Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Superior Race in Stockholm

When did Tim Tebow become a gladiator?
Words matter. A lot. Those words that I wrote above, they come with a certain connotation that attracts a certain person—usually racists and neo-Nazis. Yet, those very words have been plastered all over the Stockholm subway system for weeks now in an ad campaign for a race. A superior race. The picture says it all.

It’s an obstacle race. Obviously. Apparently, if you’re into that sort of thing, you can run a 5km, 10km, or 18km race with obstacles dotting the landscape. Those obstacles include a bunch of, if the website and ad are to be believed, muscly white dudes with vaguely appropriative “tribal” tattoos known as gladiators. Some people like private spankings. Other people like public spankings. Whatever floats your boat. It seems those gladiators are there to float someone’s boat by making you hurt so good with oversized foam paddles. I think. I haven’t watched American Gladiators in years, so I may be a bit off on the proper parlance.

Of course, at first glance, this seems to be an ad campaign thought up by the geniuses over at one of Sweden’s many racist political parties, groups, or organizations. If you reacted like that, you’re not alone. Since the ad campaign started in mid-January, several complaints have been sent to the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman and the race organizers have received questions about race biology and Nazism. In response, they’ve changed the website from to They’ve changed their Twitter handle, as well as Facebook and Instagram. They’ve realized their mistake and tried to make some changes. But those ads are still traveling up and down the subway system of Stockholm.

That mistake is probably a pretty expensive one. Reprinting marketing material and rebranding an event are not cheap fixes. Someone somewhere has probably been doing a whole lot of explaining to the big boss about the big mistake. Which might explain the ridiculous explanation that came with their apology and changes. On the one hand they claim the organizers were not thinking at all about race biology and the connotations that comes with those two words, superior and race, smushed together. On the other, they claim that they were trying to suggest a positive connotation to the words. As if a bunch of obstacle race organizers can unwrite a whole lot of bad history. As if it is their duty to reclaim, to reappropriate, those two words with the help of beefy white dudes.

This is just further evidence that every single company and event and organization ever needs to hire a 13-year old. If that 13-year old reacts in any way. They smirk. They laugh. They blush. They chuckle. If you’re selling the Orgasmatron Mini Deluxe and it isn’t a vibrator, if you’re selling nose trimmers and the Shocking Gun for Easter. That 13-year old is going to laugh. Your job is to figure out why. And then your job is to change it unless that’s the reaction you’re going for. Immediately. Because superior mistakes lead to superior bills.

Welcome to Sweden. And superior races.

Monday, January 26, 2015

No Cutsies in Sweden

Standing in line in Sweden is an important aspect of daily life. That’s because you don’t always need to stand in line. I’ve written about the glory of the kölapp before. It’s that little piece of paper you grab when you walk into the bakery, bank, or bibliotek. That little piece of paper means you’re in line. Grab a seat in one of the chairs provided. Take a load off. There’s no need to actually stand in line. You’ve got your place-holder secured in the palm of your hands. Don’t lose it.

Actually standing and waiting in line makes you susceptible to cuts. Many tears have been shed because that one kid in fifth grade always used to cut. No one likes cutters. You know who you are, Ryan. You know who you are. But the kölapp isn’t found everywhere. It’s just not feasible at the bus stop for example.

The bus stop is the Wild West of waiting in line. There’s usually only one door available to enter through. There’s usually only one shelter with one bench that will fit a handful of people. It’s ripe for the Ryans of the world to sneak in and steal your spot. But the Swedes, trained by the kölapp that ensures first come-first served, wait patiently in line in the order in which they arrived. The line forms, stretching well past the shelter, as everyone takes their place. There are no signs explaining that you must take your place in line. People just do it. So like any good folklorist, I took a picture. Like any good creeper, I did so by pretending to take a picture of the library lit up in the evening:

Seriously. I am a terrible photographer. You get the idea though. 
As a friend pointed out, notice the spacing. Or, as she actually wrote “…look at all that S P A C E between them.” See what she did there? I love typing. She’s right though. Look at that space. Perhaps it is a remnant of the kölapp. With a piece of paper in hand, there’s no need to sit anywhere near someone, let alone wait in line beside them. Ew. Physical contact, or even the threat of physical presence, can be uncomfortable. Except for the awkward hug when you visit someone. Those are ok.

Just as the unspoken rules of the Stockholm escalator ensures that the left is free for people to walk on, the unspoken rules of the bus stop ensures that Ryan does not cut.

Welcome to Sweden. And no cutsies.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Swedish Winter Uniform

Along with a crowd of morning commuters, I stepped off the light rail to be met by six young women in front of us. They were 15 maybe? I stutter-stepped as they passed in front of me. My eyes followed them as they walked by. I stared and shook my head in wonder. The crowd just cleared in front of them, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Electric Company opening up holes for OJ Simpson, that dude who forgot to wear deodorant sitting on the subway.

I’m at an age where this behavior is especially creepy. It’s creepy at any age, but it’s especially creepy at an age when the group of women you’re staring at is half your age. So let me explain. These women were in uniform. Not a military uniform. Or a nurse’s uniform. Or a delivery uniform. They were in the Swedish winter uniform.

Black pants. Black boots. Black puffy jackets. Four of which had (fake?) fur hoods. Three of which were identical with the same design and the same logo. The other two were puffy and hoodless. It was like some sort of armed force coming at me. I was waiting for them to either assassinate someone or break into synchronized song and dance. Those were clearly the only two possible options. I didn’t stick around to find out which one did happen. I don’t like assassinations OR musicals.

Lest you think I only stare creepily at young women, men wear a uniform as well. You may be surprised to find out that the color of choice is black. A common uniform includes a black pea coat with dark jeans, black gloves, a black hat, and then an understated (but dark-colored) scarf.

Of course variants of this national folk dress occur. Scarves are a popular accessory. As are hats and gloves. Sometimes the pants are replaced by a skirt and tights. Sometimes the jacket is not puffy. Sometimes the jeans are blue. Sometimes the gloves are brown. And sometimes, but only sometimes, the coat is not black. These non-black coats generally fall into three different categories: dark blue, brown, and oh, you’re not from around here, are you?

Much of these variants seem dependent on age and perhaps even socioeconomic status. You won’t see too many people over the age of 30 or 40 wearing puffy coats. They’re out there, of course, hanging on desperately to days gone by, but the puffy style belongs to the youth. Walk around Östermalm and you’ll see a lot of brown leather gloves. Walk around the university and you’ll see a lot of knitted gloves. Walk around central station with the masses and you’ll see just the classic black gloves you grew up with.

But there are brave souls who walk among us. They dare to be different. Instead of eschewing color, they embrace it, making it a part of who they are. Or at least what they wear. I pass them on the streets and I smile. Not at them, God no, this is Sweden, but I smile straight ahead thanks to these contrarians.

I’ll admit it. I’ve succumbed to the uniform, albeit with a dash of color. I wear a black pea coat with dark blue jeans. I’ve got a pair of clodhoppers that are dark brown and keep me from slipping on the icy sidewalks. I even wear gloves that look to be knitted (they are not. I bought them at H&M). So far, it’s all pretty standard. And then, as if to look Sweden straight in the eye, throw back my head, and laugh the laugh of the pretentious foreigner who focuses on all that is wrong with the country so as to hold on to any and all feelings of superiority, I wear a bright orange hat. Like don’t-shoot-me-while-I’m-hunting orange. Like look-at-me-I’m-different orange. Like U-S-A!-U-S-A!-U-S-A! orange. And while I’ve assimilated in quite a few ways, I have limits. And my orange hat shall remained perched atop my head, a beacon of color in this dark Swedish winter.

Welcome to Sweden. And little acts of winter rebellion.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Please, sir, I want some more…

The third and fourth weeks of January are, most likely, the poorest weeks of the year for people living in Sweden. I blame the holidays. Actually, lots of people blame the holidays. But it also has to do with the way Sweden doles out money.

Money is important after you’ve just spent most of it on presents, ham, and alcohol. Not necessarily in that order. If you have kids, you may have spent even more money on presents and alcohol. I don’t know. Santa needs his Christmas cheer in liquor form to make it through the night. Anyway, families with children are often staring at a whole lot of red in their accounts come January.

Luckily for parents, there’s the ever popular barnbidrag. It’s an allowance that goes to the parents recognizing their ability to create a child. Every kid is, according to the Swedish government, worth a solid 1 050 SEK per month. Fun fact though, that money doesn’t get paid out until the 20th of every month.

There are a lot of days between Christmas, New Years, and the 20th of January. So on January 19th, people throughout Sweden eat macaroni. If they really stuck to their Christmas budget you might see some hotdogs in that macaroni or maybe some falukorv on the table.

But what about us? Those who don’t have children? Who don’t want children? Who can’t have children? We’re poor too! And we’re poor for even longer. That’s because payday here in Sweden is the 25th of every month for the vast majority of people. That’s right. You get one paycheck per month. Twelve per year. None of this get-paid-twice-per-month nonsense here. There’s one big deposit in your bank account so you can pay your bills, rack up more bills, and drink yourself into a krona-induced stupor. It’s amazing. People fill the streets, single-handedly attempting to bolster the Swedish economy. And, based on absolutely zero data but a trained folklorists eye, totally true.

If you’re good at math, you’ll notice that there are even more days between Christmas, New Years, and the 25th of January. So on January 24th, child-less people will be eating frozen pizza or spaghetti with ketchup. Except for the child-less people with high-paying jobs. They have way more disposable income and will obviously be eating filet mignon and drinking champagne.

Welcome to Sweden. And holiday hangovers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sound and the (Stockholm) Fury

My doorbell clanged. Loudly. It took me a second to figure out what the noise was. I turned off my music and waited half a beat. My brain caught up with my ears and I realized I should probably answer the door.

I don't really know what I was expecting. Maybe a neighbor with a welcome-to-the-new-apartment cake. Maybe a neighbor asking for sugar. Maybe the police finally catching me for eating that chocolate covered almond from my bag of delicious nuts the other day at Hemköp before I paid. I just couldn’t resist. It was dark chocolate, too. They get me every time. Pretending to be healthy. Anyway, I was not expecting a small blonde man with a not-completely identifiable accent (German? Austrian? Swiss?) speaking English to me.

He spoke. That’s a short sentence, but an important one in Sweden. Because neighbors, by law and political legislation, are barred from speaking to each other. It's in every rental contract or mortgage that you ever sign. Just check the fine print. I’m sure it’s there somewhere. It’s the only logical explanation.

But this man spoke. He fumbled for words at first, but they kept coming. More words in just a couple of minutes than all of the words I had heard in the four months of living in my previous apartment. Seriously. I spoke, max, three sentences with my neighbors at the last place. This diarrhea of the mouth was so unexpected. I was scared. Nervous. Excited. Then confused.

He was complaining about the noise. I explained that I had just moved in. I said three days, but it had been about eight by then. I don't know why I lied. It didn't seem like a lie when it came out of my mouth. You know exactly what I mean. Don’t judge me.

The time period didn't matter though. This had been going on for a while, he explained. Between 10.30pm and midnight he often heard banging noises from the apartment above. My current apartment. He'd come up before to complain. He knew someone was home, he heard noises and saw lights. No one answered though.

He kept telling me all of this. Never making a move to wrap things up. Never making a move to leave. I told him I'd try to be quiet. That I wouldn't be slamming doors or drawers late at night. And he kept telling me the same things. Again and again and again. I smiled and nodded and reached deep into my well of politeness, eventually stifling a laugh.

Banging between 10.30pm and midnight? No one answering when he came to the door? Come on buddy, what do you think was going on up here? Put two and two together. Or in this case probably one and one. Or maybe two and one. I don’t know what the person living here before me was in to.

Despite the comedy, it was kind of fascinating. I’ve gone from a small house with ten apartments to a large university housing complex with over 100. It’s a completely different world where people acknowledge each other. Doors are held, apologizes are verbalized, I even had someone tell me goodnight after leaving the elevator. I haven’t spoken to this many strangers in Sweden in, well, probably ever.

Here in Stockholm, people joke about looking out the peephole of their door to avoid leaving the apartment when their neighbors are in the halls. It’s silly, dramatized, exaggerated, but there might be a bit of truth to it. And by might be I mean that I did it. Once. Just once. I was younger then. Experimenting. But still. I did it. Because there are stretches here in Stockholm where the silence can wend its way into your very being. The way you live your life can be affected by silence. So a noise complaint after just a few days in my new place? It was just what I needed as a remind that it doesn’t have to be like that.

Welcome to Sweden. And things that go bump, or hump, in the night.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Penis, Penis, Penis. Vagina, Vagina, Vagina.

Read that title out loud. With some panache. That’s right, panache. Bold words, I know. But it feels good, doesn’t it?

You don’t need to read this out loud, but let’s try it again: Vagina. Penis. Testicles. Genitals. Most of us have at least one of those things. Some of us have more than one. Some of us have none. This isn’t news. You can find pictures of all of those things online. But now Swedish genitals are making waves online. Surprisingly, if you buy into the sexualized Swede stereotype, it doesn’t involve the search terms “hot Swedish nudes” or “Swedish tits.” Instead it involves children and the words snippa and snopp. Basically, those words are the kid way of saying vagina (actually: vulva and I've updated this to reflect that despite vagina and vulva often being used interchangeably in everyday American English) and penis, respectively.

SVT, the Swedish TV broadcaster, has several different programs designed specifically for children. One, Bacillakuten, teaches children about the body, including body parts. Like penises and vulvas. The show is starting its 2015 season and posted a clip with a catchy little number. That catchy little number reminds us all about the glories that are penises and vulvas. The catchy little number is sung by catchy little animated penises and vulvas. An old lady vulva with a cane even makes an appearance reminding us that even old lady vulvas are elegant.

Chances are, you’ve seen this floating around the internet. Maybe even watched the clip already, or even watched the show. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

When I decided to jump on the bandwagon and comment about this video, I thought it would be as easy as heading over to YouTube and grabbing the link. It was not. Unless someone has snuck in and put the childlock on my laptop, YouTube required me to login to watch this one minute video from a Swedish children’s show. You know, because the video could be offensive to my young and innocent eyes and ears. By logging in, I could confirm that I was, in fact, old enough to watch an animated dancing penis and vulva sing a song.

There's so much to be said here. I'll just leave you with the ridiculousness that is
a content warning on a video produced by Barnkanalen.
Having shown the proper ID, I watched the clip. A few times even. I smiled. I nodded. I even sang along a bit. The world did not end. My morals were not immediately compromised. I did not go blind, nor did my palms turn hairy. Wait. That’s masturbation, right? Anyway, I’m going to go out on a limb here as a childless, white, middle class man (because no one ever listens to us): it’s going to be ok. If you don’t want your kids to watch it, don’t watch it. No one is forcing you, or them, to watch the cutest penis and vulva I have ever seen sing a song.

And anyway, there’s plenty of other stuff to watch, which I’m sure will educate, enlighten, and entertain. Like Biss och Kajs, two adults dressed up as pee and poop who have adventures together. Kiss means pee and bajs means poop in Swedish. See what they did there? They switched the first letters? See? Get it? Get it? I know, it's hilarious, isn't it?

Welcome to Sweden. And children’s TV.

Johan Holmström is responsible for this amazing piece of art. And the lyrics are below. I didn’t translate them. You can do that yourself. You’re an adult. Or you at least know how to use the internet.

Snoppen och Snippan
Popi-dopp-pop snippedi snopp!
Här kommer snoppen i full galopp.
Han som inga brallor har
dinglar med snoppen och rumpan bar.
Snippan är häftig, ja det kan du tro.
Till och med på en gammal tant
snippan sitter där så elegant.

Så olika med nästan samma grej
Kissa kiss igenom snoppen eller snippan om man är tjej.

Snoppen och snippan vilket härligt gäng
Snippan och snoppen sjunger vår refräng
Snoppen och snippan finns på vår kropp

Hänger och slänger på en liten kropp
Snippan är häftig, Baby I Love You.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Shhhh… It’s Rush Hour in Stockholm

It’s been a busy few weeks here in Sweden. Girlfriend visiting. Family visiting. Travels up and down the country. Trains and boats and cars. And of course, lots and lots of public transportation.

The week before Christmas I was out with some folks on a Friday night. We headed home at around midnight. Not really a wild night, but this was the first Friday night in Stockholm for AJR so I warned her that it might be a bit wild. Friday and Saturday night seems to be the acceptable time to yell, sing, vomit, and generally harass people while on the subway. Especially at Slussen, which is where we were. But we were met by a relatively calm scene. There were some hipsters. And some bros. And some drunks. But mostly it was calm. I was a bit disappointed. I know, that’s weird and probably horrible to say, but I was hoping for a shit show to point to and say see, look at these silly drunken Swedes. Aren’t they embarrassing? But alas.

I tell you all this not because it was a story without a point. It was. And is. But because I’ve grown used to warning visitors about wild Swedes on a Friday night (just see rule #11 of the Ten Rules for the Stockholm Subway). Especially visitors who have grown accustomed to riding the subway during the week when all is well and good. That wellness and goodness came to a head on a Wednesday night during rush hour—17.39 to be exact. People are heading home. There are no seats to be had. There are professionals leaving work and parents picking up children and dogs. All of the things are happening. But they are happening in silence. So much silence that I made a video. Enjoy about 30 seconds of rush hour on the Stockholm subway system. Feel free to crank up the volume. You might need it:

Welcome to Sweden. And rush hour. Silent, silent rush hour.