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.


  1. Yo, HS,

    Excellent column, as usual. I almost fell out of my chair when I read the bit about the wife picking her hubby's nose. I heard that aphorism in 1957 from a buddy in the Navy who was from Tupelo, Mississippi. I never heard it from anyone else since, except from myself and those I taught it to.

    I've got a couple others he taught me.

    Good going,


    1. Thanks, Ron!

      And yeah, that's been a classic rhyme floating around in my family for quite some time. I don't remember if it was my mom that taught us that or my grandma, but it stuck with me.