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Category: Immigration

Welcome to Sweden

A couple Tuesdays ago, I visited Skatteverket (the Swedish tax office) to apply for my personnummer.

The personnummer is the Swedish equivalent of an American Social Security number. In Sweden, you kind of need this number to do anything outside of just breathing. Not having a personnummer excludes you from anything “official” like opening a bank account or signing up for a monthly cell phone plan.

Sure, you could use cash for everything, which I have long been in the habit of doing, but it really feels nice to be official.

The main walk-in Skatteverket office in Stockholm is almost directly across the street from Centralstation. It’s almost like you can take the train into Stockholm, then just walk across the street and sign up to be Swedish (or at least sign up to pay Swedish taxes).

Inside the building, the first floor is an open space with long cushioned benches and chairs in rows on one side, and a long row of divided countertop stations on the other side. A large digital panel displays a set of “now serving” numbers.

Swedes simply love the “now serving” numbers. Anywhere there’s a line of people waiting for service, there’s almost always a “take a number” machine. Okay, not in bars and restaurants, but organized places like pharmacies, train stations, and banks. They all have ’em.

Despite the green lushness of the cover photo above, taken just three weeks ago, the first snow of the season came last week.

The Skatteverket office is reminiscent of a motor vehicle license branch in the United States, well, except that it’s clean, well-lit, relatively comfortable, and nobody’s screaming or making a scene. Get this: the people working there will answer your questions in a friendly tone of voice without treating you like an idiot for not knowing something.

No sooner did I walk in the door than I was greeted by a young woman wearing a yellow sash that read “fråga mig!” (“ask me!”). I told her that I was there to apply for my personnummer, she handed me the two-page form (all printed in English), a pen, a queue number, and asked me to find her when I was finished filling out as much as I could. It was that easy.

Every greeter wearing the “fråga mig!” sash was equipped with an iPod Touch which wirelessly tracked the visitors’ requests and added them to the queue. I’m not making this up. I seriously wondered to myself if the place could be any more organized or efficient. It was borderline ridiculous how friendly and coordinated everything was.

After completing the form and reconsulting with her, it was about 15 or 20 minutes until my number, B402, appeared on the board.

The waiting area was populated with people, it seemed, from all over the world. There was every diverse brand of human imaginable. Every continent seemed to be represented except maybe Antarctica.

When my queue number appeared, I was directed to desk 13. There, a gentleman reviewed my forms, Xeroxed my passport and residence permit, had me sign on the line, and within minutes, told me, “You’ll get your personnummer in the mail in three to four weeks, then bring it back here and you can register for the social insurance program.” (Americans know this program by it’s political nickname “European-style, socialist health care.” My American friend Ty, who also recently emigrated to Sweden, knows it by the name “The first time I’ve ever had health insurance in my life.”)

When the papers were shuffled and stapled, I asked the man at the desk, “Is that it?” He responded, “Yes, that’s all,” and he declared, “Welcome to Sweden.” My stomach almost dropped and I answered, “It’s good to be here.”

In a testament to Sweden’s legendary efficiency, my personnummer arrived in the mail in a decidedly un-government-looking Skatteverket envelope less than a week later. In contrast, I ordered a copy of a form from the City of Louisville government about five weeks ago and it still hasn’t arrived at my Kentucky office (aka my parents’ mailbox).

I returned to Skatteverket the following week, with personnummer in tow, to register for the insurance system. That experience was equally painless and expedient, and I was assisted every step of the way by people who seemed like they were happy to help. I could write all day about how doing such things in America would be an all-day, totally inconvenient pain in the ass, but I’m sure anyone who reads my writing regularly could predict every word of it.

This week, I registered for Swedish language classes with the national school SFI (basically Swedish For Immigrants). These classes are run by the government, paid for with tax money, and free for immigrants. I can attend four hours per day of classes up to five days a week.

In fact, there are cash bonuses for completing certain levels of the courses within a designated amount of time. I have already begun learning Swedish – last year i paid for six weeks of classes – and I planned to continue learning, but now I can earn some extra cash while doing it. This place just keeps getting better.

At the SFI office, I took a long test and spoke Swedish with an interviewer in order to be placed in the appropriate level. The four-part exam consisted of reading, listening, speaking and writing. I scored perfectly on reading, very well on listening, not so great on speaking, and okay on writing. Hopefully all that will begin to noticeably improve when I start classes on November 1st.

Learning more of the Swedish language is a fantastic and priceless opportunity that will pay for itself every time I speak with someone. And the money they give me as a bonus for doing it will all be reinvested here in Stockholm. In fact, I think I can safely promise to speak Swedish to every cashier who accepts this money when I spend it around town.

The Immigrant

A lot of what makes for good writing is having the time to write.

After spending most of 2009 in Sweden, I’ve been back in America since December. Since being Stateside, I’ve realized that I just haven’t had the time or inspiration to write as much or as often as when I was in Sweden. Certainly, those who follow my articles on this site have noticed the same thing.

Frankly, it’s hard to write about life in Sweden when you’re not in Sweden.

The long road back

In January, I applied for a Swedish residence permit, a process that can take many months – after you finally complete the stack of paperwork and apply – to get an answer.

Legal residency has many of the benefits of citizenship, but is a softer, less permanent version of it. For many immigrants, residency is the first step toward becoming a Swedish Citizen. But for me, I am simply an American citizen who would like to live in Sweden on a longterm basis.

While I have been going through the residence application process this year, I considered writing periodic updates about my progress, but honestly, every time I attempted to sit down and share it, the experience was too nerve-wracking to put into words.

Typically, I prefer to write about things I know about, things I can research, or things I think may be of interest to readers. Applying for Swedish residency, while it was a unique, titlating and potentially life-changing experience, it is largely one in which the main character is in the dark about what’s happening in the story. The entire process is your classic “don’t call us, we’ll call you” experience.

Now that my application has been fully processed, I can more comfortably spill the beans about the whole adventure. Grab a snack.

Residence permit process

To become a legal resident of Sweden, one must apply at the Swedish Embassy in their home country. My home country is God’s Great United States of America (you may know us as “the bad cop”) and our Swedish Embassy is in our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC.

As you can imagine, the paperwork one must fill out is quite comprehensive. Obviously, like any country, the Swedes don’t want a bunch of unsavory characters moving into their country.

As much as any country wants to be hospitable and diverse (Sweden has welcomed more Iraqi refugees than any other nation), they also want to maintain a comfortable environment for the native population. The goals of ensuring economic vitality and security for the country are always primary.

To that end, the Swedish immigration authority, Migrationsverket, wants to know everything about you when you apply: who you are, where you come from, who is related to you, who loves you in Sweden, who is related to them, how many times you’ve been to the country, why you visited, how you’ll support yourself, how much money you have, where you will live, if you really think you can live without Mexican food or high-quality peanut butter, and detailed explanations of why you would possibly want to live in complete darkness for five months out of the year… especially if your home country is open 24 hours, you can take your gun to church, and the place is so plentiful, well, the oceans are practically filled with oil.

Louisville: featuring buildings by Michael Graves (the pink tower on the right that looks like a cash register) and the last structure ever designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the short, 6-story black box at the front and center).

Despite the careful and meticulous nature of this process, from what I’ve heard, it is downright friendly in comparison to that of legally immigrating to the United States. I’ve read horror stories of families being split up in America due to immigration problems or as a result of painstaking investigations.

In my case, throughout the whole process, I felt like the Swedish officials I dealt with were on my side. Whereas US Immigration agents often seem to be portrayed as adversarial – even going to some lengths to “trick” applicants – it seemed the Swedes were there every step of the way doing everything they could to help me succeed.

I didn’t have to sing the Swedish national anthem. I was never forced to eat a jar of lingonberries or smell any pickled herring. I was never asked a single question about Olof Palme, that creep from True Blood, or Agnetha Fältskog. There were no games, no memorization, and no history tests.

Hurry up and wait

After submitting my documents to the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC, in January, there was a silent period. This quiet zone can last several months and there’s no way to know how long it will be. For me, it turned out to be two and a half months.

Not knowing what was happening – or what was going to happen or when – was rough. I got really restless during this time.

Finally! Someone to pray for me. I mean, who has the time anymore? Now I can just SMS it!

At first, it was awesome to be camped out in America without a proper job or responsibilities, but after a while, the novelty of temporarily living in Louisville again began to wear off. I was beginning to gain back the weight I had lost last year in Sweden (did I mention the food in America is amazing?) and I was realizing that living without a plan can be as unsettling as it is freeing.

Waiting around to find out what’s going to happen with your own life ain’t easy. It prohibits you from making longterm plans, from seeking regular work, from building relationships, from buying a car, from entering into anything like an apartment lease or an annual cell phone plan.

Essentially, nobody wants to make an investment in someone who is possibly leaving in a few months. It’s hard to just wait and see what’s going to happen.

Luckily, I have some amazing friends who made this entire period a lot easier for me. I never would have made it through with my sanity in check without them.

We’d like to meet you

In late March, I finally received notice that I was being called in for my immigration interview. Heja Sverige! At last, something was happening! Now I just had to set up an appointment with the Swedish Consulate for my interview.

There are more than thirty offices of the Consulate General of Sweden in the United States. The offices are located in places as cold as Alaska and as warm as the Virgin Islands; as expected as New York City and as surprising as Raleigh, North Carolina. The closest one to my hometown of Louisville is the office in Chicago, just four and a half hours away by car. I picked that one. My interview was scheduled for early April.

A secret patch of Swedish soil

The Swedish Consulate’s office is a nondescript space of no more than six small rooms on the nineteenth floor of a downtown Chicago office tower. To enter, you walk in through one of those electronic glass doors that is always locked unless an important person activates it for you from the other side. (Further proof that all Swedish people are vampires: they have to invite you in.)

Outside the Consulate's office, post-interview in Chicago

The tiny lobby is lit by fluorescent tubes and decorated with framed portraits of the King and Queen. A coffee table is stacked with magazines and books about Swedish life (all beautifully photographed and designed, of course). Seating is provided for four or five guests and a doctor’s office-style sliding glass window is on one wall, through which reception is offered and forms are passed.

I really wanted to take some pictures of the space for the purposes of sharing them here – if I ever actually got around to writing this article – but more importantly, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my chances of making a good impression. Hence no photos of the inside of the office.

I was told that the Swedish Consulate’s office is technically Swedish soil, so it felt reassuring to be back. (I’ve also been told that whenever a Van Halen song is playing, you’re technically in America, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.) The inside of the office actually did feel notably more Swedish than Andersonville, Chicago’s Swedish neighborhood.

And coincidentally, within the same few blocks of the consulate’s Michigan Avenue office, South Africa, Spain, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Japan, Italy, Pakistan, Ireland, Turkey, France, El Salvador, Switzerland and several other countries also have consulships. It’s like a bureaucratic EPCOT Center.

Interviews are my specialty

I love the idea of interviews. 60 Minutes is my favorite TV show. I always think the best magazine articles are the ones in which the writers simply coerce the subjects into telling their own stories. Vanity Fair comes to mind. I have even published thirteen editions of my own magazine called K Composite that is comprised almost entirely of interviews of my friends.

Watching SVT's live Internet feed of the Swedish Royal Wedding in Kentucky by hooking the Mac up to the TV.

What I kind of don’t love about interviews is being on the receiving end when I’m trying to get something. Job interviews are probably one of the things that make me feel the most uneasy.

For some reason, when I have run for political office in the past, being interviewed on television or for the newspaper barely fazed me at all. It was exciting and invigorating, and the same goes for being interviewed for my music.

Once the interview becomes one in which my performance will be subject to approval – one in which there is an invisible, unknown line between acceptable and unacceptable answers – all comfort goes out the window.

So despite my interviewer being very friendly, helpful and accommodating, this interview was anything but relaxing. I have dreamed of living in Sweden since the first time I visited more than ten years ago. Now I have awesome friends and loved ones in Sweden, and my chances to really make it happen have come down to this one interview. Oy vey.

The best advice I could give to anyone reading this, who may also be going through the process, would be to just try to relax. It’s easy to get carried away with the thoughts of how devastated you’ll be if it doesn’t go well, but that should be the farthest thing from your mind. I tried to remember that as I walked in.

In the hot seat

The interview itself is kind of a blur when I think back on it. It took place in a small office with big windows. I was seated beside a desk where a 50-ish Swedish woman was facing both me and her computer. The screen was in my field of view, framed by the backdrop of a foggy downtown Chicago morning and the smaller buildings outside the window.

After a brief introduction, she opened a blank Word document and began the interview. The Q-and-A was conducted in English and while I spoke, she converted everything I said into a narrative story in Swedish. I understood almost all of what she typed. It lasted about 30 minutes. Maybe less. When we were finished, she asked me to sign a form, and I was on my way.

On a couple of occasions during my visit to the office – when I expressed thanks, greetings or farewells – I spoke Swedish to her and the other people I encountered in the office. They always answered me in English. I knew it! The Swedes really are trying to keep Swedish to themselves!

Ombord!

Metric of course. Those are mid-70's at night at mid-90's during the day. The humidity is a different story.

In mid-May, about a month after my interview, I received word that my application for Swedish residency had been approved. Helt otroligt! Weeks later, when I received my US passport in the mail with my Swedish residence permit affixed into it, I honestly could not stop looking at it. It remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Naturally, it’s my prized possession.

When I arrive back in Stockholm in a couple weeks, I’ll apply for my personnummer and settle into life in Sweden. Just in time for the cold, dark winter.

I’ve been told that no one ever moved to Sweden for the weather or the food. I believe that (though Louisville’s weather this summer hasn’t especially been ideal). However, there are plenty of other reasons to go.

This ain’t a reality show or a diary, so I won’t bore you with the fascinating, sexy details of my personal life. Suffice it to say that I’ll miss a lot of amazing people in America and a lot of great food, but I’m immensely excited about being surrounded by Sweden and within arm’s reach of the people and places I love there.

Tack så jätte mycket to everyone who helped me start this new chapter in my life. It is with great humility and honor that I accept this opportunity to be fake-Swedish.

Now somebody give me a job!

Alternate Reality Check

Is this thing on? Can you hear me? Testing, testing…

Today’s report is being broadcast to you all the way from Kentucky, in the heart of God’s Great United States.

After finishing up a European tour with my band Metroschifter last month, I returned to my hometown of Louisville. A medium-sized city of just under a million people – bigger than Göteborg and smaller than Stockholm – Louisville is the 16th or 27th largest metro area in America, depending on who you ask.

It hasn’t been entirely unpleasant to be back in America. I totally love seeing my friends and family again.

As I’ve said before, no wonder everyone in America is fat, the food is amazing. After many months in Sweden, I had quickly forgotten that in other places of the world it is actually quite affordable to just eat and drink all day long. Gaining back the weight I lost in Sweden could prove to be an effortless endeavor. Oops, I did it again.

My brother at Impellizzeri’s in Louisville

If it’s wrong to only eat burritos, deep dish pizza, Kentucky bourbon, microbrews and espresso, then maybe, for now, I don’t want to be right.

The nearest Ikea and H&M are about 90 minutes away by car, but Louisville has more amazing Mexican food in just a few blocks than the whole of Sweden does. Louisville’s bars are open until 4:00 in the morning. The liquor stores are the polar opposite of Systembolaget and are open nearly as late as the bars.

As the capital of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, with bars offering one-dollar beers and $1.50 mixed drinks, and the CityScoot service that will drive you home in your own car if you drink too much, Louisville is a city that essentially dares you not to become an alcoholic.

Compared to Stockholm, everything here is half price. Maybe it’s even less.

They couldn’t just put up one sign that
says “All Yoplait yogurt 59¢”

Nothing is subtle in America. Everything is in your face. People are shouting as their normal tone of voice. The music from headphones, car stereos and your neighbors can be heard far outside the reasonable realm of what could pass as personal entertainment. Everything is extreme and awesome and retarded and made of flashing lights. Religion is actually a topic that people think is a good idea to bring up.

This place is loud in every possible meaning of the word.

As soon as you get off the plane in Boston (or Chicago or Atlanta or wherever), you immediately notice that the people are sloppy. Clothes are draped over these people like bibs and tarps. Sure, the Snuggie commercials are funny, but you wouldn’t see them on television unless there were actually millions of people who were lazy, messy and resigned enough to buy them. A blanket with sleeves is designed only for people who refuse to get out from under the covers, even when nature demands that they use their arms or legs.

Just the size of the people in America is absurd. They’re wearing sweatpants and sports shoes but it’s obvious that these garments – designed for exercising – are not serving their intended purposes.

Americans look tired and agitated.

Air travel is not pleasant to begin with, but I don’t think that’s the culprit. People in European airports don’t look like this. After almost a year away from the United States, my first impression upon seeing a crowd of Americans was that they all looked exhausted. As a group, this first batch of Americans in the Boston airport looked like they barely had the energy to give a shit about anything.

Why would anyone care? The planes were late, the food was expensive, the kids were misbehaving, the lines were unreasonable, the security checks and announcements were the demeaning equivalent of a cattle drive, the fake executive asshole with the earpiece was talking way too loudly about business meetings and golf. Unrewarding.

Chicago’s charming Logan Square subway station

When I finally made it to the public transit system in Chicago – nearly half a day later than scheduled and without my luggage – that place had a the charm of a prison train. At one point I stood up and faked like I was stretching, just to make sure I wasn’t actually chained to the seat.

Stockholm’s transit system can spoil its riders pretty quickly. I got used to it right away and fell into its comfort and convenience. Like everything in Sweden, from taxes to transit, it’s expensive, but you really get what you pay for.

La Bamba Restaurant: “Burritos As Big As Your Head”

Outside the airport on the city streets, people are exercising everywhere, presumably running away from the food they eat. It’s an endless tug of war in which the food supply is so packed with artificial sweeteners, preservatives and genetically-modified ingredients that you basically have to exercise in order to not become obese.

Every wall and surface is plastered with signs, advertisements and businesses that are designed to appeal to a fourth grader’s mentality. “You deserve the best.” “Go ahead, have another!” “America is number one and nobody is gonna take that away.” “Whatever. It’ll grow back.” I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

There is no self-awareness in graphic design. Professionally-produced signs are littered with spelling and grammatical errors. The fonts in widespread usage betray the fact that there is often no delineation between graphic design and desktop publishing. Any jackass with Microsoft Word can make a sign. It’s great that everyone can make their own signs, but it’s a shame that everyone does. Comic Sans isn’t even the worst offense.

“Y’all got any Tide? Well where the hell is it?”

Ikea has made the Swedish word “lagom” famous, but the concept of “just the right amount” is a hard sell here. Explaining the word “lagom” to Americans takes five minutes because there’s simply no equivalent – not just in the language, but in the national psyche.

How can I say this delicately and believably? I love America, I really do. But seeing her again is like running into an old ex-girlfriend who has gained 100 pounds, a drug problem and a mountain of debt. Her beautiful eyes are still the same color, but they’ve lost that sparkle that made them special. You’ll always remember her as an important part of your life, but trying to help save her might take more energy than you could possibly muster.

When I first considered going to Sweden longterm, it was partially as a result of that feeling. After an exhausting fight to become a candidate to represent my neigborhood in the Kentucky Senate, I had a realization. I could stay in America and fight for the rest of my life toward noble goals – goals that lobbying groups and corporations have long since claimed as unattainable – or I could just move somewhere where everything is already fixed.

I understand that there are many Swedes (and Americans) who will read this and disagree with that characterization, or write off this entire article as exaggeration. But honestly, after about a year on the ground in Sweden, it seems at this point, the things being argued about in Swedish politics amount to fine tuning.

When the populace has elected someone from a political party whose sole objective is to protect privacy rights and repeal patent and copyright laws, well, things must be going pretty well.

Comparatively, the problems in the United States are insurmountable. The number of people in Sweden without homes, jobs, sufficient health care or the ability to read is negligible. In America, these problems claim millions of victims.

It was no easy decision to opt out of Louisville and America, even if my absence was to be brief or temporary. The people in Kentucky and the rest of the country desperately need fighters who care about the individuals and disregard the bidding of special interests. Leading up to the election in 2008, I tried to give that fight as much as I had in me. In the end, though, I don’t want to fight.

Louisville protesters demonstrating against a
construction site that has blocked the sidewalk. Pedestrians
and cyclists seem to be an afterthought in the streetscape.

I can’t kill myself for the sake of objectives that are taller than all of us. Maybe Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were the kinds of guys who could do that, but at least for right now, I’m not that guy.

And to be clear, Sweden is not the cure for the common cold (though the country’s health care system has been pretty effective in eliminating all manner of other medical nonsense that Americans still receive outrageous bills for). To be honest, if I wasn’t entirely happy in America, being in Sweden instead can only do so much to affect that.

Being in America again has been fun, but I’m anxious to get back to Sweden. To that end, my application for the appropriate residence permit is finally being filed this week at the Swedish Embassy in Washington.

At first glance, this sign for training classes
appears to charge people for emergency help.

The application process toward Swedish residency is much faster if one has a written job offer from a Swedish company.

So if you’re a business person reading this, I would be delighted to work for your company in Sweden doing graphic design, web design, English writing or editing (see some samples of my work) … hell, I’m also available for toilet cleaning, umbrella repair, VCR clock setting, picnic planning, bartending. Really, whatever I can possibly do that any Swedish company may need somebody to do.

I basically have no worldly belongings, no expensive apartment on Kungsholmen, no fancy clothes or monthly bills. I would be very happy to work for less money than you’d have to pay a career professional.

My hope is to be back in Sweden as soon as humanly possible to continue writing on this site from the ground in Stockholm. Until that time, I will continue to publish new stories with regular frequency from wherever I am. My online bloggery will continue.

Secret Code: Are Swedes trying to keep Swedish to themselves?

As I’ve mentioned many times, most Swedish people speak perfect English and they love doing it.

It’s the opposite of French people. The French can speak English with you but they don’t want to. The Swedes only want to speak English with you.

As soon as you say “hej” (hello) or “jag heter…” (my name is…) with the slightest bit of an accent, they get this surprised look on their faces and switch to English. “Oh, hello! Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”

It’s as if they’re saying to you, “Please don’t bother butchering our beloved Swedish any further. I can handle this.”

On the off chance that one could actually use any of the Swedish they know, the Swedes are exceptionally particular about pronunciation and intonation. I know this not only from my own experiences, but also from other international people here who I have heard discussing the same experiences.

“It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it.” That’s as true as it gets here.

Every language has its own accented attributes that one must learn along with syllable stressing and sentence structures. Even when someone’s pronunciation is perfect, these subtleties are the things that reveal a non-native speaker.

Doing karaoke to a song you’ve never heard

Swedish is not as easy as German where every letter makes a sound and you can be understood even if your emphasis or pronunciation is a little off. With Swedish, there’s an overriding, flowing rhythm of accentuation to the language. It’s like there’s a song that everything you say should be sung to.

In Swedish, everyday conversation is a gorgeous, dynamic production.

I’m not the first person to equate the Swedish language with singing. Even the stereotypical Swedes known by Americans in popular culture sing when they talk. The Swedish Chef character on The Muppet Show never stops singing and even has music playing when he’s talking.

In the movie Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis hilariously disguises herself as a “Swede” and sings her lines, including the unforgettable “I am Inga from Sweden.”

Until you know the song of the language and can really sing it, it’s almost pointless to embarrass yourself by trying.

It’s like doing karaoke to a song you don’t really know with Simon Cowell sitting right in front of you.

There might be some connection here that would explain why Swedes deliver the goods during actual karaoke and why the country can claim a disproportionately high number of musicians with gold records hanging in their studios. Singing might be in their blood as well as in their language.

A British bloke I know here named Simon (not Simon Cowell) put it this way, “This is what I hate about Swedish people: They’re so bloody good at everything!” …and they’re modest and insecure about all of it.

They speak perfect English but apologize for it not being good. They are beautiful but afraid to look at you. They’re educated and funny but apprehensive about talking out of turn. They sing drunk karaoke in a bar and it sounds exactly like the CD. How embarrassing.

The Reveal

The complications arise when someone who wasn’t born speaking Swedish tries to join in with the language. Swedish people act like they have no idea what you’re talking about if you’re just barely off on the intonation.

It would be like if someone said “LOO-see-ana” or “Loo-WEE-zee-anna” instead of Loo-WEE-see-ana” – of course an English-speaking person would still know they’re talking about Louisiana. Or if, instead of the hard, short way of saying “can’t” someone said it long and soft, as a British person might, “I caahn’t.”

English-speaking people understand when a Canadian pronounces “out” more like “oat” or when someone from India says “very” in a way that excuses the R sound. Some people say “Nevada” so it rhymes with “sad”, but for others it rhymes with “sod.” Nobody misses a beat because of it. We just go with the flow.

Swedes aren’t so permissive with Swedish. For some reason, Swedes are truly lost when a non-native speaker’s speech includes variations like these. I know they know what us feeble foreigners are trying to say, but I think they have some sort of secret national game going on. They’re laughing at us as soon as they’re alone.

Of course, I can’t really show you in print, but suffice it to say that what follows is not a situation isolated only to me or a handful of instances. The foreign person is in italics.

I finally tried some knäckebröd yesterday.
– You tried what?
Knäckebröd.
– I’m sorry…?
Knäkebröd… That really thin, hard, Swedish bread.
– Hmmm… I don’t think I know what that is.
Knäckebröd? Of course you know what knäckebröd is.
– Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying.
Knäckebröd? Knäääckebröd? KNĄCK-e-BR֖D. Kuh-näck-e-BR֖D? Thin, crispy bread. Knäckebröd!
– Oh! You mean Knäckebröd! Oh yeah. I’ve worked in the Wasa Knäckebröd factory for six years.

Notice in this conversation how the Swedish person makes knäckebröd for a living, but the non-native speaker had to repeat the name of it one million times before it was recognized, even resorting to all variations of stress and intonation.

After conversations like this happened to me a few dozen times, with all manner of words, I began to believe I was losing my mind. “Are these people serious? I can’t hear the difference.”

I cannot express the level of relief I felt upon hearing it happen to other people. I don’t wish anyone else to feel insane, but I also don’t want to be alone. What I also cannot express is how fascinating it is to see it happening to someone else. It goes like this:

The British person (or Canadian or German or Italian) is talking to the Swede about something. During the conversation, the name of a Swedish place or thing comes up. Everyone around who is not Swedish knows exactly what the person is talking about, but the Swede has absolutely no clue, and needs to have the word repeated. This goes on for a minute before every other foreigner standing around joins in, repeating the word. The Swede finally gets it and says “Oh, you mean Kungsholmen!” saying it exactly the same way as everyone else did.

The Game Theory

While this phenomenon could easily be explained by saying that Swedes are more intimately familiar with their language and they can hear tiny nuances that non-native speakers are unaware of, personally, I’m totally convinced that’s not the case. I’m convinced that it is all a game the Swedes are playing to weed out the people who aren’t going to put in the serious time to learn Swedish.

I truly believe Swedes understand us the first time – or maybe the second – but they’re just trying to wear us down.

Well, it’s not gonna work on me, Sweden. I’m in this for the long haul.

Two Other Possibilities

Regardless of whether that theory is true, I’m starting to believe that one or two other things might be true.

1. The Swedish language is not as beloved by the younger generations as it is by the elders. The incidents of Swenglish – a hybrid of Swedish and English – are inescapable, as are the occurrences of English words in otherwise Swedish conversations. These moments are especially common among young people.

I’m fascinated by the English terms I always overhear in Swedish conversations – “whatever,” “Oh my God,” “fuck it,” “who cares?” Do these ideas of exasperation and dismissiveness not exist in Swedish?

I think it’s very possible that within a handful of generations, Swedish could become a minority language in Sweden. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this happen in Stockholm during many of our lifetimes. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but just barely.

Periodically, I go to an international meet-up group for ex-patriates living in Stockholm. I understand much more Swedish than some of the characters I’ve met who have been in the country two years or more.

I guess the more amazing part of this phenomenon is not that some people have lived in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish, it’s that people can live in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish.

In order to do business, make friends, purchase goods and services, or order food in restaurants, especially in Stockholm, knowing how to speak Swedish largely isn’t necessary. Nonetheless, I am determined to continue doing it.

There are many notable efforts afoot to celebrate, explore and preserve the Swedish language. I’ve heard a funny and entertaing radio series called Språket (“The Language”) that answers listeners’ questions about Swedish, and there is a very cool and beautifully laid-out magazine called Språk (“Language”) that addresses similar topics in equally entertaining depth.

I recently caught a television show with my roommate Erik where the well-known Swedish comedian/writer/actor Fredrik Lindström travels the country, learning about dialects and regional colloquialisms. His program Svenska Dialektmysterier (“Swedish Dialect Mysteries”) is an 8-episode series from 2006. It followed on the heels of his previous series about the Swedish language called Värsta Språket (“The Worst Language”) which ran for two full seasons in 2002 and 2003.

This enthusiasm about preserving the language and the efforts to do so in such expensive ways (magazines, radio broadcasts and television documentaries) lead me to believe that there is a need to do such a thing. However, it’s also interesting to me that all of these explorations and celebrations of the Swedish language are done in a way that is either sarcastic, comical or tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike most elephants in the room, the Swedish language is one that everyone is talking about.

That idea and my everyday experiences, however, bring me to a second possible conclusion:

2. The Swedes might be language protectionists. They want to learn perfect English so they can communicate with the world and export their musicians, actors, culture, cars, furniture, clothes, et al, but they also want to keep Swedish alive. The Swedish language is like a secret club and they want to keep the ability to speak Swedish all to themselves.

At some point in the mid-20th Century it must have become very clear that a nation of fewer people than New York City would ultimately be isolated if those people spoke a language only they understood. The opprtunities these people would have would be limited and therefore so would the economic potential of the country as a whole.

The Bilingual Nation

English was introduced as the primary foreign language in Sweden’s national school system in 1941.

In 1974, G.M. Anderman wrote in Oxford’s English Language Teaching Journal “in recent years, Sweden has embarked on an ambitious programme of educational reform, the ultimate aim of which is to create a nation bilingual in English and Swedish.”

For many decades, Swedish kids have started learning English in their first year of school, and even earlier than that if they watch television or listen to music at home.

Anderman would be delighted to know, 35 years after he wrote about the program, that the results are in and it worked brilliantly.

It’s the Neurons, Stupid

The earliest years of human life are when languages are best learned. Even though I went to private schools in America, my first experience with learning a foreign language didn’t come until I was 14. That’s just too late to start if you want a new language to be absorbed without a fight.

Back in the 80’s, we were only given three options: Spanish, German and French. I remember that all the girls took French, all the jocks took Spanish, and all the outcasts and alternative kids took German. I was in the latter group. German proved to be a good foundation for eventually learning Swedish, but not much help in communicating with America’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

The language offerings have been greatly expanded since then, especially in private schools. Just a few years after I graduated from high school, kids at the same school I attended were beginning to learn Chinese, Russian and Japanese.

Similar to my undertaking of learning Swedish as an adult (yes, I finally admit it, I’m an adult now) my Swedish friend Jenny (who I mentioned before speaks perfect “American”) has recently begun learning French. She is facing some of the same challenges.

Steve Martin said on one of his classic comedy albums, “In French, oeuf means egg. Cheese is fromage. It’s like these French have a different word for everything.” It’s true. They really do. Swenglish is probably a lot bigger than Frenglish.

Jenny grew up in a household where English was always around. She told me she felt like she never had to make an effort to learn English. It just developed in her mind with essentially the same ease as Swedish.

That’s the way to learn. When your brain is learning for the first time what things are called and how sentences are formed. After all those neurons have naturally been connected in your head, it’s an uphill battle to assemble an alternative set up there.

A Different Word for Everything 

I can’t say for sure if the Swedes wish to keep the Swedish language all to themselves or if they are the only ones genetically disposed to use it properly, but I can say that I’m pretty sure French is not a real language. I mean, it doesn’t even sound like talking to me.

It’s perfectly fine with me if the Swedes want to protect the Secret Code. It’s their right as its owners. I just wish they’d let me know. Otherwise, I’ll just be disappointed in myself if I’m still speaking English with them after a couple years.

Inescapable Freedom

Sometimes I feel like a lot of the material I write for this website is the same. It goes something like this:

“Sweden is clean, quiet, beautiful and the people here have it all figured out. Americans are babies who hate the government and don’t want to pay taxes, but want everything provided for them.”

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea or think that I’m bashing America. That is (almost) never my intention. Too many Americans take the “love it or leave it” view.

Surprisingly, it actually is possible to do both: to love it and leave it.

Nonetheless, I could possibly write for days, just listing the things that most Americans don’t realize are happening in the foggy world outside the borders of the United States. However, if I did that, there’s always a chance that some hillbilly might inadvertently find this website, call me a freedom hater, re-post the link to my “anti-American” tirades and cause my pageviews to skyrocket. Worse yet, someone might accidentally learn something about the world.

For all the flag-waving and chanting of “we’re number one!” that goes on in the US, truly only a handful of Americans have ever left the country. I hope you’re sitting down, because what follows is an actual, genuine statistic: Only 24% of Americans have a passport.

(I went ahead and included a photo of one here, in case there are some Americans reading this who have never seen one before. It’s pretty nice on the outside, but the inside pages are filled with ridiculous scenes and patriotic quotes that make it look more like a Toby Keith concert shirt than an official government document.)

What’s more surprising than the wildly low number of US citizens who have a passport is the fact that 24% is an all-time high. The annual rate of issuance has tripled since 1996, shooting up dramatically since the beginning of this decade.

Part of the reason for the increase is a set of new regulations which require Americans to have passports when crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders, as well as when traveling to US territories in the Caribbean like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Previously, a driver’s license or some other state-issued ID sufficed for these border checks.

Personally, I would have suspected that more Americans would have passports as a precautionary measure. You never know when you’re gonna need to get outta Dodge. For instance, you can’t wait around for your passport application to be processed after you mastermind a multi-million dollar jewel heist or knock over a casino with ten of your ruggedly good-looking and quick-witted pals. You gotta plan for this kind of stuff.

There are a lot of reasons why Americans don’t have passports, other than the widespread belief that America is the greatest goddamn country in the history of the universe and everybody everywhere else are all a bunch of commie jagoffs who throw rocks at tanks all day.

(“Why the hell would anyone want to leave the heaven of this trailer park? I seent all them homos on the TV, talkin’ all foreign and shit. Fuck them foreigners and cook me up another one of them hot dogs wrapped in a pancake.”)

It’s all true, yankees. Just stay where you are, especially if you were thinking about planning a trip to Europe.

Once you leave America, you’ll find that the rest of the world is a vast, boring wasteland of organic food, renewable energy and book smarts.

For example, the movies in Sweden are all just people talking or sitting there looking at things. No explosions, no car jumps, no Slipknot songs on the soundtrack. Shit, I can’t even remember the last time I saw someone get shot in the face. Believe me, you wouldn’t like it.

You might think the main reason more Americans don’t have passports is because the country is so large. That’s also true. One could actually get in a car and drive for days without leaving the country, exchanging currency or needing to know a different language.

There’s a lot to see in the United States and it can be accessed much more affordably than leaving the country. Think about the differences between Maine and Louisiana, Colorado and New York, Alaska and Arizona, Minnesota and Hawai’i. The diverse landscapes, climates and ways of life that can be visited within the nation’s borders are more than anyone could ever see.

Another factor, sadly, is that more than 13% of Americans live in poverty. That’s 1 in 8. Those 41 million people have more pertinent things to spend their money on than the $100 passport application, not to mention international travel. A lot of people just can’t afford to go anywhere.

Interestingly, more than half of all Canadians had passports before the new regulations. (That’s cuz there ain’t shit to do in Canada, dude!)

Because I am one of the privileged 74 million Americans who holds a copy of this rare, mysterious document called the “US passport,” I have been able to explore a bit of the world outside the land of plenty.

Picture it: I am actually sitting here typing this in a goddamn foreign country.

If I walk over to the window right now, it’s all fuckin’ foreign shit as far as the eye can see. If I go outside the signs are like “Büllshit Whåtevér” and “Who Cäres Nöbody Cän Reäd This Shit” and all the people are like “Borski borski yatta wheet braah borski borski.”

I can report back now to anyone in America who is reading this: everywhere outside of God’s Great United States is hell. Don’t get any ideas. It ain’t worth all the hassle. If you’re in a country like Sweden and you get sick or are hurt in an accident, you may have to wait a little while before they totally take care of everything for free and give you several weeks of paid vacation to recover. Not for me, man. I don’t want any bureaucrats coming between me and my doctor, paying for everything.

So forget about it. I mean, the “Tex-Mex” buffet here serves cold, whole kidney beans, and they put carrots in the rice. Really. Bunch of f’n weirdos over here. Best y’alls just go to Pigeon Forge for vacation.

But don’t take my word for it. Make up your own mind. I mean, you can easily see in these randomly* selected photos that life in America is way better.

(*=photos not selected randomly)

Hervé Villechaize Language School

I heard a story a long time ago about Hervé Villechaize. He was the actor who played the character Tattoo on the television series Fantasy Island and was famous for his line, “The plane! The plane!” in the opening sequence. He also appeared in a number of films including The Man With the Golden Gun, seen here.

Even though this particular story about him found me fifteen years ago or more, it has been stuck in my mind ever since. Remembering his story became part of the inspiration for me in selling or giving away everything I owned to look for something else in Sweden. His story was certainly a big part of me believing that I could learn to read, write and speak Swedish on my own.

His journey

Hervé Villechaize was French, born in Paris, and studied to be a fine art painter. As an adult, he grew restless and unsatisfied. He ultimately left everything behind and moved to America in search of new adventures.

Not knowing any English, Villechaize taught himself the language entirely by watching television in New York City.

This may not be the most efficient way to learn a language and it may take many years to do so in this way, but it never left my mind that something like this was possible. A person could, in fact, leave everything behind and not only assimilate into a new language and culture, but do it from scratch, and go on to accomplish great things. In his case, he worked from nothing to become a television and movie star in a country where it is every other kid’s impossible dream to do the same.

As a result of knowing this, I began intensively watching and listening to as much Swedish language programming as I could get my hands on more than a year before deciding to go vagabond. I truly believed that I could do with Swedish what Villechaize did with English. He also simultaneously trained to be an actor, which is something I don’t feel the need to attempt.

The French in New York

I certainly don’t want to discount the hardships or adversities Hervé Villechaize faced, or suggest that he and I are confronted with the same challenges. This is just to recognize that his story was an inspiration for me.

At least as far as the language goes, there are a few differences (some of which we’ve talked about before) that could make this approach more difficult for someone wishing to learn Swedish. It was almost immediately clear to me upon arriving in Sweden that attending an actual language school and studying more seriously would be necessary. This is clear to most people through something called “common sense.”

In New York, practically nobody speaks French, so in order to survive, Villechaize was essentially forced to learn English and use it. That’s not the case with my native language in Stockholm. Truly only a handful of times have I been in a situation where Swedish was absolutely essential.

Also in the 1960’s in New York, every television channel would have been in English. This would have made it incredibly easy for him to sit and watch an endless stream of programming in the language he wanted to learn. Even though I probably have five times the number of channels Villechaize had, I would safely estimate that less than 25% of the programming here is actually in Swedish. I published this fake chart with an earlier story, but I felt it was appropriate to show again due to the topic at hand.

Things in New York are a lot different now than in the sixties, not least because I think they probably have put some safeguards in place to prevent French people from moving there.

Immersion

I’ve tried many times to plop down in front of the tube in Sweden and immerse myself in Swedish for a few hours. This is an ambitious thing to do because outside of news programs, that much continuous Swedish simply isn’t available on television. It’s almost entirely American programming with Swedish subtitles. If you want to watch CSI, Two and a Half Men or Friends, this is the place. DVDs of Swedish movies and television shows are the best way to go.

Of course, English-language entertainment is a huge contributing factor to the level of high-quality English that is spoken here.

Keeping American and other films and programming in their original language, then adding Swedish subtitles, is preferable to the approach that occurs in many other countries. For decades, what has been happening in Germany and France, for example, is that they replace the audio with actors speaking voices in the local language. There is a German actor who is always the voice of Harrison Ford, one who is always Julia Roberts, et cetera.

Not only does the Swedish subtitling method preserve the original aesthetics and rhythm of the film or telecast, it also teaches the audience a new language in a way Hervé Villechaize would fully endorse.

How it ended for Hervé

Villechaize admirably conquered America and the English language despite facing types of opposition I am fortunate enough to not have in front of me. Aside from being only 3′ 11″ tall (119 cm) and constantly struggling with health problems, he also had tough battles with alcoholism and debilitating depression.

Lucky for me, I’m only losing my hair and never satisfied with the quality of the work I do. And lucky for you, as a reader of this chronicle, my depression is generally more amusing than debilitating.

Sadly, one could say that fame and fortune in America were not enough to save Hervé Villechaize from his own demons and afflictions. At age 50, he took his own life at his home in Hollywood, and moved on to the next world. This made it all the more important that he learned to speak English, since Jesus is American.

Hookers and blow

I’ve lived a pretty clean life, you know, no penchant for hookers, drugs, guns, gambling or anything awesome like that. I mean, none that you know about. I’ve pursued comparatively tame stuff like spicy food and the occasional bourbon bender or roller coaster – though I would not recommend mixing any of the three within the same span of hours. Despite all that and being vegetarian forever, for some reason, I never thought I’d live this long. I’m not sure why I always had that feeling. But the days just keep coming and I guess I have to keep filling them up with something.

Therefore, I must apologize if you are growing tired of hearing about Sweden, America, Jerry Lee Lewis, fonts, Louisville history, space shit and whatever actress or artist I may be into at the moment, because I regret to inform you that my incessant analysis of all these things now appears that it will go on forever.

A small side note

On a more personal note, you don’t know how difficult it was for me to write this story in a way that was respectful of Mr. Villechaize, considering how he is usually portrayed and how easy it seems to be for people to mock him.

I wanted to do this politely and graciously and give him proper credit for the influence he has had on my life. It would have been simple to make this story a lot funnier by taking some cheap shots, but I didn’t want to do that.

Too many people who went before me have probably already said every hurtful thing anyone possibly could. I didn’t think that doing the same thing would be fair or courteous to that dirty, drunk little midget. Let’s show some respect for his wee little grave.

Party Crasher!

Awww, Louisville hasn’t forgotten me.

Velocity Weekly, one of the city’s entertainment papers, has just published an article about me, the Metroschifter and Sweden.

Written by the talented and funny Joseph Lord, the story starts with the line, “Scott Ritcher is experienced at getting the hell out of town…” I love it. As I just told my friend Sarah who is soon leaving Louisville for Philadelphia, our home city is always a fun place to be and a wonderful place to come back to.

Joe even gives a shout-out to my advocacy for light rail mass transit in my 1998 candidacy for mayor of Louisville. (God dammit! Why do I keep saying “shout-out”?) What a shame that eleven years later light rail is “…still ahead of its time today.”

The article appeared on their Metromix website a couple weeks ago and came out in its paper version last week.

Velocity may be running out of “Scott” puns. A few years ago when I was on the cover, the headline was “Great Scott!” and this one is called “Scott Free.” If I make another appearance in the future, maybe it’ll be “Beam me up, Scotty” or something about “Scott-land.”

You can read the piece online at Metromix.com or see this scan of the paper version in Velocity that my sister emailed to me.

The paper version has an extra photo of me taken by Iida at a spring afternoon dagens party in Vitabergsparken. Dagens, being the popular drink made of white wine, Sprite and frozen strawberries.

Uniquely American

Today, I’d like to talk about two huge financial systems in the United States and how they could maybe benefit from – once again – a little Swedish influence. No, this isn’t about Wall Street or the economic crisis, but perhaps they share some of the same types of thinking, or lack of thinking, that have contributed to those problems.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been baffled by the concept of check writing. Essentially, when you write a check, you’re saying to someone, “I have the money I owe you, but it’s not with me right now. I’ll write you this note that says how much money I’m giving you and if you take it to my bank they’ll give you the money.”

This primitive system is totally based on trust. If the person writing you a check has made a mistake in their checkbook or if they are simply lying to you about the document’s validity, you may not ever get paid.

A bad check will cost you money in fees from your bank and will likely cause you to unknowingly issue a few bad checks of your own. Maybe the person writing a check to you has received a bad check and will be surprised that they never paid you.

One bad check can start a chain reaction through the accounts of any number of people, bringing headaches for people who don’t deserve them and a money train of fees collected by their banks.

When everything goes right – if someone writes you a check that actually is good – it can take as long as a week before you are able to spend the money. That’s because when you deposit a check into your account, your bank has to then send it to the issuer’s bank to actually collect the money for you before the funds are available to spend. This delay of typically 3 to 5 days is a hassle as well.

There’s a reason “the check is in the mail” is a funny line. It takes forever to move money this way. Convenient, because usually the person saying it hasn’t mailed it yet.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written of the absurdity of this system and the ways American banks exploit it to collection hundreds of millions of dollars each year by generating a laundry list of stealth fees on their customers’ accounts.

One of the most popular things I’ve written over the years was an article titled In Banker’s Clothing. By “popular” I mean that I hear about it from people more than most other things I’ve written. Maybe it’s not so much popular as it is something that invites them to share their feelings of mutual disgust and infuriation. Like health care, every American has a banking horror story.

In 2001, I bounced a check when registering my car in Louisville. This was right before I moved to Rhode Island. The news of a bounced check is communicated by mail, which takes a long time, especially when there is an out-of-state change-of-address involved. I really can’t express what a series of pains in the ass the chain reaction of this bounced check became.

Even though I repaid the check to the office as soon as I found out about it, unbeknownst to me, the County Clerk’s office issues arrest warrants for these infractions. Furthermore, such a warrant is not automatically canceled upon payment.

Years later during a visit to Louisville, I was arrested and spent the night in jail – not for jumping the fence of an apartment building with a bunch of friends to go swimming in the middle of a hot night, but for a bad check that I had repaid years ago and forgotten about.

I’m no fan of banks, suffice it to say. For years, my life has been conducted as much as possible in a cash-only manner. I do have a bank account and debit card, but I have not had a credit card or any loans or real debts in more than ten years.

Funny thing, if you jump out of the system like I did, it’s almost impossible to get back in. A few years ago I tried to buy a house in Louisville. I have been a lifelong renter and this was at the time when “everyone can buy a house” in America. Well, not me. I had more than one mortgage specialist tell me, “You don’t have a credit score. I’ve never seen anything like it.” In the ’90s, I had bad credit, now I have none. Possibly it was a blessing in disguise that I was unable to buy a house when “everyone” could. We all know how that turned out for “everyone.”

When I started writing this article today, I had a line in it that described checking as “a preposterous, archaic, 18th Century way to do business.” Upon further research, I found I was being way too generous with that burn. In reality, checking dates back to the 3rd Century. Yes, the Third Century. You know, about 1,800 years ago? The fucking Romans came up with it! One empire’s innovation is another empire’s… I don’t know, something.

In the same way that personal checks rely on everyday people to be both honest and skilled in math, so do income taxes. It is truly mind-boggling that individual Americans are responsible for calculating their own taxes each year.

In the United States, the country that is the undisputed world capital of inventing new ways to scam people, expecting everyone to honestly calculate their own share of taxes is simply an insane way to collect funds for public services.

Not too long ago, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of taxpayers cheat on their returns, defrauding the government of some $290 billion a year, according to an Internal Revenue Service analysis of 2001 returns. Some believe the real percentage of tax cheats is much higher.”

How much money is $290 billion a year? Quite simply, it is more than almost any previous year’s Federal Budget Deficit. (Read that again!)

The Federal Deficit is an annual number that is the difference between what the government collects and what it spends. Each year, this difference is added to the national debt.

Before this year’s stimulus-reinvestment-bailout budget, the annual deficit had only tickled $290 billion a few times. The amount of money that individual Americans are defrauding their own government is a main reason why the nation is in debt. It averages out to about $2,000 per taxpayer per year.

Theoretically, if Americans were not cheating on their taxes, the government would never have needed to borrow money from banks or foreign nations, and consequently would not be in debt.

You could, of course, go further and say if the US was not fighting two simultaneously monstrous wars that are draining the coffers, the resulting surplus and ability to provide better services would be even more spectacular. And if you wanted to, you could argue that if Americans weren’t already paying one of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world, and if everyone over a certain income level (including corporations and religious groups) paid taxes at a fair, across-the-board rate… well, I was dreaming when I started this line of thought in the first place.

Only about 1% of tax returns are ever audited. Those are pretty good odds and Americans know it. Joe Antenucci, professor of accounting and finance at Youngstown State University said, “Any gambler will tell you, when you have a high payoff and low risks, that is when you want to be involved.”

Just like with check writing, when everything goes right, taxes are also a headache. Each year, Americans labor through confusing tax forms, calculate their taxes, and live in fear of the IRS. A national poll conducted by the Discovery Channel in 2000 showed that 57% of Americans feared the IRS more than God.

Nothing’s scarier than getting an envelope in the mail with their logo on it, even if that logo looks like a chicken with big tits.

How does this have anything to do with my ongoing discovery of Swedish culture?

Rightfully so, both check writing and self-calculation of your own taxes seem totally insane to Swedes. As you might have guessed, the back-asswards process of individuals calculating their own taxes and being responsible for the errors is uniquely American. It’s almost as insane as trusting someone who writes down an amount of money on a piece of paper, thereby magically transforming that piece of paper into a bank note worth that amount.

In Sweden writing a check to make a purchase or pay a debt is something that happens only at very high levels of corporate trade and finance. Ordinary people never come in contact with checks.

Instead of personal checks, in Sweden (and in essentially every European country), they use a system called giro (or girot, depending on the country, all pronounced JEE-roh). The nearest thing Americans could equate it with is direct deposit. However, the difference between giro and direct deposit is that giro goes in both directions. It is not just for deposits and the system is accessible to individuals, not just large companies.

For example, if you get a bill in the mail for your rent, telephone service, cable TV, school tuition, or anything else, it comes with a tear-off stub that has a unique giro number on it. You take the stub to your bank and give it to the teller. The money is instantly transferred from your account to the requester’s account. No waiting. Because of the unique number assigned to each stub, the company instantly knows you have paid them. Of course, this can all be done online as well, and some of these debits happen on regularly scheduled dates, requiring you to do nothing.

Wow, this giro system that processes instant payments from account to account sounds pretty modern, right? It must be on the cutting edge and reliant on fairly new technology. Guess again. Sweden implemented the giro system in 1925. By the 1950’s, practically all of Europe was using some variant of it. For decades, it has been the standard way money moves in Europe.

Sveriges Riksbank, which is Sweden’s central bank, says that in 2007, “giro transfers accounted for a good 94 percent of the total value of transactions and for 29 percent of the number of transactions” in the country. Most small transactions are completed with debit and credit cards, and by “most” I mean practically all of them. Riksbank says it was 62% of all transactions in 2007. Paper money was barely a blip on the radar (which is a shame since Sweden’s currency is downright gorgeous) and checks were basically non-existent.

In fact, several of my Swedish friends have told me they have never seen a check in real life. They know what checks are only from American films and television. You’d think it would be funny, like when you see an 8-track tape in an old movie. To the contrary, even in Sweden, a country intimately familiar with American culture, someone writing a check is one thing that seems truly foreign.

Swedes use debit cards for everything. Even the tiniest, little amounts, like one cup of coffee or a candy bar at a convenience store are paid for with cards. Almost nobody will run a tab at a bar – each individual drink is paid for with an individual debit card purchase each time – and most of these transactions require a PIN code entry at the point of purchase.

A few months ago, while I was in Sweden, someone made a duplicate of my debit card and went on a shopping spree in Florida. Sophisticated thieves are apparently now able to manufacture fake cards with real numbers and use them in stores. Someone’s card number can be intercepted virtually anywhere and a new card can be produced from it. This was the second time it has happened to me.

Every Swedish person I talked with about the situation asked the same question, which was not “How did they get your card number?” but rather, “How did they get your PIN code?” Swedes are blown away by the fact that you don’t need a PIN code to make a purchase with a card in America, all you need is the card. And if you’re making a fake card, you can just put a name on it that matches an ID you have, on the off chance that a merchant asks for your ID.

Checks, giros, debits and taxes all cross paths at this point in our discussion. In Sweden people are paid from their jobs in essentially the same automatic way as they pay their bills. On the 25th day of every month, money appears in their accounts automatically. (Good luck going out to eat or to the state-run liquor store Systembolaget on the Friday after the 25th.)

Money appearing in your bank account is like direct deposit in America, and this happens with the taxes already deducted, but that’s where the similarity ends as far as taxes are concerned. For Americans, the amount removed from their paycheck is just one piece of a nerve-wracking puzzle that must be assembled in paperwork at the end of the year.

For the majority of Swedes, everything about tax collection is also automatic. Taxes are taken out of your wages before they are deposited into your bank account. At the end of the year when your tax forms come in the mail, all the numbers are already filled in. That is, when you open the envelope, all the numbers are already on the page. All you have to do is confirm that the numbers are correct, which you can do by telephone, text message, or computer. If everything looks right, that’s all you have to do. You’re finished. (There’s more to it if you’re self-employed or a business owner, of course.)

You’re not faced with a stack of confusing forms or the burden of fear if you make a mistake.

I should mention something else as well, that Swedish tax forms are comparatively beautiful. They’re borderline cute even (this year’s forms had a flower and a cartoon kitty cat on the front), colorful, reminiscent of Ikea order forms and easy on the eyes. The tax collection agency, Skatteverket, even has a logo that’s not so bad either.

Aside from automatic income taxes and the 25% sales tax, as I discussed a few months ago, there is one tax in Sweden that people are expected to pay voluntarily. That is the television and radio tax. This tax of about $250 a year helps regulate the airwaves and backs the operation of five publicly-funded television networks and more than forty streams of radio programming.

Whereas 40% of Americans are cheating on their income taxes, even though many Swedes hate the TV and radio tax and feel it is unfairly levied, 9 out of every 10 Swedes are sending in these additional payments voluntarily. Only about 10% are not.

Long story short, for every American who has criedthere’s got to be a better way” when balancing their checkbook or preparing their income taxes, well, there are better ways. Again, just like health care, these better ways haven’t been made available to Americans, probably because there are people somewhere making tons of money off of keeping the systems broken and confusing.

It’s only common sense that there should be no delays, doubts or leaps of faith necessary in financial transactions or tax collection.

Both of these complex, antiquated systems invite inaccuracies and unnecessarily allow the processes to become corrupted. Americans can’t be relied on to do the right thing if the opportunity to make an extra buck exists.

Further, in a country whose schools are so lacking, I’m not sure who ever thought it would be a good idea to trust the general public with math. We need not mention the complexity or comprehension involved in addition to the calculations required for paper-based banking and tax preparation.

Even though I had the advantage of being able to go to private schools in my youth, I was never in a course that covered balancing a checkbook, preparing tax forms, calculating annual percentage rates, or any of the basic, real-world financial knowledge every last dumb ass is expected to have.

No wonder 57% of Americans are more afraid of the tax man than the wrath of God. A simple mistake can put you in jail, and if you don’t understand how it’s supposed to be done in the first place, well, that starts you off with a pretty wide margin for error.

I know Obama’s got a lot on his plate and neither of these topics will likely ever be addressed, given the larger, pressing issues of the moment, but like those problems, I think these are indicative of a pervasive “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Such thinking can only ultimately result in nothing ever being improved, until it reaches the point of being unwieldy.

It is possible to fix things that “ain’t broke.” In fact, it’s advisable. If people made something, there’s always room for improvement. You can’t just keep adding rooms on to the outhouse until there’s a ramshackle mansion attached to it.

The American Dream – På Svenska

Back in March, my friend Johanna interviewed me about my move. She is a student at Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (The Swedish Royal Institute of Technolgy) where she is studying, well, it seems she is studying just about everything.

I’ve heard her talk about the Media Technology program she’s in and it includes everything from graphic page design to voice synthesis. One of the projects she showed me was a software application she made that can announce the time of day in her voice. Awesome, creepy, scary – I don’t really want any machines talking in the house, especially not in my voice. My sarcastic inner monologue and constant attempts to translate everything are plenty.

Another project of the program she’s in involves the periodical publication of a magazine. The program is supported by companies in the printing, paper, and graphics businesses, so the end result of their work – called Uttryck – is quite beautiful. It’s a full-color, perfect-bound magazine on matte paper, assembled by Swedish design students. Let’s just say it’s not your typical college newspaper. The colors are rich, the printing is sharp, and it smells of fresh ink. Mmmmm ink.

The name Uttryck is another one of those Swedish words like tjänst that means about billion different things: expression, display, statement, utterance, phrase, manifest, et cetera. Ut means “out” and tryck means “print” – so there’s probably some connection or play on those parts. I don’t know. I’m having one of those I’m-never-going-to-be-able-to-speak-Swedish days. You’d think it would be easy to learn a language that only has 37 words.

Although the magazine is all in Swedish, I was interviewed in English. This was just a few weeks after I arrived and my Swedish was even worse then than it is now. You can read some of what I said in my March 27th post. That post also includes some charts I made that weren’t used in the published article and the English version of my lists about Sweden and the United States.

The story covers all the bases including why I decided to move to Sweden, what I miss about America, and what I don’t exactly love about both places. We also talked about the process of learning Swedish, food, my then-locked iPhone, and my band, Metroschifter.

If you want to use this as an opportunity to start learning Swedish, thereby doing it faster than me and making me feel even dimmer, here is a link to the article on the Uttryck website. The title means “The American Dream – in Swedish.”

On the flip side of the coin, I was also interviewed last week for Velocity Weekly, an entertainment newspaper in Louisville. The subject matter was similar, though it was more focused on the new Metroschifter album which is coming out June 30th. Joseph Lord did that interview, which also touched on Kentucky politics and my Senate campaign last year. I’ll provide an update and a link when that comes out… I know you must be desperately hungry to read even more of my chatter.

Allt om mig

Enough about Sweden already. Let’s talk about me.

Today’s story has been in the works for more than a few weeks. It has a lot of personal information about my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, so if you’re more interested in the Swedish culture stuff, pictures of stairs, and fake charts, this monologue might not be for you.

Hard to believe, but true, sometimes I think about myself instead of what coins look like, what spännande means, or what the King is having for breakfast.

Honestly, this story might not be for anyone but me, but since I’m sharing my thoughts on everything else, why break the streak now?

One of the main attractions for me in moving to Sweden was that I thought it would give me the opportunity to “turn off” for a while.

I don’t know nearly as many people here, so combine that with Sweden’s more reasonable speed of life; not having as many expenses; therefore not having to work so much, et cetera. All these elements would theoretically come together and allow me to explore some larger, longterm projects that I ordinarily wouldn’t have the ability to. More rest, more quiet, less pushing myself to do new things, less need to try to change things.

I’ve had several conversations lately about whether it’s okay to live without goals. I know there are millions of people who just go to work, eat, sleep, and maybe hang out with their family or friends. That’s all they do. There’s no larger plan for their career or anything else. For them, day-to-day life is the plan. It goes on for decades and there’s nothing wrong with it. For a lot of people, especially in places like America in a tough economy, that’s all that they can afford to do. Others aren’t even that lucky. For some, just doing something is all they need to be happy.

There are those people in the world who know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they’re twelve years old. Doctor, lawyer, photographer, fireman, news reporter, forest ranger, computer programmer, teacher, president. Whatever it is, some people know instinctively what they want to do. I just wasn’t one of those people. Sometimes I envy them. Okay, most of the time. It seems like it would be so much easier to just know.

Instead, I have needed to invent big projects for myself to keep me busy. I’ve always felt like I was supposed to be doing something special, but since I haven’t known what that special thing was, I have tried just about everything that interested me. These undertakings entertain me and occasionally pay my bills. Usually they overlapped and I ended up doing a dozen things at once.

I haven’t needed luxuries like a fancy car, a DVD collection, concert tickets, nice furniture, a big wardrobe, home ownership, fancy dinners, et cetera. It’s always nice visiting people who do have those things, but over the past decade – even before moving across the ocean – I have gradually been downsizing the volume of my belongings.

When I moved to Rhode Island in 2001, I rented a moving truck. Less than two years later, when moving to California, I committed myself to keeping only what I could fit in my Volvo wagon. That was liberating.

The lack of owning so many things has permitted me to live with a little more freedom. Not having monthly payments for a mortgage, car, whatever, has made it possible for me to explore larger projects that require dedicated time and resources. Whether the project has been publishing a magazine with interviews of my friends, writing songs, putting out records, building a social networking site, running for office, or whatever, these projects have added a lot to my life and hopefully have engaged or entertained others.

A lot of the projects I took on had the theme of being unique: either no one had done something like it before, or it needed to be done and it seemed no one else was going to do it.

I don’t know if other people don’t have the same kinds of ideas I have, or if other people just don’t pursue them. People are always saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” but if I have an idea like that, I try to do something about it instead of letting it remain in a conversation. That started a long time ago and has built progressively with each project. I suppose the ability to do such things comes in small degrees.

I think in moving away, I wanted to put all that on hold for a while. My efforts to expand my own boundaries weren’t necessarily starting to take too much away from me, but something was happening.

Specifically, running for state senate was a dream I had for a quite a while. It was a big goal which unfortunately turned out so unlike my expectations. Rather than being something positive and influential, a lot of the time and energy in my campaign was spent fighting just for the right to participate. It was just exhausting at times when it should have been exhilirating. Of course I’m glad I did it, and just participating in the process was an achievement I’m proud of. I don’t regret it and I would do it all over again. Maybe one day I will. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.)

I met hundreds of people during the campaign and I received priceless support toward the effort from just as many. Because of that support, I felt a constant drive to do everything I could to not let anyone down. Once someone gives you their hard-earned money and asks you to see if you can make a difference with it, it’s nearly impossible to not keep fighting, even when all the odds and money are gone. I can’t say too much about any of it yet, really, because here I am on the other side of the world and I can feel myself starting to get all worked up about it. The lawsuit that disqualified me and its plaintiff – my opponent who was re-elected as the district’s senator – are not my favorite topics… Yet I’m still being very careful to be kind with my words. (Using the term “re-elected” is one way of being very kind.)

The day after the election was bittersweet. I was so relieved that Barack Obama had been elected. I still kind of can’t believe it. (Every time I check the American news, I am impressed and ecstatic at each new overdue misconduct he is trying to take on. It’s almost too good to be true.) The day after the election there was also a sense of relief that the public aspect of my campaign was over. That might be the day I decided for sure that I was moving to Sweden.

I remember saying to a friend, “I could stay in Kentucky and continue fighting for the rest of my life, or I could just go where everything is already fixed.” That’s an oversimplification of things and I think it’s unnecessarily harsh and childish, but maybe it captures the feeling of the time. I don’t like fighting. I don’t want to spend my life being angry over things that I may never be able to affect. I would rather create things or just throttle down a bit. Unwind, reset, breathe. What would it be like to relax, or have the time to read, or go on a date, or do anything else most people do that have somehow eluded me?

I thought that moving to Sweden would be a great way to turn off my need to continually generate new materials and ideas, to not have a project, and to be somewhat anonymous.

The anonymity aspect has turned out to be much as I expected. Sometimes it’s too much. Everyone knows the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Maybe some of the lonliest people in the world are those who are living in big cities, surrounded by other people who are talking, laughing, holding hands, chatting on the phone, and otherwise carrying on.

Even in a year-round Casual Friday community like Louisville, where people are always saying things to people they don’t know, it’s still possible – if not very easy – to go an entire day without speaking to anyone. That’s even easier in the iPod Age where everyone has headphones and you’re in a country where those who don’t are speaking a language you don’t understand.

The several-month project of selling and giving away virtually everything I own was obviously an overwhelming endeavor. As you can imagine, it was at once painful and liberating. My move to Sweden made moving in a Volvo look positively posh. I arrived here with only a rolling suitcase and a guitar case. With the exception of a few boxes in my parents’ basement, if I move back to Louisville at any point, there’s not any material “stuff” there to go back to. My car, apartment, furniture, books, music, dishes, everything – it’s all gone.

I expected that once the process of shedding my earthly belongings, saying farewells to friends and family, and getting on the plane was finished, that would be the moment I crossed the line and I would really be able to turn off for a while. From several previous, extended visits, I already knew the basics of finding my way around Stockholm, the public transit, and stuff like that. I could unpack my few things here and just let go.

I’m not sure how it could have escaped me that moving to a different country with a different language is, in itself, a huge project.

I’m sure it is self-evident to anyone reading this, that learning a new word for everything and an entirely new way of talking is a really big project. It’s like if I started att skriva this helt på svenska du… I mean, if I started writing this totally in Swedish, you wouldn’t be able to understand any of it.

The good news is that even though it just occurred to me last month that this language thing is a gigantic project, I am way beyond the point of all the words looking and sounding crazy. I had a couple years of a head start in dabbling with the Swedish language in Louisville, which has proven to be helpful, but only a little bit.

At the very least, I understand the topic of most conversations. Depending on who’s talking or what’s being discussed, I understand a little more or a little less. Sometimes I don’t believe that the sounds my roommate Iida is making are actually talking. It’s so fast and I may only catch a word or two during a few minutes of listening to her and Erik chatting. On the other hand, sometimes when I’m reading, I have moments when I feel like I get it. Headlines and advertising are getting easier faster. If I’m watching Swedish television and the closed caption text in Swedish is on the screen, my comprehension skyrockets.

Even if I’m still less than 20% able to comprehend or carry on a real conversation comfortably in Swedish, I’m on my way toward it. It would be coming so much faster if Sweden wasn’t such a bilingual country. Here, it’s not like how some people in America speak Spanish and some speak English. Seriously, everyone in Sweden under 50 speaks both Swedish and English – and both languages well. A blessing and a curse. As soon as I begin speaking, even if I’m just ordering a coffee, the other person will inevitably start speaking English to me.

You might ask, if everyone speaks English, why bother learning Swedish? Honestly, I feel rude not knowing the language. If I like the place enough to live here, I owe it to everyone else to speak their language. If I’m in a group of people and they’re all speaking English because of me, well, it makes me feel silly. More often, I’d rather the conversation continue in Swedish, even if it means I’m not involved, just so I can hear more of the language in context.

Also on the plus side, I love the way Swedish sounds. It is beautiful and cool and like a song. There are special ways to pronounce things and a lot of it has a nod-nod-wink-wink quality to it. (Skiva is pronounced “whuooeevah” but skriva is “skreevah.” Ljug is pronounced “yoeg” and själv is “whhelf.” Sig is prounounced “say” and de is “doam.” This shit’s crazy! And those are short words! Not only that, but seeing it in print isn’t even a hint as to the inflection. Jävla betoning!)

The world around you looks different depending on the sounds that come with it. That’s something else I’ve been thinking a lot about. For example, if you’re walking around the city listening to Slayer on your iPod all day, your perspective will be different than if you’re looking at the same things while listening to Mexican mariachi music. (Most people I know have tons of mariachi music on their iPods.) I think the same is true of the sounds in the language you speak and hear. Whether it’s a harsh language like Russian or a mushy language like French, constant exposure to these sounds must have an effect on the people who speak the language.

The singing, fun, and active dynamics in the Swedish language must be somewhat responsible for the attitudes and personality the Swedish people have. In the same respect, the artistic and caring nature of the people must also influence the way the language continues to develop. When I first came to Sweden in the nineties, I fell in love with the entire package: the landscape, the people, the design aesthetics, the sound of the language. I’m still seeing everything I saw then, but now it is part of my everyday life.

I listen to several hours of language every day on my iPhone, whether it’s news or instruction or comedy. I push myself to hear more, even when I would rather listen to something in English. Even then, if I’m thinking about other things, not exactly tuned in to what’s playing, or sleeping, it’s still there and I believe I am subconsciously absorbing something from it.

Trying to figure out what everyone is saying all the time is no small task. My brain is getting a serious work-over every day. I think an hour of trying to keep up with a Swedish conversation probably equates to four hours’ worth of English brain work. It’s like flipping through a turbo dictionary upstairs every time somebody talks. I’m pretty used to getting really tired really fast.

For several weeks, I was intentionally starving myself of American entertainment in order to submerge myself deeper into Swedish. That just ended up making me crazy. I’m starting to seek a balance now so I can build my Swedish while keeping my English sharp.

I’m on the case and I’m getting it. I’m just not sure how I missed the idea that this whole move is probably one of the biggest projects I’ve ever taken on. How could I have thought all this wasn’t a project at all?

Back to School with Old Timey Tower

This morning I attended the first of ten 2.5-hour Swedish language classes at Stockholm’s Medborgarskolan. I’m not a fan of school, but I have dedicated myself to becoming proficient in using and understanding the Swedish language, so taking classes is obviously the most efficient way to speed up that process.

Prior to registering for the class, I took a placement test to evaluate which level I should start in. I know a lot of Swedish words and I can put basic sentences together, but more often than not, I’m using the wrong case, verb form, or gender, or just pronouncing everything so poorly that what I’m saying is indecipherable. If I’m just listening to people talk, I think I’m truly taking in maybe 10% of what’s being said.

I knew I shouldn’t be in a class with people who haven’t started learning Swedish yet, but my test score placed me farther along in the courses than I expect to be. I’m at the point where I can follow conversation topics and answer simple questions, but I know I am a long way from being able to confidently say, “I speak Swedish.”

The first few minutes of the class I felt like I was in way over my head. The group of students – all adults – has apparently been studying together before this particular course began. They all know each other and the teacher. He is a cool, older guy who is typically Swedish: white hair, glasses, sweater, super friendly. After a half hour or so, I was more comfortable with being in this level. I noticed that although the other students knew things I didn’t, I also knew things they didn’t.

The class is small with only six students. Four are from Germany and one is from Malta. It was awesome to hear them speaking German before the class started and when explaining things to each other. Maybe I can say that I speak very basic German. I’m not able to have a discussion about economics in German, but I certainly can have a friendly conversation about everyday things. More than a few times, I have had to use German in situations in other countries when it was the only option and I’ve been impressed with myself.

Since I started learning Swedish, I’ve felt the ease of thinking and composing sentences in German slipping away. I’ve been afraid of that. When I try to start writing something in German, as I did with an email to my friend Cornelia yesterday, it quickly slips into Swedish. Regrettably, I ended up keeping the message short and typing it in English.

This morning when I heard my fellow students speaking German, I realized that I’m probably not really losing my ability in German. I understood a lot of what they were saying. The German language is still in my head somewhere and it can come back when it needs to. Hearing it again was like seeing an old friend. I would say that it’s similar the feeling I get if I hear someone speaking English on the sidewalk or in a restaurant, but that happens so much it’s not particularly unusual.

My German is still much better than my Swedish. It comes to me more naturally once it gets going. Of course, that’s because first real class in German was over twenty years ago and I’ve had lots of informal training and practice during those decades, whereas all of my training in Swedish has been informal and self-administered before this morning.

While I may not be losing my German, something I most definitely have lost is knowing anything about substantive case, objects, adverbs, and all that stuff. Jesus, I don’t even know that stuff in English, which I suppose I have to relearn if I expect to understand it in Swedish. Ouch, my poor head.

The class meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, for five weeks. I think it’s going to be incredibly beneficial. There are more advanced classes that follow, if I can afford them when that time comes. If I eventually get a proper job with a Swedish company, language classes are free and provided by the government. That could be nice, though I’ve heard those classes are sometimes not as focused as Medborgarskolan. Those classes are populated with the general immigrant public and I can see where that might not allow for the small class size and direct attention it seems like I’ll be enjoying. My first impression is that Old Timey Tower’s return to school will be a really good investment.

Eat my dust

If I fall gravely ill soon, here’s why:

As we have discussed, my chainsmoking Dutch roommate is selling the apartment and so i have to move at the end of April. In preparation for selling the place, he has essentially torn the apartment into pieces to fix it up. He is sanding everything down and repainting it. This has turned the otherwise clean, quiet, and sparsely-decorated space into a noisy, dusty, smelly construction zone. The smell comes from the oil-based paint and turpentine he’s using.

When he first decided he was selling the place and moving back to Holland, I had really only been living there about two weeks. At that time, the plan was for me to move out at the end of March. I had given him two month’s rent upon moving in, so this would mean I’d get half of that back, having only lived there for one month.

That all changed at the end of March when I mentioned that I would begin moving out that coming weekend. I think it dawned on him that he would have to cough up some kronors, so suddenly “the end of April” was the plan. Okay, whatever. We then agreed that I would stay until the money I gave him ran out: end of April.

Yesterday, I got home from a long weekend in Haninge. I was hungry, so I fixed some potatoes to eat. As you know, potatoes are one of the spiciest foods available in Sweden, so my mouth was watering with anticipation.

It’s always a good idea to wash potatoes before you cook them, but never more so than when they are covered in construction dust. Seriously. I washed them thoroughly before boiling them in a big pot. Unfortunately, there was something else I neglected to wash.

Halfway through my meal of potatoes on the balcony, I noticed that there was paint dust all over the inside of the bowl I was eating from. Jesus Christ. I foolishly presumed that if I took a bowl from the cabinet it would be clean. I hadn’t seen the dust because he keeps the blinds closed in the kitchen and the lights aren’t that bright.

Oddly, the discovery that he had sanded down and painted the cabinets with all the food still inside was not surprising. A few days earlier I was washing a bowl with the dish scrubber in the sink when he shouted, “Oh, no! Not this one! This is the one I am using for the paint!” Great. I’m pretty sure I had used that scrubber before, as it is identical to the one for dishes. He then tried to determine which sponge was for the dishes. He didn’t know. Again, great. I’ve been eating food from dishes washed in turpentine.

The icing on the cake came this morning when I saw him washing dishes in the same tub he uses for all his painting supplies. “Really? I said. “You’re doing the dishes in that thing you use to clean your paintbrushes?” He explained to me that the paint on the tub was dry so it wouldn’t come off on the dishes. “I’m not an idiot.” Okay. Whatever you say.

I should have known something was wrong when I first looked at the apartment. I saw something that could have tipped me off, but I ignored it, thinking it must have been a fluke or accident. I’m speaking, of course, about the fact that he puts the toilet paper roll on the dispenser under instead of over.

Now, I know some other people who do this and they get a pass either because they are bat-shit crazy, left-handed, or women. (I’m kidding, of course, being left-handed has nothing to do with it). A lot of people don’t take the time to think about how the roll goes on there and maybe they put it on in under fashion now and then accidentally. This guy does it like that every single time which is worsened by the fact that the spring-loaded dispenser has teeth which prevent the tube from rolling when it is inserted backwards.

Seeing the roll installed like this during my walk-through in February should have been a red flag. Instead, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Serves me right. Now I’m eating paint.

Påsk and Aprilskämt


I recently noticed that the Tunnelbana trains have names. A nice touch, I think, although I don’t care for the font. Here are Ted and Maria. You would expect a transit system to give them catchier names like TF0142581 and XG532014.


While riding inside the T-bana (I almost wrote “when riding inside Ted” but that didn’t sound appropriate), I saw this hilarious ad for Teknik Magasinet, one of several popular novelty gadget stores here. This is advertising a game where you can try to shoot your friends and if you hit them it shocks them. Sounds like loads of fun, right? This store has all kinds of ridiculous stuff like that. You can also see the electric nose hair trimmers in the ad. Today, Erik picked up their catalog which is called Prylbibeln (“Gadget Bible”). He was telling me about how every time the publish a catalog they include a fake item and it’s a bit of challenge for everyone to figure out which one of the thousands of absurd items isn’t real.

Speaking of pranks, yesterday was April Fools Day and several newspapers ran fake stories as their Aprilskämt. One was about the introduction of a new exclusive section on the subway. If you bought a VIP card you would be treated to reserved seating, cookies, and coffee during your daily commute. Another paper ran a story announcing that it was now illegal to stand on the walking side of the escalator. The fake stories were the talk of the town.

Surprisingly, the electric-shock ad is for “cool Easter gifts.” For Americans, Easter in Sweden would seem like a mash-up of the customs we know from Christmas, Halloween, and Easter. The little girls dress as the Easter Witch, in a traditional costume with a long skirt, broom, head scarf, bright red cheeks, and freckles. A black cat sometimes follows her in drawings.

The kids in costumes go door-to-door for candy, which is usually egg-shaped, or comes in egg-shaped containers. Hiding the eggs and the egg hunt are relatively new things, imported from America. Instead, the kids leave little cards behind, some make their own. I’ll try to get some photos of little Easter Witches next weekend, but if you click this Google Image search for “påskkärring” you can see an assortment of what it’s all about.

Moving again in May

After just a few weeks in the apartment, my roommate has told me that he has decided to move back to Holland and sell the apartment. I will be moving in with my friends Iida and Erik on May 1st. They are a little farther from the city center, but their place is much nicer and bigger. They have a beautiful, eighth-floor balcony, big windows all around two sides of the apartment, a washer/dryer inside the apartment (a true luxury in Europe), wireless internet, cable tv, et cetera.

The biggest benefit is that they are Swedes and I am always learning and hearing more language when I am around them. My room will be, well, tiny and doesn’t have any windows itself, but the common areas, kitchen, et cetera, are large (suitable for guests) and my moving in will make life cheaper for everyone involved.

The first signs of spring are here. We’ve had 3 or 4 sunny days in a row. Today it was a positively sweltering 6°C (about 43°F). Yeah, I’m not just learning the language, I’m re-learning money, temperatures, weights, and measures at the same time. I have lost a little weight, certainly not from a lack of eating, probably from walking so much more and not drinking so regularly.

Everything I own*


A couple days after moving into my apartment, I took this picture of everything I own fitting nicely into these closets, with room to spare.

*=Not pictured are some boxes of photos and other “archives” I have in my parents’ basement in Louisville. Those boxes would fit here in this photo, though. I also have a guitar case that isn’t in the picture. But, okay, other than those things – which would all fit in these closets – shown here really is everything I own.

Oh yeah, and I guess you’re not seeing the clothes I was wearing or the camera I used to take the picture. But seriously, other than those things…

Home sweet Hagsätra


After a few days, I moved in with a Dutch guy named Sander in another suburb of Stockholm called Hagsätra. I found him and the apartment on the internet and made contact with him from America, so I already had this lined up. He is a carpenter who moved to Sweden about a year ago. Because of all the snow, moving in took a few days, even though I only own two bags of stuff.

These are some photos of the apartment. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the Tunnelbana (subway) and from there it’s only about 17 minutes to the center of Stockholm.


The living room.


My room. Nothing fancy, but I don’t really have any stuff.

Map of Hagsätra in relation to Stockholm.

Malmö, Sweden


My dear friend Emma Pettersson and her cat Skrållan, whose hair is still all over my stuff. This was the third occasion in a year’s time that I have stayed in her Malmö apartment. We also met up last summer when she and fellow Malmö friend Wictoria Trei were visiting New York City.


The cold scene on the bicycle/pedestrian lane near Emma’s apartment. It’s a long way from New York last July when it was so hot and sunny that we were sweating all day and had sunburns at night.


The train I rode from Malmö to Stockholm.

Stockholm


A mail train passing through Stockholm Central Station – quite pretty compared to US freight trains.

On the runway


In the months leading up to my departure for Sweden, I had a countdown clock running on my iPhone. It was counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until I left. I took this screenshot of it as I was sitting in the plane on the runway in Chicago. This was right when they were asking everyone to turn all their shit off.

At the time, I was really sad. I had just said good-bye to my sister and I was thinking about how much I was going to be missing my friends. As I’m posting this photo about six weeks later, all I notice about it is the AT&T service in the top corner and how much I miss unlimited data plan on the iPhone. Of course, I miss everyone a lot, but I can’t think about it too much.

This image also reminds me of how I searched the O’Hare Airport for a burrito while I was waiting for my flight. I knew from previous visits to Sweden (and Europe in general) that Mexican food is either nonexistent or a pale imitation, so I wanted to have one last feast. My search for a burrito was fruitless. I ended up having a deep-dish pizza and a local Chicagoan dark microbrew. Worked out great.

Chicago



Photo booth fun with Mary Regal at the Rainbo Club in Chicago the night before leaving America.

Grinstead Drive


Cleaning out the apartment in Louisville was delayed almost a week by a crazy ice storm and a lack of electricity in most of the city.