A sense of perspective

I am tired. Tired of the winter. But not of the snow.

I am tired of everybody moaning.

This year, Sweden has had one of the snowiest winters in decades. The snow came in December and is still here. The streets are covered in ice and, just as you think it might be getting better, another load of snow is dumped upon us.

This week has been especially spectacular. Because of the amounts of snow, the railway system has not been able to operate as it usually does. Trains have been delayed, or cancelled. There haven’t been enough replacement buses to cover the capacity. The underground has been cancelled on any parts of the line that aren’t physically underground.

The newspapers have reported on ‘Snow Chaos’ and ‘a feeling of tension and riot in the air’. Every night the weather has dominated the tv news, every night they have interviewed angry passengers that have had to wait at a station for a train that never comes. People have been up in arms, their anger spiralling. Train personnel have been threatened.

I am so tired. Tired of the moaning. Tired of the news coverage and the sensationalism.

We live in Scandinavia. In Scandinavia it snows. This year it has snowed an exceptional amount. This has meant that services can not operate with their usual reliabilty. Get over it.

We live in a world surrounded by natural disasters, such as the earthquake on Haiti, where people lose their homes, their families, their means of living. In other countries, people die in extreme weather conditions. In Sweden, we miss the train. I think a sense of perspective is required.

First thing this morning, the local government and the board of Swedish Railway anounced that they will be refunding all passengers. All passengers will receive a discount on their monthly travel card equivalent to one week’s travel. This is to compensate everyone for the inconvenience. The inconvenience of living in Sweden?

This political gesture will cost the tax payer 50 million Swedish crowns.

In my opinion, money better spent employing people to maintain the tracks and keep the trains moving.

Pancake Thursday

In all cultures, there is an element of predicatability. Some things that you can feel will always happen. Things that give you a sense of security because you can depend on them.

In Sweden, it’s pancakes.

Today is Thursday. In every lunch restaurant and every staff canteen that sell Swedish food, pancakes are on the menu. You can rely on it. It feels dependable. The pancakes are served in a particular way – with whipped cream and jam – and always, always served together with a bowl of steaming pea soup and bread.

It’s fun to watch Swedes on Thursdays. In the staff canteen, grown men queue up to ladle their soup into their bowls and pile pancake after pancake onto a plate like a Scooby snack. Then they gleefully paste on the jam and smother it with whipped cream. It’s like watching a jelly and ice cream party for 10-year olds.

Pancakes on Thursdays is especially interesting for us Brits. You see, we are deprived. We only get to eat pancakes once a year – on ‘Pancake Day’. ‘Pancake Day’ as it happens was last week, Shrove Tuesday. And on this day, when Swedes traditionally tuck into Lent buns, we Brits make pancakes and cover them with sugar, lemon juice and chocolate sauce.

But only once a year.

It’s not always that easy to understand how the rules of different societies work, especially when it comes to food. A Swedish customer of mine once told me a story about some Japanese visitors to Sweden that he was responsible for looking after.

The Japanese were visiting on a pancake Thursday. At lunch time, the Swede took the Japanese visitors to the company restaurant. Unsure of what to do when faced with the lunch time food, the Japanese took a bowl each and filled it with pancakes. They then spooned on jam and cream. And finally, they poured pea soup over the whole lot. They were left with an unholy mess seaping over the edges of the bowl.

The Swede saw what his Japanese visitors had done and was unsure of how to handle the situation. He could tell them they had made a mistake by not putting the soup in a bowl and the pancakes on a separate plate. But he felt this could potentially embarrass them and force them to lose face. This could be devastating to them and their business relationship.

So, he did the only thing he thought an adaptive, culturally-sensitive person should do. He took a bowl, filled it with pancakes and cream and then he smothered it with soup. He sat down with his Japanese visitors and slowly forced down the soggy contents of the bowl with a spoon.

It’s nice to know that however dependable and reliable a tradition is, it is not so rigid that it can’t be adapted if the circumstances decree.

And, in this case, those circumstances are known as hospitality.

Being Swedified

Sometimes when you live in a country so long, you forget what is different from your own culture. You adapt. You are culturally aligned. In my case, I have become Swedified.

Take ‘fjärrvärme’. ‘Fjärrvärme’ is long-distance heating. It’s a way of warming houses and apartment buildings and is very common in central Stockholm.

Long-distance heating usually consists of water that is heated up in factories outside the city. The water is then sent through pipes and out to the buildings. The water circulates in each apartment’s radiators and, when it has been used for a long time, gets cold again. Then, it gets sent back to the factory to get heated up again. Logical, huh? And such a natural part of the Swedish infrastructure that I have hardly reflected over it. Until I went to England and told my family about it.

‘That’s outrageous!!’ they said. Surprised by the strong reaction, I asked why.

‘Well, if the government or private companies control the heating, they could just turn it down in order to control the public. They could set the heat to a low level in order to increase national work output. It’s so communist. It’s outrageous.’

I tried to explain that it was a very green way to heat the buildings but couldn’t come up with a decent argument.

I tried to explain that when you pay the monthly apartment fee, you get as much heating as you like. But they thought that this was also outrageous – a neighbour could have their radiators turned up higher and they would pay the same fee as those who had their radiators lower. Communist.

I tried to explain it was the same as other utilities in the UK. Like water, electricity and gas. But they didn’t get it. Controlling your own heating, they claimed, is a basic right.

I floundered. I couldn’t persuade them of the benefits of ‘fjärrvärme’.

I like and accept ‘fjärrvärme’. I think it is a great utility. My acceptance of it sits so deeply now that I can’t explain why it is the way it is. It just is.

I realise I am culturally aligned, at least on this issue. I am Swedified.

Swedes and Ralph Lauren

Just come back from a long weekend in London where I was visiting family and friends. On Saturday, I was trying to persuade my 23-year old nephew to come to Stockholm for a visit. Appealing to his interests, I mentioned how beautiful Swedish girls are.

My sister, who has been to Sweden several times, pipes up.

‘Oh, yes! They’re all really beautiful. Everyone is beautiful! So healthy and well-off looking. They’re all so well-dressed and trendy. Even the pensioners. They all walk around with glowing skin and lovely teeth. They’ve all got jumpers thrown over their shoulders. They all look like models. Yes, all Swedes are Ralph Lauren models!’

Now, there’s a positive stereotype to reinforce!

The right to a voice

A fantastic characteristic of Swedish society is freedom of speech, freedom of religion and of lifestyle. Based on the value of equality, the concept of freedom of speech applies to everyone in the society, even children.

It’s no surprise then that in a country that has a child ombudsman and fierce legislation against corporal punishment, the following is happening. School children are being given the opportunity to evaluate, or grade, their teachers – to give their opinion on the abilities of their teachers. Their evaluations will be public records.

Politicians who support the move say that school is there for the children, not the teachers, Therefore, children should have an influence over their environment and the people who work there.

Politicians who are against say that children are not mature enough to understand the consequences of their grading and that the results could be devastating for individual teachers.

No matter what we think, for or against, I think this is fantastic. A fantastic example of the Swedish belief in equality in practice.

Even the smallest people in this culture have a voice, and a right to share it.

Peeping toms

I woke up this morning bright-eyed and ready to face the day. I live on one of those typical narrow inner-city streets in Stockholm, where the tall buildings line either side. The street is so narrow that you can see straight into each others flats and almost see what your neighbours are having for dinner. I live high up on the 6th floor so I have the great fortune to see the sky and over the snowy rooftops and ridges of the buildings opposite. They are beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings and the towering chimneys evoke a strong 1800’s feeling.

This morning, after I’d got out of bed, I whipped open my blinds to let in the light. To my surprise on the rooftop opposite were 5 snow-busters, busy pushing down the heavy snow that was ladening the roof. The swiftness of my blinds opening must have caught their attention. Two of them looked up and right into my bedroom like peeping toms. It was almost as though I wanted to wave. I admit I felt embarrassed. I felt exposed.

Thank god I wasn’t naked – for their sake.

Going for gold

A friend of mine has a 5 year old daughter, currently attending day care in Stockholm. It’s fascinating to talk to her and to see how cultural norms and values are instilled in us right from an early age.

Swedish day care, like many others around the world, is about teaching children social skills, the rights and wrongs of society and what is acceptable behaviour. And this particular little girl has learned all of that. She shows respect to others. She understands the concept of turn-taking. When she grows up she doesn’t want to be a Nazi.

One evening she was playing a game with her mother, and she won fair and square. But she wanted to back-track and do it again so that she didn’t hurt her mother’s feelings. Her mother, an American, said that it was ok and that she had won rightfully. This 6 year old Swedish girl then said, ‘But at daycare, we all win.’

The Swedish values of equality, modesty and a touch of envy are all represented in this statement. It’s the participation that’s important, not the winning. No one person should win, but everyone is a winner because they contributed. Cultural indoctrination starts early and we see this particular cultural characteristic everywhere in Swedish society. In the concensus decision-making. In the fact that bragging is seen as unattractive. In the acceptance that being average (lagom) is ok, or even something to strive for.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully support the philosophy that participating is valuable. But winning is also strengthening. For the individual and the group.

Now, thankfully not everyone in any single culture follows the national tendencies. There are always individuals who deviate. And when enough people deviate, that is when the cultural norm shifts.

At the Winter Olympics, Sweden fights along side many nationalities for a place on the podium. While other countries may win more medals, Sweden does succeed in an occasional gold. Yesterday, Charlotte Kalla won a gold medal for cross-country skiing.

I’m sure that no matter how much she thought that participating was great, winning gold must have felt even better.

Feeling foreign

Yesterday I felt very foreign.

It was the day of the ‘Vikingarännet’, the world’s longest skating competition on natural ice. The track is a total of 80km, ending in the centre of Stockholm. My partner had signed up for the ordeal and headed off at 6.30 in the morning to catch the bus to the starting line. My job was, 6 hours later, to go down to the finish line and cheer and applaud and welcome him back.

At 2pm, I headed down to the lakeside. I passed a few weary-looking ice skaters on the way. Eventually, I arrived at the finishing line. A few tents were set up around a little podium for first, second and third place. A man with a microphone was walking around interviewing contestants who had finished and made it up the slope to the tent area. His voice echoed around the lakeside from strategically-placed loudspeakers. As I stood and waited, he approached one of the contestants who turned out to be an Australian. The Australian was exhausted. It was only the 5th time he had ever ice-skated.

Jokingly, he said to the interviewer, ‘there’ll be no Valentine’s Day romance today’.

‘Oh’ said the interviewer with typical direct Swedish communication style, ‘you mean you have no energy left for the bedroom?!’

The Australian looked a little embarrassed and said as he cringed, ‘Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.’

I decided to move away from the tent area and proceeded down the slope and across the frozen lake to the finishing area. A large, inflatable archway marked the end of the 80km race. Lots of people huddled around waiting. Silence prevailed.

As exhausted racers lumbered across the finishing line, the crowd did nothing. No reaction. No cheering. No bravos. No clapping mittens. Nothing. Just staring with blank expressions. The silence was almost oppressive. How does that feel, I wondered, to have acheived such a magnificent feat and to come back to this? 80 km is a very long way! And nobody showed any appreciation! Not outwardly anyway. The Swedish value of modesty was very clear at that moment.

As I saw my partner approaching across the ice, I started waving my arms and jumping up and down. Perhaps I overcompensated somewhat.

I clapped my gloves and, with steamy breath, I shouted ‘Yeah! Come on! Bravo! Well, done! Keep going!’

I shouted ‘Brilliant! Looking good! Yeah!’

My voice echoed out over the lake and was suspended in the air like an embarrassment.

Now, I am not an over-expressive type. But compared to the Swedes I experienced yesterday, I was positively Italian.

Yes, yesterday, I felt very foreign indeed.

The Swedish pricks

When I was new in Sweden, I was walking down Katarinavägen on Södermalm with my Swedish mother-in-law. Katarinavägen has a fantastic view over the harbour and the city and far across the lake Mälaren. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the air was crisp.

My mother-in-law, who doesn’t speak very good English, was struggling to keep the conversation going. She was pointing out different features in the cityscape. Over there is the animal park, over there is the green fairground.

She pointed at the large building looming into the sky behind the old town. I knew this red-brick building to be the city hall. The city hall has a large tower and embellishing the top of the tower is the symbol of Sweden – three shining crowns.

My mother-in-law pointed at the tower and said proudly,

‘That is the town hall – the house with the pricks in.’

She was referring to the crowns as ‘the pricks’ and she meant to say ‘on’ the roof.

However, without knowing it, she couldn’t have been closer to the truth.

This year is election year. Let’s make sure that the pricks stay on the roof and not inside the building.