Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sweden: The Last Place on Earth Where Jersey is Cool?

OK, I grew up there. I know that Jersey, or New Jersey to the rest of the world, is a lot of things - but cool is not one of them.

Growing up, a lot of the terrible things about Jersey could be morphed into semi-cool things:

All the malls
The giant hair
The accent - cawfee tawk anyone?
The mob
The Turnpike

Led to a few really cool things like:

Kevin Smith movies
Welcome to the Dollhouse
The Sopranos

The Nets, who were the laughing stock of the NBA when I was a kid, actually kind of redeemed themselves. The Devils dominated the NHL for a bunch of years. Oh and does anyone realize that both NY football teams, the Giants and the Jets actually call New Jersey turf their home stadium?

But despite all of it's awesomeness - most Americans still consider New Jersey to be the armpit of New York.

So boy was I surprised by the reaction when I met Swedes 'Wow, A Real Life Jersey Girl?' 'Seriously? New Jersey? How cool is that?' (Not very?). Usually I add in a little caveat that I actually live about 15 minutes from the GWB - that's 15 minutes from Manhattan. Very close for a non-native New Yorker, practically another planet for a New Yorker.

Why do Swedes think New Jersey is so cool? Mainly I have Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi to thank for that. Both of whom I pretty much stopped listening to when I reached the 3rd grade - although I have found new appreciation for Springsteen in my later years, Bon Jovi still baffles me.

Even when I went to take my Swedish driver's license test, when the guy found out I was from New Jersey (he asked about where I had driven before) he ended up gushing all over Springsteen and then apologizing for making me go through the test all over again. I was too ashamed to admit that my New Jersey test involved driving around a parking lot with 'Stop' signs and parking between some orange cones. I passed both despite some serious errors.

Now, thanks to Jersey Shore, the reputation of New Jersey in Sweden is hanging in the balance. I am sad to see it lose it's last grain of 'coolness' thanks to the likes of Snookie and The Situation, but on the other hand, having spent some time 'down the shore,' well, what can I say. There are all kinds of folks in New Jersey.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Swedish Parental Leave Benefits: A breakdown

Calculating Swedish parental leave is a science to itself. While I am 150% grateful to live in a country that considers Family Values to include families being able to afford spending time together as a family, it really takes a long time to figure out how all of this stuff works.

I will try to break it down here – but I will probably make some mistakes. If you want information directly from the source check out www.fk.se but ever since they added all of those stupid videos the site makes my eyes bleed.

So here are the basics and the more complicated aspects of Swedish Parental Leave:

Each family or couple is awarded 480 days of parental leave.

Of those, 390 days are at 80% of your pay rate if you have worked for a certain amount of time before you went on leave. The cap on this is about 428 000 SEK per year.

90 of those days are at the base rate of 180 SEK per day.

Of those 480 days, if there is dual custody (having sole custody is extremely rare) than each parent is reserved 60 days of the '80% pay' days. This means that, typically, the father MUST take out 60 days of the 480. If he does not, those days are lost. But the same can be said of the mother, she MUST take out 60 of the days. This means neither parent can take out all of the 480 days.

The days are initially split in half, this means I was awarded 240 days and my husband 240 days. He needs to transfer his days to me if I want to stay home more than 240 days. But he cannot transfer more than 180 days.

You can use your parental leave days at any time until your child turns 8 years old. This means you can choose to save some, as we have, for future long vacations and such.

Your employer has to grant you up to 18 months of time off to care for your child full time after they are born. After that they have to allow you to bring down the number of hours you work per week from 40 (or 100%) to 30 (or 75%). You can use your extra parental days to cover the missing 25%.

Then things start to get confusing:

Your parental pay is based on what you have earned for the proceeding months you have worked. Since many new moms work less while having children, there are some protection methods in place so that you don't lower your parental pay.

If you get pregnant before one year and nine months after your last child, your rate of parental leave money stays the same. That means, if you work less it won't effect your parental leave rate. As long as you are 'busy' 5 days a week. By 'busy' it means you are studying, unemployed, collecting parental leave, or at work.

I haven't figured out all of the nuances yet. I'm hoping I will manage to do OK with my parental leave. I still have a bunch of days left I'm not sure what to do with. And I hate feeling like I 'must have a baby' within a certain time frame. But when you punch through the numbers it gets a little crazy.
Again – just a warning – please don't take this info as fact, double check everything. I'm still a little fuzzy on a lot of the details!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Oh right, I forgot, This is Swedish Summer, Too

Haha Beautiful Swedish May you tricked me. Yes, you did. Here I was remembering Swedish summers that looked like Swedish butter commercials – green green fields, cows romping about, rolling green hills – ah Swedish summer, the most idyllic place on earth.

But wait – wait – because while there are those weeks where everything stands still like in a photo, and summer seems to be like in the movies – they are usually followed by an 'oh crap, did I really put my coat in storage already? Because damn it is cold out here' week, or two, or three. Weeks where it is windy, rainy and you wonder why you didn't decide to book a month long cruise to Italy.

There are days when you wake up and think 'This looks like a lovely day' only to watch the clouds roll in, the sky open, and giant clumps of hail pelt down at deadly speeds. In the middle of July. Three days in a row.

Because all of this is Swedish summer, too. Having 18 hours of sunshine doesn't really help if you have a giant wall of clouds between you and said sun.

But crappy weather be damned. They are predicting sun for Midsummer tomorrow. And though they are notoriously often seriously wrong about the weather prediction here (Doppler 4000 why are you stuck in Rockafeller Center we need you here!) - I am hoping they are right.

But just in case, I am packing a sweater, a rain coat, some boots, an extra blanket, an umbrella and a summer dress. Because hey, you never know!

Ooh, and here is a Swedish butter commercial - to keep those positive thoughts alive

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Midsummer Survival Guide

My favorite Swedish holiday is fast approaching – Midsummer! And like any good Swedish holiday, the lovely Swedish government has officially removed any meaning from the actual day and moved it to the closest convenient weekend. Which means that even if Solstice is ALWAYS June 21st Midsummer is always the following Friday. Longest night of the year be damned! We shall eat herring and drink schnapps when properly appointed by the state. But really, that is the only thing that annoys me about Swedish midsummer. The rest is great. Really great.

Here are a few things to think about before your first midsummer party.

  1. Swedes will try to tell you that you should down a shot of alcohol (schnapps) after every drinking song. 'No Problemo,' you might say. Let me tell you, there will be a LOT of drinking songs. And most Swedes do not down a full shot after each one. You will be under the table before the main course is served. Because alongside the shots you will also be drinking beer and wine. I usually manage one shot per 3 drinking songs, by taking a small sip after each one. This year, since I've got the toddler in tow, there will be no shots. But I will enjoy the show.

  2. Stay away from anything remotely 'home-brewed.' Yes, thanks to Systembolaget, well-to-do Swedes still make and on occasionly drink moonshine. It's crazy. One former collegue distilled vodka on her balcony. My Father-in-Law makes some weird form of absinthe. JUST SAY NO, kids. There are the scary stories that it will blind you, but really, it just makes you feel gross. Pay the $40 and buy some crappy schnapps like Gammal Dansk to simulate moonshine. You don't want a moonshine hangover, trust me.
  1. Pitch your tent before you drink. Remember how I wrote about how people don't drink and drive? Be prepared to camp if you are staying out in the country. And it is a good idea to get that tent up early. Yes, midnight sun and all, but after all those shots, that easy-to-put-together tent ain't so easy.
  1. If there is a maypole – dance, even if you are as bad a dancer as I am. There may or may not be a maypole. It doesn't really make or break the experience, but it can be fun. If there is a maypole and dancing, that song they are singing is about frogs. How they don't have ears or tails. And Swedish frogs say 'Cuakaka' instead of 'Ribbit.' Join in and shake your groove thing. It's fun and your friends and family can torment you with the photos for years to come (not speaking from personal experience here or anything).

    Ignore all of the other rules I may have posted on this blog before – well, except for the drinking and driving one, because it's midsummer and there is lots of liqour involved. Say goodbye to: all of those Swedish inhabitions, keeping quiet, not barfing in the flower bushes, 'I don't speak English', and oh yeah, get ready to dance to ABBA.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Master Bath Ensuite, A Master Bath Ensuite, A Million Crowns for a Master Bath Ensuite

Two years ago The Swede and I gave up on our pursuit of purchasing a house in Sweden. We did this for many reasons. The main ones?

  1. Someone forgot to tell Sweden about the housing crisis and falling housing prices everywhere.
  2. The bidding process is this frantic text messaging process where code names are given for supposed prospective buyers while prices go from 2.2 million to 3.5 in the course of an afternoon fika
  3. Those 3.5 million crown houses look like something your grandmother might sell - full of busy crazy bathroom wallpaper, 1984 kitchens and wood paneling. All the nice houses? The bidding STARTS at 3.5.
  4. Did you read that about the bidding process? It gave me a heart-attack every single friggin time. Do we have the highest bid? Do we have the highest bid because we are insane to pay so much money for such an ugly house? Someone has a higher bid? Oh, maybe that house wasn't so ugly? Oh, we hit our max bid? Too bad. Oh wait that's the agent calling to say the owner rejected the bids higher than ours and wants to accept ours? Why did they do that? Who is this agent anyway? And I only saw the house for like 30 minutes while it was packed with 50 other people.

So we rent. After a variety of calculations we came to the conclusion that our rent – which includes heat and hot water, is equal to or slightly below what we would have paid for to buy a similar place per month – if you include interest rates, heat, hot water, garbage removal, etc.

Anyways, enough about how we live – the real point is – I probably would have busted right through my max. house price bid if I managed to find a decent size house with a master bedroom and a master bath ensuite (FYI this means the bathroom is only accessible from the master bedroom.)

Recently, on Swedish house repair/real estate/DIY shows there has been a trend to call the large bedroom in the house the 'Master bedroom.' 'Whose lousy excuse for a Master bedroom is that?' I rant from the sofa 'Is that because it is the only bedroom with closets? I admit, I know zero, zilch, nada about architecture. But I don't get the point of a master bedroom without a master bath. And now that we have kids – man I would love to have a bathroom without bathtub toys and brightly colored stickers everywhere.

A master bathroom is a great thing. You don't have to traipse down the hall in the middle of the night. You don't have to worry about waking the guests, or the baby or anyone.

How can you be the Master of your house, if you aren't the Master of your own bathroom?

All of these huge new houses are being built not so far from where we live, and how many of them have master bathrooms? None!

So here's to hoping that by the time I build up the stomach (and nest egg) to invest in Swedish property, Master Baths will be the newest, hottest trend.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Swedish Fashion Women's Edition: Hippie Tres Chic

I know I mostly whine about Swedish fashion here, and my inability to find nice staple pieces that aren't ubertrendy – but there is a style of Swedish fashion that I Love Love Love.

The problem is? Ouch on the price. And I really cannot excuse buying more than the occasional on sale item from these shops. (OK – truth be told? I'm a little stingy with money, esp. on clothing. I like to spend it on travel instead).

Back in the day I was a total crunchy granola hippie. These days, not so much. I'm in the corporate world and I don't completely identify with the 'crunchy mama' movement – if you don't know what that is, congratulate yourself and move on.

Back in the late 90's I mostly made my own clothes. Lots of patchwork. Lots of flowy dresses. Lots of colors. (Think Lena Ph  meets Grateful Dead)

I would like to find some clothing that embraced the essence of that look, without looking like I made it myself. And I'd rather not look like I just came off the road from Phish 1995 summer tour.

This is why I really love the store Noa Noa (I suspect Noa Noa is Danish – but 'skit samma')

If I had a little more money, or was less of a cheapskate I would shop there ALL the time. The clothing is pretty good quality and I love the look.

The average price of a pair of pants at Noa Noa will set you back almost 100$ and the dresses are usually around $200. Nice for a nice occasion, but not really what I want to spend on day-to-day wear.

Then there is Gudrun Sjoden – I drool over her catalog's fab photography and lovely clothing. Sjoden's prices are also above my usual price point – but I am not as sad about that as Noa Noa. I can not, for the life of me, find anything that has a flattering fit to it on me. I fall into the small side of Gudrun's range and they all end up looking like potato sacks. The items here usually start at 150$ per separate.

Then there is Odd Molly. This is the thing that upper middle-class mothers wear ALL the time. While I like the idea of Odd Molly, often times the clothing looks like the stuff I used to sew. And it comes with a 200$ price tag.

I used to make nicer shirts than this – these cost about 120$. Mine sold for 20$.

See, if I was going to spend 200$ on a dress, I would be buying a dress from Winter Kate, which is American, not Scandinavian. I admit, I loathe Nicole Ritchie, but I love these dresses. 

I think the moral of this post is that I, as an aging ex-hippie, find it difficult to pay designer prices to dress like a flower child. Also, now you know, I am cheap.

I also will point out that most of these companies have a great values system - fair labor practice and organic materials, which I really support. I also have no problem with the fact that quality clothes cost more. I get it. That's why I appreciate these labels, but I still cannot afford them. 

Thank goodness for H&M

Monday, June 13, 2011

Drinking and Not Driving in Sweden

I have mixed feelings about the attitude toward alcohol in Sweden. I find it a bit difficult to stomach, in some ways. I am the type of person who likes a glass of wine with dinner, maybe two on a Friday or Saturday night. But I really am not a fan of getting drunk, and avoid it unless it is either a crayfish party or midsummers. This drinking style, in my experience, is a bit in contrast to typical Swedish drinking.

That said, one of the things that I respect most about the Swedes I have had the pleasure of partying with, is their attitude towards drunk driving. You just don't do it. There is no 'It's OK to drive after a beer, or a glass of wine.' like we learned in Driver's Ed. There is no mathematically calculating your weight and the amount of alcohol in a beverage.

You just don't get behind the wheel if you've had a drink.

The Swedish legal limit is quite low, and this is probably a main motivator in this issue. It is .02, compared to .08 in the US.

But drunk driving has a strange amount of social acceptance in the US. Maybe it's because we are so dependent on our cars, but I know several people who have lost their liscences due to drunk driving, who continue to drive after a few cold ones. Driving under the influence in the US is something many people think you just have to do if you live in a suburb.

Driving under the influence in Sweden remains pretty taboo. In Sweden most people take the bus, or the train, or a cab. Sometimes a designated driver will step up. Sometimes, although I question the sanity of this at times, people bike home instead. Other times people sleep over.

Another thing I noticed, after a party this weekend, was that some of the big drinkers refused to drive the next day. This makes perfect sense. I get it. But I can tell you, as someone who strongly opposes drunk driving, I never even thought about not driving the next day, and it was never discussed in Driver's Ed.

I will admit, that I drove the next day, to pick up Diner Breakfast, when I probably should have been off the road. Thankfully no one was hurt. I would never do that today.

So even if I bitch and moan occasionally about Swedish alcohol culture, Systembolaget, stor stark and other related things, I do think Swedes get the important part of it right, the part that saves a lot of lives.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Recommend Your Favorite Swedish Reads, If You Dare (Also where I admit that I don't really dig Steig)

OK, first things first. I am a big reader. A huge reader. And this makes me a little bit of a reading snob. I don't think this makes me elitist. I just think that books that appeal to someone who reads a lot are not the same books that appeal to some who doesn't read a lot (and god bless the poor soul who gave me a copy of The Divinci Code, and then asked me eight times what I thought of it, before I exploded in a long rant about that).

That said, summer is coming up, and I need to work on building my Swedish vocabulary. So I'm going in for another try at Swedish literature. Because I have tried before, and nothing really tickles my fancy. So here it is, I dare you to recommend a Swedish writer or book for me to try out this summer. I promise I won't hang you out to dry if I don't like the book. And if I like it, and I have time, I promise to post about it on here.

My likes:
I'm a lit fic reader, most of the time. Some of my favorite books include: Middlesex, The Corrections, anything by Margaret Atwood.

The rest of the time I love historical fiction (The Terror by Dan Simmons is one of my all-time favorites) and sometimes books with a little magical twist (Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Hand).

And I do read pretty much anything Steven King writes, because I think he is good.

Swedish authors I have read and not hated: Ulf Lundell, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ibsen (ok not Swedish, but close)

My dislikes:

I'm not big on crime fiction or shallow characters for the sake of action.

I'm not big on books where all of the characters are unlikable (Brett Easton Ellis, I'm talking to you), I like to cheer for someone, even if it is the bad guy.

I can stomach violence, but really only tolerate it if it is forwarding the story.

And I will admit, on this blog, for once and for all. I haven't managed to make it through Man som hatar kvinnor, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I have tried on numerous occasions, but I found it is just so full of backstory that it made my eyes bleed and by page 147 I gave up. So now when people ask what I think about Steig Larsson, I just say, 'I haven't read that yet.' I know I know I know I am in the minority on this. I know. Everyone else LOVES it. Forgive me on this one, please.

The books I have on my possible reading list so far:

Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann Jonas Jonasson

Sirila Gentlemän Sökes Karin Brunk Holmquist

So, seriously, if I haven't scared you away or bored you to tears yet. And you have a great book you are just dying to recommend. Please! Do so! (And really, I'll take English books, too. Because really I am aiming to read 100 books this year).

Monday, June 6, 2011

Celebrating Swedish National Day Like A True Swede

Ok, I give up. In the past I've made a bit to-do about June 6th. I've thrown big barbeques, hoisted flags, attended ceremonies at various places, tried to get my colleagues and clients involved in my Swedish national day celebration, or flag day, or whatever you want to call June 6th in Sweden.

But this year? I decided to go Swedish and treat June 6th like any other random red day ( because what do you really do to celebrate 'the day after pentecost' - which used to be a holiday day in Sweden until it was replaced by June 6).

Today we did nice Swedish things, took a hike, enjoyed 'the nature' and ate ice cream. But more we did not.

I am not quite sure why there is no big 'horray for Sweden day.' Maybe because June 6 was a day in the 1500s that Sweden became independent and, well, that was long enough ago for people to take their independence for granted. The 6th doesn't mark a major historical milestone like July 4th, Bastille day, Norweigian national day, etc. It's just a random day.

Also national pride in Sweden is a strange beast. Sure, Swedes are proud of their country. Rightly so. But many seem to confuse the concepts of nationalism and patriotism and find flag waving just plain embarrassing if not racist.

Strangely enough it is mostly we immigrants, in my experience, that seem to want to get out and celebrate Sweden. Maybe it's because we have such patriotic traditions in our own home countries. Maybe it's because we want to show our gratitude to our new home.

Only recently has more emphasis been placed on the celebration of June 6th in Sweden and I hope that means that we are still building and establishing these new traditions.

But maybe it is a good thing just to enjoy a day off, I never did much more than BBQ on July 4th.

PS I am still posting from my phone, so please bear with my editing issues, I hope to have it resolved soon. If anyone knows of a good app for posting with blogger from an iPhone please let me know!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Swedish Royal Scandal? Probably not.

As an American I am quite baffled by the concept of royalty. I mean, I get that they have no say politically. But I am unsure why, when facing cutbacks in spending on healthcare, unemployment and other high spending areas that reach a lot of people in need, so few people say 'Why not cut back on the biggest welfare abusers of all – the royal family?'

But this tends not to be the pervasive view of the royal family, and that's ok. The Swedish royals seem a pretty low key bunch.

There is Knugen Carl Gustav and his wife Sylvia (Can you believe she still has a German accent after all these years despite all of those expensive language classes? - can I tell you how many times I have heard people comment about this?). 

There is Crown Princess Victoria and her new hubby, Daniel. 

And the other siblings – Princess Madeline and Prince Carl (I had to look up Carl's name, since he seems so off my radar).

Unlike Great Britain, the Swedish press has largely left their royalty alone. There have been a few brushes with huge Royal gossip incidents. When Princess Victoria's eating disorder became unavoidable, there was a large international discussion about the effects of media on young women in royalty, but she was left alone while seeking treatment in the US. And there was a touch of scandal when Madeleine's fiance was caught cheating (she dumped him).

But now, scandal has come to the Swedish King. At least if you believe the tabloids. It seems some time back in the day he may have slept with a rock star, or something. And he may have partied with some mafia thugs with lots of naked ladies. There may be some photo evidence of this.

To this I only have to say 'meh?' - this supposedly happened so long ago. To be honest I haven't really read a lot of the details. And the King seems like a generally good guy (I haven't had any encounters with the Swedish royal family – but my friend met him on a mountaintop once). And who didn't party with the mafia in the 70's?

The part that surprises me, and saddens me a little is that the King decided to call a conference where he answered direct questions from the press. Seriously? Isn't the King above all this? Isn't that the point? He doesn't really have any power. Of course he should answer to the police. But to the press? And by press I mean Paparazzi.

Anyways, if my tax money continues to go into the pockets of these well-dressed but rather dull royals, I really would like for them to continue just being very expensive ribbon cutters and Swedish Cultural Ambassadors. Let's leave the gossip to the British Royals, they do it on a much grander scale.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Swedish holidays: Happy Himmelfard

Today is one of the smattering of spring Swedish days off, celebrating Christ's ascension, or Himmelfard, or kristiflygare as it is also known.

Unlike the US, where most public holidays are secular (Happy Memorial Day all), in Sweden most holidays are based on Christian holidays.

Today, I spent the day with some teenage members of my husband's family, but none of them could come up with what Kristiiflygare day was for or why it was celebrated. This isn't a judgement, I just often marvel that in a country as secular as Sweden, we still get ascension day off as a major holiday.
I'mm not really sure there is much one can do to celebrate Kristiflygare or himmelfart as I often call it by mistake. I don't know if more people go to church that day. Unlike the US the day off doesn't seem to be an excuse for huge sales and shopping mall madness, or it might just be that I don't go to Swedish shopping malls much.

So happy himmelfart, and if you have a 5 day weekend (Sweden's national day is Monday) I hope you are enjoying it!

Also, sorry if this post is a little choppy, trying to get the computer fixed and writing on the phone isn't ideal.