Sunday, May 27, 2007

Swedes at Play and the 2007 SOF Parade

As people begin to ask me "What are your summer plans?," I immediately consider the fact that I have now been in Sweden almost 10 full months approaching an entire year. For a long time I anticipated the possibility of living and working abroad and, all-of-a-sudden, I've been doing that now for quite awhile. So just so all of you Americans know, time flies in Sweden, too.

This weekend was simply spring in Sweden: bright and sunny skies, a little overcast at night, warm and in bloom everywhere, emphatically calling out for gatherings of friends, games, drink, food and a grill. By the way, these days the sun comes up at 4:30am and sets at 10:15pm.

A Swedish spring or summer gathering is not all that different than an American gathering this time of year, except for one thing: Swedes have endured a longer, colder, darker winter and have earned the spring and summer more than most Americans, though admittedly this year's Swedish winter was very mild and didn't compare to the midwestern U.S. So party on, Kansas!

The pictures above capture my weekend:

1. The residents of Colonia, many of the students with whom I have worked throughout this past year, sharing in one last get-together before somehow mustering the energy for one last round of exams and finishing the school year. The Colonia building is making a lot of progress and we will welcome 250 residents this coming August!

2. Julia, Anders, Anton and Marcus enjoy spring.

3 & 4. A group of friends from Ryttargårdskyrkan partake in a classic Swedish lakeside grilling and games-filled afternoon. Another difference between a Swedish and American BBQ is that this gathering, in addition to a lake, was also at a castle (!). For those of you familiar with the Linköping area, we were at Bjärka-Säby today.

5. Today I was introduced to "KUBB," a centuries-old Scandinavian game, credited all the way back to the Viking era of 800 - 1050, somewhat like Bocce ball or horseshoes, at least in athleticism needed and the ideal environment...

Finally, there was a comment from a friend of mine, Kristofer Gustafsson, in last week's entry regarding the Student Orchestra Festival or "SOF" parade, which took place in Linköping while I was in Paris. The students in Sweden hold an annual weeklong themed festival highlighted by a parade of floats that roll through either Uppsala (north of Stockholm) or Linköping for thousands of people to see. This year "SOF" was held in Linköping and the theme, as ironic as this is, was "The United States of America." 6,500 people attended, including many "SOF alumni" who have been attending for decades.

So, for a look at students, Linköping, Swedes at play and the USA (four elements that are very vital to my daily life), please take a look at the very impressive photography of Kristofer at his Flickr site. I recommend the 5-minute slide show format:

A big thanks to Kristofer for covering me on an event critical to any legitimate blog about the Linköping experience.

P.S: Happy Swedish Mother's Day (today-"Mors Dag") to Mom!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


When two friends from Southern California, Jason and Heather Sunukjian (previously seen on Linköpinglivin back in October during a visit to Sweden), called to tell me they would be in Paris and wanted me to join them, I had to think about it for, well, about one minute.

Paris: L' Avenue Champs Elysées, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the River Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Musée d'Orsay, Opéra Garnier, Saint Sulpice, Les Invalides, Tuileries Garden, Pont de la Concorde, Hotel de Ville...

Paris: Déscartes, Louis XIV, Monet, Hugo, Renoir, Napolean, Rodin, Marie Antoinette, David, Picasso, Voltaire, Matisse, Manet, Degas, Joan of Arc...

Paris: Croissants, brie, Bordeaux, baguettes, Café au Lait, Sauvignon, Berthillion glacé y sorbet, crepe nutella!

Paris: Ile de la Cité, Ile Saint Louis, Latin Quarter, Marais, Saint Germain des Prés, Paris neighborhoods 1 - 20 known as"Arondissments"...

Paris: What more can I say?

I'm glad you asked. Oui, Bonjour, Bonsoir, A bientot ("See you soon"), Monsieur, Madame, Comment allez-vous ("How are you?"), S'il vous plait ("Please"), Bon Apétite, Bon Voyage, Les Misérables, Creme Brulée, Merci and Au Revoir.

And after four intense days of exploring, eating, walking, gawking, picnicing, drinking, picture taking, reflecting, prioritizing, talking, metro-riding, spending, and even a little bit of sleep, my introduction (because I will return!) to Paris was over. A special "Merci beau-coup" goes out to Veronique and David, two new French friends who put up with three Americans for the weekend. And a much deserved "thank you" to Jason and Heather for happily letting me interrupt their romantic weekend in the City of Love.

*A special note for Americans: If any of you are under the impression that the French are rude, it's simply not true. I have story after story from this weekend to attest to that. I should have been unable to send any postcards and missed the bus to the airport, but because of helpful French, Parisians no less, neither of these things happened. Just like I have to tell Europeans that "not all Americans have guns," I will always tell Americans that not all French fit our stereotype, in fact, I had a hard time finding any...

*A special note for Linköpingsborna: I was so sorry the timing didn't work out for me to be here for the SOF parade on Saturday, especially considering this year's theme, "U.S.A." Colonia had a float and their work on this was tremendous.

Lastly, pictures above:

1. Self-explanatory.
2. River Seine and Notre-Dame at dusk.
3. Shakespeare and Company, arguably the world's most famous English-speaking bookstore found in Paris' Latin Quarter.
4. The brilliant Eiffel Tower at night, an awe-striking sight.
5. Mona and her friends at the Louvre.

Vive la France!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Euro Pop Culture: Schlager, Melodifestival and the Eurovision Song Contest

Those of you who are laughing at this title and these pictures even before you begin reading must know me pretty well. Rarely does anyone ever catch me even using the phrase "pop culture," much less making it the subject of a blog entry or having any idea what is "cool," "hip" or "hot." My usual attitude toward pop culture consists of dismissing it as artificial and lacking anything of substance that will actually contribute to society, which may perhaps just mask my total lack of understanding and general inability to keep up with it...

...until now.

Before proceeding, you must be familiarized with three European pop culture phrases:

Schlager: Schlager is a genre of music found throughout Europe, but Swedes like to say that the "best" (if indeed that description can actually be uttered with Schalger) is found in Scandinavia. To the novice, Schlager might sound like any other up-tempo European pop music, but indeed it is a particular form of up-tempo pop music that separates Schlager. Schlager songs get to the chorus quickly, are usually only 3 minutes long and the simple goal of Schlager is to get everyone to sing along as quickly as possible. Americans, Schlager is your drive-thru fast food of European pop music: No one claims to, but most love it, at least here in Sweden.

Melodifestival: This is the annual, Swedish, made-for-TV, music competition that gradually narrows down a winner through TV audience voting. The winner of "Melodifestivalen" (this year: The Ark, 3rd picture above) represents Sweden in the...

Eurovision Song Contest: This annual European song contest has been a spring tradition for the past 50 years. Each country in the ever-expanding Eurovision Europe (including Georgia? Armenia?) gets one representative act to perform their Schlager song and, over the course of two nights of heated competition and judging, a winner is determined. Last year, Finland won Eurovision against all odds and therefore, hosted this year's event, which took place last night, watched by millions and covered by some 2,700 journalists.

So now that some of your European pop culture definitions are clarified from a most unlikely source, we can continue with this week's entry...

For someone who proudly proclaims he has never seen an episode of American Idol (or for that matter, ER, Survivor, Lost, 24--I still say that live sports is the best reality TV ever!), I had to chuckle as I started watching this year's Eurovision Song Contest with a group of friends who admirably endured my endless questions as I envisioned a blog entry for all those at home who just wouldn't believe I was watching and, admittedly, liking the Eurovision Song Contest.

42 countries (and increasing every year) entered this year's ESC. 18 were eliminated on Thursday night leaving 24 acts for Saturday night's final. The competition takes place in a jam-packed arena of the host city and is televised worldwide. The judges, you ask? At the end of the competition, everyone is given 15 minutes to call or SMS-text their votes for their top 10. Each country tallies their own votes and submits numbers 1 - 10 with increasing point values. To conclude the evening, each country "calls in" to announce their votes live and eventually a winner is determined.

This year's winner: Serbia, fighting off an impressive display from the former Eastern bloc who took 11 of the first 12 places. Sweden finished a disappointing 18th place, but has won four times (yes, including ABBA, who is credited with the birth of Schlager) third most of any country (Ireland, Great Britian).

What I appreciated most about the Eurovision Song Contest, and why I made a last-minute change to this week's blog entry subject (you were going to learn about Swedish "Colonia", but perhaps another time), was the rarely-seen unity and outright celebration of this grand continent. As countries called in to register their votes, you saw the diversity of locales, languages, interests, tastes and metropolitan backgrounds all coming together as one to celebrate this European tradition and share a sense of continental community. For an outsider-looking-in, this celebration of Europe was unforgettable and even inspiring, especially when you consider everything so many of the countries have come through since the first Eurovision Song Contest 50 years ago.

I still don't care about pop culture, nor will I download any of the songs from last night (if you're interested, I liked Serbia, Ukraine, Germany, Romania and Latvia, and those Russians were hot), but to be here in Europe watching essentially the only event of this kind that brings every European country together (much less gives Moldova as much clout as France or Germany) was a highlight of my time here so far. The group I was with, coupled with the event itself, made for a "fantastik nya svensk upplevelse" (fantastic new Swedish experience).

Pictures above:
1. Eurovision logo from Helsinki. Next year it's on to Belgrade.
2. Great Britian's laughable entry.
3. Ukraine's entertaining entry.
4. The Ark, Sverige!
5. Me with Colonia students in our paintball attire from last week--I promised they would make the blog.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Valborg: A Swedish Welcome of Spring

When you're this close to the top of the world, a place where the sun shines none of the time or all of the time, the seasons take on a different meaning, and intensity. So much so that the Swedish calendar is decorated with holidays that mark the comings and goings of the various seasons. The springtime annual tribute is known as Valborgsmässoafton or "Walpurgis Night."

This Swedish festival takes place in metropolitan city centers, smaller local communities as well as neighborhoods on April 30th, then May 1st is Labor Day so many Swedes will take a couple days off, especially if these dates fall on or near a weekend. Regardless of when or where it is celebrated, the most recognized part of Walpurgis Night is the blazing bonfire, which, in earlier times, was supposed to scare away evil to ensure upcoming growth and agricultural prosperity. These days, however, the bonfire is a symbol of the oncoming warmer and lighter days of Swedish outdoor fun and summertime rest and recreation.

My first Valborgsmässoafton was spent here in Linköping, starting at 3:00pm at the castle near the Domkyrkan where a men's choir affiliated with Linköping University sang the traditional Valborg songs while wearing traditional Swedish hats that are essentially captain hats worn, I believe, for multiple varying occasions and holidays throughout Sweden. In the evening, most of Linköping gathered at the end of the river for more from a choir, the lighting of the bonfire staged safely in the river and concluding with a spectacular fireworks show. The whole atmosphere of Valborg is akin to the American holidays of Memorial Day or Labor Day (despite the July 4th-like fireworks) when the smaller, neighborhood gatherings take place, usually around a grill and other summertime merriment.

Just one of many Swedish holidays that I've been privileged to observe this year, Valborgsmässoafton was a welcomed break from the norm and the Linköping celebration in particular was a chance to celebrate with friends and strangers who share a small town in Sweden. For a worthier explanation of this unique holiday, I refer you to my Swedish-news-in-English online website:

Trevlig Valborg, alla. Vi ses nästa vecka.