Monday, September 24, 2007

Dating, Relationships and Marriage in Sweden

From Sweden to the USA (and everywhere in between and all around), everyone’s favorite topic makes an appearance on Linköpinglivin’. I had to wait until I mastered this topic - you know became a professional at it…

As a foreigner, the first thing you’re told about Sweden and the subject of dating is “Women are self-sufficient – Don’t open that door! Don’t pay for that (whole) meal.” And while one must be prudent and thoughtful about one’s view of women in Sweden, certainly in the dating realm, I have found that Swedish women are like women everywhere. Although yes indeed self-sufficient, they certainly appreciate a thoughtful and, dare I say, chivalrous, significant other. They just want you to know they don’t need you ….or so I’ve been told.

Regarding marriage, well, let’s just say that Frank Sinatra’s famous song must not have quite made it all the way to Sweden, because love and marriage apparently do not always go together in Sweden. One of the things that struck me as I was becoming familiar with Swedish society is the Swedish (and I have heard European) penchant for long-term relationships with everything but the formal, legalized marriage. I know multiple couples who have been together for years, same house, same budget, two kids, everything looks like a marriage, but then and only then, maybe will they decide to actually and officially tie the knot. This scenario has described three of my colleagues in just the past year.

Unlike the U.S., there is no extra tax or government-motivated reason for marriage. As I understand it, whether you are living together, married or single, your taxes are the same.

For those who do choose to have a wedding ceremony, they are predictably understated in Sweden (especially in comparison to the U.S.). The Swedish cultural norm of “don’t draw attention to oneself” even influences the bride and groom who often choose to have a very small wedding with just the closest of family and friends in attendance. Ceremonies are usually held in a church, but often in a natural setting consistent with the Swedish love of nature. And, while legal and recognized since 1995, homosexual marriage is performed as a civil ceremony.

And something interesting to read for the Americans, just this past week a church in Sweden denied the request of a bride to have her father walk her down the aisle and "give her away" saying that this is just a tradition brought over by American-made television and very "unswedish." Read:

Swedish equality: Foreign men, be on alert!

As for my personal experience contributing to this topic of dating and relationships in Sweden? I’ll just say that if you ever read about it on the blog, you’ll know I’ve officially lost it in Sweden!

Finally the pictures above, which I don’t have to stretch too much to make them fit into this topic:

1. Stockholm’s Stadshuset or “city hall.” Some choose to get married here and the ceremony is often held in under one minute…

2. & 3. Strollers, continuing a theme on Linköpinglivin’, are everywhere in Sweden. This summer I found two curious places for strollers, at least to the eyes of a foreigner. Amongst canons at Kalmar’s castle and on the beach in Öland, literally almost a surfing stroller. Only in Sweden.

See you next week.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Language of Love & Love of Language

Answer A: French.

Answer B: A description of my continual fascination with the non-American approach to communicating with the world.

A collision of norms is something that happens when one travels, much less moves, to a foreign country. To a European, this week’s Linköpinglivin’ topic will be old news and boring because everyone speaks at least two languages - that's just normal. However, to the American, 98% of whom speak confidently in only one language, the topic of language can be filled with amazement. During my time in Sweden, I continue to be impressed by the ability of Europeans to speak multiple languages and I have two illustrations that "speak" to this ability:

Illustration 1:
Last winter I called a friend of mine from Germany who was an au pair in Linköping. Judith was already talking on the home phone line to another friend who is German and I was on her cell phone. Meanwhile, as the responsible au pair, Judith was also speaking with and taking care of the Swedish children with whom she was living. Envisioning this scene, I clarified, “So, Judith, you’ve got me on your cell phone speaking English, Stine on the home phone speaking German and you’re speaking with the kids in Swedish all at once?” Matter of factly and without sharing my impressed tone, Judith responded “yes.”

Just another day in Europe….

Illustration 2:
Sara is someone I met this weekend. Speaking with her in English and knowing she attended a Swedish-speaking school, I knew Sara spoke at least two languages. However, Sara had recently moved from Lebanon where she had become quite comfortable with Arabic and, somewhere along the line, Sara had also picked up French. Sara knew four languages quite comfortably. Sara is 12 years old!

Admittedly, this is impressive even by European standards. I walked away humbled as my Swedish language acquisition is currently stagnant.

Swedish elementary school students begin learning English in 3rd grade. They begin a third language (usually German, French or Spanish) in 9th grade. When they graduate from high school they know at least three languages and are well equipped to learn a lot more. Impressive.

As Americans, we miss out on an enriching cultural experience when our only language learning in high school consists of merely fulfilling requirements. There’s just rarely the motivation to dive into a new language when one knows they probably will never use it outside of school. Here in Europe, they know they will use it, and enjoy using it, most of their lives. Perhaps with globalization current American students can learn, knowing they will actually use the language, and not as something to fulfill an empty requirement in order to graduate….

The last of my expected visitors were here this past weekend. Two former students at the University of Washington, Zach Tobin and Niki Iglesias, concluded a European trip of the big three (London, Paris, Rome), Prague and Linköping (!), yes, and also Stockholm. “Tack” for making the effort to come all the way up here to the Arctic, Zach and Niki. It was a pleasure to have you in Sverige. On the subject of language, by the way, Zach took Russian in college for no particular reason other than an appreciation of the culture. Nice work, Zach.

Pictures above:
1. A summertime dusk picture of Stockholm harbor taken by my Dad.
2. The biggest Dalarna Horse you will find in the world is in Skansen - that's my cousin, Ashley, too.
3. They have miniature golf in Sweden. It's the hardest miniature golf on the planet. I got a 10 on this hole.
4. Zach and Niki in Stora Torget, Linköping.
5 Zach and Niki discover American-sized kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) in Stockholm's Gamla Stan.

Monday, September 10, 2007

More Swedish Fun Facts (and another Crayfish party)

It has recently been brought to my attention in one form or another that Linköpinglivin' could be a very helpful resource for a foreigner, particularly American, who is coming to live in Sweden for a period of time or forever. With that in mind, I've started to think of a few things that I have perhaps overlooked, but that need some mention, if I ever want this blog to be a legitimate resource for the naïve foreigner looking to make it past their first queue line in Sweden. For the rest of you, consider these some more Swedish fun facts "not important enough to have a full blog entry":

1. What happens when you mix Scandinavian equality, love of nature, a small population and one of the largest square km. countries in all of Europe? Allemansrätten or "Every man's right," which every Swede knows, loves and uses, states that you may sleep for one night anywhere in the countryside or islands of Sweden, yes even inside of fences on owned property, without permission as long as you don't disturb anyone and leave everything as you found it. But if you want to stay two nights, well you're just gonna have to ask permission!

2. I'm no expert on this subject, but Swedish male fashion, with it's liotard-tight jeans, skin-tight shirts and "fo-hawk," which probably comes from the French word "faux" or "fake" and I just like to call the "Swedish mullet," leaves a lot to be desired...I'll try to get a good picture of this someday soon for Linköpinglivin'.

3. If you submitted a tax return in Sweden, which of course everyone should, then it is public record and anyone can look up how much you submitted, thus being able to approximate one's salary and worth. This shocked me for a society as private as Sweden.

4. Sweden is a country of systems and order. When you go into almost any retail shop or business that expects multiple customers at once, you must obey the almighty queue - immediately take a nummerlapp in order to stand in the queue line. Eventually your number will be called, but if you ever want to piss off a Swede, just ignore the queue and step up to the front of the line. The Swedish queue system is always one of the first things a foreigner must learn, and also one of the first things discussed when foreigners are making fun of Sweden. Trust me, I know.

5. The U.S. often laments the two-party stranglehold on politics by the Republicans and Democrats (I guess there is also the Green Party). In Sweden, there are seven different parties, but in the end, most align themselves with one of the equivalents of the conservative (Moderate) or liberal (Social Democrat) parties. Last year, the Moderates won a victory for the first time in over 50 years. The next election is in three years.

6. Every Swede knows that "Sweden's most bought car" is not a Volvo, SAAB, Audi, BMW, Mercedes or any other manufactured car, but Sweden's beloved "Ahlgrens Bilar" marshmellow/gummy candy that no Swede is able to resist when offered... kind of like the American's love for gummy candy, but much more love.

7. Once again, systems and order. After learning about the almighty queue, all foreigners must go obtain their personnummer or "personal number." Much more than the Social Security number in the U.S., you need your personal number at all times in all places in Sweden if you hope to accomplish anything. Swedes are fond of saying that they "don't have names, just numbers," but unlike in the U.S. where we are concerned about eventually becoming controlled by these numbers, it appears that Swedes actually kind of like it!

8. In the U.S., hot dogs are looked down upon as unhealthy, cheap, bad-for-you food (except when at a baseball game, on a national holiday in the spring or summer or on a Manhattan or Chicago street corner). However, it seems that in Sweden and much of Europe, corner-bought street food, and especially hot dogs, are perfectly acceptable and permissable, not looked down upon or considered socially ignorant. This is one of the few ways in which Sweden is like Manhattan.

9. Unlike the stereotype, it simply isn't true that all Swedes are blonde. However, it is true that all Swedish children are blonde. It's really quite remarkable. And we're not just talkin' light hair or sandy blonde, it's called toe-head, almost-white blonde and Swedish children are all that! I think the cutest kids on earth are little black kids, but Swedish kids and their shiny blonde hair are a close second.

10. Just in case you were wondering, Fall has hit Sweden. Almost on cue, as August turned to September, the temperature dropped 20 degrees (10 Celsius) and all the shorts and shirts were put away until Valborgsmässoafton.

Pictures above:

1. This past week, I celebrated my second Kräftfiske party. Unlike last year, this year we successfully captured hundreds of live crayfish. For more on my thoughts about Swedes and their beloved crayfish, see the Linköpinglivin' entry from about a year ago.
2. A colleague, Cecilia, says "Hej" to a crayfish.
3. It's not Deadliest Catch, but it was fun.
4. Songs, crayfish bibs, plenty of food and drink and cameras are all part of a Swedish Crayfish party.
5. My summary of this delightful Swedish festivity.

See you next week.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Diversity, Homogeneity and Race in Sweden: Part 1

When people ask me what is the most negative thing about Sweden, I do not reply with “the darkness” or “the winter” or typical answers you might hear from a foreigner (a Southern Californian, no less) not used to being this far north. As I was asked this question towards the end of my first year here, I found myself answering with another bi-product of geographical inconvenience: the homogeneity of Sweden (and to be fair, all of Scandinavia).

As the world knows, diversity in general and race in particular are two elements that greatly impact virtually every corner of the United States. The great American experiment of being a homeland for anyone and everyone, from all lands, continents and countries, is still undergoing its growing pains and almost-daily events are witness to the good, the bad and the ugly about a country with so much difference and diversity. And of course, other countries face similar challenges of bringing differences among people together.

In what will be the first of possibly several ongoing parts in Linköpinglivin’, I would like to take a closer look at the issue of diversity in Sweden.

I broach this subject with trepidation because of the obviously charged subject matter, but also because I have not done the adequate “research,” i.e., talked to numerous people about the topic of diversity, good and bad, in Sweden. There’s been some discussion, but most of this is based on observation and conscious and unconscious assumptions that may or may not be valid. Please feel free to add your input, whether a native Swede, fellow foreigner or immigrant, or interested American. For purposes of brevity, I will focus more on race in Sweden than among other differences among people.

Sweden simply does not have the diversity of people to the same extent that other countries do. This makes perfect geographical sense. Though immigrants flood through Sweden’s borders during times of war in other lands, Balkans in the late 90s and Iraqis-in-droves now – 22,000 just in 2006 compared with America’s 7,000 - the overall racial homogeneity of Sweden remains the same. Most everyone is Caucasian, most everyone’s parents are Swedish and, like all cultures, there is certainly a way of doing things that all people from other lands must learn.

I come from the assumption that we as human beings are drawn to and trust that which is similar to us. The opposite of this is, as human beings, we tend to avoid or even fear that which is different from us. While Sweden is well known for being welcoming of foreigners because of helpful immigration laws and social policies, this has not impacted the overall sameness of Sweden. In fact, considering Jante Law, “sameness” is a very admirable trait in Swedish culture. Swedes don’t like to stand out in a crowd, the houses and neighborhoods throughout the country all look alike, dress is very similar and not drawing attention to oneself is respected.

But can a society that is so similar in appearance be confident that all people, no matter the racial and cultural background, are accepted and have the same opportunities as everyone else? If two people, one Iraqi and one Swede, apply for a job with virtually equal qualifications, but one “looks” more Swedish among a work group of similar-looking people, does this not, in the end, play a major role in deciding who gets the job? This is the kind of question often being asked in America and I ask it here in Sweden.

One of the characteristics of the U.S. that I have heard here is that “Americans are racist.” While there is ample evidence of this on one level, I am led to ask the question (hopefully in an educational manner and not in defense) in response, “Are we sure that Swedes are not racist, as well?” How do we know when so few opportunities for finding out are presented because people are so similar in appearance and behavior?

I’m the first to say that there remains a strong element of racism in the U.S. Sometimes unconscious and sometimes blatant, but how is the question of race understood and answered in a place so homogeneous?

In speaking with one black person in Sweden, in response to the question of whether he has felt treated any differently because of race, he responded that he has not, which was an impressive statement about the Swedes. Yet this was just one person’s opinion.

There’s no way to cover it all in a blog of the same length of my normal entries, so I have posed a few questions and am looking for some responses. More on this topic is sure to come in the near future.

Here’s a fun fact: There’s almost no Jews in Sweden. Synagogues are very hard to come by and Hannukah is completely invisible in December. Yep, lots to consider in a part of the world that, geographically, culturally and historically, wrestles with questions of diversity much differently than what I’m used to in the U.S.

And one more comment related: Everyone in Sweden and some of you in the U.S. have heard about the recent cartoon controversy in Sweden where a Swedish newspaper published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed. This created quite a stir in the Muslim community from here to Iran. You might remember the riots and anger that followed a similar cartoon in Denmark in 2005. What happens when a cultural hallmark of the West, freedom of expression, collides with the sacred religious tradition of 1.3 billion people? It’s a big question on many levels, continuing to present itself in many ways, but recently the Prime Minister of Sweden, Fredrik Reinfeldt, stood courageously on the side of protecting freedom of expression. At a time in history when the West dances gingerly around all questions of Western values vs. Muslim tradition, this was a valiant stand. Though certainly not in agreement with the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in this cartoon, I think we disrespect ourselves and others when we break our values of freedom to appease certain cultural/religious traditions. The same day, there was a news story on U.S. television about recent “art” that compared Osama Bin Laden to Jesus. Not a word came out from even the most fundamental Christians to somehow abolish art or kill the artist. It’s somehow not acceptable in the West for government officials to come out and say publicly that various Muslim traditions run totally contrary and are not acceptable with our Western values and freedoms, though everyone deep down knows this to be true. Kudos to Reinfeldt. Find out more about this at The Local website link found on the right-hand side of this blog. Please share your thoughts.

1. A big group of similar-looking Swedes.
2. Another big group of similar-looking Swedes.
3. Last weekend, my brother and I surprised my Dad in Paris – though it may look like it, this photo was not staged. Just the perfect location to reveal the surprise.
4. Three Whiting boys in Paris – France will never be the same.
5. Sean vs. Escargot. I won and am now a big fan of France’s most famous appetizer.