Saturday, January 29, 2011

Oh the times – they are a changin . . . Or The Swedes just love Ingvar Kamprad

Ingvar Kamprad, in case you don't live in Sweden, is the founder of Swedish behemoth IKEA. In the forests of Almhult, Sweden, Kamprad build his cheap furniture haven. The IKEA empire is one of the most recognizable Swedish companies in the world and Kamprad's reputation as a 'duktig svensson' or Good Swede, is almost impeccable (although there is that Nazi rumor that just doesn't go away).

There are some really big myths that surround Kamprad and the IKEA Swedish ideal. I don't know how true they are, but here goes: Kamprad drove the same Volvo for a decade, and only bought a new one when the old one died. If you drive a nice car and work at IKEA you have to park it far way from the entrance, so no one thinks it is an employee's car. Kamprad didn't give his children much of the IKEA money because they need to learn the value of the crown.

So as you can see, Kamprad is a model of the good and frugal Swede.

Except according to a news story out this week, good and frugal Kamprad also has a couple billion crowns stuffed away in a secret fund run out of Lichtenstein. In fact according to the report, Kamprad has gone out of his way to avoid and move around money to avoid paying taxes in Sweden.

ACK! This would be a perfect Swedish style scandal – rich man, robbing the poor of their tax money – get out your claws. Someone try to hold those Social Democrats back. It's time for a public lashing of the worst kind.

BUT from what I've been picking up on my radar the opposite has happened. People are asking 'What is the big deal?' and saying things like 'of course, who wouldn't do that?' People are saying things like 'Well, he's worked hard for it, he's given Sweden a great name internationally, he deserves it.'

What? Is the Folkhemmet (The idea of the paternal Swedish government taking care of it's people) losing steam?

Do the Swedes just love IKEA that much?

Or is it the result of 5 years of Moderates in power?  

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Swedish Ford Dealer Makes Me Laugh – but sometimes I feel like crying

Every six months or so we get a very 'interesting' mailing from our local Ford dealer. It arrived in our mailbox again today. Now, I realize I live in Volvo land, but the Swede and I have been pretty loyal Ford owners for the last few years. But it isn't thanks to our lovely dealership.

First off are the 'special deals' that our local dealer is always trying to use to lure us to their shop. For us, proud Ford owners, for just shy of $250 we can have an oil change and an oil filter change. This service also includes a basic service package with such challenging goodies as 'checking window washing fluid level, checking the tires, checking the coolant and checking your windshield wipers. Now, let me say that I am pretty mechanically inept, but damn it even I can manage to do pretty much all of the above – and maybe an oil change with some good studying up. But $250? For the cheapest so-called-bargain-service?

The days I get this flier in the mail are the days I miss things like Jiffy Lube. Or even my Ford Dealer at home, who knew how to screw me slightly more subtly.

That said, I have gone to my Ford dealer once when we have had problems. Not for an oil change. No. Way. Ever.

My visit went like this: Walk into show room and present myself at reception desk. Four people sit behind the reception desk – none of them acknowledge my presence.

“Hello?” I say.

Three of them look very intently at computer screens. The fourth points back into the workshop area of the store, at a fifth person. I believe they might be telling me that this is the person who will deal with me, but I can only guess. I nod.

Someone else walks in. They walk up to the counter.

“Hello,” two of the people at their desks stand up and immediately help this person. All three of them leave to look at this person's car in the driveway.

The man who was pointed at earlier is eating a sandwich.

“Hello?” I call again. He begrudgingly puts down the sandwich and comes over.

“I am having a problem with xyz with my car, and would like someone to look at it.”

“Um, we have like a waiting list of at least three weeks. And it will cost you at least $200 just for us to figure out what might be wrong with your car before anyone touches your car or any parts are ordered.”

“I see, so you really really don't want my business at all do you? have a great day.” Ok so I didn't really say this. I just nodded. Walked out. Called my husband. And said “We are never going back THERE again.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Breastfeeding in Sweden

Sweden is often held up as a shining beacon of breastfeeding light when discussions of breastfeeding rates come up in the US and other countries. And yeah, probably if you haven't given the subject a millisecond of thought it hasn't popped up on your radar at all.

Having spent almost a year now with this being a big part of my life, I thought I would sound off on my experience here. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

  • It is assumed you will want to breastfeed – I was asked about my feelings about this once, at my first midwife appointment. After LO was born, I was shown how to breastfeed without anyone asking if I wanted to or not. As I mentioned before newborns aren't swaddled – there is skin to skin contact to ease breastfeeding – and all of this happened immediately after birth – before weighing, measuring, cleaning, etc.
  • Here is a brochure you can read – if you have any questions call! This was about the amount of info I got after LO was born. To be fair it was swine-flu season so there were no parenting classes before the birth. I also had a ped appointment for a few days after I got home, so we weren't entirely on our own. I also could call and meet with a lactation consultant whenever I wanted – for the cost of 10$ per meeting. There were also lactation consultants on staff at the 'patient hotel' we stayed at for 2 nights after the birth. I did consult them and they were great.

  • How dare you suggest I pump! - Pumping is pretty rare – probably due to the generous maternity leave. A politician was lambasted during the last election when he suggested that breastfeeding moms could still share parental leave with fathers, by pumping at work. He went on to point out that this was the strategy he and his wife used. Mothers throughout the land were infuriated.

(IF YOU DO PUMP – Are in Sweden – And have a good supply – Contact your local hospital – due to low pumping rates, breast milk donations for preemies are at an all-time low and they welcome donations with open arms)

  • Why wouldn't you nurse in public? - In Sweden, the attitude toward the boob is different. Seriously, they are everywhere – in often very non-sexual ways – and it's not a big deal. You will be stared at if you wear a nursing burka USA style. If you are shy and your child will oblige lay a small cloth over your shoulder/baby – but nothing dramatic. And no – it's not because Swedish ladies want the world to see their boobs, it's because they just wanted to keep their baby fed and not be chained to the house all day.
  • At six months, you're done - Many Swedes reach the 6 month mark and abandon ship. They switch over pretty quickly to an all solids diet and lots and lots of Valling.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why the Nielsens would hate Sweden

One of the things that still sometimes surprises me about living in Sweden is the smooth and subtle way that radio stations, TV shows, and other media forms seem to come and go in the wink of an eye.

See, I have dim memories of the US mayhem of a TV show moving to a new slot in which you would be bombarded with commercials for weeks at a time 'Law & Order Traffic Cops is Moving to Monday nights this May,' 'Don't miss LOTC at it's new time, Monday's at 9 this May,' followed by a series of newspaper articles about whether or not the moving of LOTC to Monday nights indicates an attempt of the network to perform stronger against another network, or a sign that LOTC is on its way out the door.

But in Sweden? Let's say you watched the first 2 episodes of LOTC on Tuesday nights. Then you might be hanging out a month later going 'Hey, whatever happened to that show LOTC?' And then you realize either you missed that it had moved to Monday nights, or there was a handball championship that took that slot for a few weeks, or it just went on one of the typical mid-season two month hiatus which they like to call 'the end of the season'.

So last weekend, The Swede and I were treated to some great news when we flipped on the TV after LO finally went to sleep. There was a screen that announced that we were no longer getting MTV in our house – unless we wanted to pay extra. And then, as I sat down to write this blog entry, I realized we got a new TV channel in its place. This strange Channel 11 – which appears to be a channel where reality TV shows go where they die.

Did we know anything about this? No. Was there anything anywhere that said this was happening? Not even our cable company sent us anything.

I did a quick search for Channel 11 and even the internets don't seem to have heard about it.

I don't really mind these little eccentricities in Swedish television land – despite the fact that I blog so much about it, I really don't watch that much TV and the shows I do like I make sure I catch elsewhere – so I don't have to stress about making sure I am anywhere at a certain day/time.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Swedish Politics 101: The Christian Democrats

OK, so religion in Sweden is a pretty strange beast. And as much as some crazy pastor from the US claims that God Hates Sweden and shows it by sending a tsunami to Thailand, there remains one party in Sweden that claims to have the Swedish Christian's best interest at heart.

The Christian Democrats fall to the right side of the Swedish political equation. They are in a coalition with the leading party, The Moderates.

So what do the Christian Democrats want to accomplish?

Family Values, what else?

Well, what does family values mean to your average Christian Democrat?

Here's an example:  One of the strongholds of this party is the 'Caretaker subsidy.'

In Sweden daycare for kids 1-6 years old is highly subsidized. The cost of full time daycare is a maximum of about 150$ per month out of pocket. The Christian Democrats want the subsidy portion of the daycare (because obviously it costs more than this for the actual spot, that money just comes from the government) to go to stay- at- home moms or dads who decline a daycare spot. What that means is, if you work nights, but decide to not send your child to daycare – you can get 500$ a month from the government. If you feel you want to be a SAHM/D you can register to get the 500$ a month for your child. 

The Christian Democrats have managed to get their family values subsidy put into action in several municipalities across Sweden. Surprisingly, few families have actually taken the plunge and opted to take the subsidy. Most Swedish families have two working parents, and considering as an employee and a parent of an under 8 year old you have the right to decrease your hours from 40 – 30 per week without risk of losing your job, most people find another solution.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Do Swedes shower less than Americans?

OK, so I realize that the answer to the above question is 'No' or at least I am willing to make one of my usual broad assumptions that the answer is still 'No'. But I am trying to find a reason why the shampoo and conditioner bottles in this country are so miniscule.

In the past, I admit, shampoo has been something I stocked up on at Costco, because it was cheaper and a lot more convenient to fly back with 1 or 2 giant bottles of shampoo. And then we ended up bringing shampoo back for Swedish family members, because if you think it is rough for a family of two, imagine a family of 5, with three teenage girls, trying to keep everyone in shampoo for a week. That's a lot of little tiny bottles of shampoo.

But ever since the luggage restrictions have gotten stricter, shampoo and peanut butter were the easiest sacrifices to make. So, this weekend I found myself trying to find a decent size bottle of shampoo and it was a great big fail. I bypassed the grocery store and pharmacy and even tried Overskottsbolaget – but no. The largest I could find was still 8 oz of shampoo.

Even if I skip the Costco bottle and just go to CVS the average bottle of American shampoo is often double as big as the average Swedish one. The Costco bottle is 5 times as big.

I don't look at the price tags too much anymore (just too depressing) so I'd gladly pay more for a larger bottle, so I don't have to frantically try to get the bottom dregs of shampoo out of the bottle on such a frequent basis.

Come to think of it, this happens a lot with packaging of random household goods that families tend to need a lot of. And bigger packaging would be a hell of a lot more convenient. I'm not talking giant muffins here (tho that would be nice, too) I am talking larger cartons of milk – that would be great for families, too.

In Swedish they have a saying about something being an 'i-land problem' or a 'first world problem.' I do recognize that this very much falls into that category.  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Swenglish lesson: One Chocolate Muffins, Please

Ok, this is one of those things that still makes my hair stand on end when I go to a Swedish coffeeshop (that and the round bread with a hole in the middle they insist on calling bagels).

What you should know about Muffins when in Sweden:

  1. You always order in the plural – even if you only want one – you want one 'muffins' (ETA - that would be 'en muffins' in Swedish)
  2. A muffins is a cupcake is a muffins – there is one word for the two foods – don't let it trick you up. You know how eskimos have like 30 words for snow – well, we Americans seem to know our small breaded cakes.

If you are obsessed with muffins and cupcakes, like I am, you will find yourself spending way to much time trying to figure out and then trying to explain to people the difference between a cupcake or a muffin. It seems deceptively easy at first – but then you find the exception (can a muffin have frosting? Can a cupcake be bear?)– and then things get tricky.

I am particularly bitter because the Swedish Nigella – aka Leila – led me astray one Christmas with a beautiful recipe for Christmas Cupcakes. If you look at this recipe you will notice the confusion from the get go – She calls these 'Christmas Cupcakes' and underneath it says 'maffiga muffins.' 

But after watching the food orgy of her baking these delites, I decided to make them for a visiting group of Americans for dessert. They looked great, they smelled great, we all took a bite and, well, they were muffins – not cupcakes – and while they weren't bad, they weren't desserty goodness either.

Basically I just miss being able to order something and know what I am going to get. But viva la difference....

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rustle – Fidget – Rustle AKA I am getting off at the next bus stop

Earlier I blogged a little about Every Man's Right – the right everyone in Sweden has to enjoy the Swedish landscape and its trappings. But I often believe that another 'Right' that Every Man has in Sweden is the right to never actually speak or be spoken to by another human being unless they choose to do so.

This right to silence is practiced religiously on the main mode of transportation in many cities – the city bus. Buses are, in most countries, bound by their own style of communication. I know Grayhound is a world unto itself. Swedish buses are no exception.

Let's say you are on a city bus. It's a packed bus and you are seated closest to the window. Sitting next to you is a stranger with whom you do not wish to speak. You want to get off at the next stop, but someone has already pushed to STOP button. How do you indicate to your fellow passenger that you need them to move?

The easiest situation is if you have just been shopping. Then you take your bags and you rustle them loudly. Or you pick up your bags and place them on your lap – ideally rustling them a bit. At this point your neighbor will probably shift their legs towards the aisle to indicate that they are aware you would like to get off at the next stop. When the bus pulls in, they will stand up and let you out. All without saying a word.

If you don't have any shopping bags – this trick works equally well with a backpack, purse or briefcase. If you don't have any of the above, but you have a sweater, gloves or anything else that can be fiddled with – do this instead.

Only as a last resort might you say 'excuse me' or 'urshekta may.' Often times you will find that this person is also a foreigner.

So, if someone next to you on the bus starts fidgeting madly with a bag, but not accomplishing something, now you know why.

Also, please note that you might confuse passengers on the occasion that you actually rifle through your bag for another reason – like finding something. I have actually had to say a few times 'Oh, sorry, no I'm not getting off here,” because I can never manage to find my damn phone in my bag.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Big Brother is Watching – He's just not paying any attention

One of the things that takes a little getting used to in Sweden is the usage of one's personal number. If you move here for any length of time, you are given a number, which you use as your identity for everything.

This is particularly intimidating for us Yanks, I think, because this is often seen as one of the 'scary' aspects of socialism. The government sees everything you do – and can track everything you do.

How this plays out in Sweden, however, is pretty odd.

The truth is, I can go in and find out what all of my neighbors earned last year, and how much tax they paid, no problem. I also can pick up the phone, call my local government, and find out more about my neighbors – since Sweden has a very solid Freedom of Information act – I can get lots of details (albeit not their medical information or other confidentially ruled items).

But, strangely enough, every year I read an article in the paper that there just aren't enough places at the local daycare centers for the little kiddies.

Now here is the deal, Sweden provides wonderful subsidized daycare for all kids between 1-6. You get 40 hours a week, and pay roughly 1,000 SEK per month(this varies depending on how many kids you have in daycare at a time) – that's right, full time daycare for about 150 dollars. Yay, right?

And in each municipality all the pregnant folk have to register their pregnancy – even if they go through private care – the information is sent to the National Insurance Agency.

This means that 6-7 months before the kids are born, the municipality has a pretty good idea of how many kids will be born that given year. They then have one year after their birth to plan daycare adequate for all of the children. There is the option in some municipalities to decline a daycare place and take the subsidy instead for SAHM. But, let's be honest, you can get a pretty good sense of the amount of daycare places you will need 1.5 years before they are needed, all by taking a look at the information via personal numbers.

But every year, despite reports of baby booms – the daycare folk seem SHOCKED that there are so many kids turning 1 that year, and there aren't enough places to go around.

I'm glad big brother isn't all up in my business – but really, this would just be a simple and very helpful thing to accomplish!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Swedes sure do love MasterKock!

Sometimes as a scholar, an anthropologist or even as an overly generalizing blogger you make some silly and strange comparisons. You stretch a little to get your facts to line up better, your statistics to make sense, and to gain a little clarity. (Not that I would ever do ANY of the above in any scholarly work, of course)

So this is a stretch, but bear with me here. Because I notice lately there has been an absolute abundance of Masterchef on Swedish TV. You may think 'how odd you would notice such a thing.' Which is odd, I admit. It's just that this time last year, I was nursing a little one around the clock – and thus spending a lot of time on the sofa – and let me tell you, there was practically nothing but Masterchef – the English version. I watched episode after episode of this strange TV show (no, there was nothing else on thanks for asking, and yes I also read like 4 books a week during this time, so no I wasn't better off reading a book). I would often lose track and realize during the last five minutes of an episode that I had indeed watched this episode the day before. And while I realize this is a sad commentary on my state of mind it was indeed the state of things.

This week I had the flu. And thanks to my helpful Swede, I spent most of the week on the sofa – reunited with my long lost love – British Masterchef. 

Now one of the fateful flaws of this odd TV show is the fact that they switch the contestants so often that you lose track of their backstory and stop caring about anyone at all. (I know this because I am obsessed with other cooking reality TV shows like Top Chef). So last night after watching what seemed like 8 hours of Masterchef in a row, but was probably only 2, I was surprised to find that the American Masterchef was playing on yet another channel. Well, leave it to my people to solve what I felt was the tragic flaw of Masterchef, by uniting one giant cast, but then shooting themselves in the foot by making Gordon Ramsey the judge. Seriously, how does he even have time for this stuff?

And then, drumroll please, I saw the ad for the upcoming version of Swedish MasterKock! Starting next week, with that weird Swedish actor guy, Per Morberg, who has a cooking show, as the judge.

Which brings me to the main point of this post – which if you made it this far – thank you! And that is Kock/Cook remains  the most dangerous word for me to say in Swedish – because it just feels wrong at all costs. If I say it correctly and say 'Du ar en bra kock' – or you are a good cook, it sounds funny. If I say 'Du ar en bra cook' it sounds right to my ears, but makes any good Swede giggle, as I've just told them they are a good cock. So be careful out there – and as you can tell – my cold hasn't quite left me yet.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Swedish Dreams and Inspiration

I just discovered this blogger - Lola -  with some beautiful photos of Sweden. She's done a great job of capturing the beauty of this winter and all of it's snow.

She's entered in a contest to travel as a blogger to the North Pole. I thought it sounded pretty inspiring. I know I spend a lot of time being a bit cynical and sarcastic - but I think it really is important to follow your heart and dream big. I know I still try to . . .

 I cast a vote her way. You can do the same - here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Parenting – Swedish Style – Swaddling and other reasons why I'm glad I'm not a newborn

One big mistake you can make when raising a child in a foreign country – is reading too many books from your home country. The reason why this is a problem is because you find out, very quickly, that many of those 'shoulds' or 'musts' that all the experts recommend, really aren't a universal childrearing tactic. And lets keep in mind that Sweden isn't some third-world country, it is in the top 10 of great places to have and raise a child (officially the top ten referenced here exists only in my mind, but I'm pretty sure I've read that somewhere).

One of the typical American things that Swedes frown upon is the act of Swaddling. In the US, in most movies and TV shows, newborn babies are presented to their parents as tiny little packages of swaddled goodness in a hat. And I will make the giant leap to say that this is how it actually happens in many hospitals – and some of my friends have backed me up on this. In Sweden your baby is placed immediately on your chest, since this is ideal for breastfeeding, completely naked. And your baby remains naked until you dress them in the clothes you brought with you.

So what about the swaddle? Before LO was born I was showing some friends and family my babygear. I had gotten a nice miracle blanket for all of my swaddling needs. “Oh, a baby straight jacket.” “Oh how old fashioned,” they all commented. They all wrinkled their noses in disgust. Odd, I thought, since it seems like an average everyday thing in the US.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Would you want to be swaddled?” they replied.

“Well, no.” I answered. But there isn't really much about being a newborn that I would like to do. I wouldn't want to live on formula or breastmilk alone. I don't want to wear diapers. I enjoy being able to communicate my wants and needs with words. And I cannot wait to get back to a grown-up 8 hour sleep – this waking up every 3 hours is getting really old.

So there was no good reason not to swaddle – other than the old-fashioned straightjacketyness of it all. This is good, because sometimes the language of baby should's and must's gets pretty scary.

In the end we didn't swaddle. I could just never get the hang of it. But the few times LO was swaddled with the help of some of my visiting American friends, it worked like a charm.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

Studying is a full time job

As a student in Sweden, you will come to learn pretty quickly that the attitude and the entire system is built upon the principle that being a student is akin to being employed at a full-time job. Those of us who have made an almost career out of being a full-time student in multiple countries know that this is indeed a slippery slope. One person's full-time job is another person's walk in the park. But what does this full-time job mean?

In the Swedish system, currently, I believe a full course load is 30 points (they have changed this since I was a student, so bear with me). These 30 points should equal 40 work hours a week. The average Swedish student gets a grant and a loan to pay for living expenses incurred during these 40 hours a week because one should not be required to work while studying. The theory being – do you work a job on top of your 40 hour a week job? In Sweden, the answer to that would be 'no.'

Here they seem to take the 40 hour rule pretty seriously. I have a friend who was a professor who was chastised when he implied that students might have to do some homework over the weekend since they were having trouble finding time during the work week. But I have to admit, I am hard pressed to find a student here who hasn't done quite a bit of studying on the weekends – especially right before a big exam.

In my experience as a humanities student – and my Swede vehemently disagrees , I found the work week calculation to be based on what the slowest student in the class was capable of completing. And by slowest person, I am not quite sure who they were aiming for – remember I was studying in a foreign country in a foreign language – I was very slow. I ended up going out and getting a job because I had nothing to do all day.

When I asked Swedes about this conundrum, I was often given one of the following answers: You are studying humanities, you are studying at a hogskola – not a University, you are studying a program which is known for being ridiculously easy. Never once did they commend me for my sheer brilliance at being too smart for the system.  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Eve – Swedish Style – The environmentally friendly gloves come off

Let's face it – the Swedes take climate change a lot more seriously than your average American and they are willing to make a lot of sacrifices for it. They know how much carbon is used to create their fast food hamburger at MAX. A few of my friends received Carbon Credits as their company Christmas present one year – the same carbon credit program that was raked over the coals in the American media. They pay eight dollars for one gallon of gas, yes EIGHT DOLLARS per gallon. (ETA - A little hazy in my NYE lack of sleep - I originally put down 4 dollars per gallon, that would indeed be a bargain here)

But New Year's Eve – it is an eve of debauchary – of drinking, of partying, and of throwing environmental caution to the wind. I've already blogged about Sweden's slightly different attitude towards the danger of fire – but what about fireworks?

New Year's Eve explodes with fireworks – in Sweden – it is a DIY display of extraordinary excess. It has led my Swede to shrug at many a July 4th celebration, as sub par. Last night from about 10 pm to 1 am our little neighborhood sounded like it was under attack. A wide assortment of rockets, small fireworks and other explosives peppered the sky.

I have to admit, being that close to that much gun powder, makes me a little nervous. I usually watch a few go off and then head indoors. I am much more impressed by the Japanese Lanterns that people are starting to use a little more often. I prefer my fireworks done by professionals, with firemen on hand.

(On a side note, I also surprised to learn that fireworks are a great sleeping aide for a LO who hates sleep.)

But the thing that surprises me the most about the NYE explosive madness of Sweden is just how bad it is for the environment. Maybe it's because Alfred Nobel invented dynamite? Or maybe because just like how calories don't count on Christmas Eve, carbon doesn't count on New Years? One 'green' article here suggests that the amount of fireworks set off on July 4th in the US is equal to the emission of 12,000 cars annually. While the Swedes probably set off fewer fireworks nationally than the US each year, even if it's only 2,000 cars annually, that's a lot of cars for one night of celebration.

So why all the hush hush about the fireworks?