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Archive for January, 2009

As I was picking up my dry cleaning yesterday, the owner asked me: “Are you American?” After I said yes, he said: I don’t like the US and I don’t like Americans. But now with Obama, I feel like I can like America again. He’s a great man.” When I asked him where he was from, he said: “Syria. And that’s why I didn’t like America.”

It’s always fascinating to me how often I am judged for my homeland. It hasn’t happened for a while, so I have to admit that I was a bit shocked by my cleaner. I’ve been a regular customer for years and the guy always seemed to like me. So it was strange to hear his commentary. Thus as I was walking out, I couldn’t resist saying: You know, we’re all just people, no matter where we come from. At least the cleaner agreed with me. I just hope Obama can live up to the world’s expectations.

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One of the hardest things for me to adjust to after moving here was how to interact with the Swedish people themselves. There’s a natural reserve to many Swedes, making it hard to even get them to in any way acknowledge your presence. (There are always notable exceptions to any such stereotype and my Swedish friends Roger, Pingis and Marie-Louise are just a fee of the many perfect examples of outgoing Swedes!) When I would walk my dog – a big golden retriever – people would come up to me on the street and bend down to pat Dimitri, carrying on an entire conversation with him while blatantly ignoring me. I felt invisible.

In talking to my neighbor Ingrid tonight about her recent trip to Australia, she remarked how incredibly friendly and wonderful the Aussies were. Then she asked me if it was hard for me to make friends with Swedes. After assuring her that she had always been friendly, I told her that it was something I had struggled with, especially early on. Her reply to this was interesting: “Not so long ago, we were still so isolated here. I remember after the war, Sweden was trying to get people from other countries to move and work here. There were some Italians that moved in and a friend and I would go and watch them. We were 11 or 12 and had never seen anyone except for Swedes. We were fascinated by their dark hair, how loudly they spoke and used their hands. We had never seen anything like it.”

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There are some days that it feels like I have been living here in Stockholm forever, instead of just a few years. I will notice something and think, I would never see that in the US. But then just as quickly I second guess myself and say: or would I? It’s like my memory of both homelands is merging into one collective memory. This morning was a perfect case in point. The day was gray and freezing and as I passed by the playground at the end of the street, I saw a group of dads playing with their kids. I smiled and immediately thought: that’s so cool and so typical of Sweden that the kids are out and playing on this not very nice day. Then the second part of my thinking went something like: it’s great to see those dads out with the kids on a Wednesday morning. The paternity leave here is really wonderful.

But then I started second-guessing myself. Would I, in fact, see kids out in the park on a bad winter day in the US? Would I see that group of dads? To my first question, I thought: well maybe. Then to the second, I thought: no way.The dads are at work, more typically. It’s the moms that are at home.

I notice that I get just a bit fuzzy about some of the finer details in the US, as well. When I was back in Cincinnati at Christmas, I found myself having to think about how I needed to get to a restaurant that I had been to a dozen times or more in the past. It was a bit disconcerting. I hope my brain has not reached a capacity overload. I would like to think that I am just expanding it.

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OK. I will admit it. I do like ABBA, There’s nothing like putting on Dancing Queen at a party to get everyone dancing, no matter where in the world you may be. But there’s a lot more to Swedish music than just ABBA. Believe it or not, little old Sweden (population 9 million) is one of the largest exporters of pop and rock music in the world, behind only the US and the UK. Surprised? I was until I moved here. While there is quite a lot of really bad pop that’s typically classified as Schlager music, there’s also a variety of other options. Names of bands you may have heard of but not realized they were Swedish include: Roxette, Ace of Base, the Cardigans, Eagle Eye Cherry, the Knife the Concretes, Robyn, the Soundtrack of our Lives, José González, Caesars, Kent, I’m From Barcelona, the Hellacopters and the Hives. Some of these bands are good in my estimation, some not so…

So who am I listening to right now? Well, Peter, Bjorn and John have been a favorite for years now. Young Folks is their big hit, but the entire album Writer’s Block from which it comes is actually very good as well. From there, the Shout Out Louds, Lykke Li and Those Dancing Days all have some catchy tunes out.

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Jantelagen is another Swedish word that, like lagom tends to generate a lot of controversy and conversation in this country. The general meaning is that no one should act or think he is better than anyone else or aspire to be better than anyone else. Basically, don’t think you are better than anyone else. The term was originally coined by the Norwegian/Danish author Aksel Sandemos in a 1933 novel. I’ve heard it said that it’s a social code for all of Scandinavia and reflects Sweden’s philosophy of social equality. Believe it or not, there are then actually 10 “rules” behind the law, including:

  1. Don’t think that you are special.
  2. Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don’t think that you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don’t think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think that anyone cares about you.
  10. Don’t think that you can teach us anything.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Interesting stuff, huh? I have to admit that Jante’s law is a tough one for me and I have not been keen to take it on in the blog. Of course, I believe the basic premise that no one is better than anyone else. But to spell it all out so severely seems so severe.  So what’s up with Jantelagen in Sweden today?

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I’ve spent a rather inordinate amount of time at the computer lately, so I have developed a pain in my back, shoulder and right arm. Looking to feel better, I decided to cash in a gift certificate I had for a massage at Sturebadet, a gorgeous and luxurious spa in the center of town that dates back to 1885. On getting there, I was given the customary robe and slippers and told where to go and change and wait for my massage person. As I sat poolside, I saw a young, good looking guy making his way toward me and rather quickly thought: I hope I do have a woman. But of course, the tall Swedish man was the massage therapist for me.

So off I went to my private treatment room with Mon the massage guy.  I’ve never had a massage in Sweden, but I do know how casual the attitude is toward the naked body here. In the US, you are generally taken to a treatment room and told to take off your clothes and lay down on the table while the massage person is gone. But when I go to the gyno here, for instance, the doctor accompanies me to the examining room and I just strip naked in front of her. There’s no changing room, no little paper robe to put on. You just take your clothes off and put yourself up on the table. It’s all super casual and I like that. But I have to admit that I was feeling a bit anxious about me and Mons in the treatment room and how this was all going to be handled. On entering the room, Mons pointed to a hook for me to hang my robe on while he held a towel in front of me to wrap around. He was very circumspect and professional. But I was nervous. Especially as I then had to somehow navigate my way to the table and lay down while keeping some modicum of decency.

It all went well, of course, and Mons gave me ane extremely good massage. But I did feel a bit uncomfortable. I’m from the Midwest after all. We tend to keep our clothes on there, especially with members of the opposite sex that we don’t know. Looking at it now, I realize that my modesty was perhaps a bit funny. After all, he then did work on my back for quite so time, up close and personal. And while I am 100 percent more comfortable with the naked thing here, I do admit that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to handle this experience. Now I need to ask my Swedish friends tomorrow what they do. At least my shoulder is feeling better.

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It’s super foggy here in Stockholm tonight. So foggy, in fact, that my usual view is gone. The water, the neighboring island of Kungsholmen, city hall and the lights of the city are all gone, blanketed over with a thick curtain of fog. So now I am looking out into black instead of the usual view you see at the top of the page. Even though I know it’s temporary, it’s still rather disconcerting. It feels like someone has broken into my flat and taken my artwork. So instead Robert and I are upstairs, hanging out in front of the fire. It’s a cozy way to end a Sunday at least.

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