. And then the weekend came. Again. For those of you scoring at home, that’s the third week of holidays in Sweden since April 1. What is the occasion, you might ask. What could keep the Swedes from working a full week? Christ. Christ can keep Swedes from working a full week.

There he is, Mr. Jesus Christ.
There he is, your ideal.
The dream of nine million Swedes who are more than secular can come true in Stockholm city.
For he may turn out to be the King of humanity.
Picture from Nordiska museet via DigitaltMuseum.se "Väggbonad" by Anders Eriksson is licensed under CC BY 3.0 SE
Thursday was Kristi himmelsfärdsdag. Feast of the Ascension. Forty days after Easter. The celebrations are somewhat subdued. Or non-existent. I suppose people head out to their cabins again. They were out there on Easter weekend, opening them up and airing them out. Then May 1 rolled around and they headed out there again to maybe do some gardening or some drinking. Then Christ headed up to Heaven and Swedes headed out to the country again. To drink and maybe put their boats in the water. It’s a slow progression towards summer. These holidays don’t necessarily serve much of a religious purpose anymore. Instead, they are markers of the passage of the year and the emergence from the darkness. They are also a marker of leisure since, despite what you might believe, not all Swedes own little red cabins in the woods next to a lake where they dock their boat.

Traditionally, and remember, traditions change. Constantly. We are always making new traditions, discarding old ones, and reworking the ones we keep. But traditionally, Kristi himmelsfärdsdag included fire. Obviously. This was mostly in western Sweden and in Skåne, where the Swedes were working to scare away wolves. I assume the fires in all the previous holidays like Valborg had scared away the witches, but those wolves are pesky buggers.

But fires are old hat in Swedish holidays. There were more exciting things afoot. Or a-arm. This was the time of year when women were finally allowed to wear short sleeves. Seriously. That’s because it was often seen as the start of summer. Summer is relative, I suppose, because it is still damn cold in Stockholm this holiday weekend.

It was also a day for young men and women of the town to meet in front of the church without supervision from their parents. Seriously. Strangely enough, there was always a rash of teenagers giving birth in January and February of the next year. Probably just a coincidence. And probably something I just made up. Probably.

For the nature lovers, it was also a time to head out and kill baby foxes. Seriously. Because it was the first day of summer, mamma foxes came out to sleep in the sun with her babies, leaving them exposed to sneaky Swedes who wanted to catch them.

If you’d rather look at animals than kill them, this was also a big day for bird watching. Early in the morning, in southern and central Sweden, folks would get up to go look for the cuckoo and listen to its call. This was known as the gökotta. Gök being the common cuckoo.

While you might not find young men and women meeting in front of the church on Kristi himmelsfärdsdag, you will definitely be able to find birdwatchers heading out early on Thursday morning. I slept in.

On a completely related not, Nordiska museet is a wonderful museum with everything you could ever want to know about Swedish traditions. Their website gives amazing descriptions of many of the Swedish holidays. I borrowed liberally from them and you can too! Check out their website and their Årets dagar section. That effusive praise being said, one thing they don’t mention is the very real threat that Kristi himmelsfärdsdag faced about 20 or 30 years ago.

It turns out that back in the ‘90s, the Swedish government, with help from a committee of parliamentarians, began looking into a change to Swedish holidays. There was a movement to celebrate June 6 as the National Day of Sweden. This movement had been around for a while, but gained steam in the ‘90s. Of course, while Swedes love days off, the powers that be determined there would be economic consequences to all those days off. But the powers that be also really wanted that National Day. Easy! Just switch out an existing holiday for the new one.

There were a few holidays on the chopping blocks: May 1, the Feast of the Ascension, Whit Monday, and the Epiphany. A quick look at that list would suggest Sweden is a deeply religious country. And by religious, I mean Christian. It is not. At least, not by church attendance standards or actual belief in God standards. But religious holiday standards? Praise the Lord!

Finally in 2005, when the National Day of Sweden became an official public holiday, Whit Monday or Annandag pingst, was no more. Kristi himmelsfärdsdag survived and Swedes continued to take a Thursday off (and sometimes a Wednesday and a Friday for good measure) to celebrate a religious figure that few actually worship. Traditions are weird.

Welcome to Sweden. Jesus would be proud.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bad Moon Rising

Back when the nights were long and the temperature was still in the single digits, I went to dinner with a good friend and met her husband for the first time. He’s a nice guy, a creative guy, a writer and an artist and a cook. And, as it so often does, Sweden came up. The weird things about Sweden at least. We talked about all of those little things that Swedes do that make them so very Swedish. Like the silence on the subways. Like the shoes off in the home. Like the well-fitting clothes. Of course, those clothes that fit so well can sometimes fit a little bit too well. Especially when those clothes are tights.

I don’t wear tights too often. I’ve got a pair for those cold winter days and for skiing. I’ve even got a pair of compression shorts that I used to wear when I was playing sports that actually involved running and jumping. They’re basically the male version of a sports bra. Keeps stuff in place. Which, obviously, was something you wanted to know. Anyway, not wearing tights in this country seems akin to clubbing baby koalas for sport. You just don’t do it.

During the winter, men run through the streets of Stockholm. They’ve perfected the art of breathing without freezing their lungs. They look stylish doing it, having spent more on their workout clothes than I do on rent. But those clothes are sparse as nary a piece of substantial clothing protects them from the elements. Puffs of air rhythmically escape from their half-opened mouths. Their black tights the only thing separating their man-bits from permanent shrinkage in the northern climate. But the darkness gives them cover as they slip and slide their way to a better beach body. Or something like that.

Then the summer comes. The days get longer. Suddenly, the sun peeks out from beneath the horizon. Along with the sun, out comes the bike. It is, by far, the giddiest time of the year here in Sweden. But the tights stay. Those black tights adorn the men who run wild in the streets. Now, the lack of clothing makes some sense. It gets hot running and biking through town.

Unfortunately, I was faced with the reality of men in black tights just the other day. It was late afternoon, the shadows were getting longer, but it was that bright sun that makes coming home from a day at the library just a little bit better. I walked home instead of taking the bus. It felt good.

Having heard one too many angry bike bells behind me, I was walking in the correct lane. I could hear the bikers coming up behind me. Legs cranking. Wheels turning. Heavy breathing. They passed me on the uphill side of what constitutes a hill in this very flat city. They were standing, really using their leverage to push through and pass me. And that’s when the sun flashed just right. Or just wrong. Their tights were too tight. The sun was too bright. The black was too light. Staring back at me were two man asses. Those tights had been reduced to transparent pieces of plastic revealing the full moon on the early evening horizon.

I’m not judging. Ok, I’m kind of judging. I’m just not into seeing your sweaty ass glistening in the Swedish sun. Want to wear tights? Fine. Buy a pair thick enough to give you the support you need and the peace of mind I need.

Welcome to Sweden. And men, manly men, men in tights.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fika Times Four

Fika. I have written that word more times than I care to admit. And beaten several dead horses with it. But it’s a thing here. Not always, but it’s definitely a thing. And that thing became painfully obvious last week for me while attending a conference/workshop in northern Sweden. I was literally in pain.

Here’s why:
Tuesday, May 5
13.00–13.30: Lunch
13.30–15.00: Introduction
15.00–15.30: Fika
15.30–17.00: Seminar 1
17.30: Dinner

Wednesday, May 6
4.00–9.00: Breakfast
9.00–10.30: Seminar 2
10.30–11.00: Fika
11.00–12.30: Seminar 3
12.30–13.30: Lunch
13.30–15.00: Seminar 4
15.00–15.30: Fika
15.30–17.00: Sightseeing
17.30: Dinner

Thursday, May 7
4.00–9.00: Breakfast
9.00–10.00: Wrap-up
10.00–10.15: Fika
10.15–11.00: Group evaluation
11.00–11.45: Lunch
11.45: Departure

I seriously considered stopping the post right here. After that schedule. Just letting the schedule speak for itself. Letting you work your way through the time intervals. The hour and a half between breakfast and the first fika. The hour and a half between the first fika and lunch. The hour and a half between lunch and the second fika. The hour and a half between the second fika and dinner. Or maybe letting you realize on your own that on Thursday, breakfast ended at nine. And fika was a fifteen-minute affair beginning at ten. And then lunch began at eleven. I seriously considered stopping the post right there. After that schedule. But I clearly did not.

Let me say that the workshop was lovely. It was fun. It was nice to meet new people. It was a wonderful experience. Plus, I got to take a picture of this amazing sign.

I've heard that Swedish is the only language that doesn't use the Finnish
word "sauna." Like a terrible academic, I'm not going to check that claim.
Luckily, much better academics than me have saved me from a simple Google
search. Bastu=badstue in Norwegian. Mystery solved.
Couple the sauna sign with all of those fikas and it all felt very Swedish. So Swedish that even the Swedes started groaning by the time Thursday rolled around. Which made me feel a bit better. Mostly because I was doing a bit of groaning myself.

Turns out, I have a problem. If you put food in front of me, I will eat it. And when that food is put in front of me at regular intervals five times a day, I will eat at regular intervals five times a day. It also turns out that when the food that is put in front of me involves a lot of baked goods, I will feel like Joey Chestnut on July 5th.

By the time I came home, my body was convinced that it needed to eat every hour and a half. It felt like I was 16 again, except, you know, out of shape. In other, completely unrelated news, I went for a run on Sunday.

Welcome to Sweden. And four fikas in forty-seven hours.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sweden’s Finest – Policing the Police

On April 22, 2015, four Swedish police officers vacationing in New York City broke up a fight on a subway. They were lauded for their humane treatment of the men who were fighting. They asked how they were doing, were they ok. American media took this and ran with it. In the aftermath of death (murder) after death (murder) after death (murder) at the hands of American police officers, people are starting, just starting, to take note. There were cute comments suggesting that maybe the Swedish police should be training American police officers. Because they were so humane. So nice.

Maybe. You are, by all accounts, less likely to die after interactions with a Swedish police officer. But that’s a pretty low bar. Because there are still deep-seated issues with the Swedish police force as the videos below will demonstrate. Just a heads up, some of them are rough to watch. That being said, these four officers dealt with a situation in a way that, yes, they and the people who trained them should be proud of.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. It's been distressing to see Sweden held up as an example in this case because of the actions of four individuals, which ignores any systemic issues that may exist in Swedish policing. Here are three examples of why that is:

On April 30, 2015 (that’s eight days after the incident in New York City), an unmarked police car drove straight into a crowd of students partying at Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm. You can watch that video here. Apparently there was a fight and the police were on their way to save the day. The police officer driving initially claimed that they car couldn’t stop. That claim resulted in four people being taken to the hospital. Now the police are blaming it on human error. Hit the brake and the gas at the same time. I did that once. When I was 15 and had been driving for less than six months.

According to Aftonbladet, there are plans to press charges because of the fight. Of course, that’s where it gets a little awkward. Towe Hägg, from Stockholm Police says that “Men vi har inte hittat någon som är skadad så vi har inga uppgifter på vem som har bråkat.” “But we haven’t found anyone that is hurt so we don’t have any information about who was fighting.” Oh Towe. Towe, Towe, Towe. There are four people that were hurt so badly that they were taken to the hospital. Because a police officer ran into them with a car. Perhaps you should be pressing charges against the driver?

February 6, 2015, two young boys were riding the subway in Malmö without paying. A guard caught them, tackled them to the ground, and slammed the youngest boys head against the floor as he covered the boy’s mouth. It's important to note that this was not the police. However, the Malmö police initially refused to investigate. It took a public outcry and a video being published for the police to do anything.

Two months later, on April 20, 2015, no charges were filed.

There are plenty of examples of overzealous policing. Overzealous is such a handy euphemism for over-militarized police having their way with people. Like the two anti-Nazi protestors I saw felled by a police baton as they turned to run. A baton to the back. But the example that is all too reminiscent of what has happened in the US lately, especially in Ferguson, Missouri, happened a couple of years ago.

May 13, 2013, a man was shot in the face by Swedish police in the Stockholm suburb of Husby. He died on the scene. That was around 8:50 in the evening after police were called to the apartment. The man had been drinking and threatened a guard at a bar with a knife. Then he went home. And that’s when the police showed up. After some negotiations that went nowhere, they stormed the home and killed the man with his wife in the apartment. It’s important to note that the police assumed she was being threatened by the man. She says she wasn’t. His body was taken away in a hearse around 2am. About five hours after he was killed.

Protests followed. Strong ones. Protests that spread to other communities, especially other communities with larger immigrant populations like Husby. Those protests were against the shooting, the killing, the man being left dead for hours in his apartment. They were against the over policing and the situation and the poverty, the segregation, the systemic issues that people lived under every day. And just like the protests in the United States, they were condemned for being violent and destructive. But it was the police who killed a man. The protestors did not kill anyone. They did nothing that could not be repaired. There was an investigation. No crime or misconduct was committed. That was appealed by the widow and her lawyer. There was another investigation. On July 1, 2014, over a year after the shooting, the investigating body decided the police officer had shot a man in the face in self-defense. Case closed.

Let me say this explicitly. Not all Swedish police are like this. Not even all American police. Not even close. #NotAllPolice. Or something like that. Got it. They do a job I do not want to do and make decisions I am not willing to make. That does not mean they are above reprieve or even above questioning. In fact, there's an argument to be made that they are simply a tool in a much larger structural problem. Either way, the Swedish police are not leaving a trail of dead young men and women behind them. Since 2003, Swedish police forces have only killed eight people. And it’s sad to say, but only eight people is a good thing, especially compared to the US. Where hundreds are killed by police every single year.

Again. #NotAllPolice. Still got it. In fact, I've had good interactions with the police here. That’s not the point, though. To blindly accept that the police are always the good guys, always right, that leads to some scary assumptions that ignores any potential systemic issues that should be addressed and solved. That doesn’t mean for a second that every single police officer is going to shoot a 69-year old man in the head and leave his body in the apartment for hours. It doesn’t mean that every single police officer is a racist. Or a sexist. Or a murderer. Or corrupt. Or whatever other adjective you can come up with. It just means that law enforcement is a branch of civil service that, just like all branches, should be watched over by the very people who are being policed. So the policed become the police. If only for a while and if only to improve the system, both the policing system and the larger system in which we all live and die.

Welcome to Sweden. And a low bar of policing.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Valborg (Walpurgis Night)

I would totally bottle the smell of campfire and use it as cologne. Unfortunately, I’m not a chemist. Or Kramer. Luckily this weekend was Valborgsmässoafton here in Sweden, which means that there were bonfires lit throughout the country. It also means that I don’t need to bottle the smell. For now. Instead, I just haven’t washed my clothes in four days. Being an adult is the best.

You can almost smell it, can't you? Breathe deep. Smells nice.
Valborgsmässoafton, or more commonly Valborg, is another one of those Swedish eve traditions. Remember Christmas Eve? Easter Eve? Midsummer Eve? Valborg Eve is April 30. It’s usually celebrated by setting giant bonfires, drinking too much, and sometimes shooting off fireworks. You may be surprised to know that this is a pretty exciting holiday for students. It might have something to do with the fire, explosives, and alcohol.

The history of Valborg is a tricky one. It’s been around for a long time. Medieval long time. It came to Sweden via Germany. Probably. Although, there could also be ties to Beltane, an Irish tradition that was being written about when Vikings were still harassing those poor island folk. Although it was probably celebrated long before the Irish had converted and the Vikings started giving them a hard time. I’m not a medievalist so will leave that to someone else to figure out the connections, if there are any.

Let’s stick with the Germany story for right now. Of course, even that story is a bit tricky. The eve of May 1 was one of those nights where the witches were out in full force. Just like the Swedish witches who headed to Blåkulla to party with the Devil, the German witches headed to Brocken to do the same. The Germans waited for better weather though and flew off on the night of April 30. The Swedes were a little earlier and headed out on Holy Thursday. Of course, everyone knows that the best way to scare away witches is to start large bonfires and maybe shoot guns into the air.

But the Catholic Church doesn't like witches and the Devil. Witches are in league with the Devil and we can’t be having that. Churches liked to remind people of that evil consort by painting witches and Devils on the walls and ceilings. There are still plenty of examples of these paintings in medieval churches throughout Scandinavia. Anyway, it just so happens that Saint Walpurga was canonized on May 1 around 870. She’d been dead for about 100 years at this point, but miracles are hard to make happen so it took her a while to be recognized.

May 1 is a handy day though. It had long been an important day in plenty of medieval towns and cities that was usually celebrated with a party the night before. And because it was an important day already and now also the day of a saint’s canonization, it became a lot easier to smush those pagan beliefs together with those Catholic beliefs and pretend all along that we’re just a nice Christian folk doing nice Christian things for a nice Christian God.

By the time it came to Sweden from Germany, it was Christian-y and most likely brought with it the bonfires. Those bonfires are useful because they help scare away evil and protect the Swedish livestock. It’s right around this time of year that livestock is let back out to pasture so it seems like a good time to make sure those cows are healthy, happy, and wolf- and witch-free.

Just a little reminder to all of the witches out there. Swedes will burn you. 
But even if you don’t have any cows itching to frolic in the spring grass, bonfires can come in handy—by burning all that crap you’ve collected over the past year, obviously. Maybe that wooden chair that Uncle Sven broke at Christmas? Or how about all the branches, leaves, and felled trees that are cluttering your farmland? Burn ‘em.

Uncle Sven probably broke those pallets too. He's such a clutz.
Finally, because traditions are difficult to trace and always changing, here’s one more theory about the bonfires. Down south in what was once Denmark, young Skåningar ran around honoring the farmers. They were keeping people fed, I suppose. To do this though, they had to call all the farmers into town. That’s what the churchbells are for, of course. Turns out the churches, or at least the towns, got tired of those ringing bells and put a stop to the clanging of the bells for that purpose. Those DanoSwedes were crafty ones though. Instead of bells they used fire. Big bonfires are visible from quite a ways away and served the same purpose drawing the farmers to the flame like a moth to a, well, to a flame.

Nowadays, it’s usually local community groups organizing the bonfires. Sometimes the municipality. Sometimes a local service organization. It's a kid-friendly, family event. I even saw attempts at s'more making this year. Attempts. Often the bonfire is used as a fundraising activity. School classes will be selling hotdogs to raise money for their class trip, for example. It’s a good way to get the students interested in the holiday early. And in a much more innocent way. Because once they hit high school, the holiday becomes an excuse to start drinking.

Those are some s'more making coals right there. Too bad the Swedish
children had long since burned their marshmallows in the angry
flames of the bonfire. Rookies.
Universities throughout the country are hotbeds of Valborg activities. Uppsala is known far and wide for its celebrations. In 2015, the Uppsala police expected 100 000 people to visit the town for the celebrations. On a good day, Uppsala has a population of about 140 000. That’s a whole lot of people for one town to swallow. Students come out in full force wearing their white student caps ready to eat, drink, and make merry. And by merry I mean drink themselves to oblivion while singing, dancing, and maybe rafting down the tiny little Fyris River in Uppsala.

Interestingly enough, the holiday’s reputation for being a drinking holiday (let’s be honest here though, all holidays in Sweden are drinking holidays) is, according to Nordiska museet, tied to the working class of the 1800s. Alcoholism was a serious issue for many of the working class and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the labor movement and the temperance movement were strongly connected here in Sweden. That Valborgsmässoafton falls the night before May Day, the International Workers' Day, is a handy coincidence.

While the holiday used to be dominated by university and college students way back in the 1800s and early 1900s, that has begun to change. Today you’ll find high school students wearing their white student caps, dressed for spring despite the cold weather, drinking rosé in outdoor cafés. It’s like looking back in time, seeing all of the Stureplan brats when they were just brats minus the Stureplan.

Thumbs up from the high school student trying to walk
into a bar with a Systembolaget bag full of booze.
And while traditions change, bonfires do not. They're still great for cleaning, scaring away witches, and making me smell delicious. And that's worth drinking to.

Welcome to Sweden. And yet another pagan/Christian/secular Swedish holiday.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Stockholm's May Day Marches

My grandma used to say that everyone should be a communist once in their life. So maybe that's why I spent my day running around to five different rallies on May 1. May Day. International Workers' Day. Labour Day. That's labour with a “u,” because in the US, Labor Day, with an “o,” is on the first Monday of September. But not here. Not in Europe. Not in Sweden.

Or maybe I ran around all day because of my research. Because I am here in Stockholm conducting research for my dissertation, I convinced myself that going out and trying to photograph as many May Day celebrations as possible would be an important cultural experience and one that would be relevant to my work. My research focuses on Swedish women immigrants to the United States and the way they created a sense of identity by writing about, among other things, work and the labor movement. I think. I think that's what my dissertation about. Research is hard.

Anyway, the main person in my dissertation, a woman by the name of Signe Aurell, was an IWW member and a poet. She also translated songs by Joe Hill from English into Swedish. Which is interesting, because Joe Hill was actually Swedish. He started out as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, was born in Gävle, and headed over to the US in 1902. In 1915, he was executed (most likely wrongly) in Utah. He's credited with saying "Don't mourn. Organize!" He did say that. Kind of. But that phrase has been translated into Swedish. In fact, it's been translated with a little artistic license by plenty of people. Including Signe Aurell. So you'll find it in Swedish as "Sörj inte. Organisera!" Or even "Sörj ej. Organisera!"

And organize the Swedes did. And because of that organization, we're going to try something different today. A photo journey of May 1, 2015, in Stockholm, Sweden. I managed to see bits and pieces of rallies held by Feministiskt initiativ, Kommunistiska Partiet, Socialdemokraterna/LO, Syndikalisterna, and Vänsterpartiet.

We'll start at the beginning. It's as good a place as any to start. So first up, the Syndicalists. They started the day by marching down Kungsgatan. There were probably a thousand or so people in the crowd. Much younger than the others, these folks were loud.

If only I had timed it a little bit better, that black car would
have been right next to the red car. Just like the syndicalist
flag. Maybe next time.
They were on their way to Stortorget in Gamla Stan. Stortorget is the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath where 82(ish) of Sweden's more prominent male citizens were beheaded by a Danish king in 1520. It was an interesting choice of venue, but place and space matters. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Marching next to Kungsträdgården. On their way to Gamla Stan.
Where they would pass the Royal Palace. And eventually set up camp
next to the church where the royalty gets married. Why not?
The crowd arrived at Stortorget at about the same time as the changing of the Royal Guard was taking place. No one paid each other any notice. The square filled up quickly. Turns out that you can behead 80-some people in the square, but trying to fit 1 000-some syndicalists into the same space is a bit more difficult. But the speakers took the stage and did their thing. And the stage was kind of amazing: an old Volvo flatbed truck.

Admit it. You kind of want to drive that thing. 
Red and black flags dominated, along with a few creative signs reminding us that Björn Söder (a Sverigedemokrat) can't dance. But the one that caught my eye, solely because of my research, was the one about domestic labor, which seemed to be equating women to domestic labor.

Look at the conveyor belt. And the faceless people. And the cogs.
So much symbolism.
And, in case you were wondering, there was Joe Hill memorabilia everywhere. Books for sale, calendars, even a man running around in a Joe Hill hoodie. Sörj inte. Organisera!

Next up? The Social Democrats and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. This was, by far, the biggest group of the day. Maybe 10 000 or 15 000? Big numbers are hard and while they didn't fill Humlegården, they put a dent in the park. An impressive feat, considering it takes up an entire city block.

Setting up shop behind the National Library of Sweden. Fun fact, books
and temperance were a big part of the early labor movement.
This demonstration was home to the most languages. There were plenty of signs in Swedish. In fact, almost exclusively signs in Swedish. But sprinkling the crowd were signs in English, in Persian, in Arabic.

Four signs that didn't make the final cut. These were left behind as
Humlegården emptied out.
Along with being the largest demonstration, it was the loudest. That's because there were several bands. Four of them, in fact. All paying at the same time. Sophomore year of high school, I learned the word cacophony from Mr. Johnston. I didn't know how to pronounce it. He kindly corrected me so I feel like I can at least write it. Because four bands playing at the same time is cacophonous.

One band leaving, three to go...
Once they started walking, they just kept coming...

Interestingly enough, the EU flag helped lead the way.
Further back were the anti-EU signs. 
...and coming...

That's an entire city block filled with people.
And that's just the beginning.

...and coming.

Just enjoy the signs. All of the signs.
Thousands upon thousands of union members marched towards Norra Bantorget, which is sometimes referred to as Röda torget because of its place in labor movement history. It was the site of the first officially sanctioned pro-labor rally. About 40 000 folks showed up for that one back in 1902. In 2015, they maybe pulled a quarter of that. Things change.

I'm guessing that there weren't too many signs like this back in 1902.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sörj inte. Organisera!

Joe and Olof, together at last. 
Of course, the Communist Party was busy today as well. They don't have much sway in Swedish politics these days. Or Sweden. Or really anything, it seems. They did have a prime spot, however, at Sergelstorg and as I walked up the speaker was reminding the crowd, "Sörj inte. Organisera!" Joe Hill is all things to all people, apparently. He is not enough, though, to convince the communists to come out in the rain. The banners they had hung nearly outnumbered the people in the crowds. Which was unfortunate, because with so few people to look at, H&M was trying to remind us all that there is no such thing as rain, only sunny days, in their capitalist world.

H&M's swimsuit models were not impressed by the turnout. Not. Im. Pressed.
I missed the Left Party's march. All of it, in fact. But I did pass by their final destination in Kungsträdgården earlier in the day. They had just begun the festivities and there was a band on stage singing to a sparse crowd and a statue of King Karl XIII. Obviously.

No word on Karl XIII's views on communism and socialism, but the
seagull perched atop his head was clearly there in support of the Left.
That crowd had grown significantly by the time I got back to it. The master of ceremonies announced that over 8 000 people had been in on the march and that they figured there were about 15 000 folks in the crowd in front of the stage.

And seven of them were chanting "No more nukes!" That's not true.
But they totally would have, if they were Americans.
And then it got weird. Two men in creepy bear heads known as the Teddybears, a musical group unknown to me, introduced politician Rossana Dinamarca to the party supporters. So that happened.

Teddybears. Pronounced TeddyBEERs in Swedish. In case you were
wondering, their eyes also glowed red.
After a few minutes of listening to Rossana Dinamarca, the politician who wore a t-shirt printed with “SD=Rasister” to welcome the Sweden Democrats to the parliament, I headed off to my last stop of the day.

The Feminist Party's rally! Probably my favorite stop of the day, the feminists were working to turn the park pink. The rain made it a little tough to show off some of the color though, because it turns out Swedes don't own too many pink overcoats. (I did see one pink umbrella. From IKEA, no less.)

That kid to the left is rocking it. A pink jacket. In Sweden. 
This was, by far, the most family-friendly event. In fact, they invited everyone to stay for a picnic afterwards. I did not. Mostly because I didn't have the requisite picnic gear. Or any food, which is the most important picnic requisite. But as I turned to leave, two girls turned to stay. A thing I know because they were speaking perfect American English to each other. They were like smaller reverse-mes!

Splashes of pink on a dreary day. Even the dog is
ready to bring down the patriarchy.
It was an exhausting första maj. A fun day, but an exhausting day. I was expecting more radicalism from some of the parties. I was expecting more singing and chanting from all of the parties. I was even expecting a few right-wing counter protests. Instead, it was a big party. And a family event. There were kids walking around with their faces painted, holding balloons, sometimes holding signs. One young girl walked by me with a sign that read "Längre lunchrast." Longer lunch breaks. Fight for your rights, little girl, fight for your rights.

I didn't stick around long enough at any one rally to get a good feel for the political nuances of each party, but several themes kept coming up again and again. Refugees. Migrants. Jobs. Equality. There was talk about the plight of so many around the world, around Europe, around Sweden. There was mourning for lives lost. But these parties weren't going to fix those problems today. In fact, they weren't even going to mourn those problems today. Today, they were going to organize.

Welcome to Sweden. I hope I did my farmor proud.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Royal Bernadottes

I was a tourist today. A super tourist even. I’m kind of proud and kind of ashamed at the same time. Because for two hours today, I stood outside of the Royal Palace in Stockholm and celebrated the King of Sweden’s birthday. Turns out that’s a thing people do in countries that still have monarchies.

Today, the king turned 69. And because he happens to live in a country that didn’t chop off the heads of the royals a couple of hundred years ago, he gets to live in a castle and come outside and stand awkwardly on a podium for half an hour in front of crowds of people.

It was a fascinating two hours. Fascinating and boring. Again with those confusing emotions. Fascinating because the whole thing is so foreign to someone who grew up in the US. Fascinating because of the ritualistic aspects, the marching, the uniforms, the chants, the music, the bodyguards. Boring because I stood for two hours in the sun, in a crowd of people, on cobblestones, to stare at some dude who just happened to be born to the right people. Or wrong people. I suppose it depends on your views.

The crowd was greeted by an old guy in uniform announcing the program. There was going to be a lot of songs and marching. The king would come out. Twice. The second time he would stand on a podium and even accept flowers from the children. The crowd was invited to join in wishing the king a happy birthday with four hurrahs. But no hip hip, we were reminded. Just so you know. Interesting to note, there was a whole lot of German being spoken. Some Russian. Some English. Not a whole lot of Swedish. This was clearly a tourist attraction. So the program, given entirely in Swedish, probably didn’t convey quite as much information as the old man had hoped.

Silly tourists, there aren't any Swedes here for this nonsense. They're all
at a bar enjoying the sunshine and opening another bottle of rosé. 
There was, of course, the usual changing of the guard. Men (and they were almost all men) came marching in wearing silly hats. They were in uniform. They were playing music. Three songs. Two that were stodgy and expected and one that was not. Avicii’s “Hey Brother” wrapped up the set. Avicii is a Swedish DJ for those of you not hip to the young ‘uns these days.

I spent a lot of time staring at the back of a head. That doesn’t happen to me all that often. I looked around and was staring at the top of heads. And then looked ahead (see what I did there?) and stared right into the back of a head. I had, apparently, chosen to stand behind the only person in the crowd who was taller than me.

Those hats are made with only the finest unicorn manes. Harvested specifically
for the Royal Guard from the king's personal collection. Trust me. I know things.
Which was unfortunate because there was a lot of standing. And some marching. And then the king and his son came out and did some saluting. And then there was more standing. And marching. And some more music. This time with a version of Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” And then it got weird.

As the silly uniforms were marching back and forth, a tiny little podium had been erected in the middle of the square. It looked like an Olympic podium, except that they forgot the spots for the silver and bronze medal winners. So the king won gold. And everyone else lost. Which, I suppose, is pretty accurate. He was preceded by men in dark suits, close-cropped hair, and earpieces. The coast was clear and so he stepped right up and stood there, awkwardly and in full uniform, for a long time. A safe distance from the peasants. Subjects. Citizens. Whatever.

See him there? In the back? He's the lone medalist. Short little fella, isn't he?
All the while, most of his family stood to his left. The picture of look-they’re-just-like-us happiness. Little kids squirmed. Princes and princesses danced to the music. Twenty-one guns were fired. A crowd of hundreds tried to hurrah the old man four times, with varying degrees of success. Small children had meltdowns and were handed off to some sort of matronly caregiver. You know, the usual father/grandfather birthday setup.

Then children were allowed to parade up to the king and hand him flowers. Of course, the podium really hammered home the already obvious power dynamics. Now he was towering over his subjects as they approached him. The line started with three young girls, all blonde and dressed in a Swedish folk costume, prancing right up to there and smiling for the press corps. Then followed a long line of children, some accompanied by their parents (one of whom curtsied for the king). Finally, after nearly two armfuls of flowers had been delivered, the king stepped down from his podium.

And then there was more marching. And music. And some saluting. And finally, finally, it was all over.

As the king turned to walk into his castle, two of the few Swedish speakers in the crowd began chatting. It’s not strange that a person would end up assuming they are better than everyone else when this happens on your birthday. And there it is. The fascinating thing about Swedish royalty. In a country that is known for jantelagen and equality and not reminding people that you’re better than them, there is still a group of people who have their lives subsidized by tax payers simply because they were born. I used to like the monarchy. I used to like to look at it as a sort of living history. A foreign and exciting remnant of a bygone era. Now it just seems silly. And expensive.

Welcome to Sweden. And a royal waste of taxes.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Payday in Sweden: Lönehelgen

It’s a special time of the month here in Sweden. It’s a payday weekend. Most Swedes are paid once a month, on the 25th of the month. So when that’s a Friday or Saturday, watch out.

Imagine yourself alone, in a sea of Swedes on a normal Tuesday on your way home from work. Maybe it’s the 22nd of the month. Maybe you stayed late. Your boss was really on you about making sure the new cover sheet for the TPS report was correct. Those cover sheets are tricky, but finally, around seven you’re heading home. It’s quiet. Too quiet. But after a while, you come to embrace the silence. It’s as if the entire country understands your pain. Understands your need for quiet reflection. The conversations that are being held on the subway are held in hushed tones, reminiscent of the waiting room in a dentist’s office. It sounds nice, doesn’t it?

But money’s tight at home. You’re stressed. Maybe everyone else is feeling it too. Maybe that’s why it’s so quiet. If we don’t talk about our money problems, they’ll go away, right? You’re thinking about dinner. It’s been almost a month since you were last paid. That means only one thing: it’s time for spaghetti with ketchup. Again.

Because it’s Sweden, the vast majority of people aren’t worrying about rent. They’re not worrying about the electricity being shut off. Or the water being shut off. Or their cell phones being shut off. They’re worrying about having to eat pasta with spaghetti. They’re worried about having to convince their kids that falukorv, that sausage made of beef or pork and potato flour, is actually good.

Let’s fast-forward a few days. It’s the 25th of the month. It’s a Friday. You get home, eat some dinner, and decide that, hey, you’ve got a little extra money in your bank account. Maybe you’ll go out. Just for a beer. One beer. With some friends. It’s Friday, come on, live a little.

So out you go. You’re alone in that sea of people again. It’s amazing how lonely you can feel surrounded by people. Deep, right? Just like the sea. Something is different though It’s seven in the evening again. You’re on the subway again. But something isn’t quite right. The two guys who sat down in the seats across from you were bubbly and talking loudly about coconut. Everything smells like coconut, he says. I can’t get the smell of coconut out, he says. And then he says nothing. He’s fallen asleep. Head slumped against his chest, he slowly tips over into the window, breathing the relaxed sleep of a man who has been drinking too much coconut-flavored vodka. His friend, able to hold his liquor just a bit better is awake. He’s attempting to hide his bottle of vodka on the seat next to him by wrapping his jacket around it. Swaddling it as if it were a baby. And it’s loud. Everywhere. People are talking.

That one beer you promised yourself turns into several liters of beer. It’s time to go home. But you missed the subway. So instead, you hike through Stockholm looking for a kebab. That will fix everything. You won’t regret having shoved shaved meat from a tube into your belly on top of liter after liter of beer. You’ll be fine. It will absorb the alcohol, you convince yourself. So you eat every last bite. It’s so good. And so gross.

Now you have 22 minutes to wait at Central Station. Subways come and go. People come and go. One woman has decided to inspect her husband’s nostrils. She found something and reaches to pick it. You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friends’ nose. But you can, apparently, pick your husband’s nose.

Then the 18-year-old comes over. He’s drunk. He’s happy. He’s also asking everyone around him if they are drunk. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. Good. The police came, we had to leave, he says to anyone listening. But don’t worry, I was the bartender. The girls loved me. I even made out with one girl. It’s because I make such good drinks. Everyone is listening. Not engaging, just listening. He’s introducing himself. Johan. Charming the girl next to him. Who is not charmed. She is amused. Playing with him. A glint in her eye, she’s older than him. She’s been 18 and drunk on the subway before. She cocks her head, smiles, and responds. Emma. He’s trying so hard. Trying to impress her. Trying to flirt. She laughs. She responds. Then she drops the boyfriend bomb. Johan isn’t interested anymore. He turns to his phone. Don’t worry, I have another girl who wants to meet me. I just have to wait until 3:30, when her bus arrives, he brags to anyone interested. No one is interested. Especially the woman across from you, who is judging the drunkenness, shaking her head in disgust. But Emma just laughs. She puts up with him with a grace that most could not muster at two in the morning. Maybe because she's had to practice disarming drunk men in the subway in the past. Emma leaves Johan behind.

You leave them all behind and head home. Finally. You’re a little confused. Wondering about the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to life that the Swedes have. Friday and Saturday nights are always something special on the subway, but payday is another beast. Nothing bad happened though. You’re happy to have made it back in one piece. Wallet, phone, key. Everything made it home with you. And you’re alive and well. Which, unfortunately, is not always the case. A study published last year suggests that you are 23% more likely to die on payday here in Sweden. Especially if you’re between the ages of 18 and 35.

Your body aches the next morning. You question your life choices. You’re yearning for 35 because that’s the magic number. The age at which you’ll be an adult making adult decisions. But until then, you’ve got another payday to look forward. Just one month to go.

Welcome to Sweden. And lönehelgen.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Swedish Holidays - Påsk (Easter)

In a 2014 end-of-year poll conducted by Gallup International, 59% of the Swedes surveyed claimed to be “not a religious person” and 17% were “convinced atheists.” Compare that to the 33% and 6% of Americans surveyed who said the same thing. That’s a solid difference in claimed religious beliefs.

Of course, you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the public holidays, which give people a day off: the Epiphany, Good Friday (known as långfredagen in Swedish, the long Friday, it seems much more fitting considering the torture and whatnot), Easter Monday, the Ascension, All Saints Day, Christmas. You get the idea. Swedes love their religion as long as it gets them a day off. That’s especially true around Easter. Påsk. Life slows down a lot this time of year. Holy Thursday often ends up being a half-day, Good Friday is a red day, and Easter Monday is a red day. Suddenly, you’re staring at a four-and-a-half-day weekend. And if you happen to be a student you get a full week off from school. Easter vacation is a one-week reprieve. This year, most Swedish schools start Easter vacation next week: vecka 15. It’s a time to go skiing if there’s snow or to clean out the stereotypical little, red cottage if you’re rich enough to have one. The Norwegians like to head to their cottages to read mysteries. They’re a strange people.

It’s a big deal then, Easter, and like plenty of Swedish holidays, the eve of the big day is a big day. Julafton. Midsommarafton. Påskafton. It might not be religious in the sense that people quietly contemplate the suffering of Christ or in the sense that people actually attend church, but there are a whole lot of religious connotations that exist, are still celebrated, and are in fact an integral part of this secular (?) country. And then there are witches. But we’ll get to that.

There are, of course, the obvious Christian connections. Jesus ate his last supper, was betrayed, was crucified, and then was resurrected. That’s the reason for the season, if you will. But then there are the little things that pop up in Swedish celebrations of the holiday that nod to the Christian faith. Or the big ones like the recent cross-carrying procession through Stockholm.

For just a few SEK, you can buy a bunch of feather-adorned
birch branches to remind you of Christ's suffering.
Jesus would be so proud.
Birch branches, for example. Påskris. You can find these things for sale all over the place in the time leading up to Easter. They are exactly what they sound like—branches from a birch tree. Stripped. In 1600s Sweden, these branches were used to pretend-flog one another so as to remind people of Christ’s suffering. By the late-1800s, people in Stockholm and the surrounding areas were using them as decoration. Finally, by the 1930s, people throughout Sweden were decorating their homes with birch branches. Today, those branches are usually sold with colorful feathers on them. It lightens the mood a little bit. Just like those colorful eggs.

Eggs are a big part of Easter in Sweden. From the colorful eggs that were once given away as gifts to the eggs that get eaten during Easter (probably because it’s around this time that the hens start laying a bunch of eggs and you weren’t supposed to eat eggs during Lent). Then there are the giant cardboard Easter eggs that are filled with candy. And they aren’t just for kids. I was lucky enough to receive one my last Easter here through work. Even adults love candy. While some people have Easter egg hunts, the big shows of outdoor hunts aren’t quite as common as in the US—this year, the police were sent to the site of an Easter egg hunt because people were creeping around searching for the eggs. Like I said, not quite as common as in the US.

There’s even an Easter bunny. But it’s of German origin and, according to Nordiska museet, spread widely through the country with a little help from the candy industry. The US has to deal with the NRA and Big Tobacco. Sweden has Big Candy.

Easter food usually consists of eggs. And fish. Lots of eggs and lots of fish. Some people eat a meal that is similar to Christmas dinner including meatballs, sausage, and potatoes, but usually the ham is not included. Instead, the focus of the meal has shifted somewhat to herring and salmon.

But none of this is all that different than what you might experience in the US. Sure, it might be a bit surprising that so many of these religious traditions live on in such a supposedly secular country, but traditions change and meanings behind those traditions change as well. What might be surprising though are the witches. Witches come out in full force during Easter. They have places to be, namely Blåkulla, and things to do, namely Satan.

Come Holy Thursday, the day that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, the Devil decides to invite in all of Sweden’s witches to a party at Blåkulla. The witches manage to get to Blåkulla by flying on oven rakes and brooms and even a cow. To hinder the witches, people made sure that anything that could be used to fly to Blåkulla was hidden or put away. A little bit of spring-cleaning, if you will. Then a cross was painted on the doors of the barn or steel was placed on the threshold of the barn to make sure that the witches didn’t come and steal any milk. They have a habit of stealing milk. Just to be sure, people would head outside, start giant fires, and even shoot off whatever firearm they happened to have handy. Fire and guns scare witches, which is why Easter firecrackers can still be found today. Just in case.

That didn’t stop all of the witches, who still managed to kidnap some children and head over to the giant party that the Devil was hosting. Once there, the party atmosphere was enough to make your local priest blush. There was drinking and eating and sexing all sponsored by Satan himself.

Today there is less sexing and more eating. Especially candy. But that candy doesn’t come free. You’ve got to work for it with a little bit of dress-up. Swedes have been dressing up as witches and heading around scaring people in their creepy witch outfits for hundreds of years at this point. It is a bit reminiscent of Christmas-time mummering or Halloween. Today, instead of your creepy neighbor or the teenager down the street, it’s little kids that are running around dressed as cute little witches with freckles and rosy cheeks painted on their faces. They might be wearing a bonnet or an apron or dress. They sometimes run around with a basket or teakettle or coffee pot. That’s where they keep the candy they collect as they go door-to-door. And if they’re super industrious little children, their Easter letters. Traditionally, those Easter letters wish the recipient a Happy Easter, maybe include a little verse or two, and colorful drawings. The letters were supposed to be delivered so that the recipient didn’t know who the sender was. Today, if they are delivered at all, they are usually handed over in person.

There's still a hint of creepiness to these witches.
Blåkullaresenär på påskafton Vänersborg. Påskkärring.
By Victor Tornberg in 1936 via Vänersborgs museum.
There are mentions of dressing up as witches from the early 1800s, and by the early 1900s, this became pretty common throughout Sweden, although the exact day for witching depends on where in the country you live. In western Sweden you’ll probably see the witches out on Easter eve. In eastern Sweden they tend to be out on Holy Thursday.

I happen to live in eastern Sweden and as I was walking to meet a friend on Holy Thursday for some dinner, I saw two witches walking towards me. They were young witches, maybe four and six. They looked to be brother and sister. Their adult representative was trailing behind them. I’ll be honest; I was seconds away from asking the adult if I could take a picture. The kids were so damn cute. And they were witches! It was like a walking display of folklore. But, because I am a 31-year-old balding man, I decided that a question like that would be creepy and unwelcome. So I left them behind and instead tried to take a picture of them from the window of the restaurant. That’s totally not creepy, right?

Because I failed as a street life photographer, you’ll have to regale yourself with pictures from the @sweden account. Below you'll find a tweet from the Easter week's @sweden—a guy named Viktor who, as a small child, rocked the witch get-up. You may have to click on the twitter pic link to see the glory that is Swedish Easter witches and note that the account is updated every week with a new curator. You'll just have to trust me that this is Viktor:
And finally, since you made it this far in this incredibly long post, it's me! As a child witch. Luckily, my mother is a sentimental woman and has saved pictures of her three boys as children. Before we were all big and bearded. It's really gone downhill in terms of cuteness since this picture was taken about 25 years ago. So it goes.
That's me on your left, ready to charm the world with my witchy wiles. 
Welcome to Sweden. And the not-so-secular Swedish Easter traditions.

If you want to read more about Easter in Sweden (in Swedish), check out Påsk på Skansen and Nordiska museet’s Påsken, which is where I collected a lot of this information.