Saturday, 18 December 2010

Dreaming of a white Christmas


It's snowing again. Yes, it is. It's snowing. In fact, it's been snowing since November so the chances of us not having a white Christmas this year are very slim. At Christmas, it should be snowy I think. It's all part of the romanticism. But I can happily skip it the rest of the winter. Swedes will tell you that it's better than rain. I disagree. They often justify it by saying that snow brightens up the darkness. True but I'm still not a big fan.

It's no suprise that Sweden is a snowy country and this close relation to snow is reflected in the language. The eskimos have, apparently, 40 words for 'snow'. I'm not sure how many words in Swedish there are for snow, but there are many. There's just 'snow', then there's 'wet snow' (blötsnö), 'snow-blended rain'(snöblandad regn), 'powder snow' (pudersnö), 'slush' (slask), ´corn snow´ (kornsnö), snow hail'(snöhagel) and loads more.

And then there are fabulous words such as 'skare' which means snow crust and, my personal favourite, 'dagsmeja'. This is snow that is melting on a sunny day even though it's below freezing. Above freezing is thawing. 'Kramsnö' is the type of snow perfect for snowballs and 'isnålar' are small snow crystals that seem to float in the air.

I wonder how many words we have in English for rain?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Lucia in the Mile High Club


After so many years in Sweden, I thought I'd seen every type of Lucia celebration there is to see. But, no, this week I experienced something completely new.

Santa Lucia is the saint who wakes Swedes up early in the morning of Dec 13th with candles in her hair. A tranquil tradition, Lucia literally brings the light to the dark country of Sweden.

This December 13th, I was flying back from New York. I, like all the other passengers, was dozing off in my chair when the sun started to slowly peek above the horizon. Then, slowly in the distance I started to hear quiet singing - Santa Lucia's song. The singing got louder and I opened my eyes. And there she was, Lucia, walking the aisles with her maidens and disciples. All were carrying lights and lightening up the dimness of the cabin.

The cabin crew had dressed in the traditional white robes, and brought Lucia to the sleepy continental travellers, somewhere over the North Sea. Afterwards, they performed 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' and served the traditional ginger bisucuits and saffron buns.

Of all the Lucia celebrations I have seen, this has to be one of the most memorable.

Lucia is about lightening up the dark. This one was also about lightening our weary spirits.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The land of invention


Right now, I'm in an intense period of travelling for work. Backwards and forwards I walk from home to the airport train, out to Arlanda airport and off.

Picture this. Minus 20 temperatures. Snow tumbling down. Pathways covered in deep layers of snow, rutted and ribbed from pedestrians and pushchairs.

There I go. Head, neck, hands, legs, feet freezing because I'm only wearing a thinnish suit under my coat. Behind me, I pull a suitcase. A suitcase on wheels. I drag it, with much effort, through the piles of snow. It gets stuck in a snow-dune. With a wrench, I jerk the suitcase out and continue, head down into the wind and towards the station. I curse the fact that the pavement isn't ploughed, and that the snow just keeps falling, falling, falling.

Sweden is a country that has fostered many inventors. For having a relatively small population, a very large amount of inventions have come out of this country. The safety match, dynamite, the blowtorch, the AGA stove, the safety belt, the zip, the ballbearing, the pacemaker and dialysis machines. All Swedish inventions.

Now, you'd think in such a small country of big brains, someone would have invented a suitcase on skis wouldn't you? So many problems would be avoided.

I would definitely buy one.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Curling parents


Last night, on Swedish television, a new programme aired. Called 'Young and Spoiled', it is a reality show about a group of young people who are very spoiled by their parents. The programme could easily have been called 'Spoilt Rotten'. These 'kids' are aged between 18 & 24, and have never worked a day in their lives. They are put into a house together to see how they manage fundamentals such as cooking, cleaning and getting up to go to work. Of course, they don't. And therein lies the entertainment.

I was fascinated less by the kids and more by the parents. Misguided adults who don't see that they are doing their offspring no favours in life by pandering to their every whim.

In Swedish, because it is so common, there is a word for these type of parents. They are known as 'curling parents' - a reference to the Olympic sport of ice curling. Just like in the icy sport, curling parents smooth the way for their children. They sweep away any obstacles and make life easier. They think they are taking their role as a parent seriously. Life is so difficult anyway that they should try to cushion the blows for their,let's face it, grown up children. But what they're really doing is robbing their children of the chance to develop essential life skills and feel a sense of personal responsibility and achievement.

As far as I know, there is no equivalent word in English for 'curling parents'.

This must be because they don't exist in the UK. Right?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

How the Swedes contemplate death


It isn't every day that you are faced with death. It is isn't every day we contemplate our own mortality. And that's probably a good thing. Imagine what life would be like if we thought about death all the time.

But today is an opportunity to do just that. Today is All Saints' Eve. Well, not technically. All Saints' Eve is actually October 31st. But in Sweden, they are practical and, since 1953, they round it up to the nearest weekend and call it a public holiday.

Legislation aside, today is the day in Sweden when people reflect over life, death and those who have passed away. It is a peaceful time. No fireworks or trick-or-treating here. It is a beautful time. No vampires or zombies populate the graveyards.

Instead, the graveyards twinkle with candle light. Relatives flock to the burial grounds and light candles and lanterns and place them by the graves of their loved ones. It is a miraculous sight to see the dark cemetries twinkling and glowing with bright white lights.

On Österlen in the rural south of Sweden, they have taken it a step further. A festival called 'Österlen Lyser' - Österlen shines - starts today. The dark villages and fields are lit up with candles, flares, lanterns and torches. People play lantern-illuminated night time boule by the edge of the sea. Choirs sing, windows glow and open bonfires celebrate this dark time of the year.

It isn't every day that you are faced with death. Full respect to Halloween, but the less commercial Swedish approach provides a more reflective vehicle for us to contemplate our own mortality.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Exactly how corrupt is Sweden?


Evil-doings and corruption is the flavour of the month in the Swedish press.

First, we were informed about the deep run corruption relating to public tenders in Gothenburg. Next, we were presented with MPs who had been invited on paid trips by private corporations or given free tickets to go to the Stockholm Open. Yesterday, a new book came out exposing the king's alleged naughty-doings 20 years ago - naughty-doings that involved gambling, drinking and escort girls.

But just how corrupt is Sweden, in comparison to other countries? Well, first you have to define what corruption is. Is it misuse of power, or public funds, or position? Is it lying to gain public office? Is it prioritising personal progress? Different countries may perceive it differently.

Transparency International(TI) is an organisation that produces the annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). They define corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors. The CPI is an index which allows us to compare how 'corrupt' countries are.

In the 2010 index, Sweden comes out as the fourth least-corrupt country in the world, a joint position held with Finland. The least corrupt countries are Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore. See www.transparency.org

It's interesting that corruption is what the Swedish media chooses to report at the moment. A quick look around Europe shows a similar phenomenon - in times of recession and economic depression, issues of corruption become more important. When the people are suffering, their tolerance levels fall. The UK's reporting of the many MP's who used public funds for private investments is a classic example.

Sweden is in a recession at the moment. And when this happens, people start questioning the behaviours and standards of others. The King's position becomes a target for public interest. The privileges that leading politicians have starts to be questioned.

As the fourth least-corrupt country in the world, Sweden doesn't really have much to worry about when compared internationally.

I am sure that once the recession is over, what the king did in the 1980's will seem irrelevant and unimportant.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Don't be Swede-like


Working with a couple of Spanish people today, I heard an interesting comment about Swedes.

Apparently in Spanish, they have a common saying - 'Don't be Swede-like' or 'Don't do the Swedish thing'. I asked the two Spaniards what this saying means.

In Spain, they use this expression when somebody is pretending to listen but doesn't really care about what you have to say. They are going to do their own thing anyway, regardliess of what you think.

Interesting perspective, wouldn't you say?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

A die hard Swedish stereotype


The problem with stereotypes is that they are often out of date and frozen in time. The British stereotype of a polite, thin, uptight man with a bowler hat and brolly still prevails,even though most British men stopped dressing that generations ago.

When I googled 'Sweden pictures' today, the picture above came up first. It seems like the stereotype of Swedish women as blonde, promiscuous bimbos is still alive and kicking. This stereotype has rooted itself firmly in the international psyche thanks to fleshy films of the 1960's.

That was 50 years ago and says a lot about other cultures' prudish attitudes to sex and nudity.

It saddens me that we haven't moved on since then.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The case of the battling tools


Sometimes foreign language speaking can be just so wrong.

I was running a workshop in communication the other day, and one of the participants described a problem that he had experienced. He had a template that he wanted to introduce at work, but a colleague had a different template that he also wanted them to use.

The problem was that both had competing templates that served the same purpose. So I aked the participant how he solved the problem.

'Well,' he said, 'it was very easy. I just asked him to show me his tool. Then I showed him my tool and we agreed the one with the best tool would win.'

As I said, sometimes foreign language speaking can be just so wrong.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Hoovering the streets


My dog nearly died today.

In fact, he almost dies quite often. Not by doing anything reckless or crazy. Not by attacking other, bigger, scarier, dogs. Not by disobeying my commands when he's off his leash. No, just by walking the streets of Stockholm. On an ordinary day, just walking the streets.

Even though he is given ample food, he sometimes behaves hungrily when we're outside. All dogs sniff, my dog hoovers. And today, like many other days, he hoovered up a small pouch of 'snus', which disappeared straight down his gullet.

'Snus' is a Swedish derivative of snuff - a kind of moist tobacco product packaged in what looks like miniature teabags. Users put these teabags under their lip and let the tobacco absorb through their gums and into their bloodstream. The tobacco gives a kick since it's packed with nicotine. Regular usage of 'snus' can result in rotted gums, black teeth and gaping holes in the lip. The jury is out on its carcenogenic qualities. Illegal in the EU, Sweden is however uniquely exempt and still produces, sells and consumes the product.

What most people react to when they visit Stockholm is how clean and tidy the streets are.

But have a closer inspection. Dotted around the pavement, it's not unusual to find small used teabags of snus. The users have simply sucked the life out of them and spat them onto the pavements in a brown mess.

These offcasts are frankly unhygenic and a little disgusting. It's easy to tramp on them, and get them stuck to the sole of your shoe.

So, message to all snusers, please spit it out into a waste bin. And not in the path of a little canine hoover out for a weekend walk.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Cultural differences in the laundry


Even though I curse laundry day, I am secretly very thankful of the Swedish solution to washing our smalls.

In the UK, if you don't have your own washing machine, then you have to trudge down to the nearest laundrette, loaded like a mule with heavy bags of dirty washing, clutching a handful of pound coins and hoping that there aren't masses of people queueing.

In Sweden, most apartment blocks have their own laundry room. Usually in the cellar or the attic, you book your time on a board on the wall and then it's just to carry your dirty clothes there when it's your turn. You don't even have to take your flipflops off. And it's free.

And even though laundry day is a drag, you can't deny the convenience of it compared to the UK.

Nowadays, many people also have their own washer in their apartment or house of course. Some friends of mine were recently planning a refurbishment and were trying to decide where to put the washing machine.

'Why not put it in the kitchen?' I said 'there's lots of space there'.

You see, in the UK most people have their washing machines in the kitchen. What's the problem?

'Uggh! No!' they whinced. 'Doing the laundry where you cook food, that's disgusting!'

In Sweden, people usually put their washing machine in their bathroom.

So, can somebody please explain to me what's so pleasant about doing the laundry where you crap???!!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

My letter from the Greens


Well, I got a response from the Green party yesterday. And here it is.

Hej, och tack för ditt mejl.

Miljöpartiet kommer inte bli något stödparti åt Alliansen, Miljöpartiet kan inte heller ingå i en regering som bedriver en politik där de mest utsatta i samhället, kommande generationer och människor på andra sidan jorden får betala för vårt samhälles kortsiktiga tänkande. Vi gör bedömningen att vi inte fått mandat från våra väljare att inleda några förhandlingar med Alliansen vare sig om att bilda regering eller att inå i något närmare samarbete.

Sverigedemokraterna har kommit in i riksdagen och fått en relativt stark ställning. Sverige har inte blivit främlingsfientligt, men vi har fått in ett främlingsfientligt parti i riksdagen och det är djupt beklagligt.

Om det oklara parlamentariska läget kvarstår efter sluträkningen på onsdag så anser vi att det naturliga vore att Fredrik Reinfeldt tar kontakt med de rödgröna partierna för att diskutera situationen.
Ansvaret för att hantera läget gäller för sju partier, inte bara för ett. Det vore konstigt om inte Socialdemokraterna, som riksdagens största parti fanns med i en sådan diskussion.

Vänligen, Gabrielle
Miljöpartiet de gröna


As a brief translation for you non Swedish speaking people, the answer was no. The Green party will never cooperate with the minority centre-right government to keep out the racists. That's me told.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

My letter to the Greens


If, like me, you believe that the Green Party should cooperate with the minority government in the name of democracy, then I urge you to send them an email declaring this. This has even more impact if you are a member of the Green Party. Rarely before has it been so important to take your citizenship, or residency, seriously and communicate what you feel. Send your comments to service@mp.se

Here is the mail I sent yesterday. I apologise to those of you who don't speak Swedish. And to those of you who do, I apologise for my Swedish.

Jag heter Neil Shipley och jag blev svensk i juni i år. Detta val var mitt första riksdagsval. Jag tog uppgiften på största allvar och läste på de olika partiernas mål innan jag bestämde mig för att rösta. Jag känner mig stolt med mitt beslut.

Nu har vi situationen som vi har med ett främlingsfientligt parti i riksdagen. Som invandrare själv tycker jag att det är av yttersta vikt att våra folkvalda representanter hittar ett sätt att lösa detta. Den toleranta Sverige som jag älskar ska inte gå förlorad.

Fredrik Reinfeldt har sagt att han vill gärna öppna diskussioner med er för att skapa ett eventuellt samarbete och på så sätt slipper beroende på rasisterna. Jag uppmanar er att gör detta i demokratins namn. Det är upp till er. Om ni inte gör det så ökar chansen att regeringen är tvungna att samtala med SD. Och det skulle vara förödande för svensk politik och samhället. Vi måste visa omvärlden hur vi hantera situationen på ett mänskligt och moget sätt och inte gå samma väg som Danmark till exempel.

Jag hoppas att de flesta av era väljare inser hur viktigt detta är. Det är inte att bara visar avsky för främlingsfientlighet, det är även att agera. Och ni har alla möjligheter att göra detta. Även om det inte är det mest önskvärd situation måste vi göra någonting av det. Dessutom är det även en möjlighet att få fram Miljöpartiets hjärtfrågor ändå och påverkar.

Så av alla de röster som ni fick, här är min. Prata med Fredrik Reinfeldt. Lös detta. Och gör mig och Sverige stolta.

Monday, 20 September 2010

A deeply disturbing thing


I am disturbed. Very disturbed. I sit at my desk and should start working. My mind drifts. I can't focus.

A deeply disturbing thing has happened in Sweden - something that threatens the foundation of society and turns the idea of Swedish tolerance and egalitarianism on it head.

On Election Níght last night it became clear that the Swedish Democrats, a national socialistic, racist party, have been elected into parliament. With just under 6% of the vote (360,000 votes), they have 20 seats.

But that's not the worst of it. These 20 seats give them the balance of power, since the current government were re-elected, but with a minority.

This is a shock to the other 94% of Swedes who didn't vote for them. People mention the right-wing gales that are whistling over Europe and that have now reached Sweden. They talk about the xenophobic disease which has infected Swedish politics.

The Prime Minister last night said he will never cooperate with the national socialists. Can we trust him to keep his word when his power is what's at stake?

There is talk of solving the problem through cooperation across the blocs in order to elbow out the Swedish Democrats and render them impotent. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Can the different parties put aside their prestige and return to their shared basic assumptions about life and people? That we are all equal. Can they work together to uphold democracy as the majority see it?

Today, Sweden became a colder place.

It's now up to our elected politicians to turn up the heat on the racists that have wormed their way into the Houses of Parliament.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Election Day


And so it's election day.

All the parties have been campaigning up to the last minute, trying to sway the thousands of voters who still haven't made up their minds. By the lake today, one party, the currently-reigning Moderates, were offering coffee and cinnamon buns to passers-by in exchange for a little chat about the election.

The tv has been full of election issues. The papers have been packed with it. The streets have been full of campaign workers and, for the first time, the parties have been knocking on doors. Apparently, never before has so much focus been placed on the election and on increasing election turnout.

This interested me. So I checked the IFES Election Guide to see how parliamentary election turnout compares between different countries.

And, to be honest, Sweden does really well already.

In the last election, the election turnout in Sweden was 81.99%

Compare that figure to the UK (65.52%), Switzerland (49%), Czech Republic (39.12%) and Hungary (30.94%).

The best countries are Belgium (91.80%), Malta (93.30%) and, wait for it, Luxembourg (100%!!!)

Of all the 70 countries in the list, only 11 have a higher election turnout than Sweden, many of them only very slightly. That's not a bad statistic, which reflects that Swedes, in general, take their democratic rights seriously.

In Sweden, voting is not only a right. It is a duty.

Friday, 17 September 2010

No immigrants


Only two days to go to the election and, in the latest polls, the Swedish Democrats are increasing their share. The Swedish Democrats (laughable name) are a right-wing, racist party that want to send immigrants home and to reduce immigration to Sweden by 90%. In a report in the newspaper today, a journalist explained how Sweden needs immigration. Being such a small country, and the fact that Swedes are not rampant breeders, we need immigrants to grow and develop. Without immigration Sweden will stagnate.

As a reaction to the Swedish Democrat's policies, a new Facebook group has opened. It's called Inga Invandrare (No Immigrants) and it is working hard to show lost Swedes what good things immigrants have contributed to the nation.

What would Sweden have without immigrants and their influence?

No pizza
No sushi
No kebabs
No football goals
Shut down hospitals, nursing and retirement homes
Dirty streets
Only 'dansband' music, and some watery pop
No new buildings
No modern Swedish language

And much, much more.


And although I choose to be non-political in this blog, on this occasion I make an exception.

Do not vote for the Swedish Democrats.

Not unless you want a colder, dustier and stagnant Sweden.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Concrete blocs


At first glance, Swedish politics can be a bit confusing. Unlike the UK, or the USA, there are 7 major parties all vying for the voters. You'd think with 7 parties, it'd be easy to decide who to vote for. But it isn't. Apart from the far left and the far right, all the other parties seem very similar.

This time round, however, the parties have tried to make it easier for us by forming two blocs: the Alliance to the right, and the Red-Greens to the left. Two concrete blocs to choose from when we are standing in the polling station on September 19th.

Or at least that's the theory. The trouble is that both blocs are making the same election promises. More money to pensioners. Better schools. Better healthcare. More jobs.

The forming of the two blocs has made the decision even more difficult, and in the end it may become simply a choice between the far left or the far right.

To get clarity, I decided to ask some Swedes what the main ideological difference is between the two blocs. And surprisingly, they couldn't really tell me. Lots of people couldn't tell any difference at all. Some people made a brave attempt to explain. I heard things such as,

'one side wants to reduce tax by 1%, the other wants to increase tax by 1%
'one side believes in benefits, the other in jobs'
'one side wants to put more money than the other into the public sector'


None the clearer, I will have to chew over my options. Before election day, I'll decide. Like millions of other voters. And a new government will be chosen.

And we'll probably notice very little difference.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Who you gonna call?


In a few weeks, Sweden will be voting for a new government.

One Swedish phenomenon around election time is the 'valstuga'. The 'valstuga' is a little rustic hut placed on squares, in parks, on road junctions, outside shopping centres and erected by one of the many political parties. In these little colourful huts you can find little representatives of the respective party that built the hut. Like in a fairy tale, you can go into the hut and talk to them and ask them questions about why they should get just your vote.

This brings the politicians closer to the people. It also brings the countryside, never very far away in the Swedish pyche, into the cities.

Another phenomena is the 'valaffisch', or election poster. As in many other countries, each party has campaign posters on which they promote their main message or their main personalities. In Sweden, these posters pop up overnight. Pasted on fences, walls, lamp posts, doors, walls, they paste the towns with election propaganda. Many posters don't stay where they have been attached. The wind, or ill-willed opponents, often tear the posters down and throw them into the streets. This year, the environmental message is dominant. A greener Sweden. A more 'climate smart' industry. Reduce emissions. 'We are your green voice'.

All I can think about it is the massive environmental impact of all this printed trash all over the city. Seems like a mixed message to me.

Who do you call to report the political parties for littering?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Postal order democracy


When I came home from work, there it was lying on the mat in the hallway. A little slip of paper, quite innocent. It told me to go to my nearest newsagent and pick up a parcel that they were holding for me.

So, the next day, I trot down to the newsagent, recyclable bottles in one hand, the dog's leash in the other. After recyling the glassware, I walk into the newsagents and pick up my parcel. Well, actually it is an envelope. A big, white envelope. With a logo on. On closer inspection, I realised that the logo is three crowns and the letter is from the Immigration Office.

I walk over to a neighbouring park and sit down on a bench, my dog lying at my feet. The sun is shining, and a slight breeze comes across the lawn. I open the envelope with bated breath.

Inside the envelope is a certificate.

It says, 'This certifies that Neil Shipley has been awarded Swedish citizenship.'

So you see, I am now a Swedish citizen! I have double citizenship of Sweden and of the UK. And it feels good.

People ask me why I applied for citizenship after 16 years of living in Sweden. For me the answer is simple - it's a question of democracy. I have chosen not to vote in the UK since I don't live there. I have not been allowed to vote in Sweden. I have been in a democratic wasteland. But now, I can vote in the general election that takes place in a couple of weeks. And I think that's important.

Being Swedish makes everything just more simple. Apart from in one respect. This blog - 'Watching the Swedes'.

Does my citizenship mean that I have to watch myself too?

Friday, 6 August 2010

The decay of Sweden


An interesting article about Sweden in the UK's Guardian on Sunday describes the decay of Sweden.

Uppsala's Chief of Police, who was a rabid anti-sexism activist, but who has been found guilty of abusing and raping women and children is central to this portrait of Sweden. The journalist compares him to a character out of Henning Mankell or Stieg Larson's crime books.

Sweden has an international and domestic image of itself as an equal, modern country with a strong tendency for concensus. According to the journalist, this image is way out of sinc with the Göran Linberg scandal.

He goes on to describe cut-backs in the health care system, political corruption, abuse of power, the assassination of Olof Palme, the submarine scandal, and sex scandals involving MP's as examples of things that break through the Swedish facade and reflect a society crumbling from within.

To read the article, follow this link:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/01/goran-lindberg-sweden-crime-palme

Saturday, 24 July 2010

So you think you can speak Swedish?


I remember the first time I visited Skåne, in the south of Sweden. I flew to Malmö airport and boarded the bus to the city. As I boarded, the driver looked up at me and spoke. Now, I thought I could speak Swedish, but I didn't understand a word the driver said.

I asked him to repeat. He repeated. And I still didn't understand a thing.

You see, he wasn't speaking Swedish. Well not as I know it. He was speaking Skånish -the dialect they have in this part of Sweden. And to me, it was indecipherable.

He might as well have speaking Swahili.

Now many years later, after 3 years of living in Skåne and very many visits, I can understand the dialect a little better. But still, it is really difficult. I always get my partner to make phone calls to plumbers, electricians and the like when we need help around the house. I know I probably won't be able to understand a thing they say to me.

To help me in my language development, a friend gave me a dictionary. It is a Swedish-Skånish dictionary, and I recommend it to anyone venturing into this part of the country and to anyone who thought they could speak Swedish.

Here are some gems:

Potato
Potatis (Swedish), Pantoffel, Pantålla (Skånish)

Penis
Penis (Swedish), Koddastake (Skånish)

Strong coffee
Starkt kaffe (Swedish), Rävegift (Skånish)

Garden
Trädgård (Swedish), Have (Skånish)

Clothes
Kläder (Swedish), Töj (Skånish)

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Swedish fashion crimes


I read recently about how Sweden is famous around the world for fashion. Designers such as Filippa K, Efwa Attling, Johan Lindeberg and lables such as Nudie, Cheap Monday and weSC were mentioned as leading the way. Swedes have an image as a trendy, fashionable bunch.

I often witness what some Swedes wear. Now, I am no expert in sartorial trends but I do know a couple of Swedish fashion crimes that would be arrested and thrown into isolation by the fashion police.

Crime 1
Rubber clogs, invented in Sweden, and known as crocs. We've all seen them in their lurid, eye-catching colours. They are banned in hospitals because the static they cause can deactivate life-support equipment. Personally, I think they're banned because they're ugly.

Crime 2
Knee-length tube socks and open sandals. Not uncommon in offices where a lot of technical people work it seems. Say no more.

Crime 3
Underpants under swimming trunks
I've mentioned this before, but am shocked every time I see it. It's reflects the ultimate in brand obsession. A pair of designer underpants can't just be secreted where no-one can see them. Oh no, put them on under your swimming trunks and let everybody see the designer's slogan when you're on the beach. I'm sure everybody isn't thinking how cool it is, but how disgusting it is.

Crime 4
High-waisted shorts
Shorts pulled so high up the body that they could also be nipple warmers. Not only are the pulled up, but they are often way to tight down below. Now, I know Swedes are open about their bodies, but that leaves nothing to the imagination.

So remember when Swedes are portrayed as a trendy nation, there are also many who commit terrible fashion crimes.

Anybody got any others to add?

Friday, 16 July 2010

Why can't it rain?

Why are some people never satisfied?

Sweden is currently experiencing one of the longest and hottest heat waves in history. It has been a fabulous summer so far with temperatures not going below 25 degrees and tropical nights enveloping the country. But some people are complaining about it. It's too hot. It's unbearable. Why can't it rain?

These are probably the same people who complained that it rained too much last summer, that is was too windy and too chilly. The same people who moaned that this past winter was too long and dark, too stormy and enough to drive you mad with the cold. The same people who whinged about spring being late and about the ground being too hard to plant anything. Or the autumn being too wet and too blustery.

Sometimes I think some people are only happy when they have something to moan about.

Think, if they could channel all that energy into something positive instead. Imagine what amazing things they might achieve.

And they'd probably be so busy achieving that they wouldn't have any time left to complain.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Top 10 Stereotypes about Swedes


In my job as a trainer and lecturer in cultural difference, I have the privilege of travelling all over the world. On these trips, I often carry out informal surveys on the people I meet to try to understand their perceptions of Swedes. These are usually professional people, male and female, who have some experience of working with Swedes in one way or another. Some of them may have a Swedish boss, others may have Swedish colleagues, subordinates or customers. The majority of the people asked are European.

Very often the same perceptions come back, and it's interesting that some of the old stereotypes of Swedes still hang in there.

Top 10 stereotypes about Swedes

1. Honest ('can always trust a Swede')
2. Unemotional ('don't know how they're feeling or if they're even interested')
3. Exotic ('cold, snow, ice, chilly')
4. Sexually liberated ('open-minded and have many partners')
5. Independant ('men and women in work place and they travel everywhere')
6. Slow ('at deciding things, getting things done and in discussions')
7. Naive ('easy to manipulate')
8. Modern ('adopt new technology, drive new cars, follow latest trends')
9. Good-looking and health-conscious (still 'blonde, blue-eyed, tall')
10. Arrogant ('think the Swedish way is the best and only way')

So are these stereotypes useful? Sure, they are. Firstly, they help us understand how others see us and then we have a choice what we want to do about that. Do we want to act in ways which reinforce the stereotype or in ways which contradict it?

Stereotypes also give us a place to start in our communication with people from other cultures.

But there's one crucial thing to remember. Every person we meet is an individual. They may be typical of their culture or not.

So we should always try to check our assumptions about each individual and not just presume they are their stereotype.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Freedom on Österlen

When visiting the Swedish countryside, tourists are often struck by the little red wooden houses with white corners, the endless forests of evergreen and the omnipresent lakes and rivers.

And quite rightly so. This kind of landscape is 'typically Swedish' and is often how Sweden is marketed abroad. As a rural, forested paradise. But there are regions of Sweden which look quite different.

Take Skåne, for example, a county on the southern-most tip of Sweden facing Germany, Poland and Denmark. I am fortunate enough to have a summer place in the eastern part of Skåne - an area called Österlen. This area is as far from the Swedish stereotype as you can get. A flat agricultural countryside of wide open spaces, wild sandy beaches, fruit orchards and endless fields of billowing crops. The stone houses are mostly plastered and painted white. Gardens burgeon with hollyhocks, roses and fragrant lavender.

Being on Österlen feels alive. The place is different. The pace is different.

For me, my mind becomes free when I am here. This is thanks to the lack of oppressive pine trees and the fact that you can see the horizon far, far away. This gives a special kind of light, a bright light that inspires all the artists that have settled here. And it inspires me.

On Österlen, anything seems possible. The people here are amongst the most entrepreneurial in Sweden. All those creative ideas that you have do not get stuck in the overhanging branches of the fir and the birch trees. Instead, ideas can soar into the blue sky and expand.

And they can go all the way over the horizon.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Linguistic limbo


I find that writing this blog has heightened my awareness of my surroundings - made me more míndful. I regularly see, hear, experience things and think - yes, that's definitely blogworthy. And I come home and write.

But one thing I've noticed. It's not that easy. I struggle sometimes with my English.

Having lived in Sweden for 16 years, I find I do not speak English the way I used to. Swenglish creeps easily into my writing, often without me even noticing it. The prepositions are the worst - for example, is it 'at' Midsummer or 'on' Midsummer ('s Eve)? I battle with myself.

And I realise something.

My English is frozen at the level it was when I left England. My Swedish is not as good as my English.

I am in lingustic limbo.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Social outcast


Today I felt like a social outcast.

Sitting in my office, the rooms echoed with their emptiness. Everyone had gone home even though it was only 3 o'clock. Only I sat there - working.

You see, tomorrow is Midsummer's Eve, possibly the most important celebration in the Swedish calender. And though it isn't officially a bank holiday, it is a day off.

But the interesting thing is how Swedes always take half a day off the day before a day off in order to prepare. No matter what the holiday. Midsummer being no exception. Only lonely souls and Neil No Friends are left rattling around empty offices like peas in an empty tin can.

But why do Swedes take half a day off before the holiday day? Is it because day care is closed? Is it because the food takes a long time to cook? Is it because people are travelling long distances? Maybe.

But I think the real reason is to do with alcohol. On Midsummer especially, the off-licenses are packed. The day before Midsummer is by far the busiest day of the year for them. This means that it takes such a long time to buy alcohol that they need a good few hours to queue.

Happy Midsummer, wherever you are.

Monday, 21 June 2010

How to kill a party


Today is the longest day of the year. In the north of Sweden, the sun sits high in the midnight sky. Further south, it hovers below the horizon reaching up with rays of light.

Tomorrow, the days start to get shorter. This gives some cheerful Swedes an opportunity. The newsreader on tonight's weather forecast is one such example. Since today is the longest day, he decided to remind us,

'We're going towards darker times'.

Summer hasn't even begun properly yet, we have weeks of free time and holiday ahead of us!

Jeez, some people really know how to kill a party!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Loving Stockholm


It was a few minutes to midnight, and the giant digital clock, projected onto the facade of the opera house, started counting down. Hundreds of people in the square outside watched as the clock reached 5,4,3,2,1. And the place exploded with music. Stockholm's largest outdoor club had started. House music boomed out from the roof of the opera, giant screens showed the bouncing DJ's and strobes shot out over the crowd.

This was the end of the Royal wedding Saturday and the start of Sunday morning. In my 16 years in Sweden, I have never seen Stockholm so alive with people and parties. Open-air bars and clubs on every square, concerts on stages around the city, people of all ages wandering around enjoying the sights and sounds. Everyone participating in Sweden's largest party - Love Stockholm 2010.

And who couldn't love Stockholm on a night like this? While the priveleged were banqueting in the palace, the people had taken to the streets.

And they kept it going. All. Night. Long.

Friday, 18 June 2010

God's opinion on royal weddings


Tomorrow is the Royal wedding between Crown Princess Victoria and Daniel Westling in Stockholm's cathedral.

Stockholm is prepared for a party on an unprecedented scale. Streets are cordened off, tents are in place, concerts are booming out from various stages around the city centre, international camera crews are poised. Flowers are planted. Flags are flying. The city is full of people.

And it's raining. And the forecast for tomorrow is also rain.

A friend of mine, who is avoiding the wedding by leaving Stockholm for the weekend, takes pleasure in this.

'You see,' he informs me, ' God is a Republican'.

The little people


Right now, Carl Henrik Svanberg must be the most famous Swede on the planet. The CEO of BP was filmed giving his statement of apology to the American people and this film has spread like, well, an oil slick, all over the world. In his apology speech, he said,

'We care about the small people'

And this has caused a mixture of outrage and ridicule. Of course, he meant to say 'ordinary people'. 'Small people' is a direct translation from Swedish and can be equated with 'the man on the street'. And it's a clear example of inappropriate Swenglish.

It wouldn't have been so bad, maybe, if 'small people' wasn't such a derogatory comment in English. Small people - the insignificant, unimportant, expendible people who have suffered in the wake of the worst oil disaster in history.

In a tv interview on Swedish televsion the day after, Carl Henrik excused himself saying that his English is not perfect, it's 'alright'.

For me, this is not acceptable. I fully accept that people don't speak a foreign language as well as their own. Lord knows my Swedish is no way near as fluent as my mother tongue. But I am not the CEO of a global corporation.

On that level, there is no excuse for bad English, no matter where you're from. There's no excuse for making stupid language mistakes that could so easily be avoided. And there's no excuse for being so blasé about it afterwards.

So, Carl Henrik, welcome back to Sweden. You'd better enjoy it because this is where you're going to have the rest of your career.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The hottest place on the planet


I was at the Stockholm Jazz fest last night. A mixture of conceptual jazz, jazzfunk and acid jazz was on offer. The festival is held on Skeppsholmen, an island in the harbour. From this island, Stockholm really does show its best side, with its magical mixture of blue water, big sky and lush greenery. But last night, the weather gods were not on our side. Biting winds, black clouds and chilling rain dominated the evening, and festival visitors sat huddled around tables, swathed in blankets and drinking wine out of plastic cups.

In Sweden, when the summer comes, you sit outside even if the weather is appalling. You might need a fleecy jumper, a scarf and a blanket, but it's the summer. And in the summer you go to festivals, sit outside and enjoy it.

The main artist of the night was rap star Missy Elliot. She bounced onto the stage at around 11.30 with gangster dancers and 'hiphop hotboys'. The crowd jumped up and down hysterically - mostly to keep warm. And the heavens opened, and the rain came tumbling down.

Missy's show was great, a real highlight. At one point she shouted in her microphone 'Someone told me that Stockholm is the hottest place on the planet!!!'

That could only be said by someone who hadn't sat there shivering for 5 hours.

Monday, 7 June 2010

When the politicians listen


When students graduate from Sixth Form College in Sweden, they go on a procession around the city. Part of the route takes them through Sergels Torg, a heavily-trafficked square in the centre of Stockholm. Politicians decided at the weekend that the students would not be allowed to go through this area this year.

And there was a public outcry. The students started a Facebook group and demonstrated against the decision. And today, the decision was rescinded. The students can go through Sergels Torg as they have always done.

On the tv, they interviewed the 19-year old student who had started the protest. They asked him how he felt. He answered

'I think this shows that politicians listen. And that we really can influence them and make a difference.'

What a fantastic lesson for a 19-year old boy to learn on the day of his graduation.

Stockholm A-Z: Exercise


E is for exercise

This weekend was the Stockholm Marathon. It was a fantastic spectacle of sporty Swedes and other foreigners stamping the 40 plus kilometers around Stockholm. Thousands of people lined the streets cheering, singing and dancing. The sunny summer weather had brought them out in droves.

Standing on the side of the road, cheering on my partner, I was impressed by the amazing effort that all the runners were investing.

I was also struck by the main difference between the Stockholm Marathon and the London Marathon - fun runners in funny costumes. The London Marathon is full of them. People dressed as chickens, as donuts and as marshmallows run the route, usually for charity. In the Stockholm Marathon, the concept of the fun runner in funny costumes is not very common. During the time I watched, I saw a few funny hats, a robber and a bumble bee. Otherwise, it looked very serious. The participants were focused runners, not fun runners.

And this, for me, reflects a crucial part of Swedish culture. People here take their exercise very seriously.

Stockholm is an exercise-friendly city. Every morning, lunchtime and evening, hundreds of joggers run along the many waterside pathways. Cyclists take over the city this time of year and perilously navigate the cycle tracks and roads. Strollers, speedwalkers, stickwalkers,skaters,skateboarders are all out on the streets. Canoists bob around the canals in colourful kajaks. People play kubb and boule in the parks. Every neighbourhood has at least one gym - and they are all packed. Swimming pools, squash courts, yoga studios abound.

In Stockholm, it feels like everybody exercises in some way. And I guess it pays off.

Visitors often remark that Stockholm is populated with so many good-looking people, of all ages. And they wonder why it can be so.

I hate to admit it, but could it be something to do with exercise?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Why do Swedes drink so much?


'Why do Swedes drink so much?' was a question I recently received in an informal survey on Facebook.

And it's a revealing question. A common stereotype that other nationalities have of Swedes is that they get rip-roaring drunk - frequently. And it's easy to understand why this stereotype exists.

Anyone who's been involved in a Swedish celebration of any kind has experienced the close presence of alcohol. At Midsummer, people get drunk. At crayfish parties, people get slaughtered. At Christmas, the snaps comes out and people end up hammered. In seaside destinations abroad, it's not uncommon when you see a gang of drunken youngsters that they are Swedish. The beer you buy in pubs might be expensive but it is so strong it'll make you cross-eyed after three glasses. So it's easy to form the impression that Swedes are hardened drinkers.

In today's newspaper, the results of a recent study were published. Swedish consumption of wine has increased 60% in the last ten years. This is easy to measure since all wine is purchased in Sweden through one company - the state-owned monopoly Systembolaget.

In the newspaper article, Swedish citizens were asked why they thought this increase has happened. In other words, why do Swedes drink so much?

Citizen 1: 'Because we have adapted a more cosmopolitan drinking style. It is no longer shameful to have a glass of wine on a Tuesday after work.'

Citizen 2: 'Because we are doing so well in Sweden. Everybody is better off so we can treat ourselves a little more.'

Citizen 3: 'Because of the introduction of the 'Bag in Box' wine. It's so easy to drink a lot without knowing how much you are drinking. It's easier to tap a glass of wine than to open another bottle'

I'm sure it is to do with all of these things. Interestingly, I think we are witnessing a cultural rebellion. Society is shifting from the collective to the individual. The old days when the government controlled alcohol consumption for the sake of public health is disappearing. It is being replaced by individual responsibility and individual choice. And the initial reaction is overconsumption.

So, there are lots of reasons why Swedes drink so much.

Now my question is, why do the Brits drink even more?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Stockholm A-Z: Djurgården


D is for Djurgården

For me, it's easy to forget about the island of Djurgården. It feels so far away. But actually, it's not very far at all. A 10 minute bike ride or a 20 minute run and you are there.

Djurgården is the 'pleasure island' for Stockholmers. Located in Stockholm's harbour, it hosts museums, galleries, gardens, a zoo, a funfair, a market, cafés, restaurants, a theatre, hotels. The list goes on.

When I first moved to Sweden, I used to think it was stupid to have so many museums concentrated in one area. I used to find it tedious to have to go out to the same destination every time I wanted to go to one of these museums.

But I have changed my mind. I think Djurgården is amazing.

It is one of Stockholm's truly unique features. Going to Djurgården is like visiting a sanctuary, away from the stresses of urban life, where it is all about focusing on recreation.

The existence of Djurgården is deeply engrained in the Stockholmers' minds, and strongly rooted in history. As far back as the 1200's, the island was a royal hunting ground. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the focus shifted from royal hunting to recreation for the public. The 16th century historian Olas Magni describes 'sculling girls conveying lads and maidens out to play and disport themselves.'

But the true rise of Djurgården happened in the late 1800's, when a horse-drawn omnibus line was created linking the city to the island. And in 1897 the great Stockholm Exhibition took place there.

This put Djurgården firmly on the map where it still remains today as one of the Stockholmers' most favourite places to disport themselves.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

In the garden of (Sw)Eden


Runny nose? Itchy eyes? Headache? I think I can easily diagnose what is wrong with you.

Summer is here. The sun is high. The air is warm. The burgeoning trees are in full bloom and the air is heady with pollen. You are probably, like me, one of the 10% of the world's population that suffers from pollen allergy. In Sweden, there are tens of thousands of people who are allergic. It's raging wild. It's like a national epidemic. They innoculated us against swine flu. Why not this?

According to statistics I saw the other day, Sweden has the highest rate of pollen allergy per capita than most other countries in the world. Why is this? Various theories abound.

Some say that Swedes are simply too clean. They are so squeaky clean that they cannot deal with bacteria and other alien elements, such as pollen, in their environment.

Others say that Swedes are soft. The long winter indoors doesn't equip them for the amount of pollen that explodes in their eyes and nostrils this time of the year.

Others claim it is the nature of the flora in Sweden that makes the residents more susceptible. Birch, widely present in Sweden is, apparently, a nasty old pollen producer.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. It is one of life's ironies.

After a long winter, the beautiful Swedish summer finally arrives. But many people can't be outside because of the poisonous pollen.

I guess it's just to squirt in the eye drops, pop the allergy pill, step out into the park and accept that even paradise - the garden of (Sw)Eden - had a snake.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Throw us a crumb


And so Eurovision is over, and Germany won.

But not to worry, Sweden was still strongly represented. The Swedish song may have fallen at the first hurdle, but the whole contest was full of Swedish dancers, backing singers, choreographers and songwriters. There was even a Swedish celebrity pianist on stage backing up Belarus.

Without Swedish involvement, the contest wouldn't have been as professional. So we can also see 2010 as a Swedish success, according to commentators and journalists.

I guess it's good to be grateful when you get thrown a crumb from the banquet table.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

A reality check is needed


Tonight is a night of anxiety for many Swedes. In fact, the last couple of days has been quite traumatic for them. You see, on Thursday, Sweden failed to qualify for the Eurovision Song Contest final which is being broadcast tonight.

Sweden sent a sweet girl, Anna Bergendahl, with a sweet song, to the semi final in Oslo. And Europe voted. And Sweden failed to impress the voters. And Anna was on the first bus back to Stockholm.

The next day, the papers were full of headlines screaming 'Fiasco!' and 'Ban the Eurovision shit'. It was unjust, they claimed. Anna deserved better. Sweden deserves better. Europe is just jealous of our musical talents so they don't vote for us. Eurovision should be changed! There should just be a Nordic Eurovision! Sweden should pull out immediately. The rhetoric was rabid, and the people were livid.

Sweden takes its Eurovision very seriously. Since ABBA won in the 70's, and put Sweden on the musical map, it's been a matter of national interest and pride to participate in the yearly contest.

But now, it's fanatical.

One debate in the papers and on the television is about how Europe's music is inferior to Sweden's. They claim that all Europe's music is basically rubbish and Sweden's is the best. Sweden always sends great songs to the Eurovision Song Contest but they never win. This is because European voters are too stupid, or too tasteless, to appreciate good music.

I have rarely heard such blatant arrogance before.

A reality check is needed. The fact is that Sweden's results in the Eurovision Song Contest have gone from bad to worse every year, while other Nordic countries have won. Sweden's music is not the best, in this context. Sweden is out of touch with what music appeals to the masses in the rest of Europe.

What's worse is that Sweden makes the mistake of believing that the Eurovision Song Contest is a contest for the best song. It isn't, and it never has been. It is about politics, nationalism and entertainment. It always has been.

So, if winning is important, this is my advice to Sweden. Do not vote for the song you think is best. Vote for the song you think will do the best in Europe. Even if you think it is rubbish, chances are that millions of Europeans will disagree with you. Vote strategically.

Maybe then you will have a shot at the glory and recognition you obviously desperately desire.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

A walk down the aisle


Isn't it funny how something small can be so meaningful? In Sweden, it is less than a month until the Royal wedding when Crown Princess Victoria marries Daniel Westling. The party is planned to last two weeks, culminating on May 19th in the cathedral.

And it's what will happen in the cathedral that is causing a huge stir. Victoria has stated that she wants her father, the King, to escort her down the aisle and give her away at the altar. Not so strange, you might think. Not so controversial. But in Sweden, this is causing a storm.

A father giving away his daughter at her wedding is not a Swedish tradition. In Sweden, the bride and groom walk down the aisle together towards the altar where they are then married. This is a major symbolic action. In Sweden, a woman is not something that is owned by one man and can be given away to another man. A woman is strong, independant, mature and educated. She is fully capable of walking down the aisle on her own, together with the man she has chosen to marry. She is not anybody's property. This is yet another way in which the Swedish value of equality is exhibited in society.

That the future queen chooses to go against the tradition is a break in protocol. It is also seen by many, including myself, as a lost opportunity to communicate to the world's press that in Sweden men and women are equal.

Of course, Princess Victoria should be able to do what she wants to do at her own wedding, but let's not forget that she has a responsiblity to the nation, especially when the nation is funding her wedding. A future regent, if anyone, should be seen to uphold and promote the values of the country she represents.

If she doesn't, what then is the point of a monarchy?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Stockholm A-Z: Café life


Café Life

Like many cities with diverse seasons, I find that Stockholm can be schizophrenic. In the winter, Stockholmers walk quickly to their destinations, head-down often avoiding social interaction on the street. This is understandable. It is so cold, you just want to get indoors.

In the early stages of summer though, the city changes.

The sunnier, warmer weather comes and restaurants spread out onto the pavements and streets. It seems like even the smallest of cafés has an outside terrace. It might only consist of one table and two chairs, but it is still an outdoor terrace. Outdoor summer cafés open up for the season on quaysides, in parks and squares.

And the people flock to them in droves.

Café season is the start of beautiful people season. All winter, Stockholmers have been hidden under layers of thermal clothing. But now, they cast off their outer garments and slip into their summer outfits, their sunglasses and their shorts and sandals. A more grateful and beautiful nation I am yet to find. You wonder where all these Amazonian women and athetlic men have been hybernating for the winter half of the year. Oh, of course...in the gym.

Café life has a strong tradition in Swedish culture. It is still possible to find traditional coffee houses dotted about the city. A window to the past, they often still have the original decor and atmosphere. Swedes are amongst the top 5 countries when it comes to the consumption of coffee, and this is part of the reason why coffee is so good in most cafés. Even 7 Eleven has decent coffee. This is also why Starbucks considered Stockholm to be a saturated market long before they opened their first store at the airport earlier this year.

But it is the outdoor café that reflects life for the modern Stockholmer. Weather permitting, these are the perfect places to sit and watch the world go by. Infraheaters and blankets help keep any irritating chill at bay. So, grab your outsized sunglasses, head to a square, slip into a chair, order a macchiato and enjoy summer life in Stockholm.

Why did the Swede cross the road?


I'm sure we've all heard the joke about why the chicken crossed the road, but have you ever heard the one about why a Swede crossed the road? Or rather how a Swede crosses the road? You haven't? It's hilarious.

Crossing the road in Sweden used to be like a game of Russian roulette. You stepped tentatively out onto the zebra crossing and hoped the motorists would stop, knowing they had no obligation to do so. However, a while ago, a new law was introduced in Sweden. It stated that all cars must stop at zebra crossings to allow the pedestrians to go over.

However, it seems like this new law has caused another problem - an increase in road accidents between cars and pedestrians. Apparently, many Swedish people simply fling themselves out onto the crossings because they have right of way and cars have to stop. With the law on their side, they disregard the common sense rules that we all learn as kids.

So a new campaign had been launched this week, teaching Swedes how to cross the road. With the slogan 'Make eye contact before you cross', the authorities are programming people to actually look at the approaching cars before taking the first critical step.

It's hilarious. But it gets better.

I was walking to work the other day and I was handed some campaign material. It took the form of a little yellow box and it rattled attractively with sweets inside. A big eye and campaign slogan was written on one side. On the other side, in small print, it said 'Remember at crossings that drivers must give way to you, but remember also that you as a pedestrian must not step out onto the crossing without checking the vehicles that are approaching.'

I became so engrossed in the small text, the yellow box and the tempting sweeties that I stepped out onto a crossing without checking and almost got mowed down by a cycle courier.

So rule number 1 when crossing a road: do not read small yellow boxes and fantasise about sweets.

The rest, well, it's just common sense.

Friday, 30 April 2010

The humane airline


As the ash cloud hovers ominously over Europe, so does the discussion and debate about reimbursements, damages and loans.

I flew to Bangkok, and was stranded there, with SAS. I cannot praise them highly enough. We passengers were provided with bus transportation, with hotel accommodation, with breakfast, with lunch, with dinner. We were given a voucher to cover email time and 3 minutes of international phone calls.

Other airlines made their passengers sleep at the airport, or pay for their own hotel and food. FinnAir flew people to Helsinki but, prior to boarding, made them sign a waiver to say they did not demand FinnAir should take them onwards to their final destination. So, once landed in Helsinki, passengers had to organise their own transportation to Copenhagen, Paris or wherever they were headed.

SAS got us home. Every one of us. At no extra cost to us.

For me, in the future, there is no competition. I will choose SAS every time I fly. I recommend everyone else does the same.

If we finally understand what a good airline SAS is, maybe we can save it from the bankruptcy that all experts are currently warning about. Sure, SAS might be more expensive than other airlines, but they have a humane approach to their customers.

I believe in karma. Do you?

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The continental thing to do


The rain trickles down from the sky. Although it's nearly May, the rain is a little icy. It stings a bit when it hits your skin. My coat is unbuttoned, so I pull it more closely around me. The wind cuts through me like a knife. I curse the fact that I only have a shirt on underneath and not a jumper too.

I walk along the road and notice that the cafés have opened their outdoor terraces. People huddle outside and drink a beer, or eat pizza. Some of them are lucky enough to have an infraheater above their heads casting a grateful heat onto them. Others may be shrouded in woolly blankets to protect them from the chill.

It really is far too cold to sit outside. But, this is Sweden, and it is the spring and as soon as the outdoor terraces are open, you sit there.

It is the continental thing to do.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Stockholm A-Z: Balloons


Balloons

You might not know this but I am an aristocrat. Yes, it's true, I am titled. I am a Count. My official title is Balloon Count of Barkaby. I was given this title in a champagne ceremony a few years ago.

The title of Count or Countess is something that everybody is given after they carry out a journey in a hot air balloon over Stockholm. Where you land dictates where you become a Count or Countess of. I landed on a not-so-glamorous air strip in Barkaby, a not-so-attractive suburb outside the city.

Hot air ballooning is synonymous with the summer skyline of Stockholm. Every evening, weather permitting, the sky fills with a mass of brightly coloured balloons with baskets of gleeful passengers hanging beneath them. The growl of the flame can be heard on street level as the balloons sail gently across the evening sky.

From up there, you get a fantastic view of the city. You see clearly how Stockholm is built on islands and how bridges form a network of communication. You see the houses shining in shades of ochra, amber and gold. You see people busy in parks, on the water and in the squares.

In these days where the sky is filled with ash clouds and planes can't take us where we want to be, perhaps it will become the era of the hot air balloon.

I wonder how long it'd take to get to England?

Friday, 23 April 2010

Stockholm A-Z: Accessibility


Accessibility

In London and many other cities, the cityscape is dominated by high walls, fences, gates, and locked doors. Signs saying 'No entry','Tresspassers will be Prosecuted' and 'Private Property' abound.

Not in Stockholm. One of things that strikes a tourist or a foreigner when they come to Stockholm is the openness and accessibility of the city. In Stockholm, you are mostly free to amble down canal paths and along the lakesides. No private owner has claimed it as their own. At bus stops, buses sink to street level to allow disabled people access to public transport. The city's parks are not fenced in, or shut after 11pm, but spill out onto the streets that surround them.

But the thing that reflects Stockholm's accessibility the most is the way the city presents its public buildings. The Royal Palace in the centre of the city is not fenced off like London's Buckingham Palace to keep the hoards at bay. If you want, you can walk right up to the palace and touch it. The Houses of Parliament have a pedestrianised walkway running right through the middle of them connecting Stockholm's Old Town to the commercial centre. Not a policeman in sight.

Stockholm's politicians and royals are often seen on the streets or at public events mixing with the hoi pal loi. Granted, they have body guards, but they are very discreet.

Unfortunately, this accessibility has resulted in murder. Prime Minister Olof Palme and the Foreign Minister Anna Lindh were both struck down, one on the street, the other in a department store. These tragedies however have not removed the Swedish need for accessibility and openness.

Accessibility is one way in which the Swedes display their fierce belief in democracy.

And if you take that away, what then is left of a progressive modern society?

Stockholm A-Z: Archipelago


Archipelago
One of the Stockholmers favourite summer retreats is the archipelago outside of the city. The archipelago consists of over 20 000 islands. The islands are mostly flat and usually covered in greenery. They are various sizes ranging from the smallest of cobs and skerries to large islands with roads and villages. From the air it looks like God has broken digestive biscuits into different sized pieces and scattered them into the Baltic Sea.

Many of the islands are inhabited by permanent residents and a boat service carries residents to and from Stockholm in anything from one to six hours. Most islands, however, are not permanently inhabited, some having space only for a few wooden holiday cottages dotted about.

Many Stockholmers boat out to the archipelago in the summer months. They take picnics with them and munch on sour dough bread, quinoa salad and sip rosé wine. They sunbathe and swim from the rocks, often exotically naked. If the water temperature is over 17 degrees celsius they are happy. They glide in kayaks through calm, glistening water. They convene with nature.

I remember the first time I went out to the archipelago as a hardened Londoner. When we arrived at our island destination, all I could see was rocks and trees. I remember wondering where the pub was and how the hell anyone could spend a whole day sitting on a rock. But Stockholmers do just that.

For Swedes, the natural environment is very important whether it's the archipelago, the woods or the mountains. It is as if many Swedes long to get away from their cosmopolitan lifestyles and retreat to their little red cottages deep in the woods. Or go fishing in fresh-water lakes. Or spend weekends picking wild berries. And mushrooms.

As little as a century ago, Sweden was an agrarian country with many of the people living under impoverished conditions. This heritage is still apparent in the Swedish mentality and could be one explanation for the sentimental relationship to nature.

Nature is an integral part of the Swedish lifestyle and Stockholm's archipelago is the ultimate manifestation of this.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Fishing in Utopia

If you'd like to know more about Swedish culture, I strongly recommend this book - Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown. Written in 2008, it is about an Englishman's experience of living in Sweden. In the 70's he moved to Sweden to be with his Swedish girlfriend, then wife. Sweden was a Utopia for him - a welfare state that looked after its citizens. Unfortunately, his marriage didn't work out and he moved back to England, where he became a successful journalist on The Independant.

Decades later, he decided to visit Sweden again to see if the Utopian future became true. Did the future everyone believed in then,actually come true? Or did the future disappear?

A great read. A fantastic way of describing a Sweden that was, and the Sweden of today. He tackles the small issues such as fishing in fresh-water lakes and the big issues such as what does it mean to be Swedish in the 21st century.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Safe landings


And so, miraculously, I am back in Sweden! We managed to secure seats on the only plane out of Bangkok that was flying to Scandinavia. Since the air space over Stockholm closes again at 20.00 tonight, we were really lucky! I now understand what a window of opportunity means.

I have to admit that it was rather scary knowing that we were flying over (through? around?) the ash cloud, but everything went well. When we landed, the relief that ran through the cabin was noticeable.

And one other thing was telling. The purser's anouncement when we had landed on the runway went like this:

'Thank for for choosing to fly SAS and Star Alliance. We hope you have enjoyed the journey and that you choose us again for your next flight - if we have survived ths....'

The far-reaching consequences of an eruption of a volcano on Iceland.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Escape routes in my head

Escape Route 1
Fly to Bejing and take the Trans-Siberian railway across Mongolia to Moscow. Then take another train to Helsinki and a boat across the Baltic to Stockholm. Home!

Escape Route 2
Fly to Singapore and board a cruise liner across the Indian Ocean. Pass either round the southern tip of Africa or through the Suez Canal. Arrive in the Med and take a train up over Europe to Denmark. Take a train across the Öresund bridge to Malmö and then a train or bus to Stockholm. Home!

Escape Route 3
Catch a flight to Rome,Madrid or Athens when the air route is opened. From there, take a train, bus or rental car and drive up through Germany, Denmark and finally to Swedish south coast. Take train or bus to Stockholm. Home!

Escape Route 4
Catch a flight to Singapore and onwards to Los Angeles. Take another flight across USA to New York. From New York, fly to Rejkavik. From the Icelandic capital catch a boat to Norway. Once in Norway, take a train, bus or rental car over to Stockholm. Home!

Escape Route 5
Fly northwards to Shanghai and further on over Siberia and to the Arctic circle. Land somewhere icy and take a husky sledge through Russia, Finnish and Swedish lapland. Rent snow scooters to the first train station in Sweden (wherever that is). Take a train or bus down the long, thin country of Sweden to Stockholm. Home!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Stranded in Thailand

On Thursday I was due to return to Sweden after my trip to Thailand. This didn't happen. A volcano erupted on Iceland spewing ash into the atmosphere and causing air space to be shut down over Europe.

My flight was cancelled and I marched out of the airport in a long line of disgruntled passengers, bussed back into Bangkok and put up in a hotel.

Three nights later and I am still here.

The hotel is a SAS hotel so all of the guests here have the same problem. A mixture of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians remain grounded and nobody knows when we will be able to get home. Experts see no end to the volcanic ejaculation.

We are lucky. Many other airline passengers have been forced to finance their own accommodation. Our hotel rooms are paid for by SAS and all our food is included. A plentiful buffet is provided at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It feels like an Atlantic cruise - with no certainty of when it will end.

You can tell how long somebody has been here by the amount of food they pile on their plate. Those who are newly-arrived stack the food high onto their plates, returning frequently to the buffet. If it's free, then it's good.

Those of us who have been here longer have developed a more restrained approach to the food - for us, moderation is the best policy. Since we've understood that we don't know how long we'll be here we have also understood we can't eat an endless amount of deep-fried spring rolls and cream cakes.

How will this adventure end? When will we return to Swedish soil? How fat will we be when we get off that plane in Sweden?

Watch this space.....

Thursday, 15 April 2010

No Songkran in Sweden

Yesterday as we drove around Bangkok, people standing by the sides of the roads threw buckets of water over the windscreen of our car. This throwing of water is is the most obvious celebration of Songkran (Thai New Year). Thais roam the streets with containers of water or water guns (sometimes nicely mixed with talc), or post themselves at the side of roads with a garden hose and drench each other and passers-by.

The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over Buddhas for cleansing and then using this "blessed" water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder. Among young people the holiday evolved to include dousing strangers with water to relieve the heat, since April is the hottest month in Thailand (temperatures can rise to over 100°F or 40°C on some days). This has further evolved into water fights and splashing water over people riding in vehicles.

Nowadays, the emphasis is on fun and water-throwing rather than on the festival's spiritual and religious aspects, which sometimes prompts complaints from traditionalists. In recent years there have been calls to moderate the festival to lessen the many alcohol-related road accidents as well as injuries attributed to extreme behavior such as water being thrown in the faces of traveling motorcyclists.

It's a good job that this celebration doesn't exist in Sweden. To 'kasta vatten' - to throw water - can also mean to piss.

And you wouldn't want strangers in Stockholm to 'kasta vatten' on you as you cycle past minding your own business.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

How to spot a Swede on the beach

Just got back from a few days at the beach. 33 degrees in the water and blistering sun. The resort we were at was run by an organisation called Cabbages and Condoms that donates money to family planning and hiv prevention. Amongst other things they fund a school for needy children. Very worth a visit.

The resort wasn't very, very busy - even though it's Thai New Year at the moment. There were some Thai guests, French guests, English, American, Chinese.

Oh, yes and some Swedes. The Swedes, however, didn't need to open their mouths for me to understand they were Swedish. No, it was something else.

Three Swedish guys on the beach, with three Thai women. How did I know they were Swedish? How do you spot a Swede on the beach?

Was it the fact that they were all blonde? No.
Was it the fact that they were tall and trendy? No.
Was it the pale skin? The quiet demeanour? No, no.

It was the pair of Björn Borg underwear sticking out over the top of the swimming trunks. Yes, knickers under a swimming costume. That's how you spot a Swede on the beach.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Recycling in Bangkok

Increasing our cultural awareness is often all about challenging our assumptions and seeing the situation from another perspective. A great example of this happened yesterday here in Bangkok.

We are staying in the city at the apartment of two good friends of ours. Their apartment is lovely, with a large living room, 3 spacious bedrooms and a view over the rooftops and tropical greenery. They have a balcony for airing laundry and a gally kitchen. In the kitchen are two containers for rubbish. One for dry rubbish and one for wet rubbish.

'That's great', I said, 'that you recycle here. Is there a recycling station in the basement?'

The reply surprised me. And reminded me to challenge my assumptions. The reason they separated the rubbish was not for recycling purposes in the way that I meant it. That was my assumption from my English-Swedish perspective.

No, the reason is that in Bangkok, when you throw out the rubbish, this is what happens. People sift through it to pick out plastic, tin, card - anything that they can sell and get money for. The reason my friends separated the dry from the wet was to make it easier for the rubbish sifters. To make it less sticky and messy for them in the sweltering heat.

They were being nice.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The thick heat of Bangkok

We land at Bangkok airport after a long night's journey from Scandinavia. The flight is full of pale-skinned, winter-tired Swedes and Danes. We step off the plane and into the heat of the walkway bridging the gap between the plane and the gate. So nice, we think, so warm, what a difference.

We pick our bags up and head out to the entrance where a driver is waiting to whisk us away to our destination. As we wait for the car to come round, we take pleasure in the humidity and the heat. The sun is beating down and the air is still. We still wait for the car. The air is thick with heat. We still wait.

The car arrives and we fling ourselves gratefully into the air-conditioned environment.

I guess we need some time to adjust.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Watching the Thais


However fascinating watching the Swedes is, sometimes you just need a break. This evening I'm heading off to warmer climes to spend 10 days in Thailand. I will be visiting some friends who live in Bangkok and spending some time lounging on the beach. I feel I really need this break after the long and hard Scandinavian winter. I think a visit to a sunnier, warmer climate is a human right when you live as far north as Sweden.

But I am not taking a break from my blog. I am sure I will experience a lot of blogworthy things in Thailand.

So, for 10 days I won't be watching the Swedes.

I'll be watching the Swedes in Thailand. And I'll be watching the Thais.

Origin of the Easter tree


In Sweden, they don't only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees. The Easter tree is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch)in a vase with coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people hang eggs. Some people hang chickens.

The Easter tree, or 'påsk ris', can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples' living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours' gardens.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.

What's the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?

Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch's broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of 'trick or treating' for Easter eggs.

But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It comes from the 1600's. Swedish people in the 1600's used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800's and 1900's, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?