Thursday, December 27, 2012

I survived a Swedish Christmas checklist

So we did it! We made it through another Swedish Christmas. The first one where Little Swede could actually appreciate and enjoy some of the activities (after being talked down from his previous –No Christmas, no presents- position).

Here is a simple checklist of Christmas milestones we met or failed to meet this year:

Baking – Check! – This year we baked a lot more than last year, when I pretty much skipped the whole thing. The Lussekats were a win, but the gingerbread cookies were meh. When I asked other people what they do for gingerbread, it turned out everyone bought the damn dough from the grocery store – no one made it themselves. Must make note of this for next year.

Gingerbread house – Fail! – This is where my baking line gets drawn. Not going to happen trying to glue with hot melted sugar and a toddler and my crappy designing skills. Just no. If the Swede decides to give it a go in future years, I will gladly cheer from the sidelines. And maybe laugh a little, too. Besides these things always taste gross.

Found the almond in the rice pudding – Check!- This tradition was one I loved as a kid. We used to hide the almond and the person who found it had to keep it hidden until the meal was over and then return it for a prize. It seems not every Swedish family plays this game the same way. I found the almond this year. And man, it was not easy to keep the damn thing hidden while eating a bowl full of rice pudding. And then, well it turned out I didn’t have to. And all I got was a friggin wish.

Welcomed Santa Claus to the door – Check!
Santa Claus wearing a really scary mask that creeps me out – Fail –
Here in Sweden, Santa comes to your door with presents. It is awesome. But many families, to make this possible, use a really creepy Santa mask. Thankfully our Swede family uses a giant beard instead. I’m pretty sure the mask would have made Little Swede weep. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The story of the Swedish Christmas goat

Growing up it was easy to get the American/Swedish Christmas stories to line up, mostly because we were either celebrating in the US or in Sweden, and in that case, it didn’t seem odd that Santa stopped off at Northern homes earlier and more southerly homes in the middle of the night. It is a time consuming job.

But in The Swede’s family, like most Swedish families, Santa comes on Christmas Eve and delivers a few gifts to the kids before departing again to other homes. (Yes, it can be tricky to find a Santa to show up! The Swede is on Santa duty for our neighbors this year.)

But there are a ton of kids in the Swede’s family, so there is a gift limit. And since this is a big party, we like to open grown-up gifts, family gifts and a few other little tokens before we go to the big party (We originally thought we would keep a Christmas Day celebration, but since we usually end up at sleeping over somewhere, that is too difficult).

My Swedish in-laws developed the tale of The Christmas Goat, a classic part of the Swedish Christmas, to put the story together and thus this year we decided to tell the tale of the Christmas goat. This may prove to be a mistake, but, well, none of the other stories really seemed to add up.

So the Christmas goat is delivering some of Santa’s gifts early, to take the load off. We left out some water and gingerbread cookies (Little Swede wanted water rather than milk). We could go with reindeer. Or maybe some goat/reindeer combo. But Little Swede is pretty into goats at the moment. He decided this goat’s name was ‘Brown’ since it was gingerbread. So obviously, we have some elements to go over for the future.

But hey, I don’t think this story will be believable for more than just a few years.

The goat is a traditional Swedish symbol, and is often made of straw and set around all over the place, and often burnt to the ground.

Do you have any weird combo traditions in your family? Either way, I hope you have a Merry Christmas!!!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Swedish Christmas Carols

While I still associate most Swedish Christmases with the Absolute Christmas soundtrack (no this is not a type of vodka, but rather an oldschool series of 'mix-Cd's' sold at gas stations and released semiannually, well not the Christmas one, but Absolute top hits 2012 etc), the day of CD collections is over and there are still a lot of classical Swedish Christmas songs that are well worth enjoying.

If you are curious, the Absolute Christmas contains everything from Wham's Last Christmas, Abba's Happy New Year and Harry Belefonte.

But some classics are this one here:

Nu är det jul igen! The lyrics are: Now it is Christmas again, Now it is Christmas again, and it will go on until Easter, but that isn't true, that isn't true because in the middle is Lent.

It works better in Swedish

All good Swedish holidays include the drinking of the snaaps. But before there is the drinking of the snaaps there must be singing. At Christmas you sing this one:

Hej tomtegubbar

The translation is: Hello Santas bang your glasses and let us merry be! Hey Santas bang your glasses and let us merry be! A little while, we will live here, with lots of effort and trouble. Hello Santas bang your glasses and let us merry be!

And if my first paragraph just left you nostalgic for Wham.... there is always this:

Friday, December 21, 2012

That time the Swedish post office decided it didn’t want to work with the post anymore

Like post offices around the world, the Swedish post office has really suffered since the advent of email and the introduction of competitors to the market. Not only does the Swedish post compete with companies like DHL and UPS, but there is also CityMail, a local mail distributor that deals with company post.

But the decision the company took in the mid-2000s left me laughing so hard, I still think about it now and then – like today when I had to go pick up all of my on-line Christmas packages.

Here in Sweden, for a long time, the Swedish post office ran both a mail/package delivery service and a banking service. You could pay your bills at the post office, for example. Most companies had what is known as a ‘Post giro’ an account you pay into to pay your bills.

It became obvious to everyone about 8 years ago that there was not going to be a lot of money in the Postal industry in the future, but that banking was still something that was bringing in a steady cash flow.

So one day, the Swedish postal service decided that they would not longer provide postal services at the post offices, and only offer banking services.

Now see, this is the point when the Swedish postal service should have picked up the phone and called me. You see, I would have told them this:

“Silly post office, you are forgetting that most people pay their bills at the post office because they are going there to drop of their packages/mail and want to kill two birds with one stone. If they are going somewhere just to do banking, they are probably going to go to the bank!”

But they didn’t call.

Instead they did an awesome thing. They opened a bunch of mail counters in local grocery stores. So now, you can go and pick up your packages while you go grocery shopping. The opening hours are much more extensive, and you can also ship your packages at these counters as well. Did I mention what a win this was for us customers! Really. It is great.

Sadly, things did not go well for the Swedish Postal service. Most of the post offices were pushed to closure. While many companies used to have on their invoices that you could pay via the bank or post office, most now only say bank. Why? Because no one goes to the post office anymore.

There is still a Swedish post office. Their mailmen and women come and deliver mail to your doorstep 5 days a week.

And while sometimes things get a little hectic at the mail counter when you to pick up your packages –especially the last day before Christmas – the Post office’s solution has been great for customers.

But in the end, if your company is called The Post, it might not be good business to decide you no longer want to work with ‘The Post’.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Great Swedish Brands for Kids

IKEA is the one Swedish brand everyone knows, and while they do sell toys and kids stuff, there are a few other brands out there that really exemplify the experience of being a Swedish kid.

Like most things Swedish, they are usually pretty well made, and always rather expensive. You will also find them in about 80%-90% of Swedish homes. OK, maybe I am exaggerating a little, but not by much.

My two favorites are:


Founded in Osby, a tiny town just south of where Ikea was founded, Brio is known for making classic Swedish children’s toys, mostly out of wood. There are the infamous Brio trains, similar to the wooden Thomas the train tracks, that pretty much every family has either a stash of in their basement or has sold and gotten rich off. These things are gold – and while they cost a small fortune, the old ones have been known to survive 20-30 years in regular families (ie families that don’t save the packaging and have multiple children play with the toys).

You may recognize, but probably not, that Brio also designed our SUV stroller that I am still gushing over after all these years. They also do strollers (Scandinavian giants only) and I believe car seats.

If you are ever in Sweden you can even go to the Brio museum, where, coincidently, Santa Claus also lives in the basement.

Polern och Pyret

It took me until last year to figure out that the words Polern och Pyret actually meant something, The buddy and and the little guy. PoP is pretty much a staple in middle-class Sweden.

They sell organic and regular cotton products, but really specialize in outdoor gear that will set you back a couple hundred dollars.

The best thing about PoP, (although I admit I don’t shop there often, too expensive, and when I do I order from the US website sales – or rather, grandma and grandpa do), is that the clothes grow with the child. A lot of the clothing has small design touches which mean they can last for ages. Take one organic cotton PJ Little Swede got when he turned one. It had thick cuffs on the arms and ankles that you could roll up or down. The cuffs, when rolled down, easily add at least 4 inches to each arm/leg if you want to. Almost 2 years later and Little Swede still fishes it out of the drawer, it is still in one piece, and it still fits. Almost makes justifying the purchase of 50 dollar pajamas for a 1 year old.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Swedish small business tax Part I

I am only writing this because I have been actually pretty good about sticking to my posting every day for advent goal, that I am afraid to give it up.

Right now I am nose deep in tax papers, not because it is tax time, but because I am trying to get my 2012 business tax sorted before the baby gets here. Or at least as sorted as it can be.

I would really like to bitch and moan about the Swedish small business tax plan (And to all you American small business owners, the Obama small business tax plan sounds like it would be miraculous compared to the tax I have to pay here – but in the end, I think it is worth it—most days), but as much as I want to throw the bookkeeping program and my computer out the window, there are a ton of resources out there to make this process easier.

I’ve worked with the following organisations (all of these services are FREE!):

IFS – Invandrare Företag Service – or Immigrant Company Services in English – they offer free classes on starting a business, personal advisors to keep you abrush of any laws and regulations, and a networking group – they are, hands down, the best organization I have worked with since starting my business. I love them and could not recommend them more.

Nyföretagservice – Or new company service – These guys offer similar services, as well as, in many cases, a kind of incubator where you can rent an office for cheap and get a lot of services. I enjoyed the opportunity to work one on one with them, but found them very unorganized. I signed up for one of their programs and they emailed me a week before the newly set course start saying that we would be meeting every following week at such and such a time. In the middle of the working day. Um, yeah, except – I have a project I am working on and haven’t gotten any notice to schedule your class. I tried this a few times, asking them to please let me know the start date 4-6 weeks in advance, but this never happened. They also told me they would find me a mentor. 8 months ago. I still have no mentor. I would recommend the one-on-one service, they were quite helpful, but I thought the IFS group more knowledgable and more willing to say ‘I don’t know about that rule, let me speak with our lawyer and get back to you at the next meeting’

Skatteverket – The Swedish tax authority – Believe it or not, these guys are quite helpful. They also run a bunch of classes – which I found slightly more rushed than the IFS classes, but a helpful walkthrough- and you can also book personal meetings with a tax advisor to answer your questions. I have booked such a meeting, but haven’t had it yet so not much to say on that.

Until then, I am trying to figure out just how big a check I have to cut the Swedish government by May next year. The good news is, the check is big because my company is going better than expected. The bad news is… I don’t think I have ever written a check that big! (Oh and I am not really writing a check. Checks are obsolete here -- just a figure of speech and it sounds better than 'pay into my tax account')