29 May 2009

Obligatory Complaint

I had a list.

I usually do, but this one was different because the opportunity to purchase the things on the list had a limited window.

Five weeks.

With very little shopping time to myself, I think it is important to note.

Because my time was limited, the list was long, and I stayed mostly with families who lived far from the centres of the cities I visited, I knew it was important to tell my hosts what I wanted to buy while I was in Sweden.  Without me telling them, how would they know?  Generous hosts, all, but mind readers they are not.

My first day in Sweden, I explained to host #1, A, that I wanted the following before I left Sweden, and that I thought mailing these things home was the best way to go.

1.  Harry Potter, books 2-7, in Swedish.  I already own the first one in Swedish, and reading books like HP are helpful in retaining my language skills.  Nothing too challenging, I'm not reading Proust, ffs.

2.  Metric measuring cups.  I bought a set when I was 17, because even then I liked to bake cookies and make dinner.  But I bought cheap plastic measuring cups, and they've been through the dishwasher about eleventy billion times.  They're getting brittle.  So I wanted a metal set.  Natch, all of my Swedish cookbooks are in metric measurements, so of course I need metric measuring cups.

3.  Swedish pop music.  Yep, bubblegum Brittney-esque pop, by artists like Kent, Carola, Lisa Nilsson, stuff that is repetitive and frivolous.  For the same reason as the HP books; listening keeps my language skills active.

4.  Solstorm, by Åsa Larsson. [Sunstorm]  This has been translated into English, and I read it in translation a few years ago.  Good book; I've been trying to get my grubby hands on the original Swedish since I saw the book on the library shelves.

5.  Geisha, chocolates made by Finnish candy-maker Fazer, for my sister.

6.  Digestiv (brand name) crackers.  Mmmmmm.

7.  Stig Larsson's "Männen Som Hatar Kvinnor," [Men Who Hate Women] which was published in the US as "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo".  No relation to Åsa.

8.  Billinge cheese.  A long shot, but a hopeful one.

9.  Swedish coffee.  Lots and lots and lots of it.  The Swedes drink far stronger coffee than we do, roast the beans to a darker hue.  Gooooooood stuff.

10.  Orange marmalade.  Yes, I know it can be purchased in the United States.  I don't care, I wanted a specific brand.

11.  Dalahästar.  I have one of these traditional symbols of Sweden of course, but I wanted a few to give as gifts.

My host A told me that she'd need to stop at a grocery store on our way "home" that first day, and I mentioned a few of those things.  "Ah, you should be able to find everything there," she assured me.

I doubted that; in my experience, Swedish grocery stores were small, especially in the smaller towns like where she lives.  

I had a bit of a shock when she parked the car in the parking lot of an enormous department store.  Bigger than a Super Wal-Mart, this place, an ICA Maxi Stormarknad made me feel like the country cousin in the big city.  It had everything.  Shoes.  Clothes.  Books, magazines, small appliances, groceries, just about anything you can buy at a Super Wally's or SuperTarget.

I picked up the Harry Potter books, measuring cups, the Digestiv crackers, and some coffee there.  I found the music later that week while in the big city.  I mailed everything except the fragile crackers home to the US the first Saturday I was in Sweden.  

I looked for the rest of my wish list throughout the rest of the time, and found most of it, too.  I bought Swedish organic honey in addition to the marmelade, more coffee, (hey!  I have to stock up when and while I can!) Solstorm and even found Geisha and mailed it to my sister in New York.  I never did pick up the Stig Larsson book, but someone else did, and agreed to trade Stig for Åsa when I finish reading it.  

The weeks flew by.  I stayed with a divorced lady in her 60s, a family with older kids (20s-ish), I stayed in an apartment that I shared with another team member, a retired couple who were both on marriage #2, and then the most fun, a "familjen Svensson", typically Swedish family.

Where we would be talking about the average American family in the media or in conversations, the Swedes talk about "The Svensson Family".  2.5 kids, house in the suburbs, both parents with full time jobs.  My Familjen Svensson were a hoot.  It is important for me to note here that I really liked all of my hosts, and they were all very pleasant to live with.  All were very welcoming, extremely generous, helpful with my inability to navigate anywhere on my own, and tolerant of my foibles when I speak Swedish.  When I say they were the most fun, I mean Familjen Svensson had the sense of humor that most matched my own, and the parents were about my age.  Agh.  I'm botching that explaination.  


In their guest bathroom, they had some wonderful soap, bliw Björk & Äng.  Bliw is the brand name, and it took me more than a week to figure out WTF 'bliw' meant.  Not that brand names need to mean anything (Xerox, anyone?) but 'bli' is one of the many "to be" verbs, and so I thought it had to mean something.  Yeah.  It does.  Print b-l-i-w on a piece of paper, and then turn it over and hold it up to the light.  (small letter b, alltså) b-l-i-w backwards is W-I-L-D.  Duuuuuh.  "björk" is birch, and "äng" is meadow, or heather, depending on your translation source.  It smells wonderful.

So I bought some of that, too, and decided that I was carrying it home rather than shipping it.  I bought a 300 ml pump soap dispenser - 300 ml = about 1-1/4 cups - plus a refill for the dispenser.  Both made it home just fine, in a suitcase that I ended up checking.  Tripple-wrapped in plastic.  Just in case, y'know.

As soon as I had a chance when I got home, I Googled BLIW.  Here's a shocker: a scented soap that I love, and can use on my sensitive skin.....is available only in the Nordic countries: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, & Greenland.  Grrr.

I did not find Billinge cheese, either.  Rather, I did find it, but weeks before we were due to come home and it would have gone bad before I got back to the States.  So I opted instead to wait, and that was folly indeed, because I never saw it again.

I didn't buy nearly enough coffee, either.  (Cosmic question:  is there such a thing as 'too much' coffee?!?) 

When does that next flight back to Scandinavia leave?

26 May 2009


You know how the computer gets too much information or tries to open too many objects and it tells you "PROCESSING" along with the gif of the hourglass?  That's how I'm feeling; I'm attempting to process everything I've seen and experienced over the past five weeks.  I have no idea where to start to begin telling the story of this journey.  

Fortunately, I kept a journal, and was zealous about writing in it nearly daily.  So if I wanted to, I could detail each day for you.  I think I'll resist that urge, though, and keep it to broad impressions and a few specific stories.

I've been to Sweden four times; as an exchange student in 1991/1992, visits to my host family in 1999 and 2003, and this 5 week visit.  When I was an exchange student, I didn't want to return to America.  It felt like a sentence passed by a stern judge; as punishment for being born in the United States, you must return there.  I have a very hard time being objective about Sweden, and I would still like to live there, very much.  So many things they do make sense and work so well; and yet, for the first time ever while visiting, I could see the cracks on the surface of a not-perfect society.  

Every other time I've been to Sweden, I've been supremely reluctant to leave.  This time, as our departure date approached, I had mixed emotions.  I wanted to come home.  I missed my husband.  I got tired of living out of a suitcase.  I was tired of having my daily schedule set by someone else, and tired of being dependant on someone else to drive.  (The team was not permitted to drive in Sweden.)  I also wanted to stay, as usual.   Nothing new there; what was new was that I thought long and hard about just what, exactly, I would do for a living in Sweden. The short answer to that is: I don't know.  My Swedish Mama would love it if I lived there, and I have an existing network of contacts, too.  That certainly doesn't guarantee employment, however.

Quickly, the big changes that I noticed....

1.  There is more English in the Swedish language.  

When I made this observation, Mama said, "Yeah, and in 30 years, the Swedish language will disappear."   I don't agree with that assessment, but she's partly right.  They don't even realize that they're sprinkling everyday conversation with English words...prime example?  I sat in the terminal at Hven Traffiken, a ferry that runs between Landskrona, Sweden, and the island of Hven.  I was early that day, and waited for the rest of the team inside because it was chilly.  I deliberately eavesdrop when I'm in Sweden; my excuse is that I'm improving my language skills, and even if a conversation is deeply private, the chances of me ever meeting (or hell, even seeing) these people again is nil.  Anyway.   I was eavesdropping on the conversation between the clerk at the ticket window, and a woman inquiring about the schedule of the ferry and ticket pricing.  As the clerk detailed the information the woman answered by saying, "Ja.  Ja.  Javisst.  Yes.  Yes.  Ja.  Ja."  You don't need to speak Swedish to spot the impostors in that phrase.  Responding to a yes-no question by saying "yes-yes" in English isn't uncommon, or even noticed by native speakers.  

When I was an exchange student, it was cool for kids to use bits and pieces of English, but that was something that they did intentionally, for attention.  This is not the same thing, but I guess if you're not observing the phenomenon, it would seem like nothing new.  Whenever I pointed out the increase in the use of English, though, my hosts would say that it was hardly surprising, considering the increase of use of computers, the rise of the Internet, and the rising cooperation between Sweden and Denmark, since the Öresund Bridge opened in the early 2000s.  

2.  The popular game of "Blame the Immigrants" is sadly on the rise.

Sweden accepts refugees from many war-torn regions of the globe, and because the Swedish population is mostly the same ethnicity, foreigners stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Being "different" is not desirable.   Sweden is a welfare state; refugees get an enormous amount of help from the government in the form of: providing someplace to live, Swedish as a second language classes for free, money for food, utilities, schooling for their children, and free medical care.  Who wouldn't want to come to Sweden from places like Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia?  But then after opening those doors, the Swedes get vastly annoyed by refugees then bringing their entire extended family into the country, and the fact that many refugees don't work and form expatriate societies.  Shocker, right?  Shell-shocked people from warring countries band together in a foreign country.  Huh.  Whoda thunk it?  This game of blaming immigrants for rising crime and flagging property rates irritates the living hell out of me.  All of your society's ills can not be placed at the feet of a small number of foreigners.  If that is indeed the problem, then to me, it seems that there's quite a simple solution: quit allowing people to immigrate.  Wow.  That was tough.  As an American citizen, I can't just decide that I want to move to Sweden.  I need to a) have a job waiting, b) marry a Swede, or c) have a lot of money.  Believe me, during the Bush administration, I thought often about applying for political asylum, but that really isn't even possible.  If however, I'm fleeing war or political persecution, getting a residence permit in Sweden isn't as hard.  Change those laws, and you solve the problem, right?  I know, it is hardly that simple.

3.  Somewhere, in the last 5 years since I've been there, Sweden completely revamped their postal system, and local post offices are a thing of the past.

IMNSHO, this is BRILLIANT.  The postal system operates sorting facilities, and still employs letter carriers.  But if you want stamps, or to mail a package, they've outsourced that to grocery stores, convenience stores, and lottery outlets.  It is still official Swedish Post; but they slashed operating costs by billions.

I sent postcards home, lots of them.  After we'd been there for a few days, I started looking for a post office, because I needed stamps.  The logo is easy to recognize; a blue horn on a yellow field.  I looked EVERYWHERE.  Finally, out of frustration, I asked one of our drivers if she could help me find a post office.  She looked at me like I had three heads, and then burst out laughing.  "When were you here last?" she asked, still giggling.  
"Five years ago," I said, mystified.  
"Oh, yeah, then you wouldn't know," she told me.  "We lost all the post offices a few years ago.  It was huge news.  You didn't hear about it?  Your family in Kungsör didn't tell you?"
"Um, no...we usually talk family news, births, deaths, weddings..." I trailed off, feeling dumb.  

But that's the truth.  I seldom -if ever- discuss the news in the US or in Sweden when I call them.  So the closure of several thousand post offices was not on my radar.  Once I was clued in, the official retailers were easy to spot...same logo, just smaller, and instead of "Sveriges Post" (Sweden's Mail) the signs said "Post erbjudande" (Postal retailer).

4.  The murder rate, and crime in general, is on the rise.

One of our official visits was to a regional police headquarters, and we met both the regional chief of police and the information officer, i.e., press secretary.  I asked them point-blank what they attribute the rising murder rate to, and they both told me murders are on the decline.  There's just more media attention when someone is murdered.  Riiiiiiiight.  There's a bridge in Brooklyn for sale, too.  I don't think they were lying to me; I think they're lying to themselves.  Statistics can be spun any way the wind blows.  I don't know what the deciding factor in that increase is, but I am very sorry to see it.

5.  In the same vein of things that I'm sorry to see, huge retail outlets on the outskirts of towns are also on the rise.

Think Super-Wal-Mart.  These huge "varuhusar" are something new for me in Sweden; my small Swedish hometown had a town center, and a shopping street closed to vehicle traffic.  Most if not all Swedish cities had the same layout.  Sadly, the big retailers are doing the same thing they've done here in the states:  they're killing the mom-and-pop shops, killing the traditional butchers and cheese shops, along with small and unique stores in very small retail space.


6.  The Eurovision Song Contest is still a completely ridiculous circus of insane pageantry and silly music.

And I loved every minute of it.

Over the coming weeks, you'll hear lots more about all of this, I'm sure.  For now, though, I'm processing.