Thursday, June 28, 2007

Once Upon a Time, there was...Sweden.

Once upon a time, there was a land (seemingly) far, far away from all other lands.

In this land there was no war, (almost) everyone had work, all basic human needs were met, vacation was plentiful, equality was strong and family was cherished.

This land was mostly forest and mostly water at the same time. This land had snow when you expect to have snow and sun when you expect to have sun, mostly. The people of this land treasured nature and took great care of the part of the earth they had been given.

In this land, the color of hair was blonde, especially among children as they were chauffeured in their luxury strollers. In this land, parents were prized and their omnipresent offspring were sacred.

Music, dancing, drink, food, family, friends, holidays and the seasons of the year were celebrated with more enthusiasm than other lands, just as the daily coffee and pastry break was a little more enjoyed.

During one holiday, a young girl wore a crown of candles. During another, crayfish was the centerpiece. During another, nationwide bonfires blazed and during yet another, family and friends danced and sang around, well, an important part of human “progress.”

This land had no shortage of ice cream and one could hear the ice cream man’s familiar tune in all seasons. Though food and drink were important, consumption and indulgence were moderate (except for holidays). In this land, the bicycle was the preferred mode of transportation.

The people of this land were beautiful and there was a rhythm to their language not to be duplicated by people from any other land, no matter how hard they tried…

This land was great to visit, but even better to live.

Once Upon a Time, there was…Sweden.

Early on during my time here, a fellow foreigner had these words for me:

“Sean, Sweden is like a fairy tale. Everyone is blonde, everyone is taken care of. They dance around the maypole during summer. It’s just like a little fairy tale.” Though every Swede has a long list of things wrong with Sweden and though not everyone is blonde and though this foreigner can name a number of things he doesn’t like about Sweden, it’s hard to argue with the above story. However, unlike a fairy tale, Sweden and the Swedes are sensible, grounded and based in reality. Sweden is not a dream come true, but the fairy tale analogy is not that far-fetched.

Yes, this may be romanticized, but anyone who has been reading Linköpinglivin’ gets the point. This is one “jättefint” country and it’s a pleasure to live and work here. It’s also been a pleasure to help others come to understand some things about Sweden and my experience through this weekly online ritual.
And not to overlook anything, thank you to those of you who have faithfully or occasionally read this blog and a big thank you to those of you who have contributed important information and enjoyment to this blog, especially my outstanding brother, Todd, who has made this form of communication all the more fun and often, as you know, stole the show…

Tomorrow I get on a plane bound for Seattle and, in true Swedish fashion, will be taking the month of July off...from the blogosphere.

During the second year, Linköpinglivin’ might look a little different, so come back and find out.

Glad sommar.
Trevlig semester.

See you in August.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Midsommar. This is music (and dance and food and drink and celebration) to Swedish ears.

Inarguably the pinnacle of all Swedish holidays, the Midsummer celebration in Sweden (and other parts of Scandinavia and Europe) continues the theme of marking the various seasons of the year with holidays and long-held traditions (Lucia, Valborg, etc.). This past Friday night, "we" welcomed the coming summer during the longest days of the year. Welcome, at long last, summer.

A very popular question for me during this past year in Sweden was "Were you here for Midsummer last year?" Upon hearing my response, I often received a comment or look of "You don't know Sweden until you've been here for Midsummer." Arriving last year on July 6th, it's been a long wait, but my initiation to Sweden is now complete. Welcome, at long last, summer.

Whether a traditional or modern celebration, Midsummer is best celebrated in the Swedish countryside with family and friends, preferrably near a lake and always with the classic Midsummer meal of pickled herring, new and fresh potatoes with dill, soured cream and raw red onion, some sort of grilled meat or fish and dessert is always Svensk jordgubbar or "Swedish strawberries" with cream. Drink? Well, anyone who's been reading Linköpinglivin this past year with even mild attention can guess that schnapps and other forms of Swedish popular beverages are the drink of choice for Midsummer. Welcome, at long last, summer.

Another important part of the Midsummer celebration (and seen above) is the Midsummerstång or "maypole" which, let's just say, reflects the "fertility" aspect of the Midsummer celebration. Once the maypole is secured, traditional Swedish song and dance emerges leading to all kinds of summer fun, magic, love, dreams, hopes and all things loved during summertime in Sweden. Originally a holiday to commemorate John the Baptist, Midsummer became more pagan in nature sometime during the 1500s when Sweden adopted many of the traditions from another form of the holiday held in Germany. Many myths, legends and stories accompany the Midsummer celebration, all centered on summertime themes of agricultural prosperity, rest and renewal and dreams of future love and matrimony. Welcome, at long last, summer.

My first Midsummer was spent with literally thousands of others at a conference appropriately held in the Swedish countryside. As with most of my Swedish experiences this year, my role was more observer than participant, taking pictures and reveling in the moment, often wondering how in the world I got here...

Pictures above:
1. A Midsummerstång covered in leaves as Swedes of all ages enthusiastically do their part to welcome summer.
2. More dancing around the maypole.
3. Another common Midsummer tradition is the floral crown worn by women and some younger boys.
4. Kids make all the holidays in Sweden that much better, even if they have no idea what is going on - in fact, the expression of puzzlement on the kids' faces was often reflected in my own.
5. Good friends' nephew all dressed up in traditional Midsummer attire.

By the way, this time of year in Sweden, there is simply no darkness, just different shades of dusk blue. As I look out my northern-facing apartment window, I see the sun go down on the left side around 11:00pm and rise on the right side around 3:00am. In between, just a soft blue horizon awaiting the return of daytime. I haven't seen nighttime pitch black in over a month. No wonder we celebrate this time of year. Sweden is so cool.

Welcome, at long last, beloved Swedish summer.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Americans in Sweden

As spring becomes summer in Sweden, native or foreigner can sense the conclusion of one year (as measured by the academic calendar and approaching Swedish vacation month) and the anticipation of rest, endless sunshine, water, people and the glories of the warmest and brightest time of year.

An international rite of passage for summer is the various graduation ceremonies and celebrations, which in Sweden take place with captain's hats and farming equipment, at least here in Linköping. Late last week, hundreds of graduating gymnasium or "high school" seniors were paraded through the streets of Linköping (as seen above) declaring their arrival to the next phase of life. The captain's hats one can see in these pictures are a national symbol of high school level graduation, not unlike the motorboard in the U.S. and other countries. These hats can and might be used again at different occasions at University or other times in life (see Valborgs Day on April 30th).

However, this week's subject is dedicated specifically to the ongoing Linköpinglivin theme of an American in Sweden. First, a special Linköpinglivin' acknowledgment goes out to a lifelong friend who has been here the past five days discovering my Swedish world. Jason Berns, who as a matter of fact is 25% Swedish (!), and I grew up together, attended college together, have shared in many life experiences and can now add "Sverige" to our list of accomplishments. You can see above that, even while in Sweden, we experienced a small piece of California during a "beach volley" tournament in Linköping--you should have seen the waves on that beach! So with a visitor this past week, it's been not one, but two, Americans experiencing the adventure that is Sweden.

Second, though I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share parts of Sweden in this weekly, topic-by-topic format, there is a summary of life in Sweden for an American currently circulating around the internet that is too priceless to pass up. The following is written by someone who apparently lives in Gothenburg and has clearly experienced Sweden as an American. Anyone familiar with this blog will understand just how much I found this to be a poinant and humorous summary of a displaced American in Sweden. Two small comments, 1) I haven't found the customer-service in Sweden to be anything but courteous and respectable and, 2) friends and family back home don't have to worry--I don't think the ground in Linköping is made of "highly absorbent clay."

Enjoy (and we'll see you back here for the famous Swedish Midsummer celebration next week).

Enormous Blonde Herring-scented Nauseatingly
Fair-minded Nymphomaniacs in Clogs

If you're from Topeka, you can go to Kansas City. If you're from
Kansas City, you can go to Chicago. If you're from Chicago, you can go
to New York. But if you're from Manhattan, where can you go?

By the time I was 35 I had to go to Sweden just to calm down.

These are not the people who drill holes in cheese and yodel. They are
not a fondue people. Their trains are often late, their mountains are
unimpressive and their chocolate is adequate at best.

No. These are the people who brought you The Nobel Prize, the Volvo,
the smörgåsbord, free day care, suicide and full frontal nudity. These
are the blondes. Enormous Blonde Herring-scented Nauseatingly
Fair-minded Nymphomaniacs in Clogs.

One day I was using the osthyvel (special cheese slicer) on a hunk of
"grevé" cheese, and Lena, Lina Helena and Lene stared yelling at me.
"We always know when you've been in the cheese! It t looks like a
ski-slope!" Apparently it is of great importance that every slice
attempt to "even out" the cheese level. All Swedes are brought up to
do this. I call this enlightening episode: "Respect the Cheese Form!"

"Lågom" means "not too little, not too much. Just Right." The Middle
Road. Social Democracy. Fairness. Even-ness. Cheese. Although Swedish
is a word-poor language, they have a few we don't. They have a word
for the crime of falsely washing the dishes in a quick and sloppy way.

Sweden has an extremely active yogurt culture. Almost frantic. Choose
between "filmjölk", kefir, and yogurt. Yogurt is available in Japanese
style, Russian style, "farmer" style, "normal" style and liquid style,
each in a stupefying array of flavors, including cloudberry. Filmjölk
tastes sourer, but frankly I don't understand the difference. You can
buy no fat, low fat, medium low fat, medium fat, medium-high and "call
your cardiologist" versions of all these things as well as "long"
filmjölk, whatever that is.

Swedish people travel with sheets and towels. They cannot be stopped.
You can try saying; "You don't need to bring your sheets and towels. I
have everything here" but they will bring them all the same.

If you go on a vacation with a Swede, watch out, because when exposed
to direct sunlight, they tend to burst into flame.

Swedes don't like to talk. Except at the movies.

You can buy herring in any gas station.

Swedes squeeze food out of tubes. Among many other choices, liver
paté, mushroom/cheese spread, crab paste, and the infamous "Kalle's
Kaviar" (lumpfish roe) are very popular. My favorite is black
pepper/cognac. There are special gizmos in refrigerators to hold the
tubes. They squirt this stuff onto the knäckebröd (crispbread) which
they store in the special cupboard above the fridge. For an average of
fourteen years. It keeps rather well.

Beer is available in strong, medium and light versions. The most
oft-spoken words are "En stor stark." A big strong one.

Many of my friends, both men and women, use "snus." Chewing tobacco.
Stuffed into their gums, this results in a distinctive, puffy

Whatever their sex life may include, Swedish people sleep in single
beds. Peculiar. But cozy.

Swedes eat a lot of korv (hot dogs) with mos (mashed potatoes) on top.
When they speak English they invariably say, "smashed potatoes" and I
can't correct them; it's too charming. Then there are the ketchup
udders. At every korv kiosk (hot dog stand) there is a shocking lineup
of assorted mustards and ketchups, each in a long, squeezable rubber
udder. There's no other way to describe them. Udders.

Christmas means one thing. Festive Pigs.

Eye drops are illegal. Crazy glue is illegal. Hair dryers never get
really hot. Sweden protects you.

I love Sweden. It's boring, but in a good way.

On every street there are five or six hair "salonger." Most have
frightening English names, like "Klipper Crazy." I am convinced
they're a front for some illegal activity. Because if they're for
real, it's surprising that anyone has a hair left on their head.

Dentists get mad at you because you don't "toothpick", not because you
don't floss.

Toilet paper is packaged in gigantic, 24 roll bales, wrapped in clear
plastic with a handle on top. People run around in public with these,
constantly and shamelessly.

There's something called the Swedish standard, and it's pretty high.
Fairness and Equality means that you can buy a very good Merlot in
Lappland. This is part of the Swedish standard. Liquor is sold only in
state-run stores, called "SystemBolaget", or, as it's more popularly
known, "Systemet." The System. The System closes at 6 PM, and 2 PM on
Saturdays. The most Swedish thing one can do is to go to Systemet on
Friday at 5. You will take a "nummerlapp" (a number from the
Turn-o-Matic) and wait calmly and patiently for your turn to insure a
desperately rowdy weekend. The Turn-o-Matic is an invention of which
the Swedes are very proud. Even at the police station you have to take
a "nummerlapp." And wait. Enterprising drunks outside the shop might
sell you a low number for a few kronor. Otherwise, bring literature.

The most serious television news shows interview political figures
with a charming and homey milieu, including flowered curtains, blond
wood, colorful pillows, pastries and coffee. On doilies. "Nightline,"
take note: Dick Cheney? Why not brownies? And wouldn't Condoleeza Rice
enjoy a freshly baked cinnamon bun?

Even after years of psychotherapy, my most burning issue is a complete
lack of patience. Seemingly, Sweden has been designed especially to
help me learn this virtue. There are not enough people in Sweden. Even
at fancy restaurants, some element is always self -service. It's not
uncommon to clear one's own table. The salad, bread and water are on
the sideboard. Help yourself. No. Help me.

The waitress, the cashier, the mechanic, the cleaning lady and you are
all equals. Not only is the customer not always right, they're just
plain lucky to receive service of any kind.

I want to buy an apartment here, so I had a frank conversation with
immigration. It went something like this:

LR: I'm an American citizen, but I want to buy a house in Sweden. What
are the rules for residency here?

IM: So you're married to a Swede?

LR: No, I'm not married.

IM: Oh, so sorry. So you're living with a Swedish man, then.

LR: No. But I once was married to a Swedish man.

IM: Okay, then!

LR: But we divorced in 1985.

IM: That's too bad.

LR: You're telling me!

IM: So, you have children in Sweden? Swedish children?

LR: No. No children.

IM: No children? Oh, well. Perhaps a Swedish company employs you.

LR: No, not employed.

IM: No job?

LR: I'm freelance.

IM: Silence.

LR: But I have a lot of friends here.

IM: Oh, friends don't count.

LR: silence.

IM: But what reason could you possibly have to want to live here?

LR: You make me feel like I have no reason to want to live at all.

Wait. I have an ex mother-in-law in Helsingborg.

IM: That doesn't mean anything.

LR: But she loves me very much!

IM: Look, we here in Sweden are very liberal. You don't have to be
married. But to live here you have to have a serious relationship.
Like for a couple of months.

LR: A couple of months? Is that all you people care about? Sex? I have
to be having Swedish sex?

IM: Well, yeah!

LR: I'll see what I can do.

The city of Gothenburg was built on highly absorbent clay. Legend has
it that this clay makes one sink in and stay. There might be something
to that because I am still here.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


All year I have been touting the great holidays of Sweden:

“Steeped in tradition.”

“A festive occasion of food, drink and song—something Swedes have been doing long before America was born.”

“Another celebration of the season marked by the annual [fill in blank] that’s been happening since before anyone can remember.”

So you would be right to suspect that a holiday like “National Day” would be another of these grand occasions where I would find myself singing around a bonfire while eating fish and watching the woman next to me with candles peculiarly perched on her head. But you would be mistaken. On Sweden’s “Nationalsdag,” nothing happens, except a day off from work.

The quick and dirty history of National Day is that it has only been an official holiday since 2005, only been a day of recognition 1983 and somehow is connected with Gustav Vasa, Sweden’s most beloved king and the official split with Denmark and subsequent constitution way back when.

So, until there is time for an entire culture to establish some traditions, Swedes (and their lucky guests) will just enjoy a day off from work and do whatever they feel like on Sweden's National Day.

As for me, an excursion to the classic Swedish summer town of Söderköping through the rolling and green Swedish countryside, which on this day was decorated with even more Swedish flags than normal, was how I celebrated my first Nationalsdag. Three friends, some renowned Söderköping ice cream, a small walk up a hillside for a great view and then back to Linköping for Swedish class—a well used day off from work to celebrate the nation of Sweden.

Pictures above:

1. Linköping's city hall with flags-a-flyin' on National Day.

2. Söderköping from a hillside outlook.

3. A typical Sweden spring & summer's day: water & boats, strolling Swedes casually enjoying the often-elusive sunshine and a line at the ice cream shop...Söderköping at its best.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Swedish "Kolonier"

Long before Sweden became one of the world's most successful welfare states, policy makers and government officials decided to provide urban, industrial, city dwellers with a solace to their concrete woes and lack of natural exposure, something all Swedes agree that no Swede should go without.

Swedish "Kolonier" or Swedish Colonies are areas of land outside of many main city centers throughout Sweden. The building full of students where I work is located just steps away from the Linköping "Koloni," hence one reason for the student-named "Colonia" student housing project where I am spend my days and some nights.

Above, you will find pictures of the Linköping Colony, both from a distance and while taking a closer look. Americans might think of this as an elaborate "community garden," an area of land reserved for low-income people in cities to have a gardening spot, but the Swedish Colony is no longer necessarily for city dwellers or just so good Swedish folk can have a nature-centered habitat. Current residents of colony-living have either inherited or purchased their limited area and use it as a spring and summer cottage. Essentially a studio living area with a small lawn, classic red paint job and fencing and a small garden for anything from flowers to vegetables to herbs.

Just one more unique, charming and "moderate" element to Sweden and the Swedes.

We have another Swedish holiday this week, the National Day is on Wednesday, then another holiday later this month, the beloved "Midsommar." It's the time of year when, well, vacation is just around the corner so we take holidays just to get a little more comfortable with the idea of not working....or so I've been told.

See you next week.