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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
According to all research, Swedes are law-abiding citizens who respect rules and regulations and follow them.
This might be true in many cases, but not in the case of the studded tire.
The studded tire prevents slipping and skidding on winter roads. It is great when there is an icy surface to drive on but, as soon as the snow is gone, the studded tire slashes the surface of the road. This damages the road and sends millions of tiny, unhealthy particles into the air, which is breathed in by unsuspecting pedestrians and cyclists.
To combat this, the government banned studded tires on one of the main roads in Stockholm – Hornsgatan. Only on Hornsgatan. Driving on any of the roads around Hornsgatan is ok, but not actually on Hornsgatan itself. This seemed sensible to the politicians, but was really impractical for drivers.
Yesterday, the results of this ban were announced. It seems as if Swedes have contradicted all research and become rebellious. Apparently, 40% of all cars that drive on Hornsgatan still have studded tires. This is equal to 12000 cars per day. The number of fines that have been issued due to this flagrant violation of the law is 15.
One Swedish violator, interviewed on tv, said that the law is ‘ludicrous’. Another said that it is a ‘ridiculous waste of money and resources’.
I have been faithfully avoiding Hornsgatan with my studded-tired car. Although I disagreed with the law, I followed it anyway. I thought everybody would. I didn’t want to risk a fine.
Mm, what does this say about me?