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.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

The chant rang out as the United States took on Russia at the IIHF Women's World Championship. During group play a couple of days ago, the US beat Russia 9-2. It was one of those performances where half of the ice still looked freshly zambonied after half a period of play. So the chant was not without good reason. But I did not participate. Not because I don’t enjoy chanting nationalistically with reckless abandon (who doesn’t really?), but because it’s hard to chant when you’re laughing.

Let me be clear, I was not laughing at the Russians. That would be mean. I was laughing because the chant did not come from a host of Americans in the incredibly sparse crowd, it did not come from the families of the players, or even from Team USA employees. The chants came from a group of maybe 50 Swedish schoolchildren.

When the US scored for the first time, the entire crowd of children erupted into cheers. I wasn’t prepared for the squeals of delight. I should have known. Swedish sporting events are filled with chants and songs and loud. Just filled with loud. It’s a safe space, apparently, to scream away the silence that permeates plenty of spaces in Swedish society. Like the elevator. These kids were clearly learning the ropes early. As the celebration continued, I noticed that these kids had homemade American flags. Paper stuck to a stick. Crayons? Markers? Paint? I don’t know. But the stars and stripes were visible. And then the chanting started. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! And it was in Swedish. Scores of Swedish children were chanting U-S-A! in Swedish. It was a magical moment.

As the game continued, Russia tried to show some life. They pulled within one leaving the US up 3-2. After the first goal, across the arena a Russian fan unfurled a flag adorned with the sickle and hammer. There it was, flapping in the cold arena air. But, because Swedes are great lovers and defenders of freedom and hate communism, the children broke into a chant again. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Also, correlation does not imply causation.

Clearly, these small freedom-loving Swedish children who save baby seals in their free time while eating bacon and petting bald eagles, willed Team USA to respond with six unanswered goals. The U-S-A! chants subsided, but the children screamed until the final seconds ticked away. And it was a good thing they did. Because the crowds were sparse. Very very sparse. This is elite hockey at a level that is hard to come by and there were maybe 350 people in the crowd. You could hear the players on the ice. That’s not a good thing.

If Team USA beats Russia 9-2 and nearly no one is around to see it, does it count in the standings?

Since heading back to the US and graduate school, I’ve immersed myself in an academic world that doesn’t always embrace athletics. I don’t watch sports like I used to. But that love is there. Somewhere. And sometimes I’m reminded why sports matter as I watch young men and women fight the NCAA for basic rights or listen as friends work locally, nationally, and even internationally to bring more attention and respect to women’s sports. I’ve watched how athletes have made a little kid’s day, I’ve watched as teams rallied around the cancer-stricken mother of a teammate, I’ve watched as sports have inspired children to work hard, try hard, fail, succeed, and realize that they can accomplish a whole lot. And then I’ve watched as former students have made millions of dollars playing professionally while others are struggling to get by in minor leagues or women’s professional leagues that don’t pay their players. I’ve watched as others willingly left the game to pursue other interests while others are racked by headaches and crippling injury forcing them to make life decisions that no 18, 19, 20-year-old should have to make. And I’ve watched them do so with grace and responsibility, something I wish that I were capable of at their age. In fact, I wish I were capable of such a demonstration of character at my age.

I’m reminded of why sports matter whenever I walk into a women’s sporting event. I’ve attended a handful of women’s hockey games. The University of Wisconsin-Madison hockey team does amazing work. I’ve taught and tutored several players, which makes me a bit biased, but I’m ok with that. They’re good. Very very good. When it comes down to it, they win championships, they send players to professional leagues, and they provide a solid number of players to various national teams around the world, most notably Canada and the US. Team USA could put an entire line-up on the ice with only former or current Badgers. The team pulls a decent crowd and has a strong following. They are one of only a couple of teams to play their home games in an arena dedicated to women’s hockey. Capacity of that arena? Two thousand two hundred and seventy-three. 2 273. The men’s arena has a capacity of 15 359. That means every game there are about 13 000 people who are missing out on the opportunity to watch elite athletes excel in a damn exciting sport.

That's the biggest crowd I saw in three days.
Team USA vs. Team Canada.
World Champions vs. Olympic Champions.
The reality is that men’s hockey brings in more money so the disparity in the arena size maybe isn’t surprising. Which is true for most sports. Of course, there are a whole host of reasons for that. Ticket prices. Sponsorships. TV deals. General interest. Systemic or institutionalized sexism. The list could go on. Whether it’s surprising or not, it’s a sort of catch-22 driven by money. Women’s sports won’t get more media exposure if there are no fans in the seats. Women’s sports won’t get more fans in the seats if they don’t get more media exposure. It’s a simplified explanation and one that does not come even close to explaining the disparities, but it’s a big part of the current landscape that sometimes results in the reigning world champion, Team USA, taking on the reigning Olympic champion, Team Canada, in front of a not-even-close-to-sold-out crowd at the World Championships in Malmö.

But this post took a strange turn from Swedish children cheering for Americans to gender disparities in sports. That’s because today, as hundreds of the best hockey players in the world are competing for the world championship in front of only hundreds of fans, Expressen revealed that Swedish channel TV4 will be the first channel in the world to broadcast an entire season of a professional women’s soccer league.

I don’t like soccer. That’s not the point. TV4 broadcasting games is a big deal. First-in-the-world big deal. Entire-season big deal. Worth-watching-because-it-matters big deal. So find a game, turn on the TV or buy a ticket and watch. Not because you feel guilted into it, but because the level of play is incredible and those women are doing things on the playing field and on the ice that you could only dream of.

Welcome to Sweden. And a reminder that sports matter. For everyone.