Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Every Man's Right

Every Man's Right

The true Swedish spirit can be understood by taking a look at 'Every Man's Right' – the Swedish version of 'It's a free country.' Every Man's Right has been used as everything from a sale's gimmick by German travel companies selling Swedish charter trips to an excuse from my neighbor to allow her daughter to pitch a little tent right below my bedroom window for over a week, because she didn't like the way the tent looked in her backyard.

According to the Swedish constitution (Did I even know there was such a thing?) everyone in Sweden is entitled to Every Man's Right – that is the right to explore nature, to sleep outdoors, and to eat wild berries and things wherever one my find them irregardless of who own's the land. This may sound frivolous at first, but remember that in the US I am pretty sure we have the right to shoot those who trespass against us first, and ask questions later. So a little roaming is a bit of a luxury, is it not?

There are a few exceptions – from what I can ascertain (from my battle with the neighbor mentioned above)

  1. The tent you are pitching must be a certain distance from houses/living accommodations
  2. You can only pick what is reasonable for you to eat as an individual

There is a rumor that German travel companies sell 'Every Man's Right licenses – but you don't need them. The rights are good for everyone.

Another real perk about Sweden is that Heart-worm is pretty non-existent here. Although with globalization I expect it will be here shortly, there isn't a great risk of eating wild berries and other goodies. So you can enjoy them all the more. But it would really suck to be the first known case of Heart-worm caught in Sweden.

Oh and sticking with our gender perspective, I should probably be calling this Every Man and Woman's Right.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Swedish Fashion - Women's Edition - Why?

OK, so I had planned another subject for today, but then I stumbled upon these beauties while 'inbetween days' sale shopping, and I couldn't resist. (note: These in-between day sales - after Christmas but before New Years - are shocking in their sheer lack of savings - stores advertise 20% off things like Christmas stockings and ornaments - electronic shops raise their prices and then advertise - 15% off the hiked prices)

I do realize that fashion horrors can be a global phenomenon and not just a Swedish one. And unlike some of my other fashion finds - I have not actually seen these on any living, breathing Swedes, yet.

But this is an example a la Vera Moda.

Vera Moda is a shop you can find at any mall in Sweden, in most medium size and large cities. They sell women's fashion – target audience women from the age of 15-72 – trendy but not particularly expensive. I admit that I occasionally will find an item or two of clothing at Vera Moda. I don't know if that is a vote for or against them.

If you could imagine a poorly named fashion item, say, a pair of pants, which would tempt you by its surprising honesty – I think you would be hard pressed to find a fashion item as aptly named as the pair of pants I would like to present to you as exhibit A. 

Lump Antifit Bling Pants – before you click on the picture, take a moment and imagine this in your mind's eye.

Were they as horrible as you imagined? Better? A relief?

Would the sale price entice you?

Only in Sweden? Or for the fashion handicapped everywhere?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Travel Tips Take 1

I've got a few 'budget' travel tips for Sweden as a guest blogger today at 

Still got a full house - will be back tomorrow - hope my next round of guests don't get snowed in on the east coast!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Swedish Celebrities: Carola

Now my Christmas guests have arrived – so I won't be able to update quite as often these next few days – but I hope you bear with me!

For my Christmas version of Swedish celebrities I have selected Carola, because they often show quite an inspiring commercial for her collection of Christmas songs this time of year.

WARNING: I am going to write this without consulting Wikipedia, because it is late, I'm tired and I have a house full of guests. What that means is – you will need to do your own second-rate fact checking (because we all know how reliable Wikipedia is anyway).

Carola is the Swedish Eurovision princess. No one can belt a ballad quite like her. Wherever she goes someone follows her with a giant wind machine that gives her an almost ethereal glow.

From what I have gleaned, Carola sprung to fame as a teenager when she took Eurovision by storm and I think, took home the prize. (Please realize that this was long before the 'Eastern European Eurovision Conspiracy' took over – more on that later). I think Carola even went so far as to win Eurovision maybe twice? Which really makes her quite impressive.

The surprising thing about Carola is that she is a very devout Christian. She is one of the few Swedes that, if ever awarded an award, might accept it with an 'I'd like to thank the lord God for this Best Ballad Belter Award and of course, all my fans,' a sentiment that leaves many a Swede rather stumped.

A few years ago Carola made a grand Eurovision comeback. To fully exploit Eurovision to the extreme, the Swedish competition starts months in advance with 16 different songs competing for the Swedish spot (and no, I haven't decided if I will suffer through them for the sake of this blog). The announcement was made that Carola would compete amongst the 16 top songs. I said to my Swede and any other Swede who would listen 'Why are they doing this stupid sing off? We all know Carola will represent!' They responded 'Oh no, Carola is totally irrelavent these days. No one will vote for her, just wait and see.' And I waited. And Carola showed up, with her giant wind machine. And she won.

And to my surprise she took Sweden a lot further than most other groups in the finals. Because while I understand a little about the Swedish mentality, the European one remains a mystery. So kudos to Carola. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Have a Kalle Anka Jul!

One of the most Swedish of traditions is the infamous Kalle Anka or Donald Duck TV program at 3 pm Christmas Eve. When I used to come to Sweden as a kid, I was convinced Kalle Anke was some form of parental trickery. The equivalent of having Grandma take us to the movies on Christmas Eve, to get our crazy energy out of the house so the parents could make all the Christmas preparations. It wasn't until I attended my first Swedish Christmas with my husband that I realized that pretty much every household sits down to watch Kalle Anke on Christmas Eve. Parents and kids included.

Kalle Anke – as Donald is known in Swedish – is an ensamble of Disney cartoons from early days – to current films – with a somewhat Christmas theme. There are some standards – Donald, Mickey and Goofy going on vacation in a motor home or Donald duck going bird hunting – and then there are some rotating ones – Beauty and the Beast, or The Princess and the Frog. Every year someone notices small clips have been cut, and we theorize that it has to do with changing Swedish attitudes on violence or gender roles (because we have heard about the horrors of Donald Duck's gender roles), but really I think it is just a time issue. Kalle Anke is always only one hour long.

What can I say, we still have a few years left where we don't have to arrive at the Christmas Eve party by 3 pm to catch Kalle. Our LO hasn't learned about the Kalle Anke tradition yet. And this is a good thing. Because the BEST time to hit the road on Christmas eve is 2:45pm. The highways are empty. The roads are clear. There is no Christmas traffic. It's pretty much just us immigrants out there. And as much as they try to tell you - there really aren't THAT many of us.

The Swede's family live about an hour away, and we often stumble in just in time to catch the modern additions to Kalle Anke, the ones everyone complains about anyway – while we sip our Glogg. I have visions of convincing the Swedish fam that you can record the Kalle Anke and watch it one hour later, to continue this traffic friendly tradition, but I don't see that happening. Because Kalle Anke is to be watched at 3 pm. Punkt slut. (and no that's nothing about a punk slut, that means 'period or full stop' as the Brits say).

Friday, December 17, 2010

5 Vegetarian Dishes for a Very Merry Vegetarian Swedish Julbord

Having spent many years celebrating Swedish Christmas with loved ones, I feel like I finally have found a pretty good spread for my vegetarian Swedish smorgasbord. Traditionally Swedes have almost no veggies on the Christmas spread – except for a brown cabbage dish which doesn't exactly dance on the plate.

I'm not a big fan of fake meats – so what you will see here are just veggie swap outs – flavourwise they are nothing to really write home about – but they look the part. Maybe try one or two for your vegetarian loved ones.

1. Baked Swede – A substitute ham – The centerpiece of the Swedish Christmas table is the ham. OK, so Tofurkey has scared off many a meateater from vegetarian substitutes. Instead of ham, I prepare a breaded swede or rotebega. In the past I have boiled my swede in a vegetable boullion. This year I might bake it instead, since the flavours are better. Then I baste it in egg with a click of mustard, and then roll it in bread crumbs. This slices up nicely and looks a bit like ham. It doesn't taste anything like ham though.

2. Vegetarian Swedish meatballs – OK, so this is a bit of a shake-up. If you like fake meat products, just buy a box. I make mine from scratch with chickpeas, breadcrumbs and an egg – for consistancy. I flavour it with traditional Swedish meatball spices like nutmeg – and a Swedish allspice we have at home. I used a basic falafel recipe and changed the spices.

3. Eggplant 'herring' – I pickle some eggplant to mimic herring. One of the common herrings is mustard herring. To mimic this I take a few tablespoons of mustard, a dash of white wine vinegar, 2 dashes of canola oil, half a cup of cream, salt and pepper. I use this to cover small strips of eggplant that I have steamed in my steamer. (I cut the eggplant to about the same width as herring). Place in glass jar and let chill in the refrigerator.

4. Jonssons Temptation -without the temptation – traditionally this is a potato casserole with some anchovis mixed in. I serve just a plain potato casserole as this dish. Any respectable recipe will do

5. Rice cereal – this is one of those few vegetraian dishes on the menu – I have seen it served as a starter or a dessert. In my home we cheat and use rice flakes that you can find in Swedish stores. This takes about 15 minutes to prepare. Here is a basic recipe if you cannot find the flakes

Traditionally you hide an almond in the cereal – and the one who finds the almond is the next person to get married (or to get a little prize). The cereal is served with cinnamon and butter on top, and some people pour milk or fruit soup (another Swedish specialty) on top.

So Enjoy! And hope you have a very happy and perhaps a touch of the vegetarian, Swedish Christmas smorgasbord (or julbord as we say here!)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Things overheard from the Swedish Church

Truth is, I spend very little time in church. And by very little, I mean I think I can count the number of times I have been in a church for a service in my lifetime on my two hands. This makes me a little uncomfortable making sweeping generalizations about the Swedish church. So I have decided to focus this more on individual strange things I have occasionally heard while either in a church in Sweden, or from a priest in Sweden.

This fall, I took a music and movement class at the local church with my LO. It was a nice little class where we sang lots of Swedish songs and did some silly dances. There was very little religion, the occasional mention of God, and that is about it. The class is led by the church's cantor – her responsibility is the church's music program. She has a lovely soprano voice which the kids seem to love.

One of our cantor's favorite themes is – surprise surprise – gender equality. It began innocently, but surprisingly, enough with the instructions that we should sing one of the psalms about God the Mother, instead of God the father. OK, I thought. Great. I have always wondered if gender equality & the church could work something out like this – so I was happy to sing about God the Mother.

Then Christmas rolled around, and last week she rolled out the Christmas songs. And, well, I was even more surprised when we sang a lovely song about the birth of Jesus in which verse number one had the line 'And Mary stood with God's son in her arms' and then we sang it again with 'And Mary stood with God's daughter in her arms.' I had to hold back a giggle, but I admit I did smile. And all of the women in the group (Because despite it's gender equality theme – fathers seem to avoid this class like the plague- even though they get generous paternity leave and are commonly at swimming classes, theatre classes, photo classes, etc.) we smiled at each other with a 'wow, look how progressive we are' glint in our eyes.

And then at the very end, our cantor/leader sat down at the piano and announced 'Now we will sing a song from Kalle Anka/Donald Duck' (this is the cartoon EVERYONE in Sweden watches at Christmas) 'Although I KNOW Donald Duck is a terrible example of gender roles, and it is a terrible thing to watch,' she continued. I laughed out loud, and every mother in the room wrinkled their nose. One Mom turned to us and whispered 'But what did Donald do? I don't get it?”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Studying in Sweden – Native vs. Foreigner

OK – so one of the perks of living in Sweden (or up until this year even not living in Sweden) has been free access to University education. Swedish schools have offered Bachelors and Masters courses free of charge to students from around the world.

Why? Because up until this year, universities in Sweden got paid per passing student, per course, irregardless of whether the student ever had or would be a tax-paying resident of Sweden. This means it was in the universities 'best interest to recruit as many students as possible, to continue getting more and more funding each year. And so, yes, foreign students were a cash cow.

But as of 2011, this cash cow will dry up. Foreign students will have to pay their own way. And that, my friends, changes everything. Each school is working on setting up their own fees starting at around 100,000 sek per year, but no one knows just what to expect. How many foreign students will want to pay for education in Sweden? And what will that mean for the quality of the courses offered by the Swedish schools, will it increase with a new price tag? How many of these English Masters will weather the storm?

Applications are usually due for foreigners in January. It will be a good litmus test for next fall. This could mean good news to open up more spots for Swedes, but as the economy picks up, fewer Swedes will enroll in graduate school.

Part of my reason for asking this is a personal one. I'm debating applying for a Masters for the fall. But I wonder if there will be any left!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Better late than never – Celebrating St. Lucia

Yesterday was Dec. 13th, also known as Santa Lucia here in Sweden. It is a festival of lights, of sorts, and a real cozy experience if you have the chance to check it out.

For being exceedingly non-religious, most Swedish holidays still do link back to the church. And St. Lucia is one of the few for which many an average Swede can tell you a little bit about why you celebrate this day (compared to, say, the Pentecost, which tends to get a lot of blank stares but is also on the list of Swedish holidays)

Lucia is an Italian saint, but Sweden has adopted her and has taken good care of her. The story, according to some, goes that Lucia took a vow of chastity – and due to her unwillingness to marry a whole series of unfortunate events ensued – ending with her torture and her ability to withstand an enormous amount of pain before her death.

But the story has really very little to do with the celebration of this day in Sweden. See, Lucia is the only time the Swedes have anything slightly resembling a beauty contest on a large scale. Girls in each town compete for several weeks to be crowned St. Lucia. The runners up are her 'followers' and the girls parade through the town singing Lucia and Christmas songs. As in the US, there is a pretext to make this about other things than beauty – singing ability, charity, or just pure popularity are some of the common guises. But in the end, despite her Italian origins, Lucia is often portrayed as a nice Swedish blonde girl of about 17. To distinguish her from her lower ranked cohorts, she wears a red sash and a crown of candles (often electric) on her head.

But there is something warm and comforting about sitting in the Swedish darkness, listening to a bunch of kids sing by candlelight.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My, what a big lens you have!

In many cultures, if you want to show off your prowess, or make up for some that might be lacking, the quickest way to do this is to buy a flashy car. This strategy does not, however, work very well in Sweden. This is not just because flashy cars will send you back to the poor house. Did you know Sweden has a 25% VAT (that's value added tax for you Americans, and it's a lot like sales tax)? It's also because flashy cars go against the Jantelaw (more on this later) or the belief that you shouldn't think you are better than anyone else. 

So, what does your average Swede do to show off without showing off? Goes out and buys the biggest and most expensive lens they can find for their fancy DSLR camera.

I'm not kidding. Just go to any parade, wedding, or large event in Sweden and marvel at the sheer number of fancy cameras with gigantic lenses. I enjoy photography and I love taking pictures. I have a pretty nice camera with a couple of years under its belt. I look just like a teenager driving around in a little Pinto compared to the Ferarri's I'm surrounded by.

I do admit, I see these giant lenses hanging around men's necks, more often than women's. The women seem to prefer the handy 55mm. Last summer I even saw several kids running around the beach with fancy mid-sized lenses on their Nikons. So it's best to start them early!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Very Swedish Christmas – Those crazy Lussecats

As I mentioned earlier – Swedish Christmas is full of baking goodness. And one of my absolute favorite foods from this season is the Lussekatt. It's tricky to translate this word, Lussekatt, but it is loosely – Lussecats. These are also known as saffron buns, as there is a pinch of saffron in the dough to give it its beautiful yellow hue.

(This is a picture of our first batch from today - as you can see I have showed great restraint by only eating 2)

Every year Lussekatter hit the shelves a little bit earlier, and Swedes tend to complain that the advance sale of Lussekatter diminishes their 'Christmas specialness.' I however have to restrain myself from doing the Balki Bartakamus dance of joy the first time I spy these delicious rolls for sale each year. Although, I admit, I don't think I would love them quite so much if they were available year round.

Lussekatter are my idea of the perfect food because they are carbohydratey goodness, with just a pinch of sweet. And I've always been a lover of great breads over sweets.

Every year there is much ado about the price of saffron around Christmas because everyone is out to bake the Lussekatter. Saffron is expensive because it is the little yellow dust collected from the pistons of some flowers. This process, apparently, has not been perfected by machine, and must be done by hand. This year I went bargain hunting and got 2 packets of saffron for 25 sek at Overskottsbolaget. If you decide to buy from the former Swedish monopoly Apotek (as I'm sure you have caught on how
much this Swedish shop annoys me), it will set you back 40 sek.

We just use the recipe for Lussekatter from the back of the yeast for sweet dough, nothing fancy. I've translated it below and have given a basic substitute for the ingredient that is tough to find in the US.

Theres rolls are worth the trouble, and even if you don't have a Swedish husband patient enough to shape them in the traditional Lussekatt form, you can always just make round rolls – the taste is the same! My Swede disappeared after our first batch of Lussecats were in the oven – leaving me to fight with batch number two. I persevered, although the results weren't as pretty. But hey, I don't have 30 years of experience making these cats.

(This is a picture of the traditional Lussekatter shape - this is after their second rising period - before they were glazed and raisined)

12 grams yeast (sweet)
5 dl milk
17 dl flour
100g butter (room temp)
250 kesella (If outside of Sweden substitute with an egg for best results – you can experiment with greek yogurt if you are feeling brave)
1.5 dl sugar
.5 teasp salt
1 gr saffron

1 egg

  1. preheat oven to 225 C
  2. Mix yeast into flour
  3. Add salt, sugar, kesella, saffron
  4. Add lukewarm milk (40 C)
  5. Mix together until you get an even dough
  6. Let rise for 30 minutes
  7. Place dough on lightly floured table and shape into 35 Lussekatter
  8. Place on baking sheet covered with baking paper
  9. Let rise 45 minutes
  10. brush lussekatter with whisked egg and place one raisin in each end.
  11. Bake in the center of the oven for 5-7 minutes

Enjoy the saffron goodness!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Swedish parenting tip - the Christmas Edition - Do you want to play with fire, little boy?

One of the many differences between parenting styles in the US and Sweden is the attitude towards danger and dangerous things. In the US, the idea tends to be to prevent access to dangerous things, or safety proof things to such an extreme that all risk is taken away. I am reminded of a scene in Jamie Oliver's food revolution where kids are prohibited from using dull knives at the lunch table, because children shouldn't have access to knives.

The Swedish approach is the opposite – teach children from an early age how to handle dangerous things, and they will treat them with respect. Thus, many Swedish kids learn how to use a knife to carve, and they learn how to play with fire.

Christmas season is candle season. Sweden is pitch black in the winter, from top to toe. While I'm sure things are much worse further north (did you know Stockholm is located in middle Sweden? There is still about half a country north of it), it is dark here from about 4pm to 9 am. Candles are necessary if you want to have any natural light. Candles are simply a part of the Swedish Christmas spirit.

Today my kid and I went to the Swedish institution known as 'the open preschool.' I'll write about it in more detail later, but it's a place for those of us on parental leave to bring our kids for more organized activities. So there we were, singing some nice little Swedish Christmas songs (which includes some strange version of 'in a cottage in the woods' but with Santa Claus rescuing the little bunny from the hunter) when the Pre-school teacher lit a sparkler that she had hung from the ceiling. Sparks flew and of course all of the little ones were completely mesmorized.

I felt like I was fresh off the boat. I don't think I have seen too many fireworks inside American preschools. One of the kids cried 'again! Again!' and, well, she repeated the whole thing again. It didn't seem too dangerous – some sparks flew, but nothing too big. Nothing caught fire.

Over the past few years I have seen kids under 10 engage in some pretty strange activities during school hours: making candles from scratch with huge vats of hot melted wax, very young kids lighting their own tea candles to brighten the morning darkness, carrying lit candles during St. Lucia parades. Each of these activities makes the American in me go 'but wait, something bad can happen!' but when I try to think of an example of that bad, I am left at a blank.

So, I guess I will just be grateful that my kids will grow up feeling comfortable with fire and knives. And hope they don't burn the house down in the process.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Swedish Fashion - Men's edition- 35+

OK, so last week we took a look at the uniform of the Swedish woman, so what about her male counterpart? Well, unlike female fashion, male fashion does seem to fit into two age groups. I will put the line at 35 years old, but I do suspect this could be shifted a little closer to 30.

The Swedish male faces quite a dilemma when it comes to the fashion front. Unlike much of the rest of the world, the suit is frowned upon in Swedish male fashion. It is considered stodgy, old-fashioned, and way to formal. So what does the Swedsih male wear to appear professional, serious, but still approachable and 'non-hierarchical'?

The answer that the Swedish working world seems to have arrived at is: jeans and a v-neck sweater or a polo shirt.

(A Ralph Laren ad that captures the typical Swedish look)

Yes, this simple attire can be seen on most male office workers – from engineer, to CEO.

The trick is simple, in winter, men should sport a comfortable pair of jeans, not too tight, not too baggy. And they should wear a warm v-neck sweater sweater with a logo on the chest. In the summer, a polo shirt will do. Ideally these sweaters should be red, green, blue, or yellow. If you are working in a University environment, black would also be acceptable.

These sweaters or shirts should be brand name. The most acceptable are Ralph Lauren Polo and Gant. Lacoste is also common in the spring/summer season. However, I would suspect that as long as your shirt had an logo of sorts on the chest, no one would question you too much. If they do, just tell them that you had it tailor made for you on a trip to Thailand.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On a Serious Note: The crime of rape in Sweden

Sweden is making international headlines once again, but in a very strange manner. You have to live under a rock to have missed the ongoing battle to arrest and extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden on the charge of rape. Personally, I don't want to make this blog too much about political leanings and current events, but this touches upon an issue I have always struggled with in Swedish law. That is the charge of rape in the Swedish system.

Also, please note, I am not a lawyer and have not played one on TV. Most of this analysis is from reading the paper on a regular basis for years, and having read the actual law on the books with my layman's interpretation. If this subject intrests you, I encourage you to do your own digging.

The definition of rape, or våldtäkt, is exceedingly antiquated, in my humble opinion. In order to be charged with rape the victim had to have been forced into a sexual situation due to extreme violence or threat of violence/crime. There was no recognition under the law that the act of commiting a sexual act on someone who wasn't a willing partner was violence in and of itself. Also, in some cases, the victim had to explain why, if there was limited violence, they didn't fight back. If their reason was not substantial, the case could be downgraded to Sexual Assault. However, an exception is may be made if the victim cannot fight back because they have been drugged, are asleep, or passed out.

And then lets look at the statistics. According to Amnesty International over 3,500 rapes were reported in 2007. 450 cases were persued by the prosecuter. The rest were closed. But it gets worse.

Because Swedish courts have an incredibly hard time (understandably so) with he said/she said (or whatever assemblage of pronouns you might need here). The supreme court has repeatedly overturned cases in which anyone has been jailed on the power of testimony, only. And as of 2009 has stated that they will repeatedly do so.

Of those 450 rape cases that went to court in 2007. 216 people were convicted. That is 216 convictions in 3,500 reported rapes.

Here is a highly controversial example from several years ago: A young girl, 13, spends an afternoon drinking with some older men (I believe early 20's). She gets very drunk and they all have sex with her. They are charged with statuatory rape. They are freed because they say the girl told them she was 15 (the legal age) and they cannot prove that the men knew she was 13 years old. The only people there were the men and the girl. No one can prove they knew her age.

And what happens to those convicted folk? The maximum jail sentence is 4 years. Unless there is evidence of extreme violence, in which case it can be elevated to 10 years. Want to take a guess how many times that has happened?

So this is why this whole Assange thing has got me scratching my head. Are they SO sure they can actually get this guy for rape? Given all of the difficulties they have getting John Doe convicted of rape? Was he really so reckless? Because if not, that would mean some pretty crazy things are going on. Author and 'I swear the US hates me so much they won't let me in' spokesman Jan Guillou was on TV last night saying that even he felt this was too crazy to be a conspiracy theory. And if he says so, that only makes me scratch my head even more.

What is going on here? For more information please see the Amnesty web site – their report 'Case Closed' on rape in Scandinavia.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Swedish Celebrities: Thomas Di Leva

So you might be wondering how I got from ABBA to Thomas Di Leva, but Di Leva represents a big step in my integrating into Sweden process. He is the first very Swedish celebrity that I recognized on TV. Now, I know, if you know anything about Thomas Di Leva, you know this is no great feat. Di Leva looks like a magician from the 80's and wears skirts and dresses everywhere he goes. But I was pretty happy with myself, since I am am still terrible at recognizing famous Swedes. Dancing With the Stars in Sweden looks like 'Random People learning to Dance' to me.

So what does Thomas Di Leva do and why is he famous? That is a pretty good question. Usually after recognizing Di Leva on the screeen, I prompty change the channel. I am pretty sure he is a singer of some sort. And that he has a rather long career. I cannot name a single song he wrote/sings – but I am sure that I have heard one now and then on P1-4 (God bless Swedish national radio) on a road trip. I will venture a guess and say that he probably makes some New Agey kind of music of sorts. I guess this not just based on his outfits, but also due to the few times that I have heard him speak it usually involves 'soul, beauty, soul, zen, fluffy clouds, guru, blah.'

If you are in Sweden at the moment, you can catch Di Leva in one of the many 'Keep Swedish Celebrities Famous' TV shows– Så Mycket Bättre on Channel 4. If you don't know much about Swedish music this show is a bit like watching paint dry – but if you are making an honest effort to assimilate, oops I mean integrate, then this show cannot be missed. From the little that I have watched, they seem to take a handful of Swedish artists from diverse genres and have them sing each other's music. After watching it you can say to your Swedish colleagues things like 'I really loved Di Leva's interpretation of Petter's bastardization of Cornelius' 'Old, Smelly Shoes' didn't you?' (disclaimer: now I am just showing off what little I think I know about Swedish music – I have no idea if this moment in TV history has or will happen and I'm not even sure that 'trasiga skor' was initially a Cornelis song – but what the hey).   

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Very Swedish Christmas - The Christmas Present of the Year!

OK, this is an interesting Swedish phenomenon, but every year the media announces THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT OF THE YEAR. I'm never very sure who decides the Christmas Present of the year, and many years they are very off base, but you can usually take the selection as indication of spending moods of the population, the economy, and trends.

Take last year, for example. Last year's present of the year was the very strange plastic 'bed of nails.' People weren't expected to spend too much on Christmas presents when the economy was still a little uncertain, but they were expected to spend 80-100 dollars on a plastic bed of nails to lie on to relieve their stress about the poor economy. These were all over the place, so much so that the New York Times did a write up on the phenomenon. I told my husband he would be in big trouble if I found a plastic bed of nails under the tree.

Here is a list of Christmas presents of years past

2008: An Experience
2007: A GPS
2006: An audiobook
2005: A poker set
2004: A flatscreen TV
2003: A hat
2002: A cookbook
2001: A tool
2000: A dvd player
1999: Books (the bible in particular)
1998: Computer games
1997: Electronic pets
1996: An internet package
1995: A CD
1994: A cell phone
1993: perfume
1992: A videogame
1991: a CD player
1990: a Wok
1989: A video camera
1988: A bread machine

And 2010! The Christmas Present of the year is the Surfplatta.

One woman told me 'I don't know why the Surfplatta is the Christas present of the year, I mean, how much surfing can we do in Sweden, anyway?' I pointed out that it probably shouldn't be used for that kind of surfing and I think she was a little embarassed.

I'm all teched out at the moment – with my new Mac everything but an Ipad – so I will say, no thank you to this one. Haven't gotten X-mas present of the year yet, maybe next year it will be something more my speed.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Very Swedish Christmas: The Gingerbread Edition

Ok, so I usually try to avoid the subject of Swedish food, not just because, as Bill Bryson wrote 'Eating in Sweden is really just a series of heartbreaks,” and he wasn't too far off. If the food doesn't depress you, chances are the bill will crush you. But also because I am a vegetarian, and this means I abstain from most of the Swedish classics. No herring, no herring, and no herring.

But baked goods I can do. And occasionally I try to do them myself. It's Christmas and that means Gingerbread, Lussekatter, and Glogg. Three things I can partake in – although I'm not a huge Glogg fan.

Many Swedish women get crazy ambitious at Christmas. As much as Swedes are all 'yay equlity' there is nothing like Christmas to bring out some old-fashioned gender roles. The many Swedish women I know end up not only baking all December long, but also making Christmas chocolate, hanging the Christmas curtains, and stimulating an economic recovery of enourmous preportions by buying all of the menfolk in their lives the Christmas Present of the year -the Surfplatta (read: Ipad – more on this weird present tradition soon).

Well, I am not quite so ambitious. And I am not trying to recreate a Swedish Christmas of yore. But I am home on leave at the moment. And these leads me to bake more often than usual. So I whipped together a lovely batch of Gingerbread cookies. But no, I am not Ingrid Svensson, so I did not just throw together a gingerbread house that was an exact replica of my own house, the local church, or a NYC skyscraper. In fact, I will not be baking a gingerbread house at all. Thank you very much. And these I just used a regular drinking glass to cut.

I modified a recipe (use at your own risk) to kind of Americanize these Swedish cookies by adding brown sugar (NOT BROWN FARIN!) if you don't have it, you can just use white sugar instead:
Please note: This makes a LOT of cookies!

300 grams of butter (room temp)
4 dl of sugar
1 dl brown sugar
1 dl light syrup
1 package of pepparkaka kryddor
1 tablespoon of Ginger
1 tbs baking soda
2 dl water
15 dl flour

  1. Preset your oven to 225 C
  2. Cream the butter, sugar (brown and white) and syrup in one large bowl.
  3. Add the pepparkaka kryddor and the water, mix well.
  4. Slowly add the flour, while kneading the mixture with your hands. When the dough becomes thick, remove from bowl and knead on a baking tray.
  5. Wrap the dough in foil and let it rest in the refrigerator for 12 hours – 1 day.
  6. Remove dough from fridge and roll it out in small sections – until it is a thin, even layer.
  7. Use cookie cutter to cut figures and place figures on baking tray.
  8. Cookies take 4-5 minutes to bake.
  9. Let cookies cool – they can be frozen or stored in a sealed container for apprx. 1 month.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Swedish rules: Drugs are bad, Mkay?

I feel a cold coming on, and thus am reminded of one of the biggest contrasts between Sweden & the US – over-the-counter medication – or even presecription meds if we get down to it.

So just what can you do in Sweden when you feel a pain in your throat, or a headache and stuffy nose? You run out to your recently demonoploized pharmacy or now – as of this summer – your local grocery store (hallelujah) and pick up echinacea or the mysterious liquid Kan Jang. Or you can stock up on nasal spray if you are really desparate.

If you have a fever, your options widen a bit – there is tylanol (paracetamol), ibuprofan, and a few others to choose from.

But if it is a decongestant you need, you are basically screwed.

Now don't get me wrong, I love a good herbal remedy, in the beginning stages of illness I am more than willing to give it a go. But when I am miserable, and sick, echinacea just doesn't always cut it.

One of the few things I still buy every trip to the US is a huge supply of Nyquil. Because the only thing that comes close is a doctors prescription for a cough syrup based on morphine. We call it Uncle Sven's Cough Syrup around here.

In general, Swedes are a lot slower to take meds than in the US, where you pop a pill at first sneeze. I know an elderly couple that moved here and had their number of prescriptions halved. They say they have never felt better. Instead, Swedes tend to take a day or two off of work, stay in bed, and recover.

Now you can argue this from two perspectives – that this is an example of socialist mentality trying to deny meds to keep down health care costs – or that this is an example of an out of control capitalist society selling more products than people need, just to make a buck.

I am somewhere in the middle on this one. I have been over prescribed antibiotics in the US, which gave me some health issues in and of itself. But, damn, sometimes I miss being able to find a painkiller with a protective stomach coating, and a decent decongestant.

Oh, and a quick internet search shows that the mysterious Kan Jang is another echinacea concoction.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Swedish Fashion - Women's Edition -Everyone else is wearing it and you will, too!

OK I am a bit hesitant to say much about Swedish fashion – mostly because the Swedes are considered a rather fashionable folk – and I am far from being a fashionista. But since I have to live and breathe Swedish fashion daily, I am going to weigh in on the subject.

In someways Sweden seems it might be the ideal place for the non-fashionista. Mostly because, when something is fashionable in Sweden, it is ALL you find here. From the high-end shops, to the racks of H&M, there is no avoiding the trends of the season, if you choose to do any shopping that season.

It goes so far that if you are invited to an event which requires fancy-dress, and dresses are not in style that month, you might be able to find 3 dresses in your size to choose between, in the whole town. And none of them will be simple and black. Thank god for the internet.

And it does not matter your age – everyone wears the trend of the moment, irregardless of its age inappropriateness. Let's take one of last season's looks, the 'Whoops I forgot my pants' look which consisted of a pair of leggings and an extra large men's shirt. Not only would you find this look at your local high school, you could also find it on your 20 something receptionist, your 40 year old project manager, and your 65 year old grandmother.

And let's be frank here, there are very few people that manage to pull off this look successfully. I know. I tried. Because 'Whoops I forgot my pants' is a deceptively easy look for the new mother who doesn't fit into their pre-pregnancy jeans. And I say deceptively easy because you feel great until you see the photographic evidence.

So, if you love trends -Sweden is the place for you. If you are trying to create 'your own look,' it might take a bit more leg work. I've learned over the years that when I like a season's trend to stock up, because there might not be anything I like for awhile. This year there seem to be a lot of flower prints ala when I was 16, and some pretty scary stone-washed jeans. Looks like my wallet will be getting a break this spring. Thank god I fit into those old jeans again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Parental tip: There will be Välling

If you have an infant in Sweden – chances are you have heard of the miraculous Swedish baby food also known as Välling. From around the age of 6 months and above, välling becomes the cornerstone of the Swedish baby's diet.

In the US we are taught that babies receive most of their nutrition until the age of 1 from either breastmilk or formula. But in Sweden, most of the old school nurses (who you meet with instead of peds) will tell you that none of that is really necessary. All a baby needs is a complete diet and lots and lots of välling.

Swedish parents swear by it as well. It is probably one of the things Swedish ex-pats miss the most when living abroad – since Välling does not seem to exist anywhere outside of Scandinavia.

So what is Välling? And why is it the liquid of the vikings?

Surprisingly, Välling does not fulfill many of the standard Swedish rules. Which shows just how important it is, since Swedes are willing to overlook these rules. 1) It is factory produced – you cannot make Välling yourself, you have to buy the processed form. 2) It is a WHITE product – not a dark, GI favorable food (although you can now find fiber enriched välling as well).

According to the nurse we see, Välling is a cereal – similar to feeding your child oatmeal. The main difference is that it is often wheat based. It is slightly thicker than formula, and fed to babies in bottles, often before bedtime. There is also quite a bit of palm oil and canola in most of the forms of välling. Most are also fortified, to supply all of the minerals needed in a balanced diet. And they contain powdered milk.

If we conduct a completely unscientific study and look at Swedes vs. Americans, despite the strange ingredients it appears Välling as a child does not leave you with a lifetime risk for obesity, and other illnesses. There was one study that seemed to show it can give some increase risk for gluten intolerance.

Personally, we haven't tried Välling in our house – but if we don't get some sleep around here soon, that might change.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What? You want to get off the train? But I'm getting on here!

I wrote earlier about Swedes systematic line forming – with the help of numbers. Organizing lines tends to be quite quick and cutting is avoided using this wise system.

However, a problem occurs with impromptu lines – even though they are easily anticipated lines.

One great example of this is what occurs pretty much every time a train stops at a major train station. As the train pulls in, the people on the platform head for the door. They create a giant mass that encircles every door and push to position themselves so as to be one of the first to enter the train.

Then, the strangest thing happens. The doors to the train open, and, surprise of all surprises, people want to get off the train. The ring of awaiting passengers looks perplexed. Do they move to the side to let these passengers off, and risk losing their prime position for boarding the train?

Often the person closest to the line of fire, the one who risks being trampled in the ensuing melee, the one directly opposite the door, will back down and move to the left or right. This leaves a tiny opening for the passengers aboard the train to push through the crowd.

The remaining people, refusing to move and give up there space in the line, roll their eyes, look at the ground, and grunt with annoyance, at the people that have decided to get off at the stop they have been spending the last minute trying to leave.

The doors to the train are often wide enough for two rows of passengers to exit or enter. When the line of people exiting the train trickles down to only one passenger wide, those passengers who have been waiting on the 'correct' side, will push their way on to the train while others continue to disembark. This creates a lot of dirty looks from those getting on and off the train. Some might even mumble under their breath. But rarely will it go so far that anyone has to talk to each other.

Despite the fact that most train travellers in Sweden take the train on a daily basis, they still seem utterly surprised by the fact that there are often passengers that want to get off the train.

So if you want to be like the Swedes, as soon as the train arrives, push your way as close as possible to the door and then refuse to move anywhere but onto the train. But if you just want to keep the peace, it is often easiest to wait until the crowd has subsided and board the train. The conductor will not leave until all the passengers have boarded the train. The only thing you risk is losing a seat, and if there are many people trying to exit the trian, chances are you will still get one!

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Very Swedish Christmas - The first of advent

A Very Swedish Christmas – The first of Advent

December in Sweden is quite fantastic. Christmas gets everyone out of the November dumps and into a much cheerier mindset – if you can manage to overlook the shopping chaos. And given the reports of a booming and fully recovered economy- it will be true shopping chaos again this year.

Although many Christmas trees and decorations are set up before the start of Advent, it is the first of Advent which is the official starting line for the Christmas season. All the houses get out their advent candles, electric candalabras, stars in the windows – and now more often than ever before, outdoor lighting displays (although not as gregarious as the US).

Given that we now only get about 6-7 hours of sunlight per day, the extra lighting is almost a necessity.

For the kiddies – there is the advent calander tv-show and a small present per day. For the grownups it means the start of the Christmas Smorgasbord, the beginning of the Glogg, and the first gingerbread of the season. There are many traditions that remain truly Swedish, and I will try to touch on many of them here during the next month.

But the first of Advent is celebrated by a tree lighting ceremony in many city centres – a Christmas market (smaller than many of the German traditional markets – and thanks to Swedish policy – without the booze). It is also one of the biggest days of church attendance during the year – often more people go to church for the start of Advent than on Christmas eve.

Here it really does feel like Christmas – we've got half a foot of snow on the ground, it's below freezing out, and it is absolutely breathtaking. But I'm still not ready to bet on a white Christmas.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Swedish Celebrities: ABBA

OK, so they are the obvious choice. But ABBA is a national pride. And are as Swedish as apple pie (which Swedes will tell you is 100% Swedish).

Benny, Bjorn, Anni-Frid, and Agnetha have all paid king's ransoms to the Swedish government in taxes over the last few decades – and they are one of the few groups who haven't reunited to go on one last 'rake it all in' tour. They have only been spotted together briefly. The reluctance to reunite may be linked to their former marital status – and the fact that half of their profits would go directly to the Swedish state.

While ABBA is a mainstay at many gay clubs throughout the English speaking countries – here in Sweden you can still hear the ABBA classics blasted at nightclubs aimed at the under 25 and any sexual orientation set. Not to mention it often gets dragged out at private parties after midnite and a couple of rounds of drinks. This behaviour reached a peak after the release of Mama Mia – the movie. That midsummer was an ABBA fest extroadinaire.

And Swedes of most ages still have at least one ABBA CD in their collection – or on the ipod. Not to mention they know every word to Dancing Queen and sing Happy New Year proudly, every new year.

ABBA also represents a great Swedish victory at Eurovision songcontest – this Euopean dinosaur has no American equivalent – although it probably should. The Swedish foursome won Eurovision with their hit Waterloo. Sweden is still trying to figure out the magic formula to win Eurovision this decade, and are exceedingly proud of their former Eurovision champions.

Every year at Eurovision time we are treated to images of ABBA taking the stage and winning the hearts and minds of first Europe and then the world.

I had a friend who used to say 'There is a reason why the USA gave us blues music and Sweden gave us ABBA.” And I think that is a pretty fair statement on the situation.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Swedish Politics 101 - The Moderates

For the last four years, the Moderates have been at the helm of the Swedish government. And not so long ago, they won the Swedish public's vote of approval for another term. So who are they and what do they want?

The Moderates are led by current prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. And they are about as right wing as you get in Sweden – politcally. So if we compare to the American model, the Moderates are the Republicans of Swedish government. Except that, in Sweden, even the Moderates fall far left of any American party.

Although I am pretty sure in his own head, Reinfeldt would like to be able to see himself as a Swedish Ronald Reagan, in truth, Barak Obama looks more like Reagan than Reinfeldt. Basically, the Moderates seem to support some type of less interfering, smaller government, lower taxes, less spending, etc. The problem is, this is Sweden.

But let's take a look at some of the policies the Moderates have passed in the last four years. It should give you a sense of where they stand. 

  • Sold the government owned portion of Absolut vodka (quite a controversial move – as Absolut is a cash cow for the Swedish government)
  • Demonopolized Apoteket – the nationally controlled pharmacy in Sweden
  • No more property tax – only a max payment of 6,000 sek per year to the county (depending on value of home) (Yes, New Jersey, there is no property tax in Sweden!)
  • Reduced unemployment benefits (so now several states in the US offer better unemployment)
  • Reduced sick leave benefits – limited time on sick leave

The list goes on, but I think the above indicates a bit about what the party is about anyway. 

And not to make things TOO confusing, but here in Sweden the right wing is represented by the blue color, and the left wing by the red. Remember the Commies are the reds.

Oh, and did you notice that bit about no property tax – and still getting all those crazy socialist benefits?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Parenting tip #3 - Babies sleep better in the cold

Back when I lived in NYC there was the famous story of the Danish couple who left their baby in a stroller outside some restaurant. The couple was arrested for child abuse and the child taken away. In the days that followed the couple claimed that this was a common Danish tradition and they leave their child outside in Copenhagen. So why not NYC? 

To which all of us New Yorkers answered, 'well because it's NYC stupid.'

OK, This blog is not about  Denmark, but this behaviour is really common here in Sweden. Even in the midst of snow fall, and freezing temperatures, countless people leave their babies outside while napping. Why? Because, babies sleep better in the cold.

If you walk around my neighborhood – a bunch of hideous newly built houses (more on that later) with tons of young families - you will probably see a good 20 -30 SUV strollers parked outside in the snow. And if you don't have a house, you can always let your baby sleep out on the balcony. Seriously.

Despite this trend of leaving your baby outside – I cannot say that I have heard of a single babynapping in the years I have lived here. There have been freak accidents. There was a baby who was smothered to death by a cat in Sweden. A bunch of hooligans flipped over a baby into the snow in Finland, but the Mom found the baby shortly thereafter and everyone was fine. And if we go back to the Danes, a bicycle was stolen with a baby-carrying device attached to it. There was a baby sleeping in this device. The bicycle thief realized this a few blocks later and abandoned the bike. Baby was returned safely.

This might be enough to stop you from every letting your baby sleep outside – but when you think of how many babies are doing this around here – and how few accidents you read about – it seems pretty safe. I mean, bad things can happen anywhere, right?

I can tell you my little one is a horrible sleeper. But I haven't yet resorted to sticking him out in the snow and hoping it will help. Maybe I should try it one of these days?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Take a number!

OK, so Swedes hate standing in line. Which I totally understand. But since it is impossible to get rid of lines all together, and still get anything done, they have found away around this. They instead insist you take a number and wait until your number is called.

They do this everywhere. At the bakery, at the bank, at the train station, at Cervera to buy Royal Copenhagen stuff, at the cheese shop. You take your little number and wait. This can often be a useful solution. If the weather is nice and the sign is big enough, you can wait outside until your number is called. Or you can browse around, until it is your turn.

The trouble is when you don't realize the store has a number system. You wait and push your way up to the counter. That is when the sales person refuses to speak with you, and just points to the number sign on the wall. Then you have to search frantically for the number dispensing machine, which can be hard to find.

Occasionally there is solidarity in numbers. Someone decides they don't need their number, so they pass it on instead of throwing it away. Someone accidently takes two numbers, and passes one on to the next shopper. It is one of the few times I have seen Swedes who don't have to interact with each other, volunteer to interact with each other.

It used to be that Systembolaget – the Swedish socialist alcohol monopoly – used the number system to dispense all of the alcohol in the country. It was quite a way to spend a Friday evening. They kept all of the booze behind the counter. You filled in a little slip with your order, and they picked the alcohol for you from their warehouse. These days the Systembolaget is still a socialist alcohol monopoly, but they have instead filled their stores with good old fashioned capitalist shelves. They allow you to pick your booze yourself, in the glory of flourescent watt lighting, and wait in a regular line to purchase it.

Before heading to the counter, check for ticket dispensing machines and a screen displaying numbers.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Swenglish tip #2 - Fika

When I first heard the term fika, I was in love. Mostly because I had confused the words fika and ficka. One is pronounsed 'feeka' and the other is pronounced 'ficka'

A fika, or feeka, is a Swedish national pasttime – the coffeebreak. Ficka is a pocket. For a long time I thought that it was a beautiful metaphor – the coffeebreak as a pocket of time, a break in the day where you can sit around cozily and do nothing productive.

It turns out it wasn't a metaphor – but fika is a great tradition nonetheless. Many foreigners end up adapting the word into English - 'Shall we fika?' works well.

To fika can be a challenge for Americans. It goes against our instincts of multitasking with a giant latte in hand. To fika you must grab a cup of coffee from either the communal pot – or the coffee shop. And depending on where you are you grab a corresponding pastry or half of a roll with a slice of cheese. There will often be a piece of cucumber or pepper on your roll.

Then you and your colleagues or friends sit around and discuss topics like 'the eastern European conspiracy to win Eurovision,' the unfairness of the football games that got Sweden thrown out of what ever championship is currently being played, or political strife in any other country but Sweden.

The truth is, in Sweden, you MUST fika. I tried to avoid it. It drove me crazy when I would show up at the office, look at the pile of things to do on my desk, turn to my colleagues and we would all go 'agh SOO much work to do!' and then they would go off and sit around drinking coffee and talking crap for 30 minutes. And they would shoot me the worst looks while I tried to start working right away.

So to keep the peace, I do both the 9am fika and the 3pm fika. And I highly recommend you do the same.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dinner is Served Dinner is Served Dinner is Served

'Dinner is Served.' 'Dinner is Served.' 'Dinner is Served'

OK I will admit. This Swedish rule took me ages to figure out. Mostly because I always managed to chicken out and get really nevous anytime I was put in this social situation. It wasn't until a friend explained to me that this seemed to be a new, evolving Swedish thing that I caught on.

The scene:

You are at a dinner/lunch party. You are socializing over a drink while the hostess/host is getting the food set out on a buffet table. The guests are mingling and making small talk.

The hostess/host walks into the area where everyone is socialisng and announces “Dinner is served.”

All the guests pretend this never happened and pick up their small talk where they left off.

After many nervous glances the host/hostess will clear their throat and announce again 'Dinner is served.' After this announcement, several guests might glance and smile politely at the hostess before returning to their small talk. This might calm the host/hostess' nerves, since they now see that their guests have heard their announcement. But then, no one moves towards the food. Everyone stays put.

According to my Swedish source, several years ago, it used to be on the second announcement of 'Dinner is served' that people began to migrate. But now, to do so, will make you first and last in the buffet line.

Because it is only when the host/hostess comes out the third time and announces 'Dinner is served' that he/she gets a true reaction from the guests. 'Ooooh, I am hungry' 'That buffet table looks wonderful' a line begins to form. And people begin to load their plates.

I will admit that in my first years in Sweden I was often the first person at the buffet table because I took the first announcement to mean 'Dinner is served.' And also because the hostess/host usually begins to look very nervous and unsure. They try to make eye contact with the various guests – and nothing. At this point I would slowly walk towards buffet table and wait for others to follow. That did not happen. Even the kids at the party, who I would normally try to shoo in front of me, did not come near the buffet table.

When I host, neither me nor the Swede have any tolerance for this shenaningans. If no one goes to the buffet table, we will serve ourselves, sit down and wait for our guests to wrap up their small talk. Not great hosting, but hey 'Dinner is served.'

It is polite to wait for the third invite before eating at a party

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Swedish Politics 101 - The Social Democrats

Despite not being the party currently in power, I am going to start my look at Swedish government with the Social Democrats because they ilustrate all that is Sweden.

As a foreigner it can be easy to confuse the Social Democrats with the Sweden Democrats (at least for this foreigner) due to name alone. This is a very dangerous mistake. The Sweden Democrats are a highly controversial, anti-immigrant party, that we will take a look at later.

The Social Democrats have been the leading party in Sweden for much of the last century. And given that each party elects their own party head, and that party head goes on to become prime minister when the party wins, I've always felt slightly ill at ease with the democratic process here in Sweden. That said, for the first time in memorable history, Social Demokraterna, also known as S (NOT SD), have lost 2 major elections in a row, so kudos to democracy.

When Americans go on and on about the terrible dangers of Socialism, it is usually the image of the Social Democrats that comes up. I find this terribly confusing because when I studied Socialism in school it was all 'the government & the people own and oversee production.' But now everyone is more afraid of government sponsored healthcare and bailouts of financial giants. It is confusing. Espcially since in Sweden we even have a privately owned mail delivary service.

The Social Democrats frequently run on the promise that they 'will raise taxes' (this is in fact what one S representative told me in the town square before election) but that we will see this tax money in increased benefits for all. They were offering higher unemployment payments, longer sick-leave, and more money to the schools (in my town anyway)last election cycle. It would cost me a couple of percent of my income.

Usualy this tactic works for S. I usually joke that the Moderates (the right wing party) are the check and balance system for the S political domination (yes I am that much fun to have at parties). That is, S goes around raising taxes, spending a boatload of money on social programs, increasing spending every year, and then once every 12-18 years the right wing comes in, chops away at this severely. Annoys everyone. And gives the S room to come back and raises taxes and spending. In perfect symbiosis. Until this last election which shocked the pants off of everyone. (well anyone who wasn't really reading the news too much).

Sweden is also one of those confusing multi-party parliments. This means that despite the fact that S were considered the losers of last election (and indeed they were) they were the party that received the most votes (by a historically low .5%). They didn't win power because their coalition was still behind the right-wing coalition.

Confusing, I know. So this week in the news S booted their leader, Mona Sahlin and will soon nominate a new party leader. This is an exciting time for S as they will be deciding a new way to try to spend tax money to appeal to a wider audience.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Swedish myth #1 - There is no bad weather, only bad clothing

One of Swedes' favorite topic of conversation is, undoubtedly, the weather. Good, bad, or indifferent opening small talk is usually about what is going on outside.

Given that the weather in Sweden is not the greatest, Swedes have adopted a rather optimistic tag line to describe the best way to deal with the Swedish climate 'Där finns ingen dålig väder, bara dålig kläder' which translates to 'there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.

All I can say is, 'They Lie!' Or as my Mother used to say "Just because everyone says it, doesn't make it so."

Seriously. There is some terrible weather. And a lot of that terrible weather seems to be in Sweden.

There is some great clothing as well. And terrible weather seems to be a great excuse to jack up the price on some pretty great 'all-weather gear.' Fjällraven will outfit you in hardcore rain gear, winter jackets, and backpacks for several thousand dollars, if you are so inclined. But even with all of your fancy outdoor gear on, chances are you will still hate the weather.

I mean, let us turn the phrase around. 'There is no good weather, only good clothing.' That doesn't even makes sense. Because every Swede and their mother will tell you that despite all of its terrible weather, Sweden has some fantastic weather, usually during it's mythical summers, or for three days in April.

This phrase does not reassure me when I sit around wondering why I didn't move to Italy, or California. Places where the weather is often great. Swedes will tell you this is patently untrue - the weather in these places is often, the worst of the worst, too hot. When the weather is too hot, no amount of Fjallraven gear can help you.

I was thinking about this as I was trudging around town today in slushy rain/snow with  my giant SUV stroller. The phrase should be 'there is no bad weather, there are only bad strollers," because while the water seeped up my pant leg, my winter coat got damp and heavy, and my hair went to hell and never came back, my SUV stroller kept on trucking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Parenting Rule #2 Gender Bender

Parenting Rule #2 – Gender bender

You may have heard a bit about the fabulous gender equality that exists here in Sweden. And for the most part that is true. And it is great. (yes this is vastly simplified – more on the subject later). So, how do you dress your newborn/infant to reflect your fabulous 'I see no gender' mentality? It is a battleground.

Personally I am all for dressing kids in rather androgynous clothing. I hate pink, so don't buy until they ask specifically for it. I go for the middle ground – greens, reds, yellows, oranges – and hope for the best. If someone says 'oh what a cute little girl' about my son, I correct them and am not offended. Vice versa if they say the same about my daughter. Let's face it, for the first year it can be hard to tell, right?

But yes, I admit I have some gender goggles on. My first day at the 'open forskola' (a preschool that parents & kids go to together) I ran into plenty of little Eliases dressed in purple and pink. There were several Lovisa's in navy sweats and truck sweatshirts. And I stopped using any pronouns after the first five minutes because I kept getting it all wrong. And did I mention these were all first babies? I mean I understand if they had some hand me down 'gender specific' clothing – I totally get that.

In a way I was surprised at my reaction. I consider myself a feminist – and as I said – don't make an effort to dress my kids 'girly' or 'tough guy.' But I also don't make an effort to dress them in the opposite gender wear either.

I think it has to do with the fact that despite all the talk – there is huge gender stereotyping in Swedish clothing. Once my kids were older than 6 months it got progressively harder to find androgynous stuff. Sure, there is Polern and Pyret – but for those days that you don't want to spend 50$ on a pair of leggings they will outgrow in 2 months – what then? Maybe this is the parents rebelling a little from the trappings of the clothing companies?

A few months ago there was a story in the paper about a Mom who took it one step further. She didn't tell anyone the gender of her child – dressed them in androgynous clothing, and used a made up Swedish pronoun -kind of like calling your child 'Sho' in stead of He or She (Hen FYI). Way too exhausting for me.

So Parenting tip #2 avoid using 'He/she (and probably also sho)' when meeting babies for the first time – and think carefully about what social message your child's wardrobe is sending

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Swedish dilemma #1 - Choosing your battle

After living here for many years, I have to say one of the things I admire most about the Swedes is their ability to take a cause seriously. I don't think I have met any Swede's lately who 'pooh-pooh' climate change, pollution, or the value of slow food. And not only do folks not insult it, they often make active steps in their lives to illustrate that they take these causes seriously.

Yay! You might be thinking. And I don't blame you.

But what ends up happening is a whole boat load of ethical dilemmas EVERY time you go to the supermarket.

Example #1 Bananas: My kids eat a lot of them. And I enjoy them as well. A Swede even made that supercontroversial Banana movie that you might have heard got them in trouble with Chiquita.

But every time I go to buy bananas I'm faced with a moral choice. I can buy the Ethical bananas which promise a fair wage to their employees. Or I can buy the organic banana, which promises fewer chemicals will be ingested by my kids. Or I can buy the regular old banana which promises it will be 1 dollar cheaper than the other two.

Example #2 My oatmeal: Every morning I have oatmeal for breakfast. I love it. But I switch my oatmeal a lot because I never know which one is the best to buy. Take the oatmeal I ate this morning. It is plain oatmeal. It has a symbol on it stating that it is a healthy choice (this is a green keyhole in Sweden). This particular oatmeal has been locally produced. I can read that this particular bag of oatmeal contributed 1.3 kg CO2 into our atmosphere. I can go online and track how my oatmeal was produced, where it came from, where it was processed etc.
I alternate this oatmeal with another brand which is organic. That brand promises me fewer pesticides – but is not as good for the environment when it comes to CO2.
Then there is the third sort – it is neither organic nor climate friendly, but it promises me extra fiber in my diet – which could be healthiest for me in the long run. It also tastes really good. It also has the keyhole to health sign.
Choice is nice, but confusing.

Example #3 Eggs: Stick with me here. This is the last one. I realize in the US you have a lot of eggs to choose from as well. Sweden is very big on happy chickens because it was the pet cause of literary hero Astrid Lindgren. In order to assess my eggs I need to check the stamp on the side of the eggs and match it with the code on the top of the box (this could be because I tend to shop at the bargain grocery store)
Code 1 means – free range indoor chickens, Code 2 means free range indoor with access to outdoors. Code 3 means outdoor free range chickens. There is also a letter E or F, one means Organic, the other is not. It is a time consuming process. I want to make sure I have happy chicken organic eggs.

Now I just read on ( that a clothing store is trying to document all information so we can make better informed decisions about the clothes we buy. I think that is a great idea. I would love to see where my money is going and what my clothes are being sprayed with. But I am a little frightened of needing to make conscious decisions between child labour and known carcinogens.