In the UK you must always give up your seat for an elderly person.
In Sweden, this is fraught with danger.
50% of older people will smile and accept. The other 50% will reject you with a snarl.
This is bewildering to a Brit, but self-evident to a Swede. So what’s the difference? Self-reliance. Some elderly Swedes consider it an insult to their independence. You are publicly shaming them with your pity.
You can’t tell who will smile and who will snarl. This makes offering a help a risky business. And not just with elderly people.
We were shocked at first at how seldom my wife got help from passers-by when bumping the baby buggy up and down the icy staircases in the centre of town.
Then we figured it out: fear of insulting her independence. She would have welcomed the help, but passing strangers were not to know that.
So, how to deal with this risk, this game of social Russian roulette?
Most Swedes prefer not to take the risk. Better to bury yourself in your phone and avoid the dilemma altogether…
For Swedes, unlike in the UK, Eurovision is not a complete joke
We have a 25-year-old childminder. She’s young and hip (unlike me since I still use the word ‘hip’). But when I asked what she was doing for her birthday, I was surprised by her answer: “Oh it’s super cool, my boyfriend got us tickets for Melodifestivalen!!“
Melodifestivalen is the Swedish qualifying competition for Eurovision. It takes place over multiple Saturday nights, is a fixture for families on primetime TV, and it culminates in a live final with an enormous studio audience (pictured above) in a tumult of excitement over who will be chosen as the Swedish entry.
If you’re from the UK, you might want to read that last paragraph again. Yes, I’m talking about the Eurovision qualifiers here…
The most famous aspect of Eurovision in the UK is the phrase ’nul points’ – meaning ‘no points’ – which refers to Jemini (2003). Her appearance was pointless in every sense. The British entry has only scored nul points once, but that doesn’t mean there has been a lot of success – the UK has finished outside the top ten for six years in a row.
This does not jive with the British sense of victorious entitlement. Finishing outside the top ten – or, indeed, outside the top one – triggers accusations of bloc voting among the ex-Soviets and rank disloyalty among the former colonies.
But having failed to beat them, the UK also refuses to join them. Instead we send decreasingly serious entrants to the competition. This year’s contenders, Joe & Jake, met on a second-rate TV talent show. Jake didn’t even make the live finals of the show.
This truly is a bad sign. Joe & Jake were described by The Telegraph as “two-fifths of an alternate universe One Direction. This may yet turn out to have been a terrible decision by the British public”. But, the paper continues, “it could so easily have been worse. They’re no Scooch, Daz Sampson or Jemini. And they’re much better than last year’s Electro Velvet.”
At least the UK is taking a year’s break from reanimating the corpses of aged popstars such as Bonnie Tyler* (2013, finished 19th) and Engelbert Humperdinck (2002, finished 25th).
Compare this with Sweden. The Melodifestivalen finale featured several of Sweden’s top popstars, artists with a real track record who have attempted over and over to win a coveted place in the main Eurovision event. It might be hard to beat this year’s Swedish entrant, Frans, who looks like an ugly Bieber but does sound a bit like him if you close your eyes for long enough.
The Eurovision final takes place tomorrow (16 May) here in Stockholm. Yesterday we went to one of the semi-finals. I hadn’t quite realised that this would be a contest between the smaller nations who need to qualify for the final. Sadly we missed Minus One from Cyprus and Jüri Pootsman from Estonia, but we were treated to Donny Montell from Lithuania and Ivan from Belarus, who was joined on stage by… himself, stark naked and singing to a wolf. It was absurd but also absurdly fun.
Two years ago, my wife and I went to an outrageous birthday party in Paris. A tall, striking, and bearded Parsien dressed as Conchita Wurst stopped the party and sang the 2014 winner’s song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ with backing vocals from six fellow Frenchmen in spectacular drag. I can only hope that this year’s Eurovision winner lives up to that.
The arrival of spring wreaks a strange change in this post-pagan land. One glimpse of sunshine wakes the icy giant, and the entire country comes out of hibernation.
Real giants are slow to wake. They snork and snuffle and rub their sleepy eyes before stirring their limbs. For Swedes the process is barely a process at all – rather, it is a rapid and electrifying event, as though a wild roommate has dipped the sleeper’s fingers in left-over schnapps and jammed them into the plug socket. Last week it snowed. But this week, spring has suddenly sprung!
It has been a long wait. There have been desperate sunbathers along the waterfront every sunny day for two months. The picture above was taken in early March – the water was still covered in ice, and most sunbathers were wearing winter coats.
But now the almighty sun streams down into the worshipping city. It is greeted by a Swedish hug lasting several months. A Swedish hug lasting more than a few seconds is a bone-crushing experience. No-one will go in until September. After locking themselves indoors through the winter, now they lock themselves out.
Pallid Vikings swarm the streets and riverside cafes. Young maidens and even aged hags begin to blossom. The local Boulebar reopens. The broad streets are narrowed by bustling tables – who cares if you still need a coat, at least your bum won’t be frozen to the seat.
Fast-forward a few months, and the world has turned again. Spring is gone, long live sweet summer! We arrived here in late August. Bronzed skin, blonde hair, long limbs and easy smiles were everywhere.
But something in this sun-kissed paradise was not quite right. In the background, very faintly… what was that? Can you hear it? Tick, tock, tick, tock… the seasons’ clock. The countdown to winter begins on the day the sun arrives.
So time is short. Already the prudent country-dwellers were gathering food and firewood for the hard winter ahead. But the city Swedes pump up the volume and drown out the clock.
When we first landed, in a blaze of sunshine and summery sweat, the only hint that we hadn’t redirected to Los Angeles was in the eyes. A very slight dilation of the pupils, or a stare that lasts just a little too long… there is a mania that grips the Swede when summer arrives. He knows this is his chance. He will retire to his summer palace in the archipelago and toast himself like a salamander on a rock.
Swedish residents are advised to take vitamin D throughout the year. The sun’s true goodness is squeezed into a short period, so when it does arrive it must be taken in highly-concentrated doses. Now the nights are shortening, the sky is bright, and water sparkles in the sunlight. The mania will soon descend.
Hmm… seems like I’m still here… I’ll continue until the police arrive.
In Sweden, drinking coffee is a cultural institution. A fika — drinking coffee and eating cake socially — is the primary way to bring people together.
This is so important that it has even become a verb — fikar — meaning ‘to have a sociable coffee together’. You can tell from the length of the English translation that this concept does not exist back in the UK.
The hipster Swedish dude above has a coffee in one hand and a kanelbulle — cinnamon bun — in the other. Buns / Cake are also a critical part of the fika.
Without them, your coffee tastes sad and lonely. And you will soon be sad and lonely too, because by not including bullar you will have committed a serious social faux pas.
On my first day at work, I felt I must absolutely join the post-lunch fika. Coffee makes my brains shake, so I figured I would compromise with tea. I’m English not Italian, I can get away with that.
In my experience, tea comes in a teabag — but there were no tea bags, only a set of apothecary’s jars with loose leaves rustling around inside them. So I tipped some leaves into my mug and poured in the water. Hold on a minute. That doesn’t look right, why won’t it blend together? Apparently loose tea is not like a milkshake, you can’t just mix it in…
Truth is, I don’t drink tea either.
If I am deported, I may be unwelcome in England too.
One recent morning I passed a newly-erected whiteboard on which a diligent member of the HR alliance had created an org chart. Three levels of seniority, from top down: overall boss, then managers, then team.
An hour later I passed the same whiteboard and it seemed that a revolution was underway. The main body of the team now captained the ship, the managers were in the lower-middle, and the overall boss was now the underall boss — moved right to the bottom. The org chart had been turned upside-down.
A passing revolutionary explained: “The boss’s role is to support and enable the team. The team does most of the work. The boss can guide them in what to do, but the team chooses how they do it, because they know a lot more than the boss does about most topics.“
I just googled ‘Swedish revolution’. The top result is ‘a Christian Dance/Dubstep/Worship album’ on Soundcloud. So Google could not help. And Vladimir Ilich turned in his glassy grave.
But this workplace revolution really is happening, even if it has so far escaped the Eye of Silicon Sauron.
Empowering teams, devolving authority, and supporting individual ownership are all common themes here — and not just in a handbook or a fast-forgotten training course, but every day in the real world. The ‘how’ is taken very seriously in Sweden. About 70% of discussions are on what to do; the other 30% are on how best to work together to do it.
At first I was surprised. There has not been a revolution in England for almost 400 years.
But this collectively conscious way of working is a huge improvement on the traditional top-down approach, and it suits me very well.
Assuming that I am not first against the wall, I shall report back soon. Viva la revolución!
The slip-slippery ice coating every pavement in Stockholm creates a genuine hazard. If this were the UK, the council’s Health & Safety jobsworths would be working dangerously long hours, setting up Take Extra Care signs to warn innocent citizens of the perils beyond the doorstep — and, of course, to offset any claim by a litigious local that his bruised behind was the sole and sacred responsibility of the nearest authority figure.
In Stockholm these signs are either entirely absent, or have been swallowed whole by the relentless ice. Maybe Swedes trample them unwittingly, and the signs stare mournfully upward from an frozen tomb.
Ice presents a challenge for the inexperienced foreigner. Expats must navigate the city with chameleon eyes swivelling in opposite directions, wary of a double danger: not only the slippery surface underfoot, but also the sprightly legion of sure-footed Swedes who gambol across the ice with little regard for their less able cousins.
Just yesterday, one sprinted past me on the footway near our apartment. She was a vision in a dream, walking on frozen water: feet floating, arms swinging, hair fluttering gamely beneath a bright-pink hat, long legs whirring in easy locomotion. She even hummed a few bars as she swept through the gap between me and the lamppost I was about to grasp for support.
I wonder what she thought of me as she passed? Perhaps she felt sympathy, a youngish man turned frail geriatric, in whose every step you see hear the future echoes of the melancholy phrase: “He’s had a fall”. Maybe she appreciated my Bambi On Ice audition.
Thankfully for the nervy expat, it is easy to spot the tormentor’s approach. The playful, ice-loving Swede will invariably be sporting items from a very singular branch of the fashion family tree: Activewear.
Not since my brief but colourful stint as a rower (two outings, three nights out) have I seen so many grown men in lycra. The present trend for 80s retro seems to have sprung from the tightly-girdled loins of the Activewear Alliance, as neon shapes, slickly ironic patterns and baggy-top/tight-bottom combos are the sign and signal of a confident ice-runner. They can recognise one another with vibrant speed, and no doubt at a great distance. Perhaps their retinas respond faster than ordinary humans’ to electric blues and acid greens. When they mate, what new colours are born?
I certainly cannot beat them, so last week I decided to join them. I found a pair of yak tracks — detachable shoe spikes — and carefully affixed them to my sturdiest boots. I tramped happily to work. But my colleagues laughed: yak tracks are for old men. This is the wrong kind of Activewear. I slipped off my spikes, and slid away.
Right-wing thugs are raising hell in the Garden of Tolerant Eden
A gang of up to a hundred black-clad masked men marched in central Stockholm on Friday evening, singling out and beating up immigrants, and handing out leaflets threatening further violent attacks against unaccompanied refugee youths
Sweden, the snow-kissed paradise of the north, appears to have swallowed something rather nasty. A primal stench has escaped the bowels of the capital city as pseudo-Viking savages ran riot and swung at any immigrant within clubbing distance.
‘Immigrant’, in the eyes of the savages (and apparently in the pages of the local press), means specifically ‘non-white immigrant’. Luckily for us, my fair-faced wife and daughter could pass for pure-bred children of the snow, and a gradual graying underlines my pallid pinkness.
But for a newly-landed colleague, with Creole parentage and what a savage might see as a suspicious skin tone, this feels far from the paradise in the guidebook. At an anti-immigrant march the previous weekend, he saw first-hand a Viking vs. Policeman wrestling match. This sounds like a fight at a Village People concert but on camera (he was close enough to film it), it looked rather grim. Thankfully it was only a few seconds before The Policeman pinned his opponent to the ground. The Viking seemed resigned to his fate. He had forgotten his horned helmet and axe, and went to Valhalla with minimal fuss.
The most obvious trigger for the pseudo-Viking outbreak was the murder of a Swedish social worker at a refugee centre. The hooligans’ leaflets proclaimed that they were rampaging to protect “våra svenska kvinnor” (“our Swedish women”. A rampage of honour. History’s first chivalrous rampage?
Many Swedish women were unimpressed. Nevertheless, refugee youths have been warned to stay indoors. For some reason this advice has not been extended to those who might resemble immigrants in the eyes of a thuggish Rightist. Perhaps a little thuggery sharpens the eyesight, like eating carrots. If you ever see a Rightist with an orange tinge, steer clear — he is doubly dangerous.
This is not the Sweden of the guidebook. But every country is a refuge for idiots. With luck the nascent Sun will scare them back into their caves.