Monday, September 29, 2008

The Stockholm Archipelago and the Swedish Love of Water

I admit this timing is bad.

It’s almost cruel to write a blog for a readership that is partially Swedish that talks about the wonder of water and the sweetness of sailing when the days are darkening and any remembrance of summertime smiles are overcome by the coming winter….and oh, it is coming. Trust me, winter is on the way….or so the Swedish mentality is always convinced.

Yet to write a blog about Sweden and, even though there have been officially 100 (!!!) posts as soon as I click “Publish Post” on this one, to not have anything about the Archipelago (Swedish: Skärgård) and the Swedish love for anything water is to miss an important element of life in this part of the world. And since this blog about Sweden is coming to an all-too-quick conclusion (more about that in the coming couple weeks), I have to get it in.

Bear with me, everyone. Perhaps you can just save this entry until next May…

The perception about Sweden in the rest of the world is the typical “cold, dark, polar bears in the streets” belief, so how could anyone enjoy the water or sailing in that kind of climate….? Well, no one does during the 10 months of winter.

However, when the sun comes out and shares it’s magnificence on an expectant Swedish populace, the only place to be is the lake, canal, river or sea nearest you. Swedes love the water, love to be by the water, love to swim, bathe, wade, float and sail in the water. It seems that nearly everyone has some sort of access to a boat or canoe or something water-oriented. Sailing and maritime culture dominate a Swedish summer. Swedes are known as some of the best travelers in the world, but no one in their right mind leaves Sweden during summer – just head to the röd sommar stuga and be by the water. A Swede couldn’t ask for a better “world’s longest vacation” than that….

There's a reason so many emigrant Swedes made Minnesota, "land of 10,000 lakes," home.

Those frequent Swedish trips to Thailand and the Canary Islands are saved for winter, of course, so one of the many popular places Swedes love to spend their summer is in the Stockholm Archipelago. This collection of 24,000 islands – I’ll say that again: Twenty-four thousand islands – is found about a 3 – hour boat ride outside of Stockholm, welcomes you to the Baltic Sea and looks like broken glass on a good map. One can just imagine the maritime paradise of these islands made of rock and left over from the Ice Age. Some islands are just big enough to step on and others have hotels on them. Swedish delight is not some fancy pastry, but a Swede in the summer finding his own private part of the Archipelago.

One might say that everyone worldwide appreciates water, so why is the Swedish enjoyment any different. To that I will simply say that while most people in the world do indeed enjoy the interplay of sun and water, most people in the world have also never seen snow. Actually, I recently read that 3/4ths of people in the world have never seen snow.

Enough said.

Long live the anticipation for, enjoyment during and memory of the Swedish summer and the Swedes’ beloved world of water.

See you in the Archipelago.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tallinn, Estonia....via the Baltic Sea

In what will probably turn out to be the last of many memorable trips I have taken during my 2-plus years in Sweden, this past weekend I ventured across the Baltic Sea on a cruise ship to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and one of the best preserved medieval era cities in all of Europe.

Along with the other former Soviet Baltic states of Latvia (Riga) and Lithuania (Vilnius), Estonia is also trying to establish its own identity and break free of their recent Soviet past. While Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have made the quickest strides West, the Baltic countries are smaller and not as geographically-advantaged as their former Eastern Bloc comrades and have therefore, had a harder time gaining their independent identity.

Additionally, with a population make-up of many different types of ethnicities and ancestry, Estonians will probably always look multiple directions for their heritage. Consider Estonia part Russian, part Northern Europe, part Central Europe and add a small sprinkling of Western Europe. There you have a country full of intrigue for the traveler coming over from Sweden, down from Finland or up from Central Europe.

As an American, I’m a sucker for a good medieval city. Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) and Brugges (Belgium) come to mind and Tallinn is right up there with them, except that Tallinn's old town is still part of the capital city of its respective country. The old city towers with their burnt red, cone-shaped tops as well as four different, high-steepled churches make up old city Tallinn’s charm from afar and good food, drink, handicrafts and creative capitalism attempts (along with all the normal historic and quintessential charm of an old European city) represent Estonia well from up close.

If traveling through Scandinavia, consider making the two-night and one day journey via the Tallink ferry from Stockholm (or from Helsinki for a four-hour ride). The cruise ship atmosphere and the reward of a still-undiscovered European old town are well worth the reasonable fare.

Here’s to Estonia and the other Baltic countries and their journey to continued identity independence and Western recognition.

Pictures above:

1. Estonia iconic images are of the cone-shaped tower tops in the old city.

2. A pleasant and affordable ferry ride with cruise ship amenities provides a fun alternative mode of travel to Tallinn from Stockholm.

3. Tallinn’s Old Town Square with Old Town Hall, the center of attention all seasons of the year.

4. Just another cobbled European lane for this American who continues to romanticize these types of cities….

5. A fun way to get around Old Town Estonia.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Gender Equality in Sweden

The "Battle of the Sexes," Swedish style.

When the world thinks about Sweden, one of the first things that comes to mind is the socially and politically progressive policies, laws and general attitudes. Wrapped within this is the perception, and perhaps the reality, that Sweden is a world leader when it comes to equalizing the genders.

Let’s take a closer look, based on one foreigner’s observations and a bit of informal research….

*One of the first things foreigners notice when walking around Sweden is the number of men pushing strollers.

*Married or not, your tax form is exactly the same and you will file individually (Swedes would be interested to know that a couple filing their tax forms together in the U.S. receive certain benefits).

*The term (and, I assume, the position) “Ombudsman” was first coined in Sweden…..

*All foreign men learn early and often not to open that door, pay for that meal or make any assumption on a date or in any social circumstance that she cannot take care of herself…

*When a couple has maternity/paternity leave, he almost always goes back to work sooner, because he almost always has the higher paying job (among other reasons).

*Inevitably, CEOs, Board members, high ranking officials and other positions of power are heavily male-dominated in Sweden.

*There is no expectation or assumption that, when a Swedish couple gets married, they will take his last name. Sometimes it is her last name that is taken or even an entirely new last name is made up.

Sweden has a cultural head-start in gender equality because of the high social value placed on self-sufficiency. A woman is expected to provide for herself and if a man so chooses to help out in the typical family model, well then, great, but….

While you are hard pressed to find any laws or social policies that are not gender equal or neutral, it doesn’t take too long to find social attitudes, usually unconscious or unspoken, that betray a certain bias toward the one in the majority or with the power, in this case, the men. "Old Boys Clubs" are still alive and well in Sweden, perhaps even more than other countries (even though those Old Boys are arguably more conscious of and educated about their own natural prejudices than their peers in other countries and societies).

My conclusion upon observation from the outside is that Sweden’s population is indeed very sensitive to gender equality and expects a general attitude of self-sufficiency and equality among the sexes. Yet as with most societies, certain unconscious and subtle forms of discrimination are easy to find.

Not surprisingly, Sweden, while ahead of most if not all other countries in the quest for gender equality, still has a ways to go, something most Swedish women would probably tend to agree with, but you might have to really probe her in your questioning to get past the initial national pride of being a "world leader" in this area...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Why It Is So Cool To Live In Linköping - Part 4: Åbacka Cafe

In our occasional series virtually touring Linköping, and choosing a few of the many reasons why it is just so cool to live here, we’ve discovered one colossal cathedral, an oh-so-Swedish 19th century-style restaurant, a “jätte roligt” woodcarver’s shop in Linköping’s Old Town and now we arrive to the premiere location to “fika” in all of Linköping….

Åbacka Café.

Åbacka Café, though opening only in 1998, sure seems like it was opened in 1898 or even 1798. This fika fare delight found just across the river from Linköping Centrum captures all-too many aspects of Swedish life in one quaint, you guessed it, röd små stuga (little red house). Some examples of quintessential Sweden uncovered in this quaint riverside hideaway:

  • If you don’t know where it is, you might just miss it because it is so unassuming.

  • The humble exterior masks the tasty treats and friendly service found just inside.

  • Coffee, buns, pastries all around and, best of all, waffles. That’s right, waffles. Did I get your attention, America?

  • The hours are a bit challenging – you need them more than they need you.

  • Though open and accessible year-round, Åbacka Café is best enjoyed in the summer time.

  • Outdoor seating in summer or indoors during winter, after a few moments at Åbacka Café, you are convinced your Mom would love this place….

For those here in Linköping, just cross the Drottningatan bridge and turn right. Hours are Saturday and Sunday, 10 – 17 in the off-season and daily 10 - 17 in the summer.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Die, Wasp, Die!

Despite a splendid summer’s day to start September in Sweden, Swedes know that, in the end, the calendar has the final say.

It doesn’t take long to find the silver lining to a fleeting Swedish summer. As the sun departs, so does something else synonymous with a Swedish summer, the only element of a Swedish summer no one celebrates or fondly remembers come December.

You can run, but you can’t hide.

It ruins picnics.
It alters Kubb matches.
It makes berry-picking a danger-filled activity.
It can make a Midsummer celebration a little less fertile.
It turns peace-loving Swedes into militant barbarians....

Swedes, and temporary Swedes, develop a sixth sense of unidentified flying objects in the summer time.

If there was a vote to increase taxes in order to eliminate this, it would be the first nationwide vote to be unanimously in favor.

What would hospital emergency rooms do in the summer time if not for this?

Unlike their European neighbors to the extreme south, no Swede would ever name a beloved transportation vehicle after this evil creature (“vespa”).

They move slowly, which is clearly divine license to kill.

No animal rights groups in Sweden would ever defend it.

I’ve heard that without these, and their similar species worldwide, the earth’s ecosystem would fail to the point of extinction of all natural life. If given the opportunity, Swedes would gladly take their chances.

Good-bye, precious summer. Good riddance, diabolical wasp.